Friday, 4 July 2008
Big Brother And The Holding Company Featuring Janis Joplin "Cheap Thrills" (1968) (Revised Review 2015)
Putting The Album In Context:
"Four gentlemen and one great, great broad...Big Brother and the Holding Company!"
You can measure the worth of an album by how quickly the establishment changes its mind about it and tried to pretend it always loved it really, oh yes it did honest. Sex, dope and cheap thrills - that's what Big Brother and the Holding Company had originally planned to call their second album, before an incensed Columbia said a big fat 'no' to the band - even though that's what fans always refer to this album was anyway. After all, wasn't that what this raucous, edgy, groundbreaking, sexy album was all about anyway? Few albums sum up what it is to be young, talented, stoned and on the edge of something great the way that this album does, with its singalong anthems, vocal-chord shredding and guitarwork so on the edge it's hard to tell when the funny squiggly feedback tones are intended or accidental (virtually the first note you hear is a teeth-rattling squeal from a guitar that sounds as if it's about to give birth - and that isn't even the biggest solo in the opening song!) This was an album that scared all the right people that art should always scare (ie the men - and women in suits and in power) while thrilling all the right people too (those too young to be in suits yet). Even the cover was so hip it hurt: cartoonist Roger Crumb's parodies of the band and illustrations of the song titles, the very depiction of the 'trashy' disposable low art that so feared parents in 1968. And yet the world has changed so much that in 2013, on the 45th anniversary of 'Cheap Thrills' release, this album was inducted into Congress' Library of 'culturally, historically or aesthetically significant recordings', without comment or protest. I can almost hear Janis' cackling laugh from here.
Soul, blues and rock and roll have never been combined more brilliantly than on this stunning album which somehow manages to be deeply accessible and commercial without sacrificing any of its harder edges. No one listening to 'Cheap Thrills' could fail to miss the harder edges, the squeal of feedback or the raw playing which beats any punk album I ever heard ten years early - and that's without even mentioning the most aggressive singer of the 1960s (who in typical topsy turvy 1960s style turns out to be a woman). Yet nothing here is completely alien either. Songs like 'Piece Of My Heart' 'Ball and Chain' and even the much covered 'Summertime' may be cover songs, but they're definitive cover songs each one manipulated so cleverly into the Big Brother style that at times it's hard to believe there were other versions before these ones. The five originals are all highly under-rated (well, OK, four of them are - the jury's still out on just exactly what 'Turtle Blues' was all about) and demonstrate an excellent understanding of the improvisatory fire of San Francisco in 1968 without falling into the traps of self-indulgence or sacrificing melody. What's even more impressive is the speed of the change - the debut album, only a calendar year old as a record (although in terms of when these songs were written it wasn't even that long) is light years behind this one in sound, texture, ideas and ability. Cheap Thrills isn't just the short and sweet disposable record it pretends to be - it's an important step not just for Janis and her band but for the whole American music scene in general. Who listening to this album could possibly believe that it would be their last together? That in Janis' lifetime she'd only ever complete one more album after this - after all what other band had ever sounded quite this alive for the course of a full LP?
The posthumous Pearl is better known and Janis’ other albums have plenty of highlights, but this set recorded in the wake of Joplin’s triumphant performance at the Monterey Pop Festival shows a unique singer at the peak of her powers. Loud but vulnerable, powerful and strong yet a master of dynamics, few female singers ever had Janis’ range or emotional strengths. Had Janis lived, or had her death not been overshadowed by Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison the same year, she would surely be hailed as the true inventor of 'girl power' (though Janis herself would no doubt have been promoting her own beloved Bessie Smith in her place), thirty years before The Spice Girls get all big-headed about thinking that they invented the whole idea. We'll never know of course where Janis would have gone next - whether this, by far the most successful of the three records released in her life-time, would be a one-off or a landmark for what to aim for next. One thing’s for sure anyway, there would be lots of her albums on this list, with comebacks and twists and turns galore throughout her history just like her small back catalogue magnified a hundredfold. But this website is about what was, not what could have been and out of the four highly variable official albums in a highly varied four-year career, Cheap Thrills is by far the best, with Janis showing off her great range from blistering pop to epic ballads to dry blues to George Gershwin and more in the space of just seven songs.
