A Thrill Revisited

Big Brother and the Holding Company’s landmark 1968 LP loses the Crumb but gains the Sex and Dope back into its title on this 50th anniversary reissue

Big Brother and the Holding Company Sex, Dope & Cheap Thrills, Legacy Recordings 1968

It was one of the great live recordings of  the psychedelic era. Cheap Thrills was the breakthrough album for San Francisco-based Big Brother & the Holding Company, with most of the attention centered on the group’s fiery lead singer, Janis Joplin.

Said to have been recorded live at the Fillmore, complete with an introduction by the venue’s owner, Bill Graham (who hails them as “Four gentlemen and one great, great broad”), Cheap Thrills was released in August 1968, topped the album charts, and went on to sell a million copies in its first year of release.

Except it turned out that it wasn’t a live album at all. Ironically, the group tried to record it live, but when the results were deemed unacceptable, they were forced into the studio. The band and producer John Simon were often at odds (the punctilious Simon found Big Brother to be rather sloppy), and it was ultimately decided that pretending as if the album was a live recording might excuse some of the lapses in performance. Audience noises were duly overdubbed, though one track, the closing stunner “Ball and Chain,” was a live performance from another SF club, Winterland.

So Sex, Dope & Cheap Thrills isn’t so much a reissue as it is a reinvention. It uses the group’s original album title, for one thing; in 1968, a nervous Columbia Records had insisted that the words “sex” and “dope” be excised. There’s also a new cover, a photo of the group, in place of comic strip-styled R. Crumb original. But the greatest difference is that the album is completely made up of alternate takes.

Cheap Thrills, the original R. Crumb cover

The first disc largely follows Cheap Thrills’ running order, but uses previously unreleased takes (25 of the album’s 30 tracks are previously unreleased). So Sex, Dope & Cheap Thrills isn’t a replacement for the earlier record; it’s an expansion and deepening of it. It’s for people who can’t get enough of that extraordinary vocal instrument that was Janis Joplin.

 

 

If you know Cheap Thrills backwards and forwards, it’s a nice shake up to hear the variations of old favorites on the new album. “I Need a Man to Love,” for example, is twice as long on SD&CT, settling into a hypnotic groove. “Peace of My Heart” is also longer, rawer, blusier. There’s also some restoration. Side two of the album was meant to open with “Harry,” described by drummer David Getz as a “crazy, abstract, free-jazz freak-out.” The number ran for just over a minute, and was used by the group as a fun way to jumpstart or close their sets. But the record company didn’t get the joke, and it was cut from the album (causing a few problems with Crumb’s already designed cover art; the panel with the man wearing the turban was originally earmarked for the “Harry” song title and credits). Interestingly, a live track (from a different performance than that on Cheap Thrills) is still used for “Ball and Chain”; perhaps the power of this incendiary number just couldn’t be replicated in the studio.

Cheap Thrills on cassette

About half of the tracks are songs that never made it onto Cheap Thrills in any configuration. So that original album could’ve been completely different — but what songs should’ve been replaced? The pile driving “Catch Me Daddy” in place of “My Sweet Mary”? That’s a possibility. “Misery’n” instead of “Turtle Blues”? Maybe not. But it’s nonetheless great to be able to hear the songs, break downs and all, with the studio chat left in (“Don’t stop if you fuck up; let’s get something down they can listen to”). And tracks like the self-explanatorily titled “How Many Times Blues Jam” make you feel like you’re sitting at one of the group’s rehearsals. It might be a studio album, but there’s still a feeling of intimacy.

The overall sound on the new album is also noticeably cleaner than on Cheap Thrills, without the “echo” added to make it sound like the music was being recorded in an auditorium. It’s a new way to experience a classic record — giving you twice as much Janis Joplin to love.

 

 

Gillian G. Gaar

Seattle-based writer Gillian G. Gaar covers the arts, entertainment, and travel.

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