Big Brother and the Holding Company – Cheap Thrills
So many of these albums from ’68 seem to have some unique angle on the claim of being among the most important in rock history, and Cheap Thrills by Big Brother and the Holding Company, released this day 50 years ago, is no exception. It was the band’s second album, and the last one to feature Janis Joplin’s soulful, desperate, wailing blues vocals.
The band had emerged in 1965 in the same San Francisco psychedelic music scene which produced the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and the Jefferson Airplane. They were already established in the Bay Area as a progressive instrumental jam band and house band at the Avalon Ballroom when Joplin, a Texan from Port Arthur, made her way west and auditioned with them. She made her live debut with the group at the Avalon in June of 1966, and their eponymous debut album was released in August of the following year just after their (her) breakout performance at the Monterey Pop Festival. It would take months of legal wrangling for the group to extract itself from its contract with Mainstream Records for their move to Columbia, which is why it took another full year for this follow-up release.
Cheap Thrills was originally intended to be a proper live album to showcase the energetic, raw sound of the band and Joplin’s vocal, but attempts to achieve good recordings on the band’s spring ’68 tour proved fruitless. They were a little too loud and raw, and audiences outside of California didn’t quite know what to make of them, especially Janis. So, with producer John Simon, they did the next best thing: record a “live” album in the studio by adding live audience sound effects. Their cover of Big Mama Thornton’s Ball and Chain was the only true live recording on the record, taken from the Fillmore West. But whereas faux, doctored (or “Frankensteined”) recordings cheapened some live recordings in the 70’s (retrospectively speaking), I think it works great in this instance. And it starts with Bill Graham’s “live” introduction: “Four gentlemen and one great, great broad: Big Brother and the Holding Company…”
Of the album’s seven tracks, three were covers: the aforementioned Ball and Chain, Erma Franklin’s Piece of My Heart which ended side one and became the band’s signature song, and Gershwin’s Summertime. Janis made all of them her songs. In a 50th anniversary retrospective in Rolling Stone, Jordan Runtagh notes “Joplin’s mournful version of Gershwin’s Summertime seems only to underscore the shift in mood from the Summer of Love to the Summer of Violence that greeted the album. A week after its release, police would beat up demonstrators at Chicago’s Democratic National Convention. A month later, Joplin and Big Brother parted ways for good.” The album also features the Joplin-penned acoustic blues, Turtle Blues, and Sam Andrew’s cool psychedelic guitar work on Oh, Sweet Mary.
The group pushed the envelope with Columbia. The original title of the album was to be Sex, Dope and Cheap Thrills, and the cover was to feature the group together in bed, naked. Needless to say, the ideas were vetoed by the suits. Instead, the cover was drawn by underground cartoonist Robert Crumb. By the end of the year, Cheap Thrills sold almost a million copies and spent eight weeks at the top of the Billboard charts. A month later, urged on by her manager Albert Grossman, Janis submitted notice to the band that she was moving on. Big Brother and the Holding Company had given her a start, but there’s no doubt who the star was, and she needed better musicians to get where she wanted to go.
As for reviews of the record, it’s kind of the same story that pervades rock music from the era: Contemporary reviews were all over the place from “not a well-produced, good rock and roll recording” to “it not only gets Janis’s voice down, it also does justice to her always-underrated and ever-improving musicians.” And retrospectively, it’s considered a masterpiece. The album’s aspects that were considered negative by some at the time of its release – its messiness and the gravelly onslaught of Joplin’s vocals – are of course now considered crucial elements of its psychedelic glory.
I first heard this album in my mid/late 1980s teens, and it stuck immediately. I can honestly say my reaction to it was much like what I read contemporary reactions were like: I’d never heard anything like Janis Joplin. It wasn’t pretty, and it wasn’t supposed to be. I discovered Hendrix around the same time, and somehow felt the two of them communicated the blues in such amazing and unique ways that my small Midwest town brain just couldn’t articulate. They both found mass audiences, but did so without compromising who they were. Janis Joplin: a white woman emerging out of nowhere Texas to become not only one of the best female blues singers, but one of the best blues singers ever, period. Alas, no matter how much we may wonder “What if?,” Janis, along with Jimi, Jim, and others, was a shooting star who was going to burn out. She recorded two albums as a solo artist (the second a posthumous release) before checking out, but Cheap Thrills is where her star shines the brightest. The music world could sure use another Janis right about now.
Some interesting factoids about the album can be found here.
- Combination of the Two
- I Need a Man to Love
- Piece of My Heart
- Turtle Blues
- Oh, Sweet Mary
- Ball and Chain