Perhaps the main reason this album works so well compared to the others of her career is that Janis was still backed by her most sympathetic group of players, Big Brother And The Holding Company. Back in the days before all the talk of being a star went to Janis’ head, back when she was ‘one of the boys’ as it were, the other four musicians in the group were equal partners and Janis worked far better being one of a team of tight players than an a solo self-doubting self-destructive star. Indeed, it’s guitarist Sam Andrew whose voice is the first you’ll hear on this album and he gets a second lead vocal in addition to the bass-heavy yelps going on behind Janis throughout this album. A fine bluesy singer, his guitar-playing is impressive too, swapping fiery leads with the group’s two other guitarists James Gurley and Peter Albin (they alternated which of the three played bass, lead and rhythm on the songs, in a pretty much unique arrangement that gives the group a great deal of variety that few other bands could compete with). James Gurley is a guitarist in the Airplane tradition of suddenly lacing laidback songs with sudden urgent bursts of feedback, injecting adrenalin into tracks whenever they need something jut that little bit extra and taking them somewhere else. Peter Albin appears to have a more studied approach to music than his comrades, although his two guitar showcases – 'Turtle Blues' and 'Oh Sweet Mary' - couldn’t be more different: a tricky nylon-string solo that improvises its way at half-speed around Janis’ tricky chord changes on the former, he’s also the most rhythmic of the lot on the latter track – swirling, swampy and building tension to an unbearable climax. Drummer Dave Getz, meanwhile, is an uncanny mix of Ringo and Charlie Watts, playing some eccentric rolling patterns in the manner of the Beatles’ ‘starr’ and heading off into jazzy-blues territory when the band head off into the unknown, like Watts would love have done with the Stones and strains at the leash to do every time he feels an improvisational moment coming along. A fine band in their own right, Big Brother became a world-beater when they brought their Big Sister into the group and – even though Janis recorded with two other groups in the two years before her untimely death – her voice never sounded so snug and warm nor so desperate and isolated as it did when singing across this quartet’s backing. They really are the perfect safety net, allowing her to be as bold and emotional as she likes whilst backing her up for 'realness' all the way - something her other two bands, however good, lack. While the old joke about Big Brother being the greatest amateur band in the world rings true, you have to know what you're doing in order to break rules this often this well.
Every note rings true on this album - even though in many ways it's a lie. The record begins like an in-concert LP, complete with an introduction from concert promoter Bill Graham (owner of the Carousel Ballroom which later turned into The Fillmore, the venue to which 'Combination Of The Two' is dedicated) and audience applause. However it's a fake: the audience applause was taped from an earlier show at the Winterland Arena and Graham made a rare appearance inside a recording to studio to specially record his intro. Other songs too are dotted with applause: the intro of 'I Need A Man To Love' and some curious chatter at the start of 'Turtle Blues' despite the fact that everything was taped in the studio. Oh except for 'Ball and Chain' (erroneously credited as being taped at the Fillmore - actually it's the Carousel Ballroom again) - where the audience are so quiet it sounds like a studio track until they explode right at the end, as well they might given that Janis has just ripped her soul out for nigh on ten minutes. In many ways it's a case of exaggerating the truth to be more truthful, or something like that - by making the audience 'think' that this is a live album, they're suddenly more accepting of the occasional bum notes and feedback loops which would normally have been taken out - but the band correctly decided that taking them out would be taking half the joy out of the album too. The fact that 'Sgt Peppers' had pulled a similar trick probably helped them get away with it.
The other 'lie' on which this record is built on is that it manages to sum up 1968 like few other albums - the harsh aggressive tone on the one hand and the erudite lyricism on the other, back when so many songs made an important philosophical point and then realised there was nothing could accompany it so well as an out of control charging guitar riff - despite the fact that it contains two of the oldest AAA songs of them all. 'Summertime' dates from George Gershwin's opera 'Porgy and Bess' in 1935; 'Ball and Chain' is based in part on the old spiritual 'All My Trials'. Even 'Oh Sweet Mary' is a re-write of the band's own 'Coo Coo' from the previous year, turning a cute and pretty song into a powerhouse of tension and aggression, a song that was considered dated back in 1967 and yet sounds spot on for the dark oppressive times of 1968 ('Oh why's it all so hard?!'). Many records from this period sound badly dated (if not quite as dated as today's records will sound in a few years' time): self-indulgent, too badly wrapped up in late 1960s politics and using production techniques that are very much of their times. By throwing all of this away - by recycling old songs, boosting everything with extra power and playing as if live - Big Brother manage to achieve one of the few truly completely timeless albums of the period. Even 'Turtle Blues', which 'merely' sounds as bad and strange now as it would have done at the time.
