Monday, February 18, 2008

Rock Me, Baby

Back in the nascent days of MTV, I vaguely remember a segment called "Closet Classics," during which the network played vintage videos, many of them from a German TV show of the late '60s/early '70s called "Beat Club."

One of my favorite "Closet Classic" clips was of Blue Cheer, pretending to play the band's 1968 hit, "Summertime Blues." Here was the essence of rock 'n' roll: two guys with their faces completely covered by long blond hair, the third with a mane almost as long, surrounded by stacks of Marshall cabinets.

The Marshall setup produced plenty of decibels, of course, and that was what Blue Cheer was all about. "Summertime Blues," a cover of Eddie Cochran's 1959 classic, represents what may well have been the first heavy-metal single. It reached No. 14 on the American charts, I'm assuming, because it was louder than anything else.

So was the LP from which it was taken, Blue Cheer's debut, "Vincebus Eruptum" (supposedly, that's "organized chaos" in Latin). Forty years later, the album still begs to be turned up as far as your MP3 player will go.

I always wondered what it would have been like to see Blue Cheer live, whether I'd escape with any part of my hearing intact. Then in November, I noticed that the band -- two-thirds of the original! -- was scheduled to perform at the Rex Theater on Pittsburgh's South Side.

The turnout was sparse, but that didn't faze Dickie Peterson, Paul Whaley and Andrew "Duck" McDonald, who launched into a no-holds-barred set that, indeed, rendered me semi-deaf for a few days (just like concerts of old times). Their setup was nothing but the basics, and they used it to full effect, replicating what must have been the ultimate in ear-shattering concerts of the '60s.

In its heyday, Blue Cheer was one of those bands that had trouble holding a stable lineup. Original lead guitarist Leigh Stephens left after two albums to pursue a not-so-successful solo career; his place was taken by Randy Holden, who recorded two-plus songs with Blue Cheer before quitting. In came members of the West Coast group Kak, and by the time the band recorded "Oh! Pleasant Hope" in 1972, only bassist-vocalist Peterson remained from the "Summertime Blues" era.

Blue Cheer re-formed in the '80s and has been touring sporadically since, releasing a studio album here and there. The latest, 2007's "What Doesn't Kill You," sounds like vintage Blue Cheer with the advantage of working with decent recording equipment. (Even the band's best-audio-quality '60s output sounds like it was taped through a box of Styrofoam.)

Without Blue Cheer's hit-making impetus, heavy metal might not have gained the ground it did in subsequent years. And MTV's "Closet Classics" just wouldn't have been the same.

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