Monday 23 June 2014

"Big Brother and the Holding Company" (1967) (Album Review)

You can read more in 'Little Girl Blue - The Alan's Album Archives Guide To The Music Of Janis Joplin' available to buy now in e-book form by clicking here

"Big Brother And The Holding Company" (1967)

Bye Bye Baby/Easy Rider/Intruder/Light Is Faster Than Sound/Call On Me//Women Is Losers/Blindman/Down On Me/Caterpillar/All Is Loneliness

You've never seen a crowd this big. What could be scarier than a crowd this big? A crowd whose never heard of you (you've never had a record out, after all - some of the guys here have been recording for decades) and are patiently waiting for Country Joe and the Fish to come on next, that's who. What's worse, there's all those guys whose music you've been singing along to for the past five years all backstage and adore, busy chatting away to each other, taking a break while an 'unknown' band walk on stage. You have to do something special to make this foreign crowd your crowd and to make sure they all know your name by the end of it. Most bands would crumble, or stumble, or run away. But this is Big Brother and the Holding Company, a band with a short but already turbulent history that's all been leading them to this point in time. After way too many false-starts for one review they finally know where they're going and have a captive audience all ready to help them get there. Ladies and gents, we give you four gentlemen and one great, great broad - Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company...

Bassist Peter Albin and guitarist Sam Andrew had formed the group in 1965, slowly adding members throughout the next year or so (second guitarist James Gurley next, then drummer David Getz), gradually growing by word of mouth to the point where they became the 'House Band' at the Avalon Ballroom (the same venue where the band will be taped during a riotous night in 1968 for an album released way in the future, half a lifetime away, in 1998). The music had already clicked with Avalon patrons: the band had a growing word-of-mouth reputation as the loudest, earthiest rock and roll group in America at the time and on the basis of the tapes that have survived, I'm not going to argue. Local papers in need of a newspaper quote on rock bands were already calling Big Brother up - probably only when the Grateful Dead weren't in, but even so Big Brother had done well in their first year, building a reputation that someone simply had to give them a record contract at one time or another. Only one thing was missing: a 'proper' full-time lead singer (Sam Andrew with his gutsy, gutteral drawl had been doing most of the vocal work up till that point). Their 'manager' (read 'entrepreneur' who'd noticed how well the band had been doing at the Ballroom) Chet Helms had heard from a contact with the 'hip' but already fading group '13th Floor Elevators' about a Texas chick who'd escaped her strict Texan upbringing to run away to San Francisco and decided no harm would come of pairing her up with the band and seeing if any 'magic' happened.

Janis Joplin hadn't been having an easy time of it. Ridiculed by her peers for 'singing like a boy'  and - shock horror - daring to do stuff like 'walk around college campus barefoot' which good old fashioned girls didn't do, she inevitably ended up running away from her old stuffy life into the arms of the San Francisco night scene. What most fans don't realise, though, was that to all intents and purposes this first time away from home 'failed': still trying to be a folk singer in bands who thought her too powerful, Janis ended up broke and with an amphetamine tablet. Despite knowing how much she hated her home, Janis' friends did a very brave and courageous thing: they got in contact with Mr and Mrs Joplin, held a party to raise the bus fare and sent her home. Janis got the inevitable ticking off and vowed to give up all her dreams - enrolling on a nice course at a nice university and behaving like another society beauty of the day (yes of course Janis was beautiful - just look at those eyes for goodness sake!)  Bravely, Janis fought it out for a few months, perhaps a year - long enough to stop her parents being quite so concerned anyway. But Janis had continued to play the guitar at Lamar University (near to her Port Arthur home in Beaumont) and, encouraged by the reception of her fellow students decided to have one last chance at fulfilling her dreams.

At first, neither band nor singer thought they'd found the perfect match - this was a union out of necessity, not out of love. Janis already had a powerful voice but she'd been using it mostly on folksongs up until that time (check out the toughest version of 'Silver Threads and Golden Needles' you'll ever hear on Janis' posthumous 'Typewriter Tapes' and the 'Janis' box set of 1993). Big Brother, unused to having a 'proper' vocalist onstage who wasn't half-concentrating on playing the guitar at the same time didn't know what to do (Sam Andrew admits apologetically today that they probably played too 'loudly' - although by forcing Janis to 'sing up' they may actually have helped her develop her distinctive style). Strange as it seems to think of it now, but Janis was still a 'conventional' musician suddenly thrust in the middle of what must have seemed to her like a 'madhouse' (That's the impression you get from reading her letters home anyway, emotionally compiled by her sister Laura into the very moving 'Love, Janis' part autobiography/part letter fest, long after her death) and it took her a good year to 'connect' with the band and become one of them. In truth she was only half there when Big Brother and the Holding Company won their recording contract to make this album - one that came just when they needed it in financial terms, in December 1966, when the band had virtually no money (the Ballroom didn't pay enough for five mouths to feed). Unfortunately for posterity, that contract came just a fraction too early, when the band were still getting used to one another and working out what they had to offer that other bands simply didn't possess.

