Classic Music Review: Cheap Thrills by Big Brother and the Holding Company

Cheapthrills

I never got R. Crumb either.

Sometimes a sound you hear in a piece of music triggers a faint memory of a past experience. You know you’ve heard that sound before, but you can’t remember where or under what circumstances. That feeling kept coming up as I listened to Cheap Thrills, and the mystery didn’t clear itself up until a friend in the States texted me a picture of her new puppy: a pug.

“Of course! Dinner at Aunt Pug’s house!” I cried.

Let me tell you about my Aunt Pug.

After college, I moved back to San Francisco and lived in one of my dad’s fixer-uppers that he hadn’t gotten around to fixing up yet. I found a job I could do in my sleep, engaged in intensive erotic arts training and waited for something to turn up.

What turned up was an unsolicited offer to work in the international marketing department for the company I work for today. The good news/bad news was that the job was in Seattle. I knew Seattle had a great music scene and acceptably liberal social norms; I also knew that it rained all the time and the people were kind of standoffish. I didn’t like moving away from my parents, who are my best friends to this day, but I was consoled by the fact that it was still on the same coast and that I had an aunt who lived in the area. Having a family connection close by made my decision much easier, because family is very important to me.

Don’t let anyone try to tell you that bisexual sadomasochistic perverts don’t have family values!

It also helped that my aunt is a hoot! She’s my dad’s sister, the lone daughter in a brood of four. She’s also the youngest, and while her three older brothers were prepped for greater things in life, my aunt was assigned the life role assigned to girls in any traditional Irish Catholic family: be a good girl, find a good Catholic to marry, make lots of babies.

“Fuck that shit,” she decided early in life.

She was expelled from an all-girls Catholic high school at the age of fifteen when she got caught giving a guy a blow job in a janitor’s closet during a school mixer (a weekend dance open to both genders). My grandparents threatened to send her to a convent, so she split. She moved in with the older sister of a friend from high school who was looking for a roommate, got a fake ID and a job at a clothing store to pay the rent, and received semi-covert support from my mom and dad in the form of free meals. She eventually got her GED, went to college, graduated with a business degree and found herself moving up the ladder at the same retailer who illegally hired her in her early teens. My dad served as intermediary between my grandparents and their wild daughter for years, but all was forgiven when my aunt got engaged to a guy she met on a business trip to Seattle who had made a ton of money by virtue of having gone to work for a small company called Microsoft in the early 1980’s. He wasn’t a Catholic, but they consoled themselves with the fact that he hadn’t knocked her up and so she could safely travel down the aisle dressed in virgin white to preserve appearances and dying myths.

Reconciliation aside, my aunt had no intention of staying in San Francisco and moved into her husband’s 4000 square-foot house in a tony neighborhood within an upscale burb on the other side of the lake from Seattle. Having learned that self-reliance had brought her a long way in the world, she imposed a series of conditions on her hapless fiancé prior to marriage, including non-interference in her career, an equal share of his pre-marital property and a vasectomy. By the time I moved up there, she had completed her MBA and had several years as a top executive under her belt.

She got her nickname when she was a little girl and her oldest brother came home from college with an enlarged vocabulary and told her she was “pugnacious.” Everyone started calling her Pug, and she embraced the nickname as if it were a badge of honor. My aunt felt like she had to fight for everything in life: for attention as the “afterthought” child; for survival after she left home; for a career without having the proper pedigree. The toughness in her personality is reflected in her appearance: she’s short, stacked like a brick shithouse, and dresses for maximum power with flawless precision and taste. She walks into any room like she owns the place or that she’s ready to kick some ass. She smokes, swears like a sailor, tells bawdy jokes that leave you in tears and can drink any man under the table.

I moved to Seattle one rainy October and during my first year there I drove over the bridge once or twice a month to have dinner with her and her husband. I invited them to my place for dinner, but Aunt Pug declined because, as she said, “I’ve got the better-stocked bar.” He did the cooking, we did the drinking and the smoking. We always had a blast.

