Battle of the Bands: Blue Cheer vs. Jefferson Airplane

Licensed through Creative Commons. Image courtesy of velvettangerine

The problem with the Summer of Love was that it was an idea too grand for some people to experience the one time. So rather than tumbling through years of therapy, most boomers did the next best thing by inflicting their nostalgic hippie-flashbacks on unsuspecting progeny.

If you were born after 1975, you were probably told tales about San Francisco in the mid-1960s.  This was the epicenter of radical new ideas about peace, love, and understanding—this was the place Hollywood recreates every year on some forsaken Busby Berkeley back lot.

Growing up in the church of psychedelia meant facing the cold reality that the people responsible for the breakthrough social change you enjoy are the very people glibly retelling that old knee-slapper about memory of the 1960s and its relation to drug use.

For us, psychedelia is less a state of mind and more an abandoned dream in dayglo and gobbly font. The more tragic in our midst, those with childhood issues or unstructured parenting, even try to recreate it.

In some ways, it’s not fair pitting bands of diverse artistic temperament against each other—it’s like a parent admitting a favorite child. Comparing these particular bands, the Jefferson Airplane and Blue Cheer, is a comparison of rock’s royalty to its underdog (a true Rocky versus Apollo). Both groups are quintessentially San Francisco Sound founders; both faced the plight of schizophrenic band members; and both had a lot of artistic turnover.

But, who was the bigger influence? Who left a lasting impression on us Gen Xers and early Millennials?

The Contender

Blue Cheer was originally founded in 1966 by Eric Albronda and Jerry Russell. Named after a street brand of LSD, the group amassed a team of uncompromising, rowdy rockers and rose to prominence under the management of an ex-member of the Hells Angels. The band is known in its power trio configuration: members Dickie Peterson, Paul Whaley, and Leigh Stephens. Its first hit, a cover of Eddie Cochran’s Summertime Blues, peaked at #14 on the Billboard charts.

At its debut, the release of Vincebus Eruptum, the band was a hellish, deafening nightmare of everything that had come before. The album, full of distortion and speed rock, was, as author Tim Hills puts it, “the epitome of San Francisco psychedelia.”

The late 1960s saw personnel changes; and Cheer’s sound mellowed from a bludgeoning, over-amped heavy metal to commercial hard and blues rock (a la Steppenwolf or Cream).

The band temporarily split in 1972 after its fifth release, The Original Human Being. By that time, Peterson was the only remaining member of the group’s original configuration, having been joined and then abandoned by Randy Holden and Bruce Stephens.

Though the band was inactive through the 1980s, which was marked by fruitless attempts at a reunion, it wasn’t until Peterson death in 2009 that Blue Cheer’s reign officially ended.

It’s easy to see Cheer’s mark on its successors in heavy metal and blues. The band’s screaming vocals and acid guitar make up the bulk of what we heard from rock in the 1980s and what we still hear today on Sixth Street. At home, the band’s sound echoes through almost every punk and alt metal product from the east bay.

The Reigning Champion

The Jefferson Airplane was founded in 1965 by Marty Balin, who, inspired by bands attempting to merge folk and rock music—acts like the Beau Brummels and the Charlatans—endeavored to create a rock revolution in San Francisco.

Balin purchased a pizza parlor on Fillmore Street, which he transformed into a rock club called the Matrix. He met with guitarist Paul Kanter; and together the duo recruited musicians to form the club’s house band. Signe Toly, Jorma Kaukonen, Jerry Peloquin, and Bob Harvey rounded out the original lineup.

The group’s popularity escalated after a series of positive reviews from San Francisco Chronicle jazz critic Ralph J. Gleason; and the band signed with RCA Victor. Personnel changes marred the band early. Peloquin left the band shortly after its formation—dissuaded by the group’s frequent drug use. He was replaced by Moby Grape founder Skip Spence. Spence was later replaced by Spencer Dryden.

The band’s single most influential personnel overhaul took place in 1966, when Grace Slick, then singer with the Great Society, replaced Toly, who left the band to focus on motherhood. Slick brought with her two singles that would become the group’s most well-known hits: White Rabbit and Somebody to Love.

The release of Surrealistic Pillow launched Airplane into the mainstream. The album peaked at #3 on the Billboard charts and spurred an avalanche of copycat artists. In 1967, famed Bay area entrepreneur and promoter, Bill Graham, signed on as the band’s manager—garnering commercial interest for the group. Airplane was invited to perform on Carson’s Tonight Show, the Ed Sullivan Show, and participated in the Human Be-in, a famous day-long Happening in Golden Gate Park.

