On the stony path that leads from ’60s garage rock to the apocalyptic sounds unleashed by Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin at the dawn of the ’70s, there’s a void where Blue Cheer’s Randy Holden’s pavestone ought to lie. And though he’s contributed much to the development of heavy guitar music, his many brushes with success span from baffling to devastating.
By 1968, Holden had already supported the Rolling Stones with The Fender IV, played in bands with members of Buffalo Springfield, and nearly joined the Yardbirds—and yet, he is best known for his just-shy-of-a year-tenure with heavy metal pioneers Blue Cheer. If only they made their collaboration last a bit longer, the age-old arguments about who invented heavy metal would be soundly settled.
“I was right,“ he says over the phone. “[Heavy Metal] was gonna be big. And I felt like, damn, I got short changed here because I invented that. I should not be broke!”
Holden was making a living as a teen musician while the Beatles were still cutting their teeth in Hamburg. In the early ’60s, he instinctively strung his guitar with heavy gauge strings and tuned down a whole step. (The man usually credited for this innovation—Black Sabbath’s guitarist Tony Iommi—didn’t start recording in drop tunings until 1971.) In 1969, at the peak of Holden’s original career, he was using a backline array of sixteen 200-watt Sunn amplifiers long before bands like Manowar, Sunn O))), and Jucifer became famous for their own ridiculous speaker walls.
[Heavy Metal] was gonna be big. And I felt like, damn, I got short changed here because I invented that. I should not be broke!
My long phone call with Randy Holden charts a course that begins in post-World War II Baltimore, where his bluesy high school band the Iridescents played weekend gigs for radio DJs like the legendary Johnny Dark and at a Marine Corps base in Virginia, where the crowds erupted with violence when Holden hit the opening chords to Link Wray’s “Rumble.”
“Every time we’d play ‘Rumble’,” he says. “Without fail, there would be a fight. Big fight. I saw kids in a Catholic school dance once, one of ’em grabbed the priest and slammed his face into his knee. Nice guys.” He laughs. “Yeah…Baltimore was a rough town.”
By 1963, Holden dropped out of high school to pursue music. “I have no formal education at all,” he says. “I think if I had an education I would’ve been ruined.” Wanting to escape the freezing Baltimore winters, he gathered a few musician buddies and headed for sunny California with surf-inspired rock ’n’ roll dreams. That was mere months before the Beatles made their U.S. debut—thereby ending the reign of instrumental hits forever.
“I had long hair before the Beatles,” he tells me in a voice that could easily be mistaken for actor Bruce Dern. “But when they came out, after I had gotten [to California] and been here a couple months…it broke my heart. Damn. They beat me to it. I cried. I actually did. And I picked myself up and said, ‘Hey, get it over it. It’s not the end. This is the beginning.’”
Holden spent the next few years honing his loud, heavy guitar sound. His surf rock band from ’63 to ’64, the Fender IV, morphed into the harder, proto-punk L.A. psych act the Sons of Adam. Holden shed the reverb from his tone after hearing Keith Richards’ own dry, loud sound at a gig they played together at the Long Beach Sports Arena. (“The thing I liked about Keith Richards’ tone,” he says, “[Was that] he had no effects.”) But it was the Stones’ bassist Bill Wyman’s impressive backline that spurred Holden toward building the monstrous array for which he later became renowned.
Sadly, the Sons of Adam failed to chart. Even worse, the group was devolving due to substance abuse. “My bass player from the Sons of Adam, Mike Port, started going around with the wrong people and they were feeding him acid every day. I think he might have taken it 300 times, he once told me, and it just totally destroyed him,” Holden says. “And that was terrible because he was a great bass player, but damn he did that stuff and it just destroyed him.” Fed up, Holden joined a psychedelic group called the Other Half.
Unfortunately, playing in bands with musicians who abused drugs continued to impede his career. “Matter of fact, it was in the Other Half, the drummer. My rule for the band was ‘no drugs period.’ He was playing really crappy at one show we were doing at the [Hollywood] Avalon. We got off stage and I said, ‘What’s the matter with you, man?’ He said, ‘Well, I took acid. I thought I was playing great.’ I’m going, you’ve gotta be kidding. His timing was all over the place. He forgot parts.”
“I saw many musicians who would get stoned before they played and they did not play well at all, and yet, they were having a good time and thought they did. And I thought, ‘Man, don’t even get any of that stuff anywhere near me,’ because if that’s what it does to musicians, it’s screwed because they’re no longer in love. They’re in love with drugs and they can’t play music anymore, but they don’t know it.”
