Thursday, 6 June 2019

Janis Joplin/Big Brother & The Holding Company

Give it to me mama....

Big Brother & The Holding Company (1967)

1967’s debut from Big Brother & The Holding Company, featuring Janis Joplin on lead vocals is nowhere near as bluesy as their subsequent albums. Released in the summer of 1967, it is a collection of all sub-three minute tracks and it a mixture of semi-bluesy pop/rock, mixed with a bit of country, hippy and psychedelic rock thrown in. 
Bye Bye Baby is rather poppy and only gets heavier and a bit bluesy near the end, while the rocking Easy Rider has real shades of of The Rolling Stones 1966 work about it. Intruder is more blatantly rocky, with some blistering drums and Janis’s voice at its growliest. 

Light Is Faster Than Sound begins with Janis almost sounding like The Mamas and The Papas. It is one of those “spacey” songs such as 2000 Light Years From Home - getting in on the whole space vibe, man. There are a few good bits in it, particularly a grinding guitar, but it is very much of its time. Just when you expect a bit of extended guitar play, it ends. 

Call On Me has an almost rock ’n’ roll ballad intro and Janis’s vocal again shows that throaty potential but it never quite gets there. This is very much an album of what was going to be in a year or two.

Coo Coo again ends just as you are getting in to it, some nice guitar but it sounds like a cutting room demo, to be honest. Women Is Losers has a Jean Genie-Blockbuster riff six years early. One of the bluesiest rockers on the album. Blindman features male vocals and some Californian-style hippy harmonies from Janis. Some good guitar parts on this. Down On Me is probably the best track on the album and one of those that sounds as if it has reached a satisfactory completion, as opposed to others that give the impression of being half-finished. Janis’s voice is at its best here. 

Caterpillar is a bit of an embarrassment - “crawling for your love”. They must have been on something when they came up with this one, man. Easily the album’s worst track. All Is Loneliness has an infectious bass line and a real hippy bass and bongos vibe and another great Joplin vocal. There is something appealing about this one. It has a sort of hazy sixties psychedelic party feel about it. Finally, The Last Time see Janis ranting in true style at her man over some convincing, upbeat jazzy rock backing.

Overall, though, one cannot help but feel that this album is somewhat half-baked and there was better to come. There was.

Cheap Thrills (1968)

This was Janis Joplin's second album backed by her band, Big Brother & The Holding Company. It is, bizarrely, overdubbed with crowd noises between tracks to make it sound like a live album, a deliberate move and one that convinced many at the time. It is, in fact, a studio album. To be fair, though, it has a loose, "live" feel to it throughout. It is acid-rock psychedelia in all its glory, but there is also that bluesy soulfulness that Joplin always had. A year before this had come Sgt. Pepper but this took rock music to another level altogether in some ways. Had anyone heard vocals so damn passionate, from a female artist too? Janis was no Sandie Shaw or Mary Hopkin. She blew them all away.
Beginning with some of that afore-mentioned crowd noise, Combination Of The Two bursts from a heavy rock intro to an upbeat, pulsating piece of rock-soul with Joplin trading vocals with others in the band over a frenetic drum backing. It ends with some typical late sixties psychedelic-sounding guitar before some more "ooh-ooh" soul vocals take us to the finish.

I Need A Man To Love is a slow burning blues rock number that features some blistering, buzzy lead guitar and Janis's vocal is raucously improvisational. Summertime is one of her most well-known tracks and it has a laid-back, melodic and bassy backing that perfectly complements Janis's throaty delivery. This is not just drug-addled psych rock, this is blues rock of the highest quality. Janis was, first and foremost, if you ask me, a blues singer. This track leaves one in no doubt about that. The bass line that runs through the song is sumptuous too. It was one of the very first examples of a rock band covering an easy listening-jazz standard. It was actually quite ground-breaking stuff.

Then, of course, there is the sheer bloody magnificence of Janis's cover of Erma Franklin's Piece Of My Heart. Janis makes the song her own with a wonderfully full-on but soulful vocal, which exemplified perfectly how rock could merge with soul effectively, especially in Janis's hands. It is a true all-time classic. The blues is back with the acoustic bar-room (complete with breaking glass) whiskey-sodden strains of Turtle Blues
Oh Sweet Mary is the most obviously psychedelic number on the album, featuring some deep, rolling drums, fuzzy psych guitar and rumbling bass. Put this on loud and imagine those swirling kaleidoscope colours, man. Very 1968. Sticking with the searing guitar sound of those crazy psychedelic parties is the extended closer, Ball And Chain, which, after a cutting guitar intro, finds itself insistently deep and bluesy. Once more, this is a track with a real "live" feeling to it, as if the band laid it down in one take. That bass is just beautiful, mama. Now, where did I put those incense sticks.....

