Cheer up! Dickie Peterson (left) and Blue Cheer in their late-‘60s heyday.
MONTHS BEFORE HIS DEATH AT AGE 63 on October 12, 2009, Dickie Peterson spoke to BASS PLAYER’s Freddy Villano. Here’s a look at a few classic riffs and how a simple desire to crank up the blues ignited what’s arguably the world’s first heavy metal band: Blue Cheer.
In 1968, just before Blue Cheer was about to release its debut album, Vincebus Eruptum, Polygram Records informed the band that “Summertime Blues,” its bombastic cover of the Eddie Cochran hit, would be the first single. Bassist/vocalist Dickie Peterson and his bandmates, guitarist Leigh Stevens and drummer Paul Whaley, disagreed: “We wanted ‘Parchment Farm’ or ‘Doctor Please,’” recalled Peterson. “We wanted something that we thought was outrageous.” Eventually the band acquiesced. “I am so glad that we did,” Peterson admitted. “I owe a whole career to that song.”
Sonically groundbreaking as it was, “Summertime Blues” was merely one of many blues classics Blue Cheer interpreted throughout its career. Songs like “The Hunter,” “Born Under a Bad Sign,” and “Rock Me Baby” all got the Blue Cheer stamp of distorted grooves and psychedelic improvisations that would eventually influence bassists from Geddy Lee to Flea. For Peterson, covering such seminal material was simply following a blues tradition. But cranking it up clearly pioneered the heavy metal genre and all of its subsequent offshoots.
The self-professed bastard sons of the late-’60s Flower Power movement, Blue Cheer emerged from among a diverse array of San Francisco Bay Area bands that included the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Quicksilver Messenger Service. “You could do anything you wanted,” Peterson recalled of the scene. “The rules had been thrown out.” But even surrounded by such an eclectic bunch, Blue Cheer’s over-amplified blues stood apart. “We weren’t your average hippie band,” Dickie asserted. “We were angrier and more brutal. Instead of ‘kiss babies and eat flowers,’ we were ‘kiss flowers and eat babies.’”
Peterson, who liked to speak metaphorically about a lot of things, especially musical concepts, compared his bass playing to the fundamentals of painting: “The low end of the drums and my bass playing are like the canvas. The cymbals and guitar are the paint. Without the canvas, paint is just a mess.”
At about 19 years old, Peterson bumped into Muddy Waters. “The advice he gave me about bass playing was to play the spaces,” Dickie recalled. “I found that gives my guitarist room to be a guitar player.” Peterson was also spellbound by Jack Casady’s playing with Jefferson Airplane, and the way that Jack Bruce could play one thing and sing another. But his favorite all-around bass player was Donald “Duck” Dunn. “My philosophy of bass playing fit right into what he does,” said Peterson.
Despite his band’s influence on hard rock and heavy metal, Peterson shied away from the heavy metal label. “I don’t think we’re a heavy metal band,” he said. “I’m not saying there aren’t elements of heavy metal in our music, but there’s also a great deal of punk, garage, and grunge, as there was in the Stooges and the MC5. We never called ourselves a ‘heavy metal’ band. We always referred to ourselves as a power trio. We’re just power freaks. We go for the low end; that’s what we do.” —FREDDY VILLANO
Basses 1966 Fender Jazz Bass; two Precisionstyle basses with Chandler necks, Leo Quan Badass bridges, and Seymour Duncan Quarter Pound pickups
Rig Ampeg SVT heads and 8x10 cabinets
TURN ON, TUNE IN, ROCK OUT
Example 1a shows the main bass riff from “Parchment Farm,” a reworking of Mose Allison’s “Parchman Farm,” followed by the solo vamp that kicks in around the 2:15 mark (Ex. 1b). The upbeat accents in bar 2 of Ex. 1b might be moves borrowed from R&B, but Dickie’s tone and attack is pure rock & roll.
Example 2a excerpts Duck Dunn’s part on the Albert King blues classic “Born Under a Bad Sign,” while Ex. 2b shows Peterson’s take on the riff, as heard on Blue Cheer’s final album, What Doesn’t Kill You… [Rainman, 2007]. Here, a few chromatic passing notes go a long way to make the riff sound less squared off and more sludgy.
Finally, Ex. 3 shows the kind of fill Peterson would put into Blue Cheer’s version of “Summertime Blues.” It’s a simple C minor pentatonic riff, but it epitomizes Dickie’s philosophy: “Rock & roll is not a complicated thing; it’s 10% technique and 90% attitude. I think a lot of players over-intellectualize what’s going on.” In other words, rock & roll isn’t as much about what you play as it is about how you play it.