Thursday, February 10, 2011

February 10: Blue Cheer, "Summertime Blues"

Artist: Blue Cheer
Song: "Summertime Blues"
Album: Vincebus Eruptum
Year: 1968

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While in some cases, one can argue that the "real" roots of a certain style of music are overlooked due to the band in question being somewhat unknown, there are some instances where a band was commercially successful, and yet they do not receive the credit they deserve as innovators.  More specifically, in one case, it may be due to the fact that the band in question hit their peak at one of the most diverse points in music history, and their massive, long-lasting influence may have been overlooked due to the other bands exploding at the same time.  The year was 1968, and along with the psychedelic movement, and entirely new, louder and more aggressive sound appeared, and it is this sound that shaped both the heavy metal and "grunge" styles of music.  Though a handful of artists helped these styles to develop, none were more important than the band Blue Cheer, and all the evidence one needs can be found in their monumental 1968 debut, Vincebus Eruptum.  It was this record that was the first to make no apologies for the volume and aggression within the music, and while it is still "heavy" by today's' standards, one can only imagine the jarring impact it had when it was first released.  The entire album is a flawless work of primal musical exploration, and the band are clearly at their best on one of the greatest cover songs in music history: Blue Cheer's 1968 take on the classic song, "Summertime Blues."

From the moment that "Summertime Blues" begins, it is clear why Blue Cheer was one of the first bands to earn the title of "power trio," as the song instantly pulses with an energy and life that is unlike anything else from the era.  The guitar from Leigh Stephens is truly beyond words, and the opening sting bears a strange resemblance to the main riff from Jimi Hendrix's "Foxy Lady," which was released just a few months previous to Vincebus Eruptum.  Yet there is an aggression within Stephens' playing that makes it completely unique, and when the song kicks into the main section, in both the tone and pace with which he plays, one can hear everything from heavy metal to the basis of punk rock.  This tone is complimented by the drumming of Paul Whaley, and his sound is absolutely nothing like any other drummer of the era.  From his performance on "Summertime Blues," one can easily hear the impact he had in the long-run, but also the influence he had on re-shaping many of the more aggressive drummers of his generation.  The overall mood of the song is finished off by bassist Dickie Peterson, and he provides "Summertime Blues" with a harsh, almost growling tone.  The combined sound of the three is far beyond that of what many bands twice the size have achieved, and the stings and short solos the band offers makes their rendition of the song nothing short of revolutionary, as well as outright musical perfection.

However, as stunning as the musucal performance is on "Summertime Blues," the cover simply would not have had the proper impact without an equally perfect vocal track.  To this end, Dickie Peterson was clearly up to such a task, and both in terms of tone and aggression, he mirrors the sound of his bass guitar.  Though it is clear that he was more than able to sing, his performance here is more akin to shouting, and the unique grittiness within his voice gives Blue Cheer's take on "Summertime Blues" an almost overwhelming level of personality, as well as finishing off a perfectly unsettling mood.  Furthermore, it is Peterson's growl that helps to make this take far easier to relate to, and one can argue that it captures the essence of the lyrics far better than the original.  It is this sense of almost reckless abandon and in many ways defines the youthful spirit of the song, and it is in this sentiment that one can see the clear link to the "grunge" sound that would emerge two decades later.  Though they were already a well-established lyrical icon by 1968, Peterson breathes new life into the words to "Summertime Blues," and yet he also proves that the original words easily survived from generation to generation.  While many artists have tried to capture this youthful essence, there are few that have been able to top the brilliant simplicity within the words, " know my mom and papa told me, "Son you gotta make some money...well if you wanna to use the car go riding next Sunday."  In both what he sings as well as how he presents the words, one can easily argue that it is Dickie Peterson that proved that the words to "Summertime Blues" were truly timeless, and could be worked into any style of music.

Though the original version of "Summertime Blues" is absolutely fantastic in its own right, one can make the case that there is no other song in history that has received as many uniquely superb covers as this song.  Bands ranging from The Who to The Beach Boys have put their own spin on the classic, and yet there was no other take on the song that had as wide-ranging and long lasting an impact as Blue Cheer's 1968 recording.  In fact, though they had played it previously, one can easily argue that it was this version that influenced a change in how The Who performed the song at their concerts.  After hearing Blue Cheer's take on the song, one cannot deny the fact that the early roots of both heavy metal and "grunge" are clearly there, and it is due to this fact that the song more than deserves one of the most highly revered spots in music history.  Before this recording, some artists had "turned up the volume," and yet it is "Summertime Blues" where one can first experience a band purposefully and unapologetically "crossing the line" in terms of both the musical arrangement, as well as the tone and mood within.  The pure aggression and volume that Blue Cheer brought to the song certainly would have completely shaken the status quo of the music scene of the time, yet one can see that due to the massive amount of pivotal musical moments occurring simultaneously, it may have been slightly overlooked.  However, in retrospect, though many songs of the late 1960's carry with them a great musical significance, few have had as important or lasting an impact as one finds in Blue Cheer's monumental 1968 cover of Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues."

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