Many of these songs will be of course be familiar to lovers of the Monterey Pop Festival, the music event that helped make, shape or break the careers of many bands in the psychedelic era, but none more than Janis whose name has become forever interlinked with the event. So good was the band's performance that everyone rushed out to buy all the band's songs they could - only to find a mere lone song that had been performed that night ('Down On Me'). When the first album - already recorded - came out two months later fans were even more confused as none of the band's blistering set had been on it at all. Back in the days before youtube and bootlegs, there was simply no other way to hear the songs again without a concert ticket, making this second record eagerly awaited. Big Brother clearly had the material, having an astonishing influx of new material in the second half of 1967 - and yet this album wasn't out until September 1968, long enough for all the children conceived at Monterey to be five months old already! The problem was that the band were still tied to their original recording contract with Mainstream, which Columbia - desperate to sign the band - had to let lapse before they could release anything (they bought up the rights to the first album for good measure too). This meant that Big Brother couldn't even release, say, a single of showstopper 'Ball and Chain' for fans to take home until the days on the contract ran out. As a result Big Brother were in danger of becoming yesterday's news in a musical world that changed by the week rather than merely every other decade like it does now - it's a testament to how good that Monterey set and this album were that 'Cheap Thrills' still became one of the biggest sellers of the year.
However, not everybody understood it - or considered this record worth waiting for. It's a sad truth that the only good reviews Janis ever got in her career were for that Monterey show and for 'Pearl' after she died (funny how often that happens to reviewers). At first the record was simply ignored despite a fair whack of money spent by Columbia. Then some critics savaged it such as the staff Rolling Stone magazine who dismissed the album as some shrieking talentless bimbo backing a quartet of ragged musicians who couldn’t play, apparently missing that this was the point. Fans, of course, know better and in great contrast to Big Brother's overnight fame at Monterey this record grew by word of mouth as fans took it to parties, students passed it around campus and people who can appreciate great music when it's offered to them began to realise just how worthy this record is, was and always will be.
However in many ways I'm surprised that Big Brother didn't go in for that other big seller of 1968 - the double album, which would certainly have had people talking. While there isn't quite enough in the vaults for a full second album, there's certainly a lot. Four period songs appear on the CD re-issue and each are excellent in their own ways: the turbulent groovy 'Roadblock' (also performed at Monterey), the uptempo pop song 'Flower In The Sun', the stomping rocker 'Catch Me Daddy' and perhaps the best Janis outtake of them all, 'Magic Of Love', which is a hummable pop song in the style of the first album performed with the power of the second. However there are lots of other regular period songs that could have been used here: the bar-room slur 'Farewell Song' and the under-rated blues anthem 'Misery'n' for two, note to mention the minute long feedback squeal 'Harry!' also performed on stage at Monterey. Not to mention one-off live performances like 'Blow My Mind' 'Goin' Down To Brownsville' and 'I Know You Rider'. As good as 'Cheap Thrills' is a tie-in volume ('Sex and Dope'?) on the same lines as the 'Pearl' outtakes of recent years would be ever so nearly as good too.
