There have been a lot of fairly hefty celebrity deaths in 2009: Farrah Fawcett, Ludovic Kennedy, David Carradine… when the lead singer from the Jackson 5 went off to that great theme park in the sky, the world at large took note. Another mortal coil was shuffled off this year, one which the tabloids didn’t pay much attention to but which meant a lot more to me, that which belonged to Dickie Peterson, who died on October 12.
Peterson was the vocalist and bassist of Blue Cheer, a band held sacred these days by the type of rock enthusiasts inclined to dip into the Woodstock generation‘s stash for thrills. The Cheer (who probably aren’t ever referred to as such but, m’eh) are one of those bands along with Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Budgie and doubtless others who ‘invented heavy metal’in the late 1960’s. While that fact’s debatable and the subject for far more scholarly work than my own, what’s not up for debate is the quality of the music they made.
Blue Cheer, like countless other bands made up of kids who love rock ‘n’ roll but can’t play, initially specialised in chunky renditions of blues standards in their salad days in the bars of ‘Frisco. Their one and only big hit was a cover of Eddie Cochran’s Summertime Blues and their first album, Vincebus Eruptum, is a six-track, 30-minute blast of raw, heavy blues. Three covers and three Peterson-penned originals, the album is a perfect snapshot of the musical period’s transition from Yardbirds-style cutesy blues appreciation to the sort of shit-yer-pants experimentation that Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Tony Iommi were beginning to unleash on the world.
However, the Cheer’s only drawback was that they really couldn’t play very well. I’m not being a snob and, frankly, I think Peterson’s bass lines, his singing and the drumming on the record are punky-to-good, but the band’s guitarist was no Clapton. It’s intriguing to note the ways in which the band tried to get round the fact that their guitar parts sounded more leaden that lead, such as recording two solos and using both at once in the same portion of a song, but while Page would lay down solos which dropped the jaws of anoraks and novices alike, the Cheer did more to try and convey a feeling or energy. In their approach they were like a punk band who’ve smoked that bit too much pot and discovered the joys of side two of My War, and they made music that, for anyone who’s ever felt the sheer exhilaration which comes from getting a twelve-bar blues progression right on guitar or bass for the first time, was just…well, right on.
Live, they must’ve sounded phenomenal. They were managed by a Hell’s Angel fantastically named Gut and apparently were the loudest band in Frisco. Considering Canned Heat were playing around this time with a rig so loud that their guitarist could stand in front of his amp, lean back and remain supported upright on the sound-waves alone, they must’ve been ear-splitting.
And beyond their passion and volume lay the band’s counterculture credentials in the form of uninhibited drug experimentation and promotion. The fact that they were named after a type of high-grade blotter acid and played a song of Peterson’s called ‘Doctor, Please’ left no doubt in the minds of listeners and fans that this was a band who were turning on and tuning in as well as dropping-D. Peterson regretted the band’s youthful enthusiasm for late-night pharmaceuticals later in life, but this was a band in touch with the sort of Tim Leary, Discordian idealism which permeated the mainstream and which these days seems incredible. In their personal lives, Blue Cheer were a sort of musical version of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, an artefact of a more hedonistic, carefree age.
It’s the band’s first album that it’s fashionable to cite as a favourite in stoner rock circles these days but the band’s post-Vincebus career was replete with glory too. Their follow-up, Outsideinside is a gem of a record, which sounds these days like a precursor of grunge, not least for Magnolia Caboose Babyfinger, which Mudhoney paraphrased on their first LP. Subsequent albums saw a huge number of line-up changes and Peterson relinquishing sole vocal duties, but they still churned out some cracking tunes. Good Times Are So Hard To Find is a song which perfectly encapsulates the souring of the hippie dream in the early ‘70s and Pilot is as good an example of a beautifully realised red-eyed pop song it’s possible to find. The band’s activity became more sporadic as the ‘80s hoved into view but rock’s nice habit of paying heed to its founding fathers meant that again, like Budgie, the band’s memory was kept alive.
In later years Peterson moved to Germany and Blue Cheer capitalised on the vogue for Woodstock-generation bands, playing their greatest hits around the world. In fact it’s funny to note how they took note of the nods given them by heavy metal bands over the decades on their Live in Japan album. If you’re on Spotify give the solo on this version of Out of Focus a listen. See what I mean?
Dickie Peterson means a lot to me because, when I was a struggling young dreadlocked student, fumbling away on my bass, I listened to his music and thought - ‘great, that’s the sort of thing I’m trying to do!’. I remember the evening when I first cracked the bass line to Out of Focus and the glee I felt at playing along with a righteous tune from an era that fascinates me by musicians who were as unpretentiously keen as myself. Blue Cheer inspired a lot of people, made a lot of brilliant music that we’ve got forever and are rightfully acknowledged along with their Woodstock contemporaries as being one of the more important bands of the mid-twentieth century. Dickie might’ve only been 63 when he headed off into the sunset but, wow, what a life he led…