The Woodstock Experience (1969)/ I Got Dem Ol' Kozmic Blues Again, Mama! (1969)

This compilation release contains the remastered I Got Them Ol' Kozmic Blues Again, Mama! and the live recording of Janis Joplin's set at Woodstock Festival in the summer of 1969. The remastered sound of the studio album is excellent and the live set, while not 100% in its sound quality, is certainly acceptable to a proud non-audiophile like me. Considering its source from those chaotic few muddy days on Yasgur's Farm it is actually pretty good and definitely listenable.

I Got Them Ol' Kozmic Blues Again, Mama!

This, Janis Joplin's first "solo" album, is a great one for me. I love soul, I love rock, and this mixes the two wonderfully in an intoxicating concoction of Joplin's bluesy, coarse voice and some soulful Stax-like, horn-driven backing. It was somewhat poorly received upon release by fans expecting more Big Brother & The Holding Company-style psychedelic hard rock. What they got was a masterpiece of rocking soul. Joplin utilised a brass and horn section to get the sound she was looking for, which was something her previous colleagues in Big Brother had refused her. I have read reviews praising Joplin's voice but criticising the band, God knows why. Personally, I think the band cook to boiling point and complement her voice incredibly well. It is a marvellous album and is my favourite in Joplin's all too small catalogue. It was actually the only solo album released while she was still alive.
A wonderful Stax-style shuffling bass/drum interplay starts the album on Try (Just A Little Bit Harder), the punch of the horns kicks in and Janis's husky shriek soars above it all. Lordy mama, I love this. The sound quality is superb as well - full, warm and bassy. For lovers of soul and blues rock like myself this is manna from Heaven. There are hints of Aretha Franklin's Chain Of Fools in the backing vocals too - "try, try, try"/"chain, chain, chain...".

Maybe has a slow tempo, churchy, soulful organ-brass intro like on Percy Sledge's When A Man Loves A Woman. Check out those crystal clear, razor sharp cymbals in the backing. Once more, this is a top notch slice of quality "in your face" soul. For me, this is Joplin's best stuff, using her talents just as I want them to be used. She has come out from under her Persian rug, left behind her patchouli oil and is giving us some full on soul, right between the ears. 
This is continued on the smouldering, deeply sensual vibe of One Good Man, a truly outstanding cut packed full of emotion and quality musicianship. "Some girls they want to collect their men, they wear 'em like notches on a gun...." bemoans Janis as she tells us she just wants one of you no-goods out there. Ir is proving a futile search. This is a marvellous blues rock/soul song, right up there as one of her very best.

The band then cut their chops on the jazzy Stax soul number As Good As You've Been To This World. A cookin' instrumental couple of minutes introduces it before Janis's sultry, seductive vocals arrive. Listen to that backing - this could be an Otis Redding track. 
Now we get her cover of The Bee Gees' To Love Somebody - oh my goodness, that bass-organ-horn intro leading into Janis's impassioned delivery of the chorus - some moments in music are just perfection. This is one of them. I can't speak highly enough about this track without going into too many raptures. This lifts my spirit higher. It is also one of the best female rock-soul performances of all time. God bless her.

Kozmic Blues also rises up celestially high on its soaring "it don't make no difference" chorus refrain. This is the most "blues rock" of the tracks, but its chorus is pure Stay With Me Baby soul. Little Girl Blue is just sumptuous - a magnificent, evocative cover of Rodgers and Hart's 1935 musical number. Janis's voice is up with Aretha Franklin on this, it really is. Music like this palpably moves my soul. It is pure, it is essential. Incidentally, when Janis's voice goes quiet towards the end of the song, I realised what a sweet, sexy tone her speaking voice had. Work Me, Lord is a slow-burning gospelly spiritual invocation upon which Janis takes us home. Listen to the bass-drum-organ-guitar bit around three minutes in - I've run out of superlatives now and need to check my Thesaurus. Sweet Jesus, I feel sanctified after listening to this. It is a truly outstanding album. Highly recommended. I must call my wife "Mama" from now on, man.

Live At Woodstock 17th August 1969

As mentioned in the review above, Joplin's as yet unreleased album was very much a Stax-influenced soul workout, she deviates a little from the Memphis sound to please her rock audience here and the five tracks from her upcoming offering were given more of a rock flavour. Despite the punchy presence of the Stax-style horns-brass section there is a fair amount of psychedelic hard rock improvisation from Joplin's soul revue-type band. However, what were soaring, soulful delights on the studio album are, I have to say, just a little messy in their live incarnations. Joplin's massive presence and the sheer power of the band make them still eminently pleasurable but I prefer the studio versions every day.

To Love Somebody, for example, while still supremely powerful, lacks the uplifting soul chutzpah of the studio version and the same applies to Try (Just A Little Bit Harder). That said, though, it was 2 am in the morning and Janis and the band had been hanging around for ages so a bit of "what the hell" looseness is to be expected. Kozmic Blues is great, however, as is the Stax-y beat of As Good As You've Been To This WorldWork Me Lord is even bluesier than its studio counterpart. As for the other songs, Summertime is a magnificent piece of rock innovation, and Ball And Chain, while not quite the nine-minute epic it is on Big Brother & The Holding Company's Cheap Thrills is a solid piece of blues to close the set. It is introduced by Janis going off on one a bit about "it's just music, man...." and appears to be lambasting the audience slightly. It was getting late....