Having been sat on for some eight months (at a time when music was changing almost by the hour this seems a suicidal move), that debut album 'Big Brother and the Holding Company' couldn't have been released at a better time: the group had been the talking point of everyone who'd been at the Monterey Pop Festival that June and at the time there was no other product to buy: not even a single. Add in the fact that August 1967 was the perfect month for something 'new' and 'big' to happen (in AAA terms this album feats neatly in between The Beatles' June release 'Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club band' and Pink Floyd's legendary September debut 'Piper At The Gates Of Dawn') and you have what looks on paper like a guaranteed gold record. So why is this album easily the hardest of Janis' sadly short discography of four 'proper' albums to find, even today? And why have so very few of these album tracks been recycled on the many Janis Joplin compilations released to date (even the three-hour 3 CD 1993 box set 'Janis' contains only four of them - and not the four I'd have chosen! - despite having only four 'proper' albums to choose from)?

Well, the problem is, this first 'proper' album by either Janis Joplin or Big Brother and the Holding Company is probably not what you're expecting now - and certainly the fans who'd been raving about nothing else for two whole months since Monterey expected then. At Monterey Janis had owned the stage, singing with a confidence and skill that allowed her to destroy most of the famous names at the event and already meant she'd sang on what many considered the 'definitive' versions of blues songs written decades before she was born. By comparison this record is timid, seemingly afraid of allowing any glimpses of the 'new' sound of San Franciscan acid rock out of its cage and into the wide world and desperate to conform with what the world already knew (not a word one will ever associate with Janis Joplin again!). In other words, this sounds like a record from 1965, at most early 1966, when the new and the bold and dangerous were still being glimpsed at instead of placed upfront and proud - another 'Jefferson Airplane Takes Off' rather than a 'Surrealistic Pillow' (to be fair this album and companion on-album single 'Coo Coo/The Last Time' - was recorded in three rushed days not in the summer of love but in the cold December of 1966; although that said it's worth pointing out that the very same week across the pond The Beatles were busy on 'Strawberry Fields Forever' and 'Penny Lane'). As a result, however good many of the songs are, this debut ultimately winds up being a minor (though by no means terrible) release from a band everyone were expecting to be the next best thing and that fact has left a slightly puzzled and confused air to reign over this record ever since.

To be fair, even the band were surprised at how the album turned out. It's tempting to blame this record on producer Bob Shad and the engineers (who guitarist Sam Andrew, in his informative sleeve-notes, remembered had no clue how to record rock groups after years working with jazz musicians and who kept ordering the band to 'turn their amplifiers' down). They, surely, must have known that to treat Big Brother the way of every band was going to rob them of their 'natural' gifts that had already kept audiences enthralled by December 1966. Yet  Shad had signed the band while out looking for exactly their sort of music in San Francisco (he was clearly enthusiastic about the band, too, rather than simply after a money-spinner: he actually bothered to go back a second time when their first manager Chet Helms turned him down without asking his clients). The band too - while novices - weren't entering into the kind of uncertain, unknown world that had awaited the Airplane while making their debut earlier in the year (and while not the strongest seller either, it did better than either band or record label had hoped).

