Primitive Origins: Blue Cheer’s “Vincebus Eruptum”

Primitive Origins is a column where we’ll look back at proto-metal and early metal that deserves a bit of your battered eardrum’s attention. We’re keeping it loose and easy here: there’s no strict guidelines other than it’s gotta be old, it helps if it’s obscure, and it’s gotta rock out surprisingly hard for its context. Pscyh-ed out proto-metal from the late ’60s? Of course. Early attempts at doom metal from the ’70s? Hell yeah. Underground Soviet metal from the early ’80s? Sure. Bring it on. Bring it all on.

So while I normally like to mine for proto-metal rarities in this column, I felt like I had to take on this album, as it comes up relentlessly during proto-metal discussions: Blue Cheer‘s 1968 debut Vincebus Eruptum.

People sometimes say Vincebus—which was recorded in 1967—is the first metal album; yes, it crashes and bashes with a high-strung psyched-out vibe and all the levels are in the red, but there’s an uncomfortable amount of blues and cover tunes on here that actively work to counter the album’s metal factor. I’ve wondered for a while if it all adds up so figured it was time to do a deep dive back into this record to see if Vincebus Eruptum could really be called the first heavy metal album.

Here’s one of the huge problems for me with giving this album first-metal-album status: it starts out with a cover of the insufferable “Summertime Blues.” Can an album that only has six songs and this is one of them really be as legendary as we think? I dunno, I just absolutely can’t stand this song, and Blue Cheer do nothing to change my mind about that here, the band adding an okay amount of controlled chaos to it, but it would take A.C. levels of liberty to really save this one. This song is like “Bad to the Bone” to me, or maybe “Black Betty”: just round up the master tapes and annihilate them once and for all, please. And if you’ve gotta choose one to sacrifice to the gods of heavy metal, it’s “Summertime Blues.” So, yeah, not off to a promising start here.

The trouble continues with “Rock Me Baby,” the second cover in as many songs, and it’s an old blues tune, which means I’m tuning out pretty quick. Look, I love the trashed-out production and in-the-red acid wash of the sound, but do the final four (!) songs make up for having to sit through these two? And it’s at this point in the album that I am always struck with a sort of forlorn curiosity as to why we hold it in such high esteem. I know the answer is because of a couple of the songs that have yet to make their appearance today, but we should probably talk more about how dismal of a one-two failure these songs were as openers more often.

“Doctor Please” is up next, all almost-eight-minutes of it, and, man, here we go, Blue Cheer just bashing and crashing like cavemen, the riffs psych-blues but the attitude pretty determined to take it next level as far as sonic crushing goes. Rock songs with the word “doctor” in the title are almost always completely ludicrous, and I’m sure whatever is going on lyrically here is horrid, but get a load of that manic, unhinged drumming. The riffs are deceptively twee for an end result that is satisfyingly heavy, and they’re just slightly uneasy and unsettling to listen to, adding to the whole feel here that there’s something new going on, and I have no doubt people’s earholes were just destroyed and perplexed by it all back in ’68, which means I’m giving it points for forward-thinking musical destruction (in other words, metal pioneering). Approved.

“Out of Focus” rocks hard enough, and the band is certainly going for it, but the heaviness factor isn’t much past, say, Free or Cactus or one of those other bands you always imagine you should listen to more often, things just sorta heavy southern-bluesy rocking, the band adding their own psyched-out fuzz to it all of course, and it’s a wild, fun ride. Would hold its own amongst many Primitive Origins alumni, but this isn’t all adding up to “first metal album ever” just yet. “Doctor Please” was heavy, though. But this record is coming to a close fast.

“Parchment Farm” is another blues cover. I mean, no one ever says this while talking about how classic this album is: fully half of its six songs are covers, two of which are blues songs, one of which is fucking “Summertime Blues.” Now, to be fair, the band does heavy this one up pretty good in its second half, and it’s actually pretty fun to listen to, as far as blues covers go, which isn’t wildly far. And listening to it, I can understand the impact this must have made on people when it came out, planting seeds for new levels of extremity in music, no doubt about it.

“Second Time Around” ends things off with a six-minute burst of insanity—the guitar solos alone are worth the price of admission here, the trio just going off the deep end, daring the record label to bankroll this stuff, this song being threateningly chaotic and, wait, just toss a drum solo in here, guys, and then bass only for a bit… this song is heavy, it’s incredibly chaotic, the band falling apart then coming back together several times here; indeed, the song ends with them just falling apart. This and “Doctor Please” would make for an incredible 7”, and that I’d be more inclined to give a bigger place in metal history.

For me, a huge part of figuring out proto-metal is in the intent of the artist. This album features “Summertime Blues” and two blues covers; I realize “balls to the wall metal” was an impossible intent to have in 1967 as metal didn’t exist, but I also find it hard to reconcile that half of this album is throwaway covers. Lots of proto-metal albums had pretty bad covers on them, no doubt the result of record-label interference as opposed to the band’s wishes a lot of the time. But throw enough of those covers on a proto-metal record and it’s going to have a very hard time shedding the “proto” tag and being a full-blown metal album.

On this album, Blue Cheer dipped into some metal sonics and metal vibes, but they didn’t immerse themselves. They were visitors, not lifers.

Sure, Vincebus Eruptum is a classic, and it’s a ton of fun to listen to. It’s wild, it’s out of control, it’s heavy at times. But it’s not the first metal record.