The months went by and eventually the two glorious months of Seattle summer arrived. I drove over to Aunt Pug’s place early one summer evening, music blasting away in the car as usual. I parked in my usual spot, turned off the engine, opened the car door and heard the most horrible squawking and screeching I’d ever heard in my life. The sounds were obviously caused by some unseen birds—lots of them—and for a moment I felt like Tippi Hedren. I ran like hell to my aunt’s front door and flung myself in the hallway just as Aunt Pug was coming down the stairs, martini in hand.

“What the fuck is that?” I greeted her.

She looked puzzled for a minute, then frowned. “Fuckin’ crows,” she said.

“That’s a hell of a lot of crows!” I responded.

She took a gulp and said, “Yeah, there’s fuckin’ hundreds of ’em. You know that patch of woods down the street at the end of the cul-de-sac? Every fuckin’ summer they show up there and start squawking and fighting over broads. Then they come pecking on the roof like they’re trying to get in the fuckin’ house.”

“They don’t get in, do they?” I asked, still channeling Tippi Hedren.

“No, no, but they poke those shakes so hard we have to replace a ton of them every year.” She paused and slammed down the rest of her martini. “I’d like to get a fuckin’ Uzi and blow every one of those fuckin’ crows to smithereens. Fuck ’em. Let’s go have a drink.”

After an excellent dinner with plenty of fine wines, we went out the deck to enjoy the rare warm, dry evening. Her husband brought a tray of properly pulled espresso and Aunt Pug offered me a cigarette. I was just about to take it when a huge black bird flew down and perched on the railing, about a dozen feet from me. I immediately leapt into the air and backed myself up against the wall of the house.

Aunt Pug looked at me and laughed. “That’s one of them fuckin’ crows!”

“That’s not a crow! It’s too big to be a crow!”

“They grow ’em big up here, like the flowers. Yeah, the first time I saw one I had the same reaction. Best leave it be—fucker’ll go away in a minute—sit down and have a smoke.”

I tiptoed back to my seat, trying not to make any noise that would disturb the crow and cause him to come after me and gouge out my eyeballs. I sat down and kept a wary eye on him. He stared right back. He looked like a thug: big, muscular, cold, cocky. Then without any warning he spread his big black wings and made a terrifying, bone-chilling sound.

“SQUAWK! SCREECH! SQUAWK! SCREECH!”

And that’s the sound I kept hearing over and over on Cheap Thrills. SQUAWK! SCREECH! SQUAWK! SCREECH! The sound was coming from Janis Joplin, The Queen of Psychedelic Soul, noted devotee of Southern Comfort, the woman ranked the 28th greatest singer of all time by Rolling Stone.

I do not share that opinion. What I hear is an undisciplined vocalist who had no concept of empty space, who had to fill every spare minute of air time with her crude vocalizations. What I hear is a scenery-chewing drama queen desperately trying to draw attention to herself. As her mother noted, this need to be the center of the universe was a lifelong pattern: “She was unhappy and unsatisfied without [receiving a lot of attention]. The normal rapport wasn’t adequate.”

No, I wasn’t at the Monterey Pop Festival, or at Woodstock or at any of the other venues where she allegedly gave performances that “electrified” the crowd. I was born eleven years after she croaked off from a heroin overdose. So it goes. Cheap Thrills has several live performances (most of which are studio-enhanced), and after listening to every one of them three times, all I could think about is that fucking crow on my aunt’s deck.

“SQUAWK! SCREECH! SQUAWK! SCREECH!”

I will give her credit for one thing: she was the best singer in the band. Sam Andrew sounded like a drunken Neanderthal.

The funny thing is that after my first pass through the album, I said to myself, “Hey! This isn’t too bad.” I cringed a few times when Janis drilled holes into my eardrums, but my impression was not entirely unfavorable. That nascent opinion is even more remarkable when you remember that my marijuana stash had been completely consumed during my experience with The Incredible String Band. I listened to Cheap Thrills absolutely straight, no chasers. But there’s a reason why I listen to an album three times, and by the third time I felt myself going through cannabis withdrawal.