Perhaps then we'd also have had more of that excellent cover art. which much like the album tells the truth by exaggerated lies. A surprisingly well-endowed Janis introduces 'playin' fer yew the followin' songs...' 'Combination Of The Two' (with a big number two jiving in a room), 'I Need A man To Love' (cartoon Janis posing on a bed), 'Summertime' (a howling babe in arms), 'Piece Of My Heart' (with the heart served up for breakfast), 'Turtle Blues' (a turtle smoking a pipe), 'Oh Sweet Mary' (a kissing couple - the only cartoon that doesn't fit) and convict Janis tied to a ball and chain. Then there's the cartoons of the band, all sending up various aspects of themselves: Guitarist James Gurley definitely does not have a Cyclops eye but, apart from that, the drawings are spot-on for the band's images- a narcissistic Sam, a sleepy Peter and a fallen-over Dave. The caricatures of Janis somehow look even more like her than the photo on the back does! You can just imagine Big Brother guffawing when they got the proofs back from the printers and the cartoons are a neat eye-catching way of re-introducing the band after such an absence without taking things too seriously.
Overall 'Cheap Thrills' is Janis and Big Brother at their best. Other albums have their moments - notably the Kozmik Blues Band follow-up which is more interesting than most people realise - but this album has it all: the thrill and adrenalin rush of 'Combination Of The Two', the sweet pretty sigh of 'Summertime', the powerhouse pop of 'Piece Of My Heart' and the intensity of blues cover 'Ball and Chain'. Even though the odds are actually little better than 'Kozmik Blues' (with one duff track out of seven - sorry to keep picking on you 'Turtle Blues' but seriously have you heard this song? And seen what could have gone on the album instead of it?!) this is ever so nearly a record that rocks just as hard in seven different ways. Good as this album is for Big Brother, it's also a pinnacle for their singer. This is the 'real' Janis, doing what she did best, channelling two and a half decades of raw passion and anger into performances so alive it seems ridiculous to think that the Janis coming out of your speakers has now been dead for nearly 30 years. What a shame that by the time it was in the shops this album and this band already seemed like a doomed species, with Janis tempted over to the 'dark side' of horns, leaving the band that had made who she was (although Sam will be around for the ride a little while longer yet). The throwaway title alone makes this album seems like a defensive swipe at the critics who were always going to knock this group down, but if you value ragged honesty and gritty performances over perfect ensemble playing and clear mixes where you can hear all the words, this album is for you. Cheap thrills? Priceless, timeless gems more like. Despite the three other albums, the dozen or so archive live albums and the myriad compilation Janis Joplin albums, this is the record of Janis; I keep returning to most, like a ball and a cha-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-n. *Massive Guitar Power Chord Finish*
Witness the opening song  Combination Of The Two, written and sung by guitarist Sam Andrew. With one of the greatest opening shredded riffs of Gurley which scales peaks and mountains galore before we even reach the first verse, this album already sounds like it comes from a different universe to most of the records before it. In many ways this song is the band’s peak performance, as opposed to just Janis’ performance, with the twin guitar lines meshing together well, a bass line that never sit still and Sam Andrews’ booming recitation of some very wordy verses contrasting with Joplin’s joyous shrieks. In fact, Janis manages to put so much energy, passion and pain into the ‘wo-woahs’ bridge that it’s hard to forget she’s actually singing nonsense, rather than some deeply emotional lyrics. Even the weak pun '...all dancing at the Fillmore, and baby I'd like to feel you more!' is sung with charm With all this going on, it's easy to miss this song’s clever wordplay that tributes Big Brother’s audiences at the San Francisco Ballroom – to be fair its not very easy to hear, as the band go for wild abandon rather than clinical perfection in the performance but they seem to be an ode to dancing the night away to some glorious form of music in contrast to the frenzied and troubled world outside. An under-rated song that doesn’t let the tension slack for the whole of it’s near-six minute running time, it sets the bar high for the similarly charged songs to follow.
Joplin’s brief period as a songwriter is often forgotten nowadays, but the songs she wrote on her own or with the band are some of her best and - unsurprisingly - perfectly suited to her voice. This song is slightly more understated than its neighbours but equally suited to the sort of ‘pretty growling’ style Janis was perfecting during 1967-68, when she rejected the traditional girl-with-gentle-strings persona and went for something so hard-edged even her ballads sounded loud.  I Need A Man To Love, with its subdued verses and strident choruses, is an epic experiment in contrasts as Big Brother turn in one of their most accomplished performances. A simple song about needing to be loved when you feel there’s no one out there, this song is less of a compact ditty than a series of towering structures that the band wander through depending on their mood. Sad and feeling sorry for herself for the most part, Janis shows her mastery of dynamics by suddenly exploding into devastating desperation at key parts of the song. The repeated ‘can’t be just’ phrase, sung a full six times at one point until Janis is at the top of her range and at the limit of her lungs, is one of the most thrilling passages on the whole record. With its call-and-response structure, this lesser known song should have been an in-concert anthem, up there with her best - sadly, it’s about the only track here that never really found a new life onstage.