What seems to have happened is a bit of a misunderstanding, mixed with nerves. Big Brother's biggest selling point - apart from the sheer power of Janis' vocals - was their wonderful ramshackle nature, that exhilarating feeling that one of their songs could go belly up any moment because the band were living on the edge and never daring to take it safe. With so much resting on a first record they deliberately toned that element of their sound down and even went to the unheard of lengths of rehearsing over and over before the recording dates. The band also threw out any of their material with a hint of controversy away in favour of their simpler, more obvious 'pop' songs - even returning to an abandoned 'children's record' concept that Peter and Sam had talked about years before the group had come together (sadly 'Caterpillar' is the only song to have survived from it!) Frustratingly, the band already had 'Ball and Chain' and a killer arrangement of 'The Hall Of The Mountain King' in their setlist, as the 1966 live compilation 'The Lost Tapes' (released in 2008) demonstrates: this album would have been so much better with just a hint of that power and magic and undoubtedly that was what Bob Shad was after when he signed the band, but as it is Janis sounds muted and Big Brother simply sound like any other competent American band of the era, rather than one of its best.
Had Janis recorded this album later in her career, she's had have undoubtedly done it better. While a good 90% of music fans simply consider her a powerful shrieker (albeit often a good one), what I think makes Janis' work special is the nuances in her vocals - it's when she chooses to shriek at full power that counts and her control of dynamics (especially on next album 'Cheap Thrills') is one of the best in the business. This album contains songs that, by and large, call less for her normal power and more for her control and should by rights be marvellous - but the Janis Joplin of 1966 is a very different creature to the one the world saw post-Monterey. Shyer than most people expected, almost painfully aware of what others thought of her (despite a determination not to be restricted by others), she's still trying out her persona here and for now it sounds like a coat she's wearing, no different to the folk singing she did in her early days (Janis would have been a great folk singer too in time). If you ever wanted to hear what a nervous Janis Joplin sounded like, simply play this record (especially the three songs recorded the first day, December 12th 1966: 'Caterpillar' Easy Rider' and 'All Is Loneliness') - Big Brother leave a lot of space to fill, even more than on 'Cheap Thrills', but hard as she often tries Janis isn't up to filling it yet because she isn't living' the songs. That said, you can already hear Janis starting to realise that she's actually good at this and that the evidence has transferred itself to tape - despite what grimaces the engineers might have giving the band - and her vocals are much more confident by the last session on December 14th. Had the band had time to go back in and re-record this album the following week it may have been very different.

Now that the dust has settled, though, with the album 47 years old at the time of writing, it's easy to appreciate how 'different' 'Big Brother and the Holding Company' is, even for an artists who never recorded the same sort of album twice. Looked at through the eyes of a new band nobody outside San Francisco had heard about yet (rather than one that had been talked about endlessly for two months - what a shame Columbia didn't release this album earlier in the year, say Spring 1967, a climate it would have suited better) there's much to enjoy. No other band had quite the mixture of styles that Big Brother did: instead of one lead guitar Big Brother had two and when both Sam Andrew and James Gurley mesh (as on 'Intruder' and 'Light Is Faster Than Sound') they already sound like no other band of their era (when lead and rhythm guitar was the norm). Peter Albin may have scared the engineers by pushing every recording into the red, but even diluted he gets a fatter sound than anyone except perhaps the Airplane's Jack Casady had managed at the time. Perhaps worried about playing anything too intricate and as nervous as the rest of the band, Dave Getz keeps his drumming simpler (in comparison to 'Cheap Thrills' anyway) which gives this album a tougher, garage rock sound even when the two guitarists are heading off somewhere else entirely. Janis, meanwhile, has learnt to mix folk with the blues, approaching these songs quite differently to how most other singers would approach them even back then: making what's largely in compositional terms a straightforward 'op' album into something tougher, even if her vocals are still at half-power for now. That said, not everything here is pop by any means and, impressively still for a debut at the time, the band write seven of the ten songs, none of them anything like each other. Albin's two compositions alone range from the raucous range of psychedelia to pure childhood novelty: at the time only Country Joe and the Fish had found a similar link between glorious exploration and childhood silliness, 'Down On Me' is heavy rock before there properly was such a term and 'Call On Me' is Motown (had you not known what either Janis or Diana Ross sounded like back in 1967 or what the colour of their skin was - which you probably didn't if you lived outside America - would you have guessed which one had which voice?) Ultimately, though, Sam Andrew is right in his sleeve-notes when he records that the band sound 'sweet and innocent' on this LP, even though they weren't on stage even back then.

