Review #372: Cheap Thrills, Big Brother & the Holding Company

Karla Clifton
3 min readApr 12, 2023

#372: Cheap Thrills, Big Brother & the Holding Company

Since my first Janis review last April, I visited San Francisco, the birthplace of Big Brother & the Holding Company. I eve saw Janis’ house! It’s crazy to think that she was only 25 when this was released. Two years later, she would be dead.

Janis joined the already-established SF band in 1966, gifting them her voice. A gift that may not have been as appreciated as it deserved apparently! Guitarist Sam Andrew gave a kind of annoying interview where he does talk her up, but in the same breath, cuts her down. “We [were] doing this woman a favor to even let her come and sing with us. She came in and she was dressed like a little Texan.” Okay, jealous much?

That said, between Janis, Andrew, and lead guitarist James Gurley, Big Brother kicks ass. This is true rock and roll, proto-heavy metal. Opener “Combination of the Two,” blew me away with the hardcore guitar, and then Joplin’s operatic turn at the end yanked me straight back. I particularly loved the quiet songs where they decide to add in a shrieking guitar solo — see “Summertime” and “Oh, Sweet Mary.”

Their heaviness — plus, of course, Janis — is part of the reason that Big Brother blew up at the Monterey Pop Festival. They were so successful that people were expecting a live album. But instead of that, they essentially duped a live album, with all but one tracks cut in a studio and crowd sounds being added in later. Also, if you’re wondering what that album cover is about, and why Janet’s boobs look so much like that — the group enlisted underground comic book artist R. Crumb to do the album art. And she apparently loved it! So that’s that.

You might be surprised to learn that the two biggest hits are covers. “Piece of My Heart” was an Erma Franklin song, which Janis took and ran with. Erma’s voice is just as powerful as Janis’, but Janis makes the song sadder and desperate, while Erma’s song is defiant. The other cover is of Big Mama Thornton’s “Ball and Chain.” Fun fact, Big Mama Thornton also recorded the first version of “Hound Dog,” and reportedly didn’t love Elvis’ version of it. But she DID love Janis’ cover, saying “That girl feels like I do.”

My favorite songs were actually the ones Janis wrote. “I Need a Man to Love” is the first. Her voice is at its most delicate rasp here, and the way that her band backs her up — Oh it just can’t be — makes up for the annoying way they talk about her. The second is the simple 12-bar “Turtle Blues,” which I kind of saw as her unapologetic theme song: she’s a mean, mean woman/ I don’t mean no one man no good. First of all, relatable. (I too am a mean woman who means no one no good.) Second of all, even though it’s acoustic, it’s just as hardcore as every other song on the record.

I recently read an interview with Janis’ friend Peggy Caserta, who makes many fascinating revelations about the singer (and the much-maligned book she wrote about her in the Seventies), the biggest one being that she doesn’t believe that Janis technically OD’d, but met with an accident while on heroin. I guess I don’t know if that stuff matters in the grand scheme of things. But I also didn’t know her. Maybe to the people that did, it matters a lot.

Review #371: Anthology, The Temptations

Review #373: Hot Buttered Soul, Isaac Hayes