Even with their success, the money went fast—largely spent on drugs. “Towards the end, the manager [Jerry Russell] said ‘we don’t have any money,’ and I was pissed off. How can you make as much money as we were making and have no money? You’re telling me we’re failing? He was a heroin addict and I hated that because he got Paul and Dickie strung out on heroin. That really pissed me off.”
Holden tried to get them to quit. “I had Paul convinced to not do it anymore once. I made a deal with him that I would quit smoking cigarettes if he would quit taking heroin. He agreed. We had our deal. And that went on for like two months. He was clean. But then we had a really bad show one night down in Sarasota, [Florida]. I think it was at a gymnasium. The sound was horrible. I was so mad and I just said, ‘Paul, I’m gonna start smoking. I don’t care what the hell you do.’ I started smoking, and then he went back to heroin. Big mistake, because he was off of it then. I really screwed up on that one.”
In early 1969, before tour earnings could be settled, Holden was whisked off the road and into the recording studio to work on Blue Cheer’s third album, New! Improved!. “It went very smoothly,” says Holden. “We just went in, did the job, and it worked. Paul and Dickie played well. I think Dickie was always very careful playing with me. He was afraid to make a mistake or something. Somehow, I intimidated him, and we just never clicked because of that.”
Holden did, however, contribute three legendary compositions to the album’s B-side: the laid back psychedelic, pyrotechnic guitar leads on “Peace of Mind,” the doom dirge “Fruit and Icebergs,” and “Honey Butter Love,” the album’s closer.
The experience didn’t inspire him enough to stay in the band. “I didn’t really wanna leave, but when everybody’s strung out on heroin, and you’ve got no money, what you gonna do?” He says. “Where are you gonna go? Because that’s the end, isn’t it? That was a damn shame because we could have been a lot bigger than what we were.”
I didn’t really wanna leave, but when everybody’s strung out on heroin, and you’ve got no money, what you gonna do?
“At the end of the [’68] tour,” Holden says. “I was supposed to get my tour earnings, which were supposed to be about $16,000, which was a lot of money back then.” He’s correct. Today, that’s nearly $131,000.
“Jerry brings me an envelope that was supposed to be my tour earnings. He said I was gonna get $1000, but in the envelope there was only $500,” Holden explains. “So I knew what he did. He just stole all my money and used it on drugs. I just went to the studio, unplugged my guitar and left. And that was the end.”
Did the band try to convince him to come back and finish the album?
“No, because they knew, I meant what I said,” says Holden. “And they were too stoned out to even know what was going on.”
The saddest part is that Blue Cheer was poised to be the metal innovators, ahead of even Zeppelin or Sabbath. “It could have, it really could have [gone that way,]” says Holden. “You look at life and you wonder how things like that can happen. You can reach a pinnacle that’s ready to launch bigger than ever and everything gets screwed up and you can’t… I don’t know how anybody makes it through the heroin thing. When [they’re] burning up all the money on that. I guess the Rolling Stones all got strung out at one point, but maybe they had enough money to overcome it.”
Holden’s frustrations with the music business continued with his subsequent solo album debacle, an incredibly innovative record that presaged all the slow, doomed, heavy metal that has come since. Population II was recorded in an old church by a lineup pared down to a duo. Holden sang and played all the guitars, while drummer Chris Lockheed managed to cover the bass tones by playing synthesizer with one free hand.
Mere months before the floodgates of heavy metal finally burst with the release of Black Sabbath’s eponymous debut on February 13, 1970, Holden was burned by the record business, again. His label, Hobbit Records, refused to put out the album, or release him from his contract. And so, bitter and defeated, he hung up his guitar. Population II was finally given an official release on RidingEasy Records in 2020, but for five decades, the only way to listen to it was via bootlegs.
In the ‘90s, Holden recorded several more albums to little fanfare. But his latest, Population III—recorded (then shelved) in 2010 with Cactus bassist Randy Pratt and drummer Bobby Rondinelli of Black Sabbath, Rainbow, and Blue Öyster Cult fame—is finally seeing the light of day on July 1, 2022. “A year ago, in 2021, I listened to the songs and was delightfully surprised,” Holden says. “I think it’s the best album I’ve ever done.”
Not all his fans will agree, but the lead single “Swamp Stomp” is a gnarly hard rocker, his vocals drawing comparison to late-era Neil Young.
At any rate, Population III is a gift for Holden fans, especially considering that he spent all of the ’70s and ’80s away from the music industry—and the guitar—fishing for big yellowfin tuna in Hawaii and out in the middle of the Pacific.
“Once you get off shore,” he says, “you see nothing but blue around you. Constantly, day after day. Nothing but blue.”