You Should Already Own - Cheap Thrills by Big Brother and The Holding Company

By: Stephanie Cloutier

You Should Already Own - <i>Cheap Thrills</i> by Big Brother and The Holding Company
Big Brother and The Holding Company's Cheap Thrills

June 7, 2010


History hasn't been too kind to Big Brother and the Holding Company.

They will probably always be mislabelled as Janis Joplin's backup band by those who aren't familiar with their origins, but this assumption is somewhat justified because Big Brother dissolved right after Joplin left them, some of them playing in other bands. They would reform a few years later, making albums and even hired another strong female vocalist, and remained active at various festivals up until the present day. However, they would never achieve nor try to duplicate the same level of fame when they had Joplin at the helm.

By far, their great achievement was Cheap Thrills. Released in 1968, it would go on to sell thousands of copies, becoming one of the successful albums of the decade. A feat achieved by few San Francisco-based psychedelic bands of the day. Thanks to the cultural shift of rock music at Monterey Pop Festival, bands like Big Brother caught the attention of labels for their unique brand of music. But they also had a key component that made attractive to record companies: Janis Joplin.

It has to be stressed that Cheap Thrills was a group effort. Apart from Joplin's incredible talent as a singer, we have the pleasure to hear to some of the best guitar work of the psychedelic rock genre. Big Brother was known for their lengthy sets and their gritty sound that was a frantic, high-energized garage rock. But in Cheap Thrills you hear elements of jazz, blues, even classical. There are wonderful examples in "Combination of the Two", "Summertime", "Piece of My Heart" and "Ball and Chain".

The band's original main attraction, the late guitarist James Gurley, was a self-taught musician and played an undisciplined style that later earned him the title of "Father of Psychedelic Guitar". Technically he wasn't a great musician: he would sometimes miss a note here and there, and couldn't read music, but that was OK. It was all about the feeling; the emotions he poured into his performances became legendary. Good looking and charismatic, Gurley would attract fans that came to Big Brother shows just to see him play.

Despite their improvised sound, the group comprised of accomplished musicians who had professional experience under their belts: guitarist Sam Andrew had performed in rock and roll bands since his teens, including one in Okinawa, Japan, when his father was stationed in the army; bassist and founder of the group, Peter Albin, had been playing in folk clubs in the San Francisco area for a few years; and jazz drummer Dave Getz had been playing professionally since his mid-teens, even touring Europe with a well-known Dixieland Jazz band at age nineteen. With their varied musical background, the foursome contributed largely to what would be known as the "San Francisco sound".

By adding a female folk-blues singer like Joplin, Big Brother became one of the top bands specializing in psychedelic rock - a genre that their own Cheap Thrills' producer, John Simon, couldn't relate to.

It was an ill-matched union from the start: Simon was a gifted young musician who had perfect pitch, and had distinguished himself early in his career as a producer at Columbia Records. His previous producing credits are impressive: The Band's Music from Big Pink, and Leonard Cohen's Songs from Leonard Cohen, to name a few. He abhorred musicians who played out of key, let alone on purpose, and unfortunately, Big Brother fit that category. Simon, who was the same age as the members of Big Brother, never hid his displeasure from working with the amateur musicians. His biggest struggle was trying to figure out how to make an imperfect band sound perfect in studio. The three-months long session proved to be difficult and painful for everyone involved. Despite this, Simon did a good job at making them sound better.

A component heard throughout Cheap Thrills is its ‘live' quality, yet none of the songs, except for the last track, were recorded live. Attempts were made to record them at a show but that failed, so the next step was record all of the vocals and instrumental parts in studio but making them sound like as if they were live. Most of the background effects such as an audience cheering or talking, were recorded live, which was later added to the tracks in studio. This is done throughout the album, but it sounds seamless on the opening track, "Combination of the Two".

In the first minute of the song, you hear the buzz of room full of people, the accidental touching of guitar chords as the band is getting to perform. Bill Graham, famed music promoter and owner of Fillmore's introduces them, followed by cheers of the audience. Then Gurley and Andrew's guitars come blaring out like cars careening uncontrollably down a freeway until they reach a full stop met by the hoots and haws of Joplin, where the song becomes an upbeat pop track. It's a fantastic six minutes of audio delight.

Andrew wrote the song and sings lead with Joplin sharing the vocals. Andrew would write another song, with Joplin this time, called "I Need A Man To Love"; a desperate outpouring of emotion and affection for some companionship, a subject that Joplin was all too familiar with. Listen closely to Getz's drumming, they are exceptional.

"Summertime" may be an unusual song for Big Brother to play up to this point. Thanks to their version, and to the lyrical geniuses that were Gershwin Brothers, your mind naturally drifts to lazy summer days of the South when the first notes are played. Prominent are Andrew's playing, which is an ode to Bach, and Joplin's gravel voice sung in a higher pitch. Her voice is raspy but it's controlled, and at times, soft. It doesn't try to compete with the beautiful guitar arrangement, a duty shared by Gurley and Andrew. Their guitar work begins slowly progressing to the apex of the song into two different yet complimenting psychedelic guitar solos. Big Brother's "Summertime" is a different take than other versions heard but it is, by far, one of the most beautiful interpretations of the Gershwin Bros classic to date.

At the centre of the album is the instantly recognizable "Piece of My Heart". It was the only hit from the album and on the Billboard charts for several weeks. Originally sung by Erma Franklin, Aretha's younger sister, this song will forever be linked to Joplin. Sarcastically taunting the listener to "take another piece", no other interpretation by another artist can convincingly do the same job as Joplin has done. (Sorry, Melissa Ethridge and Joss Stone, you did well but you can't hold a flame to Joplin.)

Out of all of the songs, "Oh, Sweet Mary" is the most psychedelic in terms of being considered a "trippy" song: the pace goes up and down, vocals are improvised while every other song combines traditional blues with rock. This is a revised version of a song "Coo Coo", an Appalachian folk song they had adapted from their first album with Mainstream Records.

Channelling her blues idols, Joplin wrote "Turtle Blues" with Simon playing piano. Again, some of the ‘vibe' was recorded at Barney's Beanery in Los Angeles, but other effects were done in studio. Getz and singer-songwriter Bob Neuwirth broke wine glasses, while the background voices included a mix of Columbia Studios employees, their road manager John Cooke, and Howard Hessman of WKPR in Cincinnati fame.

The only live song appears last on the track listing, "Ball and Chain". It's a bone-chilling, breath-taking interpretation of Big Mama Thornton's song. Gurley's mesmerizing guitar work throughout the song sets the frantic, almost palpable tone that Joplin interprets with the lyrics. This song will affect anyone with a pulse. It's a perfect ending to an album that encapsulates a moment where each Big Brother member complimented each other so beautifully.

Like the fantastic cover drawn by cartoonist Robert Crumb, the music is similar to the record's title charged up with electrical currents. Cheap Thrills is music that provides instant, gratifying, sensory experiences that will jolt you to the very core of your soul.  

Video: "Piece Of My Heart" by Big Brother and The Holding Company

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