The album opens with budding impresario Bill Graham introducing the band: “Four gentlemen and one great, great broad.” Whatever you say, Bill. We then hear “A Combination of the Two,” sort of a warm-up-the-crowd number with few words and many vocalizations. The piece features one of their better grooves, and though Sam Andrew’s vocal is absolutely atrocious—a sort of white-guy-tries-to-sing-funk that comes out as inane mumbling—the unstructured call-and response has the effect of limiting Janis Joplin’s exposure. She’s a bit easier to take in small doses. Unfortunately, what follows is a full dose of Janis on “I Need a Man to Love,” a song she co-wrote with Sam Andrew.

“SQUAWK! SCREECH! SQUAWK! SCREECH!”

Next comes “Summertime,” the worst cover of any song in the history of music. Janis chews the scenery, spits it out, gobbles it up and spits it out again. Any connection to the spiritual foundation of Gershwin’s original is blasted away in the noise of a singer who never heard of the concept that less is often more.

“SQUAWK! SCREECH! SQUAWK! SCREECH!”

The album’s hit, “Piece of My Heart” follows, and this is where the band’s flaws become clearer. They simply weren’t very good, and the fact James Gurley would whine in later years that they were “the most maligned band ever” and that their innovations had been cruelly ignored links him forever with the lady who doth protest too much. Sam Andrew, who plays the three guitar parts on this track, had an extraordinarily limited fretboard range for someone who was “classically-trained” and his solos show little in the way of creative flair. While the band could sometimes play with a certain energy, they were rather sloppy with the groove and nowhere near as tight as they could have been. For some unfathomable reason, they were extremely protective of the “Big Brother Sound,” resisting Janis’ suggestions for more sonic diversity through horns and keyboards.

On this song, their support for Janis is piss-poor and fails to complement one of her more restrained vocals. I’ll take Erma Franklin’s original over this cover, but I despise the lyrics, which define a woman’s toughness as her ability to take whatever shit a guy feels like giving her. I would have changed the chorus to something like “Pull that shit again and I’ll cut your fucking nuts off, asshole.”

“Turtle Blues” is a Janis Joplin original, if a standard three-chord 12-bar blues can be called “original.” I guess the lyrics are hers, but the use of Southern black vernacular lacks credibility when it’s sung by a white girl who went to college: “I just treats ’em like I wants to/I never treats ’em, honey like I should.” Still, this is Janis’ best vocal on the album because she actually tries to sing . . . at least through most of it. After she hits the emotional peak with the brilliantly delivered line “I know this goddamn life too well,” she falls back into her bad habits.

“SQUAWK! SCREECH! SQUAWK! SCREECH!”

Out of the blue, as if someone in the band remembered, “Hey, aren’t we supposed to do something, uh, psychedelic?” we get “Oh, Sweet Mary,” to which I respond, “Oh, sweet fucking Jesus.” This is a classic psychedelic mish-mash of elaborate but poorly thought-out chord transitions, badly arranged cross-vocalizations and the usual drooling babble:

Oh, sweet Mary, child of confusion, she runs the hills to cry
Past the willows or an illusion, Lord, tell me the reason why.
Tell me why, why is it all so hard ?
Breathing in the air
Anyone to care.

Big Brother’s #1 charting album ends mercilessly with Janis Joplin’s remake of Big Mama Thornton’s “Ball and Chain.” Big Mama blessed Janis’ version, saying “That girl feels like I do.” I think that shows a lot of class on Big Mama’s part, and it’s a nice way for Big Mama to thank Janis for the additional income she received from the royalty checks. There are two key differences between the original and the cover. The first is that Big Brother changed the song to a minor-key blues. The second is that Big Mama actually sang her version while Janis decided to take another approach.

“SQUAWK! SCREECH! SQUAWK! SCREECH!”

I expect I will draw the condemnation of Baby Boomers and others who remember Janis Joplin with feelings ranging from fondness to reverence. I also realize that I am in the critical minority as far as Janis Joplin and Cheap Thrills are concerned. However, I am still obliged to call ’em as I see ’em, and I now await your slings, arrows and whatever else you’ve got. Flail away! Chain me to a fence under a broiling desert sun! Take another little piece of my heart, now baby!

