Big Brother and The Holding Company - Cheap Thrills - Review
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critics' view

There’s a moment, three songs into ‘Cheap Thrills’, when Janis Joplin’s voice practically breaks in two. It’s at the start of their cover of George Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’, when she utters that titular, opening word, repeating the third syllable three times - dragging that song’s title out over just five seconds but with an eternity of sadness and suffering and regret - her voice hoarse and whispering, tender and raw, before she and the band transform this famous and beautiful aria-turned-jazz standard into their very own rock ‘n’ roll classic. It’s one of the definitive performances of the song, a sensual and sultry rendition of one of the most covered songs in musical history. Its sheer power and passion are overwhelming, pure revolutionary reinvention that doesn’t just emphasise Joplin’s unique vocal versatility and power, but also accentuates the immense talents of Big Brother And The Holding Company, the band who were backing Joplin.

‘Cheap Thrills’ - its original title was intended to be ‘Sex, Dope And Cheap Thrills’ - was the group’s sophomore record, the second to feature Joplin on vocals and their first on a major label. Thanks to the popularity of fellow San Francisco psychedelic outfits Jefferson Airplane (whose ‘Surrealistic Pillow’ was released the year before) and Country Joe And The Fish, ‘Cheap Thrills’ was one of the most anticipated releases of 1968. It spent a total of eight weeks at the top of the Billboard charts, eventually selling over two million copies. Yet despite this success, it marked the end of Joplin’s tenure with the band. Just months after its release, she left to pursue a solo career. On October 4th 1970, she would die, at the now-fabled age of twenty-seven, due to a heroin overdose.

Her legacy remains as strong as ever, however, and much of it is due to this album’s far-reaching, soul-searching power. Although just seven songs long - later re-releases would come, naturally, with bonus tracks - their weight and range created a record of near-perfect intensity. It begins with two live recordings, the chugging psychedelic stomp of ‘Combination Of The Two’ and the sassy, pleading desperation of ‘I Need A Man To Love’, before that aching ‘Summertime’ and another cover, ‘Piece Of My Heart’ (originally recorded by Aretha Franklin’s sister Erma the previous year, and the band’s biggest hit), round off the first side. Side Two begins with the delicate ‘Turtle Blues’, featuring just Joplin, a piano and the clink of wine glasses and the murmurings of a small (but fake) club audience, before ‘Oh, Sweet Mary’ returns the band to their psychedelic roots with a blast of urgent, paranoid rock. It closes with another cover - a phenomenal nine-and-a-half minute take of blues singer Big Mama Thornton’s ‘Ball And Chain’, a brooding, oppressive swirl of emotional intensity that - alongside ‘Summertime’ - confirms Joplin’s place at the top of the list of female (and, hell, male) rock and blues singers. 

Of course, it would be remiss to not mention the other cover that’s so important to this record: the sleeve drawn by Robert Crumb. After Columbia rejected the band’s original idea - a photo of them in bed together naked - the band enlisted the cult, oddball artist. Originally, his drawings were intended for the back sleeve, but Joplin insisted it become the cover. It has, of course, become one of the most iconic sleeves in rock ‘n’ roll - a perfect match for the music that sits inside it. 

Mischa Pearlman
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