Despite rampant drug use, interpersonal turmoil, and shifting alliances, Airplane remained prolific and regularly toured. It is the only band to have performed the concert triumvirate: the Monterey Pop Festival, Woodstock, and Altamont.

As the group mounted commercial and critical success, its creative direction slowly and awkwardly shifted. Brooding, cerebral love songs were replaced by vitriolic messages and political statements. (An affair between Slick and drummer Dryden influenced the song Lather, which she later performed in blackface to show support for the Black Panther Party. Dryden left the band in 1970 and Slick began a relationship with Kanter.)

After 1970, the band saw another shift towards heavier, improvised music. Songs were longer, disenchanted, and increasingly anti-establishment. Airplane embodied the drug-taking, antiwar ethos of the era with screams, albeit empty ones, of revolution.

Personal turmoil continued to plague the band; and drugs and alcohol ripped through its productivity—curtailing the group’s ability to record and tour. By April 1972, band members had shifted focus to side projects Jefferson Starship and Hot Tuna. Airplane never formally split; but still reunited in 1989 for an album and tour. It was inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.

Airplane influenced bands today in a host of different ways: musically, through its choice in instrumentation; artistically, in aesthetic and fashion; and politically, in its constant pursuit of perfection.

The Verdict

The San Francisco Sound was a collusive rock music acid trip into bohemian counterculture. Inherent in the Sound were louder, improvised, and explorative jaunts in chord progression, lyric, and instrumentation. The style was our counterattack to a British Invasion; lead with a screaming charge by forefathers like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jerry Garcia.

We wanted to be less commercial. We wanted to be all-American. As a nation, we needed to rebound from the wounds we were inflicting on ourselves socially and unite through some means, in this case, locally, through the chaos of ground-breaking music.

Today’s climate is no different. Our art scene faces a nation wrought with polarizing women’s issues, diplomatic missions to China, banal racism; and it is as diverse and innovative now as it was then.

Blue Cheer stands, at least artistically, as the most influential band to today’s sound. Rage will always be en vogue and Cheer’s brand of euphoric raucousness is truer, rawer, and edgier than that of Jefferson Airplane.

Airplane’ s stark and intellectual sound, once commercialized, disseminated to the masses, and perfected by others, led to what we now think of when we hear someone say “Psychedelic.” The band profoundly changed American art, politics, and spiritual convictions, but much of this was accomplished through its image, excess, and self-indulgence than through its music.

For Airplane, psychedelia, the drugs it required, its constant need for redefinition, and its turbulent lifestyle, was the unfortunate and inherited result of success; and it ultimately led to the band’s downfall.

Living in an extended haze, the froth of a dream filled with free love, drugs, and no consequences, mirrors those watery dreamscapes of Berkley’s early Hollywood. Eventually the cotton candy melts, the champagne goes flat, and you’re left with one helluva mess.

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3 thoughts on “Battle of the Bands: Blue Cheer vs. Jefferson Airplane

  1. Jessica , Finally , finally somebody got it right . You did in a big way. Blue Cheer was created out of the cosmos one fine day.
    We were visited by the creative spirit for just a short while . Long enough to change the boundry of music in a lasting way. The reverberation is still happening .Fortunate to have been there at the time and to have produced much of their music I will never forget the look on Paul Kantor’s face (Airplane ) at the memorial for Chet Helms in Golden Gate Park in 2005. While Dicki Peterson and Leigh Stephens ( Blue Cheer ) played Paul Kantor’s look was if to say ” so that was it , so that is where all this music has come from , why did I not see it back then, I bow to you , Blue Cheer .”
    cheers ,
    Eric Albronda

  2. It might have been different if the personel of Jefferson Airplane had been more focused. You had Grace and Paul writing their songs, Jorma and Jack writing their songs and Marty writing his. Yet you cannot deny the spark of inspiration that was Blue Cheer at the beginning. Nothing sounded like them, then, and the music industry did not know what they had in front of them. In the end, Blue Cheer was returning to form while Jefferson Airplane lost their way. It still makes me wonder why Blue Cheer only had one “hit”. However, at that time singles were becoming “uncool” and LP’s (Long playing albums) were the choice of music fans.

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