Big Brother & The Holding Company (1967)
Bye Bye Baby/Easy Rider/Intruder/Light Is Faster Than Sound/Call On Me/Coo Coo/Women Is Losers/Blindman/Down On Me/Caterpillar/All Is Loneliness/The Last Time
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)
Combination Of The Two/I Need A Man To Love/Summertime/Piece Of My Heart/Turtle Blues/Oh, Sweet Mary/Ball And Chain
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)
I Got Them Ol' Kozmic Blues Again, Mama!
Try (Just A Little Bit Harder)/Maybe/One Good Man/As Good As You've Been To This World/To Love Somebody/Kozmic Blues/Little Girl Blues/Work Me, Lord
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
Raise Your Hand/As Good As You've Been To This World/To Love Somebody/Summertime/Try (Just A Little Bit Harder)/Kozmic Blues/Can't Turn You Loose/Work Me, Lord/Piece Of My Heart/Ball And Chain
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 World. Work 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.