Blasting out of the San Francisco Bay area with an amped-to-the-heavens heavy blooze/hard rock style, Blue Cheer spewed forth a lo-fi garage sound that found the trio lobbing grenades on classics by the Stones and Eddie Cochran while providing its own brand of post-Nuggets meltdown. It would ultimately help usher in the heavy/acid rock underground scene.
But like many ’60s and ’70s FM heroes (Velvet Underground, MC5, Stooges, Gram Parsons, etc.), Blue Cheer ended up having more influence on future musicians than it did commercial success, despite a chart hit with its first album and the classic strongarming of “Summertime Blues.”
With Cheer, it was the familiar case of few people buying its records, but everyone who did going out and starting a band.
The original trio of guitarist Leigh Stephens, bassist/vocalist Dickie Peterson, and drummer Paul Whaley, dropped a sonic H-bomb with its 1968 debut, Vincebus Eruptum, and its followup, Outsideinside, released later that year. The albums were fuzzed-out snapshots of the California trio harnessing smokestack lightning with the glee of high-schoolers cutting class. The band went through numerous personnel shifts and released four more albums, all with Peterson at the helm, yet the original threesome is considered the group’s most impressive collective missle attack.
The Cheer’s influence is no more evident than today, as a new generation of devotees burns a swath across the hard rock landscape. The riffology of current power trios such as Nebula and Atomic Bitchwax, and the full-bore ethos of Swedish maniacs the Hellacopters, squares perfectly with the proto-punk/acid/metal vibe of the Cheer. Also, there’s a new Blue Cheer tribute CD, Blue Explosion, from Italy’s Black Widow Records. It features Cheer tunes done by such anvil-heavy outfits as Pentagram, Drag Pack, Fireball Ministry, Superdope, and Hogwash.
After leaving Cheer, Stephens recorded two solo albums (a self-titled debut and Red Weather), and worked with the group Silver Metre. His most recent band project, Chronic With a K, is a blues outfit with a CD on its own label. In the wake of this latest round of Cheer-fulness, the guitarist agreed to a few rounds of questions about his career.
Vintage Guitar: Discuss your early history with Blue Cheer.
Leigh Stephens: Blue Cheer started out as a five-piece blues band without a name, until Owlsly named some of his chemistry Blue Cheer. Our manager, Gut Turk, heard the name, and that was that. A little while later we just dwindled down to three people who enjoyed playing the same things.
Did you already know Dickie Peterson?
No, I didn’t. I knew Paul (Whaley) through Gary Yoder. They had a band called the Oxford Circle, and we hung around. Then one day Paul said he was ready to do something else.
How long were you in the band?
From ’66 to ’69, for the first two albums.
Who are your musical influences, particularly in regard to your guitar playing/approach?
Hendrix, Clapton, Bloomfield, Buddy Guy.
What turned you on about those guys…what did you like about their playing?
They were totally unique, you didn’t hear guys like them on the radio back then, kinda like today, where you hear only a fraction of what’s really going on in the music world. The English guys picked up on the blues scene long before us white American guitarists, and it was [American] music.
We were inundated with the Beach Boys and R&B, which wasn’t bad, but there were no real guitar heroes in R&B, except maybe Steve Cropper.
What was your main gear for the Blue Cheer years?
Gibson SG Standards and Fender Strats. Marshall amps – 100-watt heads with two 4 X 10 cabs. I used anywhere from four to six stacks onstage. Effects were a Fuzz Face and a wah wah.
Do you still own or use any of that gear?
No. Now I use an ’87 Fender Strat with Texas Specials through a Fender Hot Rod Deville with four 10s.
What happened to that old gear?
Most of it was stolen.
Blue Cheer played some massive gigs in its early years, including shows with Hendrix, MC5, and Pink Floyd. Can you share any memories of some of these shows?
Yeah, they were all memorable. We played with Hendrix several times in L.A. and Florida. We were billed over Pink Floyd in Los Angeles, along with Jeff Beck. It was a great time, if a bit fuzzy while it was happening.
Blue Cheer had a reputation for massive volume. Was it something you planned or discussed?
It was discussed, but sort of evolved on its own.
What’s the status of Blue Cheer CD releases in the U.S.?
Almost everything is available everywhere via the internet, legal or otherwise.
Any new collections of old Cheer material planned?
Not that I’m aware of.
Discuss your recent musical project, Chronic with a K.
It started as a project for the Taxim blues compilation Fourth Wave of Bay Area Blues, then evolved into Ride the Thunder. I’m currently working on a CD of instrumental originals and a couple of covers for release in Europe, which should be ready in 2000. Ride The Thunder is available on my webpage.
What’s your day job?
I’m a fine artist and digital media artist for Blue Denim Technologies in Sacramento. We specialize in database-driven websites and e-commerce.
Fans can keep tabs on Stephens and his upcoming releases via his homepage. And the Italian label, Black Widow Records, just released Blue Explosion. It was slated to be available from a few U.S. distributers, including Meteor City, the heavy music website mailorder house, and through Black Widow direct.
Looking for Cheer’s backcatalog on CD? Much of it is in print in the U.S. And Cheer heads with a little extra dough can find import CDs and vinyl reissues at the Freak Emporium, a British pyschedelic music store, www.delerium. co.uk/freakemp/frkmptop.html.
Other points of interest:
Official Blue Cheer homepage: http://bp.bpcwsb.com/inet.files/fo01.htm
Leigh Stephens homepage: www.leighstephens.net, e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Black Widow Records e-mail: email@example.com.
Blue Cheer in ’68; Dickie Peterson, Leigh Stephens, and Paul Whaley. Photos courtesy of the Official Blue Cheer homepage.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s April ’00 issue.