Big Brother and the Holding Company – Cheap Thrills

Big Brother and the Holding Company – Cheap Thrills
Released August, 1968

Big Brother and the Holding Company were formed in San Francisco in 1965. With a style best described as progressive psychedelic rock, fused with southern-style blues, the band was founded by accomplished country-blues guitarist Peter Albin, who teamed up with guitarists Sam Andrew, James Gurley and drummer Chuck Jones (soon replaced by jazz drummer Dave Getz). The band has seen many changes in line up over the years, the most famous being the addition of Janis Joplin who was lead vocalist from 1966-1968 and sang lead on their (not-so-popular) debut album and of course their second and much-anticipated album “Cheap Thrills”.

I spent about 80% of my listening time resenting this album. I felt really conflicted about “Cheap Thrills” and it certainly evoked a lot of emotions and thought, mostly ‘I hate this album and if I have to listen to it again I will stab myself in the eye’. It was at listen number 6-ish that I realised that I can’t hate an album that could make me feel so many different things within the space of about 30 minutes. Sometimes music can be like a good book or a movie or even a person. You might not necessarily like all of its traits, but if it makes you think, exposes you to new ideas or alters your outlook, then that is what makes it successful and ultimately worth pursuing. When I listened to the album not much of it seemed orderly or structured whatsoever and I actually made the mistake of thinking it was recorded live. Which was ironic because apparently the band originally planned to lay down the album live at an actual concert, but their new record label Columbia insisted they record the majority of the album in the studio. This was perhaps a saving grace as it seems to be a bit of a mess (albeit organized chaos) if this is the ‘polished’ version. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely detest over-produced albums that are impossible to replicate live, but at times the album was so muddy, that I had to take a break, as it was hard work to listen to!

Eventually I came to enjoy the grungy, gritty and funky style tinged with Janis’ sexy and raucous vocals. I didn’t know a lot about Janis Joplin but I did know that she is widely revered for her short yet influential musical feats. Big Brother and the Holding Company actually gave Janis Joplin the start to her career in mid 1966; before her debut with the band she had made several unsuccessful attempts at launching a singing career. I found it intriguing to learn that the band seemed slightly underwhelmed by Janis upon initial impressions and that the fans also struggled to accept the new ‘structure’ that this new singer brought to what had originally been an experimental and ramshackle operation. I personally think that there is absolutely no way this band would have made it on to Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” list (it ranked at #338) or spent 8 weeks at #1 in the Billboard charts, if it weren’t for the addition of Janis Joplin, whose antics and sexually overt stage presence were compared to those of Jimi Hendrix and Aretha Franklin.  I can see why so many women in the music industry – past and present – site Janis as an influence; what a fearless, spicy, rock ‘n’ roll flavor she brought to the music scene, an aura that lives on today in many of her contemporaries.

Sam Andrew was once quoted as saying that ‘Big Brother played from the heart and soul, with the goal of achieving a direct connection with the innermost feelings of the audience’. Well I most certainly made the connection. Eventually. This one is staying on the iPod, in the ‘Sunday afternoon wine-time’ playlist.

There is no doubt that female rock singers the world over owe a huge debt to Janis Joplin. Her raspy, Southern Comfort-coated voice has influenced many of popular music’s front women, including Melissa Etheridge, Bonnie Tyler and Heart’s Ann Wilson. Janis’s vocal talents are not for every taste though, and some may liken her efforts to screeches, as my teenage self did. I now admire the range of emotions in her singing and you can hear them all on Big Brother & The Holding Company’s second album, even when she’s on background vocals. Coming from San Francisco’s psychedelic scene, the band takes a little bit from blues, rock, funk and soul. I forget that only a couple of tracks are recorded live as even the studio cuts sound like they’re onstage. From the frenetic, genre-hopping opener ‘Combination of the Two’ to their wonderfully bluesy arrangement of ‘Summertime’ from Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess”, this album is full of great rock moments. ‘Oh, Sweet Mary’ sounds like early Black Sabbath performing a forgotten number from the “Hair” soundtrack and Janis’s fabulous ‘Turtle Blues’ proves that she could tone down when the occasion called for it. My favourite track is the hit ‘Piece of My Heart’, which is actually a cover of a song by Aretha Franklin’s sister, Erma. If the seven song tracklisting is too short, then check out the 1999 CD reissue which adds two studio outtakes and two live tracks, my pick of them being ‘Roadblock.’ This is a great album from a band that fleetingly achieved greatness.