There's no getting away from it, though: interesting as this record may be, both in the face of what both Janis and Big Brother go on to do and in terms of how few other records like this one there were around in August 1967, there's very little that's memorable. The guitarists have been told to turn their guitars down just that little bit too much, the mix separates the band just a little too much and somehow nothing quite catches fire. Well, almost nothing: this studio version of traditional song 'Down On Me' doesn't compare to the gloriously ragged stop-start epics the song will become, but it's clearly the right way to go. Janis sounds comfortable here in a way that she doesn't singing 'I'm a caterpillar crawling for your love' or the sheer music hall of 'Bye Bye Baby' and is 'living' a song that clearly means a lot to her (the true writing credit is 'traditional', nobody quite knowing who the author of this 1920s blues song is, but Janis 'borrowed' the tune and re-wrote most of the words anyway). Although I'd take the Monterey performance of the song anyday (it's the only song from this album the band performed that night, despite the fact that it's the album they were in effect 'plugging', speaks volumes about what the band thought about the record afterwards) it's by far the best thing on the record, light years ahead of the rest. 'Light Is Faster Than Sound' is the second best, Peter Albin's song trying to teach the audience at home lyrically about psychedelia even though the music has clearly been watered down for the listeners at home to the point where it almost sounds conventional; still, listeners who hadn't already been 'turned on' before this album would no doubt have felt a shiver of something new and exciting over the horizon. Janis' 'Woman Is Losers' is quite a daring song for the age too, a feminist anthem with a funky beat that even gets a risque sex reference in there somewhere ('men always seem to wind up on top!', sung with a knowing wink), even if the band haven't quite got the swing they need to perfect it just yet. Frankly the rest of the album is nowhere close: the songs are either mis-cast ('Bye Bye Baby'), silly ('Caterpillar'), foot-draggingly slow ('Call On Me') or simply don't quite hit the groove (the rest). Note too that not one song breaks the three minute barrier, at a time when the Dead had already released the ten minute 'Viola Lee Blues' on their debut record. Perhaps the main problem is that this record isn't 'exciting', despite what both the typically pompous sleeve-notes on the back cover (even if they got this album's unexpected eclecticism' spot on) and any concerts of the time would have promised and nor does it put 'hard, earthy, emotional music' at the 'forefront' of  the music business as promised either - instead the only real emotion heard here is nerves.

Ah well, you can easily understand why - three hurried days recording for a band who've never been inside a studio before and are miles away from home in a scary looking Los Angeles is not the best way to make your first record. Nor is getting some unsympathetic engineers without experience of rock and roll in to work and tut-tut whenever they can (at least the Airplane has Jerry Garcia when making their second record). Given the circumstances, it's amazing that as much of what will become 'the' Big Brother sound made it onto tape at all. Perhaps the best thing you can say about this record is that Big Brother learnt from it  - and learnt fast. Second album 'Cheap Thrills' sounds like it was made by a different band entirely, one who know exactly where they're going and have so much to say that they don't care what it takes to say it: fiery solos, lengthy playing times, old blue songs, live-studio hybrids: whatever it takes to get 'that' sound on record intact. 'Big Brother and the Holding Company' may not be a great record in its own right, but it's an often fascinating one for hearing where that sound came from - and all the other directions the band might have gone in. Would we still have been talking about this record without Monterey and all the stories that came after it? probably not - but equally, without this album and the lessons learnt from it we might never have had that legendary Monterey set. Buy this one if you're a curious fan who wants to know where their favourite singer started (give or take some folk recordings published after Janis' death anyway) - but I would heartily recommend the many 'Big Brother' live recordings that came out posthumously in the 1990s and 2000s over this record, which is best treated as a 'sampler' record for the delights to come. If you were there at the time, of course, and bought this album in the wake of that Monterey performance then, well, it's up to you whether it's worth getting out of the loft or buying on CD: by trying to sound like what's come before instead of what's to be, it hasn't aged as well as any of Janis' - or Big Brother's - records from the rest of the decade. As a document of the band 'before' they were famous (even if most people bought it 'after') 'Big Brother and the Holding Company' is a fascinating document of how the band must have sounded when no one outside the Avalon Ballroom knew their name (if you compensate by turning the bass up anyway!) Please note, by the way, that we won't be reviewing contemporary single 'Coo Coo'/The Last Time' as part of this review - technically speaking it never has been part of the album even if pretty much all of the CD -reissues of this album have included it. Fear not, though: sometime in the future, when we've covered all the actual AAA albums, we're planning a run-down of all the 'non-album AAA songs' including these two - and if you desperately want to know what we think then you only have to ask in the 'comments' box below!

