San Francisco is always weathering a Season of the Witch, oscillating somewhere between liberal idealism and cold reality. Whether that reality is in the form of sadistic violence or obscene wealth, the cycles between the good and the bad, the pretty and the ugly, make up the city’s core. And within these cycles, music is the most obvious mark of victory, defeat and catharsis.
Seasons of the Witch is a new series that traces the bloodlines of music. Like David Talbot’s book of a similar name, the series is a window into the people and events that made The Bay Area what it is today, though through a musical lens — the bands, songs and moments that shaped music as we know it.
When you think of classic San Francisco music, how many psychedelic bands can you actually think of? Joplin, The Dead, maybe Moby Grape. Maybe. How many of those bands would you consider “psych” if you heard them for the first time today? And what the hell is “psych” music anyway? It’s not a secret that what was once called the San Francisco Sound was more about the counter culture than it was about actual sound, or that psychedelic music was really about the psychedelic drugs you’d take while making or listening to said music. Taking drugs to make music to take drugs to make music to — you know the story. Today, psych music is virtually undefinable. We have no idea what it is, but we do know how it makes us feel. Psych music, as they say, makes us feel some type of way.
Even while it was happening, no one really knew what the San Francisco Sound was or if there truly was a sound. So what have we put on pedestal? An idea? An escapist mentality? A drug-abusing culture of creativity that’s superficially void of consequence but also hellbent on pushing the limits of music itself? Definitely.
When you think of the San Francisco Sound, the list of legendary names that come to mind rarely includes Blue Cheer, but through their shows, dynamic music and meteoric rise and fall, the power trio defines a fleeting moment in culture, a raw and real one that goes deeper than the flower power portrait burned into our brains.
Named after a popular strain of LSD and managed by a former Hell’s Angel named Gut, Blue Cheer was the band that your favorite musician’s favorite musician probably hailed as the epitome of San Francisco psychedelic music. Jim Morrison described them as the single most powerful band he’d ever seen. They were famous in the underground for making the stoned, motionless audiences at the Avalon Ballroom freak out. They made the hippies and rock and rollers of the late 1960s feel badder and more fucked up than they already were, and their thrashing stage personae combined with their thick and muddy yet groovy style cleared the way for metal, grunge, stoner rock and, for better or worse, all those blues-rock duos.
Blue Cheer was one of the first bands to perform in front of stacks of Marshall amps, literally building a wall of sound with chunky bass, compact solos and athletic drumming. They refused to cater to the limitations of gear or their own slim lineup. They were drenched in distortion, unafraid to sound ugly and just really, really goddamned loud.
When the band appeared on American Bandstand in 1968, Dick Clark asked them, “How do you differentiate your style of music from anybody else’s? What makes Blue Cheer different?”
Drummer Paul Whaley eloquently answered, “Heavy. Heavy, man.”
Only one of their albums earned any attention outside of the underground. Blue Cheer’s 1968 debut Vincebus Eruptum was an odd sort of an LP. Featuring six songs, three of which are covers, the album clocks in at just over half and hour. It opens with the band’s most famous track, a recording of Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” that is widely considered the first heavy metal song, a precursor to Led Zeppelin. The guitar licks from Leigh Stephens are perhaps the band’s most recognizable soundbite.
Within a year, the band dropped three more albums, exposing the length of singer/songwriter and bassist Dickie Peterson’s songwriting prowess. From the concise “Just a Little Bit,” from 1968’s Outsideinside to the harmonica-piano-guitar interplay of “Fool” off of the band’s 1969 self-titled effort, Peterson’s songwriting and melodies matured with each effort as the band’s lineup continued to rotate. But in a paradoxical twist, Blue Cheer’s popularity declined as their songs became more digestible — more typical for its time — and the band never managed to outdo its gut-busting introduction.
Peterson was the only remaining founding member when he died in 2009, ultimately ending Blue Cheer for good. Regardless of where the band stands on your totem pole of San Francisco bands, they encapsulate a moment in time and place, those manic yet transformative years between the 60s and 70s, better than any other group other than the Kozmic Blues Band and their leader Janis Joplin, who all too literally, emerged and then was gone within that moment. Listen to their evolution from 1968’s “Summertime Blues” (song starts around 0:56) to 1969’s “Fool.” Released a year apart, these songs demonstrate an impressive spectrum of growth and style, much like the so-called San Francisco Sound. They also radiate stronger elements of hard rock, folk rock and blues rock than anything resembling what I would consider psych rock (layered guitars, usually pedal-driven, ultimately dizzying.) But would I listen to this music on drugs? That’s a question for another time.