Tuesday, 17 February 2015

100 LPs Shortlist #45: Big Brother and the Holding Company - "Cheap Thrills"

It's a rare album whose legend exists as much for the music as it does for its album cover. The second album by San Francisco's psych-rock legends Big Brother and the Holding Company features an iconic cover that is so rich in detail and so fascinating to look at that it almost eclipses the music.

How on earth did I ever find an album that was so far outside of my "time"? As a 90s teenager I found an out-of-print book chronicling the artwork of the album cover from the birth of rock and roll up until the late 1970s called "The Face of Rock and Roll" by Bruce Pollock and John Wagman. It was an LP album sized full colour illustrated book with a stack of fascinating looking album covers that one day I'd hoped to own or at least listen to the contents of.

All these years later I still haven't listened to them all. I haven't even found half of them to purchase yet. But I did find "Cheap Thrills". And it is an album for the ages.

After discovering Janis Joplin some 20-odd years after she'd died, via the "Pearl" LP, it was only natural that sooner or later I'd bump into Big Brother and the Holding Company. And of course, Janis' vocals in this record are the stuff of legend. They solidified her status as the most powerful vocalist of her generation.

Not bad for a record that ended up completely differently to the way it was supposed to be.

After releasing a very tame sounding LP on a tiny independent Jazz label Mainstream, after the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 major label A&R men started swarming around San Francisco looking for hip new bands. Columbia/CBS scored Big Brother, and they were quickly tasked with the job of making an album.

The original plan was supposed to be to release a compilation of tracks recorded during two nights of concerts at the Grande Ballroom in Detroit, but the producer wasn't too fond of the sound of the tapes. They then tried working in the studio, but that didn't work out either. This was one of the most anticipated releases of 1968 and the media, the fans and the label were getting impatient so they released a mix of the best bits of the two - some studio, some live. From the seven tracks on the original LP, four were live, two were studio tracks and the remaining one was a studio track with a rowdy invited audience.

Columbia's then CEO Clive Davis wasn't overly happy with the album, but felt vindicated in his signing when the album hit the top of the US Billboard album charts, He especially singled out the cover of George Gershwin's "Summertime" as being a great way to get the "kids" interested in Gershwin's music again. Clive played it for Richard Rogers (one half of Rogers and Hammerstein) and he hated it. Go figure.

The long version of "Ball And Chain" is probably the one track that turned Janis into an immortal. If she never recorded another thing after this album, she would be forever regarded as one of the best. This live version is one of the most chilling and powerful performances on record. She gives 110% in this and every note comes from the core of her broken soul. Her pain is real on this: this is the most honest performance I've ever heard. I've seen it reduce people to tears, such is its power.

It could be debated how long Janis' voice would have lasted if she had lived. She sang above and beyond her physical capabilities every night, leaving no-one watching in any doubt that she had given everything of herself on stage that night. But how long would she last doing that?

One of the greatest albums of any era, and not just of its time. Great music is ageless and timeless and this album proves it - it sounds great almost 50 years after being recorded.

Take a listen below:

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