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Janis Joplin’s time in the San Francisco blues crew Big Brother and the Holding Co. was relatively short, only a couple of years — just long enough to record two albums and become an era-defining flashpoint at the Monterey Pop Festival. Their second album, 1968’s Cheap Thrills, became an acid-rock landmark thanks to the barnburner “Piece of My Heart,” a sultry cover of “Summertime” and the crushing, epic cover of Big Mama Thornton’s “Ball and Chain.” It went to Number One and was certified gold and within a few months of its release, Joplin quit to become a solo star.
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The new compilation, Sex, Dope & Cheap Thrills, takes its title from the band’s original pitch for the name of the LP (the squares at the record label weren’t having it) and contains nearly two-and-a-half hours of alternate takes and live recordings from the Cheap Thrills era. Most of them are previously unreleased. The live recording of “Ball and Chain” sports a heavier beat and Joplin’s double-fried vocals — a stunning performance — followed by unreasonably polite applause.
The three alternate takes of “Piece of My Heart” have a similar energy to the more familiar version, but show just how vibrant Joplin was at the sessions. And the second disc’s first take of “Summertime” captures a brilliant performance that would have been a thing of legend if the band hadn’t fallen apart at the end.
Other standouts include the foot-stomping “How Many Times Blues Jam,” an extended, wailing take on “I Need a Man to Love” and a charging, soulful take of “Combination of the Two.” There’s also studio banter, like Joplin cackling gloriously and saying, “I knew it was gonna take us all night,” before the ninth take of the oddball “Harry” and three takes of “Turtle Blues” on which Joplin talks out the feel of the song.
Also notable are the liner notes. The Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick remembers Joplin as a vivacious, joyful force and the Big Brother band as having a “down home” vibe. Meanwhile, drummer Dave Getz offers lively accounts of making the album and working with illustrator Robert Crumb on its problematic, iconic cover – and how the latter was stolen only to be sold at auction for a quarter of a million dollars. It’s the Janis Joplin bonus content you never knew you wanted.
For a band that recorded one of the seminal albums of 1968, a pretty important year in the history of rock, Big Brother & the Holding Company don't get much respect. Their second album, 1968's Cheap Thrills, was a major popular and critical success in its day, but a great deal of the credit is usually given to their lead singer, Janis Joplin, while her bandmates are often regarded as also-rans who rode her coattails in their day in the sun.
The 2018 collection Sex, Dope & Cheap Thrills is a fine starting point for a reassessment of Big Brother; it features 29 outtakes from the Cheap Thrills sessions, most of them unreleased, along with one live number from 1968, and as the songs evolve over multiple takes, they give a clearer picture of how important the musicians were to Joplin's creative development, and vice-versa. Guitarists Sam Andrew and James Gurley took the mix of blues and psychedelia that was common among San Francisco bands of the day and gave it a hard-edged attack and adventurous melodic sense -- a distinct, roaring sound that was robust and room-filling, with clean lead lines riding over a gloriously dirty bedrock.
Bassist Peter Albin and drummer Dave Getz were a rhythm section that was equally comfortable with the group's rock and blues facets, and together they created a sound that was big but also left just enough room for Joplin's voice.
And while Joplin would work with more technically skilled sidemen after leaving Big Brother, she ultimately never had more sympathetic collaborators than these guys. She doesn't sound like a vocalist with a backing group behind her on these tracks, she's part of a band, and there's a give and take and a sense of freedom and possibility that's unique in her recorded work as she puts her heart and soul into this music. While the sequence jumps back and forth between various takes of the songs that comprised Cheap Thrills (along with the deliberately silly unreleased tune "Harry" and a few other songs abandoned along the way), the versions that comprised the final product are not included, making this set feel like the bonus material in a box set that somehow lacks the main attraction.
However, if few of these performances seem noticeably superior to what was on Cheap Thrills, the live-in-the-studio approach allows each take to have a personality of its own, and Vic Anesini's mixes are clean and clear enough to fully appreciate the interplay between the musicians, especially the guitars of Andrew and Gurley.