But please, please, please . . . don’t sic those birds on me.

GO TO THE NEXT POST IN THE SERIES: THE DOUGHNUT IN GRANNY’S GREENHOUSE BY THE BONZO DOG BAND

6 responses

  1. Argh! Janis Joplin! A little goes not just a long way, but longer than long. The over-emoting, screeching and squawking is hard to take… harder still when she’s not always in tune, but being part of that band, what chance would anyone have?

    Quite clearly, Big Brother and The Holding Company were SHIT. Too clumsy and amateurish, technically and musically limited to bring to life what they wanted. There’s nothing wrong with trying, but some practice also helps and for these bozos, they practiced drugs, booze and “free love” way more than playing. The fact their audiences were high as kites on Owsley’s specials and smokes enabled them to get away with musical murder, hence they saw no need to work that little bit harder to improve themselves… crap music CAN sound “great” when stoned, but in cold sober states, the reality is usually less pleasurable to listen to (stand up Donovan!) Even Ringo admitted The Beatles were “shit” when they played on drugs. Albert Grossman and Bill Graham also stand guilty here, without whom, this lot would never had gotten out the swamps where they belonged.

    Columbia were at a loss as to what to do with them since their shortcomings and incompetence really came to the fore in the studio hence the decision to invest in some live recordings in the hope that the live “energy” would make listeners more forgiving. They just about get away with it on “Oh Sweet Mary” – that’s the only track I like here since it does have a ramshackle charm and energy to it that I can’t hear elsewhere. “Summertime” is like Janis has just slit her wrists and is screeching away watching each drop of blood drip to the floor. Therefore, the album as a whole is a lumpy mess that is probably the shoddiest album ever released and hyped by a major that was not a “tribute” album!

    Had Janis not checked in to the idiot “27 Club” barely anyone would give a toss about her and this band now. They would NOT be revered or viewed as legends… just a mere piece of noisy tuneless wallpaper trash during the psych era. But… she died and we’re all supposed to revere her as an “awesome” talent that departed way too soon. If one forgets and ignores the hype and rewriting of history, this lot come across as nothing better or more than that shoddy two bit bar band freak show with an over-excitable squawker that Mama Cass liked in the “Monterey Pop” movie.

    Janis was derided after she left for working with more “professional” musicians with many agreeing she lost her “edge” – nonsense… with proper musicians behind her, they showed her up for the limited talent she actually was.

    15 years or so ago, I actually BOUGHT all of Janis’ work on CD and gave it many chances (my ex thought she was brilliant) Last week I was finally reunited with my CD collection which I hadn’t seen in 4 years since it went into storage. Back in 2010, I had limited storage space so had to keep what I regarded was the best stuff. I THOUGHT I’d kept maybe one or two of Janis’ albums but nope… I kept none! (Having said that, I was horrified to see The Kinks’ “Preservation Act 2” is missing… ARGH!)

    We may be harsh – perhaps brutal – in our condemnations, but we can only hear it for what it really was and is, and not be seduced by the hype and myths.

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    1. I was very disappointed that YouTube pulled the video from the Monterey Pop Festival just before this week’s posts: the film opens with Big Brother, so noticeably out of tune that you think it must be a satire.

      The 27 club still has many adherents. This week visits to my blog have gone through the roof: quintuple the usual number of visits! Why? Because my dear friend Robert Morrow added a few of my reviews to Stumble Upon, and one of them happened to be my review of The Doors’ Strange Days. That review is very close to knocking off The Kinks at the top of my most-read list, something I never thought would happen. I think I’ll take a stroll down to the cemetery and thank Jim personally: he’s only a few blocks away, resting quietly.

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  2. The snot has caked against Janis’ pants. No wonder she failed in her attempts to alter the “big brother sound.” Great review!

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    1. Thank you! I think Janis was all about Janis, the most misplaced egotism I’ve ever encountered. I had to laugh when I brought up Janis Joplin to one of my French colleagues, because she went into a pretty good SQUAWK-SCREECH imitation upon hearing her name.

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  3. […] Cheap Thrills by Big Brother and the Holding Company, August 1968 […]

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