Big Brother and the Holding Company: Cheap Thrills
Before Madonna, before Sinead or Björk or Fiona or Pink or even Patti Smith, there was Janis—a hard-living, heavy-drinking Ugly Betty of a girl whose raw, visceral performance was the real deal. When promoter Chet Helms introduced her to Big Brother and the Holding Company the combination of the band’s heavy psychedelia and Joplin’s raspy throated, Texas blues powered some of the bay area’s most memorable concerts during the ‘60s. And Cheap Thrills beautifully captures the spirit of that time.
But before you even get to the music there is the cover. Hailed by Rolling Stone as one of the 100 Greatest Album Covers of all time (in the top 10), the artwork was done by underground artist Robert Crumb who, ironically, released his first issue of the legendary Zap Comix in 1968. Crumb would go on to create some of pop culture’s most memorable characters such as the “Keep on Truckin’” dude and “Fritz the Cat”. With a busty caricature of Janis holding a bottle (Southern Comfort was her favorite) the song titles and other credits are part of the art including a listing of a wide range of American songwriters not usually seen on one rock and roll record. Alluding to what would become an unusual alliance with California rock, in the bottom right corner sits the label “Approved by Hell’s Angels”.
Opening with guitarist Sam Andrew’s “Combination of Two” recorded at Bill Graham’s Fillmore Auditorium, the band urgently jams as Janis declares “We’re gonna knock you, rock you, gonna sock it to you now!” And they do, immediately, with Janis’ “I Need a Man to Love” as a Hendrix-flavored guitar explodes before settling into a gentle groove between David Getz’ drum kit and Peter Albin’s bass while building up to Janis’ insistence that “it just can’t be”. Then, where George and Ira Gershwin’s “Summertime” would at first appear misplaced, the band surprises us with its counterpoint guitars before giving way to Janis’ freestyling vocals that make us wince in awe.
The apex of the LP comes, appropriately, in the middle with the majestic, gut-wrenching interpretation of Bert Berns’ and Jerry Ragovoy’s “Piece of My Heart”. As The Beatles made Berns’ “Twist and Shout” forever theirs, “Piece of My Heart” is forever Janis-a painful ode to love where every “take it, take another little piece of my heart now, baby” is bitten off like a sarcastic declaration of war. (Berns, aka Bert Russell, also wrote or co-wrote classics like “Here Comes the Night”, “I Want Candy” and “Hang On, Sloopy”.)
“Turtle Blues” brings things down and gives insight into Janis’ roots with her self-penned, piano blues number-a genuine bar tune complete with a smattering of applause and broken glass. And then it’s back to spaced-out, hippie rock with “Oh, Sweet Mary” as Andrew’s vocals are almost overpowered by Joplin’s punctuated improv.
Before the release of Cheap Thrills Janis had blown away 1967’s Monterey Pop Festival with her rendition of Big Mama Thornton’s “Ball and Chain” (with an awestruck Mama Cass in the audience). With James Gurley’s burning guitar it’s the perfect closer of a classic album combining traditional blues with the heavy guitar rock that was already growing with artists like Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and, of course, the great Jimi Hendrix. The pain in Janis’ voice is palpable as she asks, “Why does everything go wrong?”
Janis would go on to a successful solo career with hits like “Me and Bobby McGee”, (written by then-unknown Kris Kristofferson) but the raw exuberance of the era contained in Cheap Thrills was never duplicated. Janis’ bad habits, primarily alcohol and heroin, got the best of her before her deadly overdose in 1970.