 'Bye Bye Baby' must be the most untypical 'debut' song ever: imagine having never heard of Janis Joplin and being asked to judge her style based on this one song: part music-hall, part pop, with arguably the only narrator in the Joplin canon whose a 'winner' rather than 'loser' in life. The sound of Big Brother in the background is highly untypical too - they're playing as straight as they can (well, by their standards anyway), with a central 'cute' guitar riff that so isn't them and the power down to minimum. So why did they record such an oddball song? Chances are Janis was doing an old friend a favour. Composer Powell St John had been a friend of Janis' since long before she'd worked with Big Brother: a 'campus radical' he was quite a name back in Janis' home town of Austin Texas and was probably one of the few 'kindred spirits' Joplin met there she identified with (they were together, briefly, in the trio 'Waller Creek Boys' - the joke being that one of them was a 'girl' - before Powell left to write songs for the '13th Floor Elevators'). Could it be that this song - which cackling bids an old way of life goodbye - was her way of saying 'goodbye' not to a person but to her detested home town, with its marriage-with-kids go-to-college-and-hold-down-a-good-job motto? Sam Andrew records in his sleeve-notes for the CD re-issue of the album that this song was 'difficult to record' because it 'seemed so unlike us'. Usually we'd be thrilled that an AAA band is trying something different to their normal sound and placed later on any later Joplin LP this song might have been up to the grade - but why give the coveted opening spot of a debut album to such an uncharacteristic song? (just compare it to what some of our other bands did: in comparison 'I Saw Her Standing There' is prime early Beatles - and has there ever been a more Oasisy-moment than 'Rock and Roll Star'?) The song isn't bad, just mis-cast (sadly the 13th Floor Eleevators never did do this one, but it's right up their street) and putting it in pride of place at the start of the album seems perverse somehow. The CD re-issue of this album includes an alternate take of the song that's much better, if only for having Janis sing solo all the way through instead of being partly double-tracked!

'Easy Rider' is slightly better. Guitarist James Gurley has come up with the kind of thing most record companies would jump at: a novelty song that manages to combine current 'hip' references with a silly, daft tune that clearly isn't going to subvert minds (there's even the same sort of 'stomping beat' the early Monkees will make their own). Of course nowadays when anybody mentions 'Easy Rider' they think of that film and those motorbikes, but 'Easy Rider' has none of the god time bonhomie of film or soundtrack. Instead it's a puzzle of a song that seems to consist of in-jokes: again the kind of thing  that's fun with established bands but not as the second song on a debut album. The 'easy rider' of the title might be a motorbike rider for all we know - but we never find out why he's asked 'not to deny my name' by the narrator, what his relationship is to the girl in the second verse who 'knows how to shake that thing' is (typically for this schizophrenic album, the band will be offering the rather closer idea of gender roles in the community with 'Women Is Losers' just four songs later) and - most confusingly - why his horse 'lives in a tree, watching Huckleberry Hound on his TV' (perhaps he just gets a better reception up there? Personally if I had to compare Big Brother to a band it would be the anarchic gang mentality of 'Top Cat', not the comparatively law-abiding 'Clementine' singing canine sheriff, but then that's horses for you - no accounting for taste). As you can probably tell, this is a very odd song, even for 1967 and the band sound distinctly uncomfortable, especially on the backing vocals (in actual fact this is a strong candidate for Janis' first professional recording  - but she doesn't get much to do and sounds like she'd much rather be anywhere else, to be honest). Gurley copes well with his own oddball lyrics (especially his sudden piercing shriek on the fade-out), but he's not a natural enough singer to pull it off successfully - again the later Big Brother would have pulled this off no problem but they don't have the confidence yet. The one part where Big Brother do sound quite at home is during the instrumental break, led by Peter Albin's bass suddenly growing in power and spirit with every run through the song's riff which isn't all that far removed from the terrific thrilling 'duel' in the middle of the next album's opener 'Combination Of The Two'. Sadly, though the song got in the way - 'oh no!'