 Summertime is one of the more interesting cover versions that Janis ever did and its certainly one of the most unusual renderings of this famous Porgy And Bess track by the Gershwin brothers around. Most versions of Summertime have a gentle rather provocative jazz swing running through them and as that’s the sound that makes up a lot of Big Brother’s material you’d expect their arrangement to follow their usual style. Instead Sam Andrew’s impressive arrangement means the band go for something far more precise and clear-cut, sounding laid-back but still undeniably edgy as the unspoken anger of the down-trodden narrator finds a new voice in Joplin’s squeals. The song’s gently lazy lyrics also get an extra edge courtesy of Sam Andrew’s guitar work and Janis’ occasional vocal outbursts of passion, even though she sings the song like a scruffy version of Ella Fitzgerald for the most part. Both Janis and Big Brother up the ante a great deal on this song, sounding suddenly polished and stately, swapping over gradually more incoherent leads until the whole song seems to be spinning out of control. Perhaps the added drama comes from the connotations Janis must have had to this song, despite its choice and arrangement coming from Sam Andrew. Janis started her singing career covering songs made famous by black artists, after being introduced to the records of her idol Bessie Smith while still in high school (this song’s angrier, harsher sister Strange Fruit was an early song she used to sing live). Incensed by the treatment of African-Americans in her own Texas community, Joplin frequently got into trouble in her high school lessons, sparking debates on the treatment of slaves and blacks in white society that led her to be bullied several times, both by classmates and teachers. Summertime never was a slave-song of course, although it sounds like it. Written by the Gershwin brothers for the Porgy and Bess musical, its always been associated with the theme of slavery and prejudice, being as dryly sarcastic about the ‘delights’ of cotton picking as slaves were allowed to be without recrimination. Janis’ vocal does indeed recall her beloved Bessie Smith on this record and in this new hippie version, recorded in a time of peace and love where for the young everybody was pretty much equal , just as Janis claimed provocatively in her teenage years, you can hear the delight in Janis’ voice that things are finally turning out in America how she hoped they would. The band then cut back in suddenly with an outrageous key change that sounds mighty impressive and would have taxed far more respected and ‘sophisticated’ players both with its audacity and its technicality. A fine example of how well and restrained Big Brother could play when they put their minds to it.
 Piece Of My Heart rounds off side one and is one of Janis’ best known songs, a three minute burst of adrenalin and a perfect showcase for the singer’s alternately loud and quiet styles. The sound of seduction set to music and featuring a guitar sting that can kill, Big Brother’s remains the definitive version of the song despite the many covers that have come out since the 60s (I heard one on the radio only the other day and it sounded awful – flat as a pancake without Janis’ convictions and the band’s compact swing). Janis just walks the floor with her contemporaries here, wailing out ‘come on’ far more provocatively than the Beatles or the Stones managed on their early records covering the same theme (this song’s theme of please give me a reaction because I love you is, after all, Please Please Me with a more desperate, dangerous sounding edge). Sam Andrews also turns in one of the better guitar solos of the record near the end, channelling the singer’s reserve as well as her desperate wild emotional confusion. Incidentally, the better known single version has a far punchier, aggressive mix of the song with more fuzz guitar and is vastly superior to this album version – which is still pretty good, let’s face it.