The cover of Otis Redding's I Can't Turn You Loose is a favourite of mine, although it doesn't feature Joplin on lead vocals, instead Cornelius Flowers making it sound like something from "WattStax". 
Piece Of My Heart is not quite the anthem it should have been here and the opener, Eddie Floyd's Raise Your Hand is a bit of a mess, if I'm honest. This is all being a bit nit-picking on my part, though, as this was a barnstorming set, showcasing Joplin's new soul style while retaining that hard rock, bluesy and psychedelic feel in places too. Her stage persona was so dominating that there was always going to be something good to take away from it. This is a very enjoyable release indeed. I have played it over and over recently.

Pearl (1971)

This was, unfortunately, Janis Joplin's final album, and a fitting epitaph it was too. Any rough, indulgent edges are smoothed over, leaving a well-produced collection of songs that managed to be concise and to the point without losing Janis's God-given ability to improvise. It catches the essence of this remarkable artist superbly. Her band, The Full Tilt Boogie Band, are absolutely top notch throughout and Janis is fully at one with them. Such a tragedy that she lost her life so soon after laying down these incredibly impressive tracks. 

Move Over is instantly captivating, its drum-driven rhythm and Janis's gritty vocal grab you firmly by the balls. I first came across it, strangely enough, covered impressively by Slade back in 1972. Cry Baby is a perfect slice of typical Janis blues rock - full of powerful rock backing, slow build verses and a simply soaring vocal. "You could go all the way to Katman-duh" Janis tells us, majestically, on her spoken bit before the huge last crashing chorus. It really doesn't get much better than this, does it? Just listen to the wonderful organ break on A Woman Left Lonely. At times the backing is almost as inspirational as this quirky, problem-beset woman's voice was. Once again, this track is toweringly magnificent - the absolute dog's bollocks. 

Half Moon has an infectious, slightly poppy rhythm with some funky guitar, impressive piano and catchy drums. Vocally, Janis could cope with whatever the backing demanded of her. Oh did I forget the bass line on this - got it, its bloody superb. This was Janis going funk rock to the nth degree. Great stuff. Buried Alive In The Blues is a stonking organ-driven instrumental for which Janis was supposed to and vocals to the day after she was found dead. Janis is thankfully back on the peerless, solid rock of My Baby, which features a big, rousing, gospel-like chorus. Then we get a Joplin classic in her interpretation of Kris Kristofferson’s country ‘on the road’ song Me And Bobby McGee. Janis tones down her bluesy bombast for this song  and she does it so well, giving it a real soulful atmosphere. You really feel you are getting into that truck with her. 
Mercedes Benz is a short a capella song that has been often used in films or covered by other artists. Janis tells us huskily that she wants the Lord to buy her a Mercedes Benz. A bit materialistic of her - surely she could make do with a few incense sticks....Trust Me is a return to copper-bottomed Janis soulful blues rock that features some E St. Band-style piano while the muscular rock of Get It While You Can has some superb organ breaks and guess what? Another killer vocal. God bless you Janis. This album bears true testament to your talent. 


  1. I agree that Kozmic Blues is a great album. I don't know why people dislike it so much. Even other people who are fans of hers like me don't even like it that much. The songs are really good and so is the music and so is her voice. The only clunker I think is One Good Man which I don't really like. Joplin in Concert is really underrated too. It has definitive versions of Down on me and Bye Bye Baby and All is Loneliness, which weren't very good in their original versions I don't think. All the early songs sound better. I think it's her best album. I want to hear that Woodstock one that you reviewed because it's different than the ones they have here it looks like. There's something similar around but not the same as that.

  2. Yes, that Woodstock series is excellent - you get the Woodstock set and a classic studio album in the one package. Featured are Janis, Jefferson Airplane, Sly & The Family Stone, Johnny Winter and Santana.

    Agreed on Kozmic Blues. I love it. I do like One Good Man though .

  3. It turns out the one that I know is basically the same album except it's titled Sunday 1969 Woodstock and it doesn't have the studio album. Just the live.

  4. The live one is the one you need on all of these, as I had the studio ones anyway.

  5. Pearl is one of the at least top 20 albums of all time. You described it really good. I think it's so great because it's her best set of songs. She never came up with so many great songs on one album. And I like how it shows her country roots sometimes. Did you ever hear the Pearl Sessions album from a few years ago? It has a solo version of Me and Bobby McGee with just her playing acoustic guitar believe it or not. It's the best reissue album I ever heard. The alternate versions are actually worth hearing more than once and even the studio chatter tracks are worth hearing.

  6. Yes, I have heard that Pearl sessions stuff too. As you say, it is superb. Some artists did great alternative versions, and Janis was one of them.