Big Brother & the Holding Company: Sex, Dope & Cheap Thrills

Big Brother & the Holding Company
Sex, Dope & Cheap Thrills
(Columbia/Legacy)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

It’s 50th anniversary time for the album previously known as Cheap Thrills. But this version, like the singer it features, is different than most. 

Janis Joplin first came to stardom with a fabled performance at June 1967’s Monterey Pop Festival at which point, Big Brother & the Holding Company — the band she fronted — had only delivered a weak debut on the tiny Mainstream label. Clive Davis from Columbia signed them after that explosive gig and off they went to work on their first major label statement. The sessions for that sophomore disc, initially titled Cheap Thrills (shortened from the name of this collection over the objections of the band), were notoriously difficult as the five members, in particular lead singer Joplin, did not connect with producer John Simon. Check out film footage from 1974’s documentary Janis for how difficult and tense that relationship was.

Somehow the stressed partnership yielded six solid studio tracks and a blowout, near-ten-minute closing live presentation of Big Mama Thornton’s “Ball and Chain.”  The final product flew to the top of the charts, going gold, selling millions of copies and ultimately providing a snapshot of the psychedelicized San Francisco counter cultural scene of that time. Joplin, clearly the star of the show, was quickly snatched away for solo stardom, leaving the rest of Big Brother as also-rans, generally disparaged as a scrappy crew whose talent just wasn’t up to the standards a powerhouse like Joplin should be associated with.

While this double disc of 30, mostly unreleased outtakes doesn’t prove that theory wrong, it shows the four players were more accomplished than they are typically given credit for. 

Make no mistake, this is not for the casual listener. Some songs start and end abruptly, the audio wavers from professional to demo quality, and if you thought Big Brother’s approach was ragged on Cheap Thrills, wait’ll you hear these outtakes. Regardless, there is a tough, raw, near primal energy that’s closer to their live sound than what was heard on the finished product.

The opening “Combination Of The Two,” with its scratchy Latin percussion and Sam Andrews’ distorted guitar, sets the tone for the majority of the nearly 2 ½ hour program. Joplin’s in terrific form, barely restrained even on ballads like the band’s cover of “Summertime” (two versions), “Farewell Song” (three cuts of this), and the acoustic barroom blues of “Turtle Blues” (another three takes).

The multiple recordings of tunes that ended up on the album, combined with those captured in these sessions that didn’t make the cut, display just how hard the band worked on this project. Sure, there were misfires like “Easy Once You Know How,” a dated garage blues mess, and the avant-garde styled cacophony of “Harry,” both rightfully left in the vaults. But there is plenty of taut, emotional music too, enough to satisfy the dedicated Joplin fan who is the primary audience for this. And just hearing another, previously unreleased live “Ball and Chain” that totally smokes (recorded post-Monterey Pop on April 12, 1968), is reason enough to rejoice. Liner notes by Grace Slick and especially Big Brother’s Dave Getz provide further colorful background information. 

This is likely the last word on Joplin’s short (1966-’68) but key association with Big Brother & the Holding Company. She had already moved on in her career even as this album was still on the charts. But Sex, Dope & Cheap Thrills fills in crucial missing pieces of the iconic record and makes a worthy addition to it for those looking to explore more of where the mojo that created it came from.