'Intruder' is Janis' first published song and while not her best by a long way it gets closer to what's to come than most songs on this album. With a typical fiery uptempo blues riff beneath her, Janis soars for the first time on a very Rolling Stones-like song that tries to put down a lover for not being good enough. Janis doesn't quite have Mick Jagger's likeable leer yet and if any double-tracking should be banned for any singer it's her (getting all that passion once is hard - twice in sync is impossible!), but she's clearly worked hard on developing this blues persona and it's beginning to pay off. This song 'feels' like a truthful song too, even though it's not all that much more developed than the others: instead of a simple verse-chorus structure, Janis simply cuts into her thoughts with the piercing chorus 'what are you trying to prove?' every time she feels like it, giving the song an added tension and drive it wouldn't have if the chorus simply arrived on time after every verse, like a train. In which case, who is the person who tried to 'walk in my life' and yet never got close, Janis putting him down with the line 'I never even knew your name'? Is it the mysterious man (who we think is named 'Peter') who became engaged to her during her brief spell back home as a student in Port Arthur who was apparently so smitten with her singing he drove all the way to her house to ask her parents for their daughter's hand in marriage? (Definitely not the way to courting Janis Joplin!) Like 'Bye Bye Baby', Janis seems to be having fun laughing at her old way of life now that she's older and more confident in herself and the near-closing lines in this song are ominous: 'I look like I'm suffering, but now I'm doing fine' - Janis might be eating less and taking drugs more, giving her body a pallid, aged look that worried her family on their rare visits to see her (given what sister Laura Joplin writes in her book anyway), but mentally she's a lot stronger than she ever was at home: she has a new 'family', she has a vocation, she knows what to do now and how to make life work. Ultimately Janis is too nice a writer to fully give her passionate partner the kiss off, telling him that they've simply gone down two very different paths:  'I'll take care of mine, you take care of yours' is how the song ends, Janis knowing too well already that the pain of love is painful enough without being mean, whatever roar she sings the song's opening lines with. Again, it's unusual to hear one of Janis' characters being the 'kiss-ee' rather than the 'kiss-off', with 'Intruder' both closer and further away from her trademark sound than anything else on this album. The power is there - but not the way it's used yet. An interesting song.

'Light Is Faster Than Sound' is one of the album's success stories. A cyclical Peter Albin that's the closest thing to psychedelia Janis ever recorded, it's a shame this song didn't last longer in Big Brother's set-list because it sounds like it would have been a powerhouse live. Here, played for a bunch of disapproving strangers, it doesn't quite take off: the scatterbrained Sam Andrew guitar solo is still pretty revolutionary for the day but doesn't have the same angry snarl as the 'Cheap Thrills' songs and the band are tentative at going all out, as if aware that they have to get this song down compact rather than lengthy. Peter's lead vocal is terrific though, everything that was frightening to the parental generation in 1967: it's gruff, it's angry, it's sung in small bursts of staccato emotion and you can't tell what the words are! Albin, a keen photographer, may have been inspired to write this song about the very parental-approving subject of science (light is genuinely faster than sound, you see, unless the Spice Girls come on the radio when you can't turn the thing off quickly enough!) Then again, he may simply have been writing about drugs: listen out for the way the song comes across not in linear time but relating to its own laws of physics: it seems to end, fades back in again, repeats, then goes off somewhere completely new, alternating beauty and terror along the way. In short, this is a drug trip - albeit one taken in a public place, with lots of disapproving eyes watching you so you can't quite go all the way. Janis, sadly, doesn't get much to do except mouth 'so-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-und' in the background, but of all the performances on the album this is one of only two where Big Brother sound like a proper bona fide 'band' (sample story: at least one take of this song had to be discarded because the band started laughing at the faces Albin was pulling during the noisy 'bridge' section: the engineers were doubtless  disgusted, but at least the band only had two other songs to record that day, the last of the sessions).

'Call On Me' is Sam Andrew's first published song and again, like much of the album, it sounds like it belongs on an entirely different album. A drippy 1950s-style ballad that's as conventional as they come, it would have sounded fine in another band's hands (Otis Redding would have cut a nice version of this song, actually) but Big Brother don't quite know how to handle it and spend most of the song audibly concentrating on keeping the power down. Sample lyric: I need you darling like fish need the sea - don't take your sweet love away from me'. Yawn. The original intention - and the first arrangement of the song live - had been for Sam and Janis to alternate lines, which would at least have spruced things up a bit. As it is Janis tries hard to keep on the straight and narrow on a song that's simply too 'soft' and slow for her. Not one of her better performances, you get the sense that this narrator hasn't even noticed the guy trying to chat her up and certainly isn't likely to call him up (she's probably 'lost' his number down the back of the sofa by the end of the song). To be fair I can understand why this song is here: both producer and engineers were no doubting harassing the band for something 'normal' other people might want to cover and like a lot of early songs by later brilliant writers 'Call On Me' sounds like a talented writer struggling to write down to a level he knows other people will understand. Even, so, this song is a strong candidate for the worst song on a Janis Joplin record. Thankfully, better is yet to come. The CD includes an alternate take of the same song that's even rougher and more tentative than the first, although at least you get to hear Janis singing solo instead of being swamped by Sam's gruffer voice.