Cheap Thrills was the album that made Janis Joplin one of the biggest stars of her era (and rightly so), but Sex, Dope & Cheap Thrills reminds us she didn't go it alone, and it's the work of a strong and memorable band as well as a world-class singer.
The Original Album: Cheap Thrills
Cheap Thrills is a studio album by American rock band Big Brother and the Holding Company. It was their last album with Janis Joplin as lead singer. For Cheap Thrills, the band and producer John Simon incorporated recordings of crowd noise to give the impression of a live album, for which it was subsequently mistaken by listeners. Only the final song, a cover of "Ball and Chain", had been recorded live (at The Fillmore in San Francisco).
Cheap Thrills reached number one on the charts for eight nonconsecutive weeks in 1968.
Big Brother obtained a considerable amount of attention after their 1967 performance at the Monterey Pop Festival, and had released their debut album, the eponymously titled Big Brother and the Holding Company, soon after. The followup, Cheap Thrills, was a great success, reaching number one on the charts for eight nonconsecutive weeks in 1968.
Columbia Records offered the band a new recording contract, but it took months to get through since they were still signed to Mainstream Records. The album features three cover songs ("Summertime", "Piece of My Heart" and "Ball and Chain"). The album also features Bill Graham, who introduces the band at the beginning of "Combination of the Two". The album's overall raw sound effectively captures the band's energetic and lively concerts. The LP was released in both stereo and mono formats with the original monophonic pressing now a rare collector's item.
Artwork and title
The cover was drawn by underground cartoonist Robert Crumb after the band's original cover idea, a photo of the group naked in bed together, was vetoed by Columbia Records. Crumb had originally intended his art for the LP back cover, with a portrait of Janis Joplin to grace the front. But Joplin—an avid fan of underground comics, especially the work of Crumb—so loved the Cheap Thrills illustration that she demanded Columbia place it on the front cover. It is number nine on Rolling Stone's list of one hundred greatest album covers. Crumb later authorized the sale of prints of the cover, some of which he signed before sale.
In an interview for the AIGA, Columbia Records art director John Berg told design professor Paul Nini, "[Janis] Joplin commissioned it, and she delivered Cheap Thrills to me personally in the office. There were no changes with R. Crumb. He refused to be paid, saying, 'I don't want Columbia's filthy lucre.'"
In at least one early edition, the words "HARRY KRISHNA! (D. GETZ)" are faintly visible in the word balloon of the turbaned man, apparently referring to a track that was dropped from the final sequence. The words "ART: R. CRUMB" replace them.
Initially, the album was to be called Sex, Dope and Cheap Thrills, but the title was not received well by Columbia Records.
Cheap Thrills was released in the summer of 1968, one year after their debut album, and reached number one on the Billboard charts in its eighth week in October. It kept the top spot for eight (nonconsecutive) weeks, while the single "Piece of My Heart" also became a huge hit. By the end of the year, it was the most successful album of 1968, having sold nearly a million copies. The success was short-lived however, as Joplin left the group for a solo career in December 1968.
In a contemporary review, Rolling Stone magazine's John Hardin believed Cheap Thrills lives up to its title and is merely satisfactory: "What this record is not is 1) a well-produced, good rock and roll recording; 2) Janis Joplin at her highest and most intense moments; and 3) better than the Mainstream record issued last year." Robert Christgau was more enthusiastic in his column for Esquire and called it Big Brother's "first physically respectable effort", as it "not only gets Janis's voice down, it also does justice to her always-underrated and ever-improving musicians." He named it the third best album of 1968 in his ballot for Jazz & Pop magazine's critics poll.
In a retrospective review, AllMusic's William Ruhlmann hailed Cheap Thrills as Joplin's "greatest moment" and said it sounds like "a musical time capsule [today] and remains a showcase for one of rock's most distinctive singers." Marc Weingarten of Entertainment Weekly called it the peak of blues rock, while Paul Evans wrote in The Rolling Stone Album Guide (2004) that the record epitomizes acid rock "in all its messy, pseudo-psychedelic glory".