“Cheap Thrills” by Big Brother and the Holding Company was the album that made Janis famous and put her on the ‘rock legend’ map. She was a big voice, with a big personality. I  know of only two other people who can scream in tune, Robert Plant and Jeff Buckley. It’s important not to allow all of this to overshadow the work by the rest of the band, but as good as they were Janis is the real star here. Each song is different to the next and she owns every single one. “Cheap Thrills” was the perfect vehicle in which to bring that big voice to the world. She blazed a bright trail for those who would follow, leaving a legacy of women who throw up their middle finger at anyone who says they have to be or act a certain way. I happen to be one of these women, so thanks Janis! “Cheap Thrills” is an album that doesn’t take itself too seriously, as shown in the elaborate, cartoonish cover art by Robert Crumb of ‘Fitz the Cat’ fame, which came in at #9 on Rolling Stone Magazine’s “100 Greatest Album Covers”, in 1991. (Just quietly, this cover was way fun to recreate in MS Paint. Very time consuming, but fun). The strong tracks are undoubtedly the sultry “I Need a Man to Love’ and the anthemic cover of ‘Piece of my Heart’. “Cheap Thrills” starts strong but peters off a little too much into drug fuelled nonsense towards the end for me. When I listen to these albums I listen to them in a variety of situations. This one was its strongest for me driving along the freeway in the sun, with the windows down, singing along as loud as I could. Overall I found it to be more good than bad so it gets the thumbs up from me. I shall end this review with a haiku for you Janis:
i like how you scream
and wail and yell and bellow
and screech and shriek. yeah.

Anyone ever noticed how much Janis Joplin’s voice can get a bit Robert Plant-y? No? Just me? “Cheap Thrills” is Big Brother and the Holding Company’s second album and their last with Janis as the singer. And it gets off to a great start with promoter Bill Graham introducing them and the wailing guitars of ‘Combination of the Two’. It’s a good introduction song with Janis screaming that “we’re gonna knock ya, and rock ya, and sing at ya now!” Excellent. That is indeed what happens. The album also features a cover version of the Gershwin brother’s Summertime, an Aria that was written for the opera “Porgy and Bess”. I’m not familiar with any other version, and I’m not a huge fan of this one, if I’m honest. One of the appeals of Janis’ voice is the raw, unrefined nature of it, but I think she must’ve been off that day. It wasn’t one the live recordings on the album, why not re-record a good version? Perhaps I’m being too harsh… Now the ball tearing ‘Piece of My Heart’, which is my favourite. A very bluesy rendition, that Janis puts every bit of herself into to really sing it with everything she’s got, with quite an interesting guitar solo in the middle. Speaking of fun blues tracks, ‘Turtle Blues’ has some excellent blues piano work in it… It gets a little messy when the guitar comes in and plays over it, but I suspect there’s possibly a bit of DFN going on there, which is cool. It was the 60s. It appears by the second last track ‘Oh, Sweet Mary’, the bass player has woken up and his fingers are on crack, playing some crazy lines through nearly the whole song. It’s a suitably dramatic song, with the sharing of lead vocals between Joplin and Sam Andrew, and lots of backing vocals to make parts sound a lot bigger. Finally, the nine minute ‘Ball and Chain’, which became one of Joplin’s favourite songs for performing live. Gee it goes on for a while, but I guess there is that tendency with live tracks. It’s still a pleasure to listen to though. Overall, a great album, that Rolling Stone only ranked at 338 in their top 500 albums. I think it should’ve been higher. Much higher.

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