'Women Is Losers' is much better, Big Brother having latched on to the fact that what they probably do best is updating old blues songs for a contemporary up-tempo sound. Janis sounds like Janis for the first real time in her career and punctuates her own song with some very soul-style whoops and yells. Big Brother, too, have worked out that playing in tandem gives them a 'bigger' attack - getting both guitarists, bass and drums to hammer home the same riff while Janis shrieks overhead is a template they're going to be using often in the rest of their short time together. Sam's short, shrieking guitar solo, too, is a sign of things to come, getting dangerously deranged just right at the very end before 'catching' the song and returning back to base (a very clever and very typical trick!) I'm impressed, too, that the powers that be let Big Brother record such a risque song: understandably Janis wasn't allowed to use her preferred title 'Whores Are Funky' but there aren't many other punches she doesn't pull back in an age when feminism was at-best a work in progress: 'They wear a nice shiny armour - until there's a dragon to slay' and 'if they don't desert you, they'll just leave you'. Janis slips in a few, err, winks to her audience too, as she complains about a man always 'being on top' and that a woman ought to have more control because she can get them 'begging to pay' for their services (Janis learnt the song, whose melody is taken from an old blues song in her Port Arthur days but added the lyrics over time - you doubt she got the lines about prostitution from her days back home, somehow!) Again, it's a shame that this song didn't last longer in Big Brother's set-lists: it has a real stomp and menace to it even without Janis soaring over the top of it and Sam Andrew's sleeve-notes add that the band had built up 'three different arrangements' for the song, suggesting they spent a lot of time on it. Another album highlight which, unlike most of the album, points to the future not the past.

'Blindman' is a group composition that has a cracking haunting Byrds-like tune (and jangly Roger McGuinn style guitar) and some lyrics that try hard but don't quite deliver. To the best of my knowledge 'Blindman' is the only 'protest song Big Brother ever wrote and you can kind of tell why: the single line 'Blindman stood on the way and cried 'show me the way to go home!' is repeated (with a few variations) throughout the rest of the song and its' not exactly poetry is it? Still, Big Brother put in another strong performance here and  already have their future impressive use of dynamics down pat: this song sounds all the stronger for the verses trailing off into a gentle guitar flurry and sudden silence before being whacked awake again by a particularly on-form Dave Getz. Apparently this was another 'traditional' song, a spiritual even, that the band re-dressed and offered a new home to - arguably more people know it from Big Brother nowadays than the original! It's the sort of thing that might have appeared on the first Jefferson Airplane album: it's very much folk played by an electric band with a growing awareness of psychedelia, rather than the 'heavy' blues-rock the band will be known for later.

'Down On Me' is the other masterpiece here. The one song from the album that did last in the band's setlist (they'd already given up playing everything else by the time it came out!) it's another fumbling performance of a style that Big Brother will soon be doing in their sleep. A stop-start Janis Joplin song full of righteous indignation at people sitting in ivory towers looking down at everyone around them, it's clearly the most 'right' song here, even if the band arguably need another take of the song to truly master. In truth, it's another 'old' song that got re-written, a gospel song from the 1920s that Janis put slightly different words to and updated on behalf of the 'hippie' generation. The Big Brother equivalent of the Airplane's '3/5ths of a Mile in Ten Seconds' ('Do away with people laughing at my hair!'), what's impressive about this song is that despite Janis' power at heart this is still a love song - she urges us to 'believe in your brother, have faith in man' and when you see a hand held out towards you to 'give it some love - one day it might be you!' There's a second theme creeping in that will soon become Janis' central dialogue with her audience too: 'Love in this world - so hard to find' she sighs, lashing out at the 'I've got mine' mentality she sees all around her, when what she really wants is for everyone to be in love with the partners they need and deserve. That's not what the audience takes away from the song, though: it's the angry, snarling defensive response to the idea that the whole world is 'down on me' simply for being different. An impressive song for any band, the fact that Big Brother managed to get this one down on tape despite the uncomfortable circumstances is one of their greatest success stories and even if the performance is a bit tentative and rough compared to what's to come (there are no 'Big Brother' answering vocals as per most live recordings of it, for example) Janis' charisma still comes over strong.