Onto side two of this short album already and things have slowed down a bit.  Turtle Blues is a shocking waste of four minutes on this 36-minute long album and a poor excuse for a song on any release, never mind this otherwise superb one! Unusually, Janis completely misunderstands her talents on this, her own song, and writes herself a slow blues that exaggerates the faults of her voice rather than her strengths of power, energy or emotion. A bit of tinkling piano and Janis doing a second, inferior take on Ella Fitzgerald is pretty much all that’s there until Albin’s polished solo comes in to rescue the song a tiny bit in the second half. In all, this sort of thing was done better in the hands of real blues singers who could turn an empty song into a work of art – despite the writing credit, this song is so far out of Janis’ normal style that it just ends up sounding unfocussed and unnecessary. Incidentally someone appears to smash a glass behind Janis as she sings on this track – doubtless it is atmospheric noise added to make the song sound like its being played in a club but, coming at the point where Janis lets out a particularly off-key shriek, its tempting to say that it was the performer’s voice not the audience member that broke that glass. It’s also hard to imagine Janis falling in love with someone gradually ‘like’ a slow-moving turtle – surely a swift jaguar or even a roadrunner would be more her style?!
The band then come back on for the brooding guitar-based epic [25b] Oh, Sweet Mary, another unfairly unloved and forgotten song which is largely instrumental and sounds to me like it came out of a jam session (it is credited to the whole band, suggesting they all developed their parts rather than played a set, rehearsed arrangement). The circular guitar riff from Peter Albin sounds exotic and exciting, the burbling bass runs cut right through the song, jumping around the notes in its haste to drive the band forward, and Big Brother weave the tension of the song so tight it seems like its going to explode. As indeed it does, finally returning to the mother-ship of a muted chorus and only then finally exploding with passion with the words ‘why’s it all so hard?’ Restrained for the most part, with some intriguing poetical lyrics about a young girl’s attempts to understand the maddening chaotic world around her, the song then doubles back brilliantly into the riff that started the whole song off in the first place. An under-rated experiment in controlled noise, it’s probably the least known song here which is a shame – like many Grateful Dead masterpieces it’s the song’s capacity to explore several new areas at once that impresses the listener the most and the band were on cooking form when this was recorded. What a shame this band split (with Janis at least) just months down the line from this album.
The album ends on another high note with Mama Thornton’s blues standard  Ball and Chain, which earned a whole new lease of life when Janis made it her own. Long and drawn out, at seven minutes it actually feels like far more than that so intense is Janis’ performance, but every note is perfectly judged in this, Big Brother’s greatest slow-burning creation. Janis in particular exceeds herself here and it’s just as well because there isn’t much else on this track at all – just one mesmerising piercing vocal covering the whole of Janis’ epic vocal range and the occasional staccato guitar burst for accompaniment. There’s also an audacious beginning to the track where the band play four notes and then stop for a good 10 seconds, teasing their audience into anticipating that next crashing chord. Despite the song’s emptiness, however, you can’t take your ears off that lead vocal for an instant, so full is it of neglected burning yearning. The chorus of this song, as the singer suddenly erupts into life, is staggering and takes the song to another level, as the I’m-keeping-on-top-of-things-honestly narrator crumples before your very ears. No wonder the crowd went crazy for the unknown Janis when she finished her set with this song at Monterey in ’67 – this is a role that Joplin was born to play and even when she was losing her confidence towards the end of her short career, she never failed to amaze with this song (It’s a highlight of the Woodstock festival too – you can see it in the DVD Woodstock Diaries but not the film, alas – despite the talk at the time that Janis was a huge disappointment on the day – the version of Work Me Lord on the director’s cut set is pretty darn special too).
Despite her wider than life image, Janis was naturally far more of a team player and needed the whole-hearted support from a band to give her talent room to grow. Big Brother fill their remit perfectly on this album, their slapdash improvisations allowing Janis the space to reach to the stars or fall back to earth in an instant and however impressive and professional Janis’ later backing stars like the Kozmik Blues Band and the Full Tilt Boogie Band were, their tight and clinical sounds were a superb creation cast for the wrong singer to react to. Perhaps understandably, Big Brother never went on to do anything else of note either – with Janis they sound huge and majestic, without her they sounded a bit of a mess. But on this album the combination of the two was never better and it really does make you wonder what the quartet could have done had they stayed together for another album like this one. Ah but there I am again, enviably dreaming about what some alternate website maker in some alternate universe is saying about Janis’ 35th comeback album and how great it was that the band re-united again in their ‘zipped out hippie musicians’ retirement home sometime around 2020. At least we have Cheap Thrills to ruminate on instead though; a worthy, bluesy, gritty addition to this list.