Fifty years ago, Big Brother & The Holding Company with lead singer Janis Joplin released their seminal record Cheap Thrills. The album was a runaway success and made Joplin a star because of her earthshaking renditions of such songs as George and Ira Gershwin’s “Summertime”, Big Mama Thornton’s “Ball and Chain”, and Jerry Ragovoy and Bert Berns’ “Piece of My Heart”. That music is still available today for streaming or purchase at many sites. This is something different.
To celebrate the anniversary of the original release, Columbia/Legacy Recordings has just issued a new collection of material from the band at that time period. Sex, Dope & Cheap Thrills features 30 rare performances on two CDs, including 29 studio outtakes (25 previously unreleased) from the 1968 sessions that generated Cheap Thrills. Is this record as good as the first one from 50 years ago? Hell no! There is a reason these alternate tracks weren’t chosen for release. A head to head comparison of songs like “Summertime” and “Piece of My Heart” (of which there are two other versions here) to the originals makes this abundantly clear.
Is the material any good? Hell yes! This is Janis and the band (Sam Andrew and James Gurley on guitar, Peter Albin on bass and Dave Getz on drums) playing in a groove as the quintessential San Francisco band when San Francisco was the center of the musical universe. All 30 tracks have merit, and the differences between these renditions and the original ones shows the musicians were still experimenting with the songs as organic entities. Sometimes this can lead to a dead end, but that’s part of the process. Sex, Dope & Cheap Thrills (which incidentally was the name the band wanted to give the first album but shortened by the record company that will still profit from it today) shows the shagginess of Big Brother & The Holding Company. The fact that it is not a tight band is a good thing. Songs like “Turtle Blues” and “I Need a Man to Love” offer a sloppy, generous vibe. The musicians give each other slack and a smile to encourage expressiveness—even on the just danged silly, faux psychedelia of “Harry”.
Joplin is the main attraction here. While the other members of Big Brother & The Holding Company are talented co-conspirators, her talent far outshines her peers. Their noodling on songs like “Oh Sweet Mary” showcases their psychedelic blues band abilities. They are far out, indeed. When Joplin opens her mouth, a whole new universe of depth emerges. There is more magic in her holding a single note than there is in the rest of the band’s collections of measures.
The music on this collection still rocks after 50 years. Joplin and the rest of Big Brother passionately and spiritedly sing and play. The between song banter and joking included here shows the good-natured atmosphere in the studio. This may not be their finest versions of the individual tracks, but second rate Janis Joplin is worth more than one hundred _____________ (fill in the blank with almost everybody else).