'Caterpillar' is the joker on the album, a silly song that knows it's being silly. The sort of thing that would have made for a fun B-side sounds rather out-of-place here, even if the band attack it with more vigour than almost anything else on the album. Writer Peter Albin, who very much seems to be the lead Big Brother composer on this album, came out of an early 'meeting' with Sam Andrew when the pair proposed going globe-trotting as a sort of children's troupe singing novelty songs with a guitar. On this evidence they'd have done quite well, having a good feel for the genre (the narrator's metaphors for his love include a caterpillar, butterfly, pterodactyl, abominable snowman and a chimpanzee, the song getting stranger with each verse!) Albin's best lead vocal on the album suggests that the humour of this song is where his heart lies and the rest of the band really get 'into' this song too: Janis is the perfect back-up vocalist, passionately roaring through the song but not in such a way it distracts from the lead, the guitars turn in a  real Beach Boys-style surfer stomp and Getz excels on the song's twisty turns and sudden stops. It's a shame actually the band didn't more songs like 'Caterpillar' - although at the same time this song is so far removed from what fans must have been expecting from this album post-Monterey you can almost hear the confusion etched into the record's grooves at this point.

The album the ends with its most downbeat moment. Loneliness - and ways to fight it - is a key theme for the later Janis Joplin, but here Louis Thomas Hardin's 'round' of a song is sung by the whole band, to which they all sound detached and rather resigned. The composer of this song is what you might call a 'colourful figure' - his Wikipedia page has a picture of him dressed up as Norse God Odin, in a cloak and Viking helmet- who would have been better known to the band as 'Moondog', a blind musician who lived on the streets of New York (out of choice) for 20 odd years (my sources tell me he was a regular busker on the corner of 53rd Street and 6th Avenue Manhattan).  A trained classical composer who specialised in 'street' poems (ie songs that used sound effects of passing cars, sirens, etc), 'Loneliness' is one of his few straightforward compositions. To my ears, it's the sort of song that was composed late at night when New York was still and empty, rather than his usual style when the city was 'buzzing' and 'full', with a night of sheer nothingness ahead. The central line of 'loneliness is for me' gets taken up by the band one by one, as if echoing off the empty streets and pavements while Sam turns in an angry, repetitive guitar lick that burbles underneath for most for the song, imitating the passive, uncaring crowds. The result is unsettling and more than a little eerie, especially the fade-out where the instruments suddenly fade-away without warning, leaving the vocals to continue on for a split-second before they too disappear abruptly, leaving the listener dangling. The result is a simple song that conjures up a lot of images, but again it's a shame that Big Brother didn't maintain this song in their set-lists or re-record it because a version of this song with their later power and confidence would sound better yet. This recording still sounds tentative and unsure somehow, perhaps because it was one of three songs they recorded on their first ever day inside a recording studio.

'Big Brother and The Holding Company', then, isn't a bad debut. Given how early on in the band's lifespan it came and how nerve-inducing the circumstances of making it were it's amazing as much of the 'Big Brother' sound made it to tape as it did. By their standards the band are on nervy auto-pilot, afraid to go all out and record something deemed 'unsuitable', but at the same time little nuggets of their future power and glory shine through: the words of 'Women Is Losers', the heavy stomp of 'Down On Me', the surreal quality of 'All Is Loneliness', the style of 'Light Is Faster Than Sound', the best of Janis' powerful vocals. The only way you could really be disappointed with this LP is if you came to it after seeing or hearing Big Brother at their legendary best; unfortunately, that's how everyone except a few small Avalon Ballroom attendees came across the band after that powerhouse Monterey performance when Big Brother had re-written not only their own future but how the San Francisco music scene was seen. By then Big Brother and especially Janis were stars: here they're a group only a few people believe in and even the band members aren't truly certain yet where they're going, with Janis very much just 'one of' the stars of the band, taking lead vocal on only four of the ten songs here (the 'featuring Janis Joplin' legend stamped on the front cover must surely have come about only after Monterey when the singer, more than the band, became a household name). Had this album come out months earlier, with 'Cheap Thrills' hot on its heels rather than a year ahead (the band already had half the album's songs in their setlist by Monterey and period performances), 'Big Brother' would surely have been better loved: an interesting portrait of a band who are clearly going places and yet in sonic terms have barely left their front door. 


'Big Brother And The Holding Company' (1967)

'Cheap Thrills' (1968)

'I Got Dem Ol' Kozmik Blues Again Mama!' (1969)

'Pearl' (1970)
Non-Album Songs 1963-1970
Surviving TV Clips 1967-1970
Live/Compilation/Outtakes Sets 1965-1970

Essay: Little Pearl Blue – Who Was The Real Janis?

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