Metal In Theory is, in theory, a blog about metal. But as Steve Waksman has demonstrated powerfully in his book This Ain’t The Summer of Love, metal is interconnected with all kinds of heavy music — including hard rock, punk, stadium rock, alternative, and grunge. Coming to terms with metal music means looking at it in relation to other kinds of heavy music.
Chicago’s heading into a cold snap again, so I was at Trader Joe’s a night early stocking up on enough beer and peanut butter cups that I won’t have to leave my apartment all weekend (they say Thursday is the new Friday). And what genteel strains did I hear floating over the mountain ridges of Green Juice and Pumpkin Spice Instant Oatmeal? “There ain’t no cure for the Summertime Blues…” Someone up there must have a sick sense of humor. The parking lot is covered in ice and the high temperature tomorrow will be almost twenty degrees below zero, and here some hipster music algorithm is playing a summer hit from the 1960s.
Or so I thought. Imagine my surprise when I got home and realized that “Summertime Blues” was released in the middle of the winter, on January 16, 1968.1 They released a cover of a summer song in winter, and here I was listening to it in winter, too. That’s enough of a dumb coincidence that I kept thinking about it.
Then I remembered that I’ve got this blog that I theoretically still write, and I’ve been looking for something to write about to kick off a series about the 50th anniversary of the birth of heavy metal. Somewhere in the dusty corners of my mind I dimly recalled that Blue Cheer’s Vincebus Eruptum came out in 1968, and fifty years ago is 1969. I can’t do that one, I thought. I would’ve had to write that piece last year. But then I thought what the hell, 50 years is a nice round number but it doesn’t really mean anything. So here it is, time to celebrate Half a Century (Plus One) of Heavy Metal with a post about what might be the best song to claim as the genesis of heavy metal, “Summertime Blues” by Blue Cheer.
What’s that, you say? Blue Cheer isn’t really metal? Metal really began with Black Sabbath or Deep Purple? I respectfully disagree.
Blue Cheer - Summertime Blues - YouTube
Lots of people have already said stuff about Blue Cheer’s Vincebus Eruptum being loud and heavy, calling it “proto-metal” or something like that. But I want to go a step further and say that “Summertime Blues” doesn’t just sound kind of like metal; it actually represents the early heavy metal genre BETTER than Black Sabbath’s debut album. (Plus it was like a whole 2 years earlier.)
I mean sure, nothing by Blue Cheer has the horror or occult gravitas of Black Sabbath’s eponymous title track to their eponymous album. But neither did any other heavy metal until the 1980s. In retrospect, the doom and gloom stuff makes Black Sabbath seem like a clear paternal origin for black metal.2 But even Black Sabbath didn’t write anything else as evil-sounding as their namesake track, and I would argue that nobody else wrote anything that evil either until the late 80s. In between there are tons of important metal bands that sound more like “Ain’t no cure for the summertime blues” than “Figure in black that points at me / ohgodno pleasegodhelpme” We tend to focus on the most distinctive evil-sounding bands to represent the whole genre, like Black Sabbath and Slayer and Cannibal Corpse and Celtic Frost. But less aggressively extreme bands like Blue Cheer and Van Halen and Guns ‘n Roses are just as important — or maybe even more so because they sell better.
Black Sabbath - Black Sabbath | (Black Sabbath, 1970) | [HQ] - YouTube
There are ways in which Blue Cheer’s “Summertime Blues” represents heavy metal as a genre much better than “Black Sabbath.” One of them is formal structure. The core albums of the metal genre are built on a form called “compound AABA.” The word “compound” means that each A is comprised of multiple sections, usually including a Verse and Chorus.3
You’ll find compound AABA on album after album of metal music, but Black Sabbath hardly ever uses this form on their first two albums. However, Blue Cheer’s version of “Summertime Blues” not only has AABA structure, but matches a lot of smaller details about how this structure is created in later metal songs; it starts with a separate riff for the intro, followed by “pre-verse” riff at 0:12. Then the B section has a Guitar Solo (starting at 1:55), and at the end of the B section the introduction riff is brought back (2:14) to move smoothly back into return of the A section (at 2:56). It’s a prototypical example of the kind of riff-based song form that would dominate the metal genre for the next several decades, unlike “Black Sabbath” (or the rest of the songs on Black Sabbath’s first album, or even most of the songs on their second album).
1. "Summertime Blues"
0:10 ...... (holding note)
Ax2 (no vox)
0:15 Verse 1
Ax2 + vox
0:23 Ax2 (no vox)
Ax2 + vox
C D C
0:49 Verse 2
C D' C
1:24 Verse 3
C D' C
Refrain (no instrs)
1:55 Guitar Solo
2:22 .... (tremolo, rising by half steps)
(drums fade in)
2:59 Verse 4
3:29 Intro again, as Outro
And sure, Blue Cheer’s album Vincebus Eruptum is not really distinctly metal, since it’s still got a lot of ties to rock ‘n’ roll, blues rock, and psychedelia. But those influences also persisted in lots of other metal through the 70s and early 80s. Sure, “Summertime Blues” is a cover of a classic rock tune from the 1950s by Eddie Cochran, but that is less foreign to metal than one might think. All kinds of New Wave of British Heavy Metal bands described their own music as “rock ‘n’ roll” in their lyrics, or mention blues, or covered rock ‘n’ roll classics. Even Motörhead, who released a fine cover of the totally un-evil song “Louie Louie” in 1978 as their first single.
I’d give the same argument about the twelve-bar blues songs on Vincebus Eruptum, like “Rock Me Baby.” Plenty of later metal bands used twelve-bar blues; Van Halen’s “Ice Cream Man” and Megadeth’s “I Ain’t Superstitious” are good examples of 12-bar blues by undisputed metal titans, and there are plenty of blues legacies in the music of bands like Guns ‘N Roses, too, if you know where to look. Not to mention innumerable more obscure bands in the early 1980s like Diamond Head and Vardis, who have tracks that are clearly going for earlier rock and blues styles.
The idea that metal is about “leaving the blues behind” and that a band can’t be heavy metal if they still use blues forms is long overdue for reconsideration. Looking back on 50 years of metal, I see a lot more persistence of blues and rock than is reflected in our origin stories. This is the first post in a series that will trace these influences in both directions, looking forward into the 1970s and backwards into the 1960s to understand more about what remained the same and what changed during the shifts from “blues” to “psychedelic blues rock” and then to “heavy metal.”
Well, one could argue that it wasn’t really winter, since Blue Cheer lived in San Francisco and it never really gets below 55F there, even in mid-January. Maybe they wouldn’t have appreciated the irony.
That isn’t my idea, Black Sabbath is chosen as the first predecessor of Black Metal by Fenriz from Darkthrone, in his “Black Metal University” history lecture video clip. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y9-5urh814s
The term “compound AABA” was coined by John Covach. See “Form in Rock Music: A Primer” in Engaging Music: Essays in Musical Analysis (2005, pp. 65-76).