In 2003, Cheap Thrills was ranked #338 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. The magazine previously ranked it #50 on their Top 100 Albums of the Past 20 Years list in 1987. It is also listed in the book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die. On March 22, 2013, the album was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the Library of Congress and thus it was preserved into the National Recording Registry for the 2012 register. The album was named the 163rd best album of the 1960s by Pitchfork.
• Janis Joplin – vocals
• Sam Andrew – lead guitar, bass, vocals
• James Gurley – guitar
• Peter Albin – bass, lead guitar on 'Oh, Sweet Mary'
• Dave Getz – drums
• Robert Crumb – cover artwork
01. Combination of the Two (Take 3) 05:33
02. I Need a Man to Love (Take 4) 8:05
03. Summertime (Take 2) 04:10
04. Piece of My Heart (Take 6) 04:55
05. Harry (Take 10) 01:12
06. Turtle Blues (Take 4) 04:46
07. Oh, Sweet Mary 04:23
08. Ball and Chain (Live, the Winterland Ballroom, April 12, 1968) 07:28
09. Roadblock (Take 1) 05:42
10. Catch Me Daddy (Take 1) 05:34
11. It’s a Deal (Take 1) 02:42
12. Easy Once You Know How (Take 1) 04:35
13. How Many Times Blues Jam 05:26
14. Farewell Song (Take 7) 05:02
01. Flower in the Sun (Take 3) 03:13
02. Oh Sweet Mary 06:55
03. Summertime (Take 1) 03:14
04. Piece of My Heart (Take 4) 04:07
05. Catch Me Daddy (Take 9) 03:15
06. Catch Me Daddy (Take 10) 04:22
07. I Need a Man to Love (Take 3) 07:08
08. Harry (Take 9) 01:11
09. Farewell Song (Take 4) 04:27
10. Misery’n (Takes 2 & 3) 03:58
11. Misery’n (Take 4) 04:58
12. Magic of Love (Take 1) 03:19
13. Turtle Blues (Take 9) 03:59
14. Turtle Blues (last verse Takes 1-3) 04:35
15. Piece of My Heart (Take 3) 04:32
16. Farewell Song (Take 5) 05:12
Bonus: The Original Cheap Trills Album, US 1968
01. "Combination of the Two" (Sam Andrew) – 05:47
02. "I Need a Man to Love" (Andrew, Joplin) – 04:54
03. "Summertime" (George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin, DuBose Heyward) – 04:00
04. "Piece of My Heart" (Bert Berns, Jerry Ragovoy) – 04:15
05. "Turtle Blues" (Joplin) – 04:22
06. "Oh, Sweet Mary" (Peter Albin, Andrew, David Getz, James Gurley, Joplin) – 04:16
07. "Ball and Chain" (Big Mama Thornton) – 09:37
08. "Roadblock" (studio outtake) - 05.33
09. "Flower in the Sun" (studio outtake) - 03.05
10. "Catch Me Daddy" (live) - 05.31
11. "Magic of Love" (live) - 00.58
12. "Summertime [Live Woodstock] - 05.04
13. "Piece of My Heart [Live Woodstock] - 06.32
Rare Letters by Cathrin Curtis (Janis Joplin)
01. What Good Can Drinkin' Do - 02.49
02. I Bring The News - 02.43
03. I'm Somebody Important - 01.39
04. Did I Tell You About My Reviews - 01.07
05. I'm Sorry,Sorry - 00.51
06. A Happening - 02.02
07. He's A Beatle, Mother - 01.35
08. I May Be A Star Someday - 02.01
09. Twenty-Five - 01.29
Part 1: Cheap Thrills
Part 2: Cheap Thrills
Part 3: Cheap Thrills
Part 1: Cheap Thrills
Part 2: Cheap Thrills
Psty 3: Cheap Thrills
Part 1: Cheap Thrills
Part 2: Cheap Thrills
Part 3: Cheap Thrills