When a young Janis Joplin hitched her way to San Francisco in the early ‘60s, she sang with numerous local groups, before returning to her native Texas in 1966, disillusioned and pondering on a life of domesticity. She briefly rehearsed with The 13th Floor Elevators, then soon made her way back to California, this time joining Big Brother & The Holding Company (at the behest of rock promoter Chet Helms), an outfit of shaggy, psychedelic misfits, who would prove to be a perfect fit for Joplin’s unique vocal style and personality.
Big Brother began life in 1965 in the Haight-Ashbury, and while there had been a couple of line up changes, by the time Janis appeared, the band consisted of James Gurley and Sam Andrew on guitar, Peter Albin on bass, and David Getz on drums. Signed to Mainstream Records, their debut was released in August 1967 (though sessions took place December 1966) just a couple of months after the band had delivered two blistering sets at the Monterey Pop Festival.
On opener “Bye, Bye Baby” Joplin delivers one of her finest performances at that point in her career. “Easy Rider” is a bit of sloppy, hippie folk-rock nonsense (Janis sings backing vocals only), while the band manage to fire up (just a little) on “Intruder”, a Joplin original, where she wails away on top of the polite arrangement. “Light is Faster than Sound”, written by Peter Albin, is a perfect example of why some people shouldn’t do drugs. Or if you do, then make sure you’re talented enough to write a decent tune, otherwise don’t torture the world with inanity such as this. Who did Albin think he was, Syd Barrett?
“Call On Me” has some endearing, old fashioned moments to it, while the band gets all bluesy on “Women is Losers”, no doubt an extremely personal theme in Joplin’s life, and one which contains the rather cheeky line “men always seem to end up on top”. On “Blindman” the band are collectively searching for a “way to get home”, but what “home” are they referring to exactly? Certainly not the psychedelic slums of Haight-Ashbury.
Janis gives it her all on her own arrangement of the traditional gospel number “Down On Me”, effectively transforming the song into something less religious than the original (to make it more appealing to the radio apparently). What it proves is that without her input and involvement, Big Brother might still have been scratching their arses for a living. Albin’s “Caterpillar” is simply embarrassing, however album closer “All is Loneliness” is actually pretty good. Credited to someone known only as Moondog, it’s a mood piece to be sure, and one the group would stretch out on when playing live, to far better affect, as the version on the posthumous Joplin in Concert attests to.
The 1999 remastered edition comes with four bonus tracks. The almost spaghetti western “Coo Coo”, originally issued as a single and not included on the original LP, followed by “The Last Time”, another ‘I love you but you don’t love me’ number, however one gets the feeling that when Janis sings the lines “Well you told me that you love me, I believed you darling/But you lied, you know it’s not true/Hold on to my heart, I’ll believe it till you’re leaving/Then I’ll cry”, this woman’s truly wailing from the soul. “Call On Me” and “Bye, Bye Baby” are alternate takes that are both interesting in their subtle differences to the chosen masters, but not much more than that.
After listening to this album a number of times, what is clear is that the LP should have been titled Janis Joplin (Featuring Big Brother & The Holding Company), not the other way around. In other words, Janis was the star, and the one whom ultimately the crowds came to see – something that could mean only one thing – a solo career. Which is precisely what she did, and who can blame her? However there would be one more record with Big Brother, the far superior Cheap Thrills, and a release that would see the band become a major success, both artistically and commercially.
It has to be said that the ‘60s counter culture was a largely male-dominated one, where strong women, as far as the rock industry was concerned, were few and far between. Janis was a hedonistic rebel, an often lonely eccentric, not to mention brilliant performer, like a Bessie Smith on psychedelics, who poured her heart out through every song, as if her very existence depended on it. One can’t get any closer to the human condition than that, surely.