Every so often, when a band is fortunate enough to make one of those instant-classic albums that magazines and magazine blogs tell us so much about, we forget about that band’s other material. Reputation being a funny influence on a band, as well as their fans and casual listeners, we often forget just how great their OTHER stuff can be. In the first of what I hope to be a regular article within the pages of the Electric Comic Book, I invite you to take another listen to some of that ‘other stuff.’ Call it any other blog’s “what I’m currently listening to” entry; I’m calling it a better understanding of the music we love to listen to while we’re tripping through the pages of the Electric Comic Book.
Today’s Spin: “Big Brother and the Holding Company”
The reissue cover of Big Brother and the Holding Company's eponymous debut.
For every casual Janis Joplin fan, they probably own a greatest hits collection and “Pearl” on vinyl, forgetting she was in a band called Big Brother and the Holding Company. In fact, chances are you’ve seen this album’s cover while thumbing through at a garage sale, basement record store, or your dad’s collection and dismissed it simply because it didn’t say “Janis Joplin.” Likewise, it certainly doesn’t help that classic rock radio continues to refer to the band’s music as that of Janis Joplin alone and without any credit to the incredible musicians who backed her up. In fact, one of the most impressive characteristics of their second album “Cheap Thrills” — often considered one of the greatest of all time — is how often the band goes into these beautiful experimental jams without much input from Janis other than her trademark wail. She was a beautiful soul and blues singer, and should never be forgotten for her talent, but neither should the guitar playing of Peter Albin, James Gurley, and Sam Andrew. Never, ever. However, that’s mostly due to the strength of “Cheap Thrills.” Their first album, self-titled “Big Brother and the Holding Company” suffers in comparison to the sheer power of even the opening track, “Combination of the Two.”
Well, jeez, if it’s such a weak album by comparison, why bother listening to it? Because it stands as one of the finest blueprints for the band’s defined sound. For all the psychedelic mayhem and rich, electric-blues of “Cheap Thrills,” it lacks a certain youthful amateurness that “Big Brother and the Holding Company” has. “Cheap Thrills” is for the virtuosos of the world impressed with high-flying theatrics — “Big Brother and the Holding Company” is for the hopeful singer-songwriter who’s not afraid to get silly every once in a while, and refuses to be tied down to a single idea. Hell, if Beck’s Record Club project were to take suggestions for their next project, I would love to see him tackle “Big Brother and the Holding Company” more than anything else on the planet. It’s an open, accessable album that is more garage rock than acid rock, and in its variety, it’s perfect. Even the record’s original liner notes on the back tries to oversell it as the first album of a new movement (and it’s hilariously repetitive, insincere, and clearly written by some underpaid copywriter/temp — but what else can you expect when its original company was Mainstream Records, a jazz label?).
The album opens with their interpretation “Bye Bye Baby,” establishing Janis’ strength as a blues/R&B vocalist, and the loose fun of the album itself. Meanwhile, tracks like “Light is Faster than Sound” and the excellent “All is Loneliness” show the band’s penchant to write music to expand your mind to. Tracks like “Intruder” and the classic “Down on Me” are classic Big Brother blues barn-burners, restrained only by the album’s weak production values. It’s unfortunate that the album is its very flat sounding, but the virtuosity is still there, resulting in a feeling that the Stretch of the Imagination Dictionary™ calls a rabid caged dog, happy to at least be able to grit it’s teeth through the bars.
But these four songs are as close to “Cheap Thrills” as it gets. The rest are softer, laid back, and the only time the album falters is the silly “Caterpillar,” wherein Peter Albin writes that he’s a caterpillar, a butterfly, a pterodactyl, and an abominable snowman for his significant other’s love. Quite the argument for the theory of evolution, really. Even then, it’s a fun track that it’s pop-like infectiousness cannot be denied. And a track like “Blindman” is a case that if the band never became the acid rock powerhouse that they did, they would have done just fine performing soulful rock tunes in smaller venues.
Perhaps not evolution, but change characterizes this album best. The song’s don’t flow well into one another, and it’s much more laid back than what the reputation of Big Brother established live in San Francisco. Yet for anyone serious about the west coast side of psychedelic rock to pass over this hidden gem is only hurting themselves from a unique experience. The brilliance of the music is in the contrast to everything they want it to be, what you expect it to be, and what it really is. It’s not the deep experience you get with “Cheap Thrills,” but just a damn fine pop-psych record.
Speaking of Big Brother and the Holding Company. . .
The band continues to tour to this day. Today consisting of Sam Andrew, David Getz and Peter Albin (and a revolving door of rhythm guitarists and lead vocalists), they will be appearing at Country Joe McDonald’s “Heroes of Woodstock” show in Albuquerque, NM on New Year’s Eve. That show will also feature Jefferson Airplane Jefferson Starship, Canned Heat, and Ten Years After. Check out the dates here.