|Blue Cheer's first album.|
In a recent post I mentioned how interesting it is how some ideas seem to percolate through the culture and erupt in several different places at roughly the same time. Steam engines, Impressionist art, the automobile, even the hot dog, all seem to have several claimants to being the first to invent them, and the reality is that there probably were several people thinking along the same lines at the same time but in different locales. Its almost as if ideas achieve some sort of cultural critical mass and then precipitate out in several different places at once.
In rock music this has happened several times, and none more notably than in the birth of the genre which we now know as heavy metal. During the late 60's, many bands, mostly English but also a few American, were exploring what is occasionally called "heavy blues": this was just an even-more-amplified version of electric Chicago blues. But as amplifier volumes crept closer and closer to 11, a funny thing happened: the music changed. An emergent principle occurred, where beyond a certain point you no longer had just music that was X louder than before, it became something different. (A similar thing happened years later when Metallica basically invented modern speed metal. As they turned their amps louder and louder, eventually the sound wave was "squared off", which gave the world the chugging Metallica riff that was subsequently copied by others). Bands like Cream and the Yardbirds started out emulating blues idols like Muddy Waters and B.B. King and Bo Diddley and others but as the music became louder and heavier it started sounding less and less like blues and more like something else, something new. Other bands like the Who were also getting louder and heavier; listen to the studio version of "Magic Bus" and then listen to the version of Live at Leeds and you can see how much different the same song can sound in just two short years.
In America, bands like Vanilla Fudge and Iron Butterfly were also exploring this heavier, and often times slower, approach to blues-based rock. However, persistently 60's elements, like the extensive organ solos that colored the work of both groups, kept this music closer to psychedelia than heavy metal.
But another band would emerge in San Francisco that would strip their music of these lingering 60's elements and drive the music further towards what would eventually become heavy metal, and this was Blue Cheer. Their debut album, Vincebus Eruptum, has been widely credited with being the first true heavy metal album. The music is still rooted in electric blues, but Blue Cheer, who were touted as the "loudest band in the world", were creating music that by its sheer size and volume was, as mentioned above, becoming something else entirely. Their cover of Eddie Cochrane's "Summertime Blues" is a rumbling freight train that goes off in wild feedback laden solos and it is clearly capturing the sturm and drang of what metal would eventually become. "Doctor Please", "Out of Focus" and "Parchment Farm" from this amazing album also contain traditional blues elements interspersed with this massive sonic noise. Their second album, Outsideinside, toned down the volume and added a sheen of studio polish but the basic sound is the same: the tracks "Just a Little Bit", "Come and Get It", and "Magnolia Caboose Babyfinger" carry on the panzer tank rumble of the first album.
Guitarist Leigh Stevens went on to form Silver Metre with Mick Waller from the Jeff Beck Group and Pete Sears, drummer for Hot Tuna and eventually Jefferson Starship, after splitting from Blue Cheer in 1969. However, Silver Metre in some ways represented a step back for all parties, to a psychedelic-tinged blues rock that sounded more like an outgrowth of the Yardbirds. It definitely rocks and occasionally struts but it doesn't come close to capturing the sound-of-an-avalance feel of classic Cheer. The instrumental "Gangbang" has a little of the acid noodling of Cheer but otherwise the rest sounds pretty generic.
Another band that often gets named in discussions of metal pioneers is Sir Lord Baltimore, and let me tell you, that shit is HEAVY. Holy moly. The title song of their first album Kingdom Come has a guitar riff that is so colossal, so bludgeoning, it will crush your brains into pulp. This song stands defiantly at the crossroads between nascent heavy metal and the emerging Detroit protopunk scene; it has as much in common with the raw energy of the Detroit sound as evinced by the Stooges' first album, the MC5, and Frijid Pink as it does the emerging hyper-amplified blues rock of Blue Cheer. It also is clearly in a similar groove to the even less blues-based work on Black Sabbath's first album, which predates it by just a few weeks. The vocals are a trifle theatrical but the music is just so blisteringly heavy it just blows me away. Several other songs match this blistering vibe, including "Master Heartache" "Lady of Fire", and "Hellhound". The rumbling beginning of “Master Heartache” sounds like the opening to “Six Pack” by Black Flag but then settles into a driving groove reminiscent of “Black Dog” by Led Zeppelin. “Pumped Up” is faster and more frantic, sounding like a sloppier version of “Communication Breakdown” by Zep. Anyone who wants to hear music that is incredibly heavy and loud is encouraged to buy these songs from this album.