Wonderful liner notes by Mike Fornatale for Charly Records (U.K) release of "The Lost Tapes" re-titled "Ball and Chain"
Heard it before, have you?
"Stunning, newly-discovered acetates/live tapes/studio outtakes" from your favorite band. "Truly a revelation...the missing link...even better than the recordings they actually released…”
And once you've laid down your hard-earned cash, how does your new set of Dead Sea Scrolls usually stack up? Not so much, eh?
This collection will change that for you. I shouldn't re-use the word "stunning" so quickly, but -- well, there is no other word.
These recordings were not made by the fully-formed behemoth of a band that shook the Monterey Pop Festival audience's bones to dust. Or by the band that went into the studio and came back out with Cheap Thrills. What you have here are three gorgeously-recorded live sets -- not the usual muffled, sealed-under-mud documents that one usually hears in live recordings of the era -- with a brilliant bonus: the three shows mark three specific, particular moments in the band's evolution.
First of all: in order to understand Big Brother and the Holding Company, or Jefferson Airplane, or Country Joe and the Fish, or The Grateful Dead, or Quicksilver Messenger Service -- to understand what made this time, this sound, this place so special and unique -- you do need to note where the individual musicians came from and who they were. Big Brother and the Holding Company, like most of the other San Francisco Bay Area bands of its day, was -- unlike the Southern California bands, the New York bands, the Chicago bands -- made up mainly of non-rockers.
The members of these groups came from traditional folk music, from jazz, from bluegrass, from experimental music. At some point someone plugged them into large amplifiers, and a whole new genre was born. Maybe that's a bit too facile, but the point needs to be made: the Bay Area melting pot was not filled with boys who had been playing Chuck Berry or Rolling Stones songs at high school dances for three years, then had their first dose of LSD and presto.
No. In Big Brother -- as in all the rest of the groups that exploded out of San Francisco in 1966 and '67 -- everyone in the band brought something special to the table, and the result was a whole new creation.
(As an aside, if I may, I submit that this is why people who grew up on the music of the Bay Area in the mid-‘60s just don’t understand the latter-day brilliance of, say, The Ramones. The concept of Doing Only One Thing But Doing It Brilliantly isn’t enough for a lot of people who were used to watching a band like Big Brother and the Holding Company or Quicksilver play five different songs at once. There was a lot going on in these songs, in these groups, in this place and time. The pure, simplistic pop music of The Ramones must sound like white noise to many of them.)
Big Brother started out sometime in the second half of 1965 -- with the core of Sam Andrew and Peter Albin joined by guitarist Dave Eskerson and drummer Chuck Jones. Eskerson was replaced, before long, by James Gurley; and Jones sometime in early '66, by David Getz. So they were around and gigging (and quite “famous” in what was still a tight little community of ballroom bands and their local fans) for almost a full year before "The Chick Singer" arrived. And, roughly one month after her arrival, the first of these three live recordings was made.
And you may already know of it. It's made the rounds before -- several times, in fact -- beginning in 1983, as a set called Cheaper Thrills. It's a recording made in July 1966, at San Francisco's California Hall -- very soon after one of the Bay Area's most vital and interesting bands added "a new singer." Seems silly at this late date to even call her just a singer, doesn't it? Janis Joplin pushed Big Brother and the Holding Company out of the pack and right into the forefront, with no blueprint or effort. And this recording was made at precisely the right time to allow you to hear it all actually happening.
It's a tentative start, yes -- not "tentative" in the sense that the band is taking baby steps, but rather in the sense that something very different is going on here and it hasn't quite jelled. In the opening "Let the Good Times Roll," Joplin and Albin are singing in voices that seem a thousand years old -- not those of the young-and-hungry kids that they actually are. It's even, maybe, a bit off-putting -- especially if you make a good effort to hear it with the fresh ears of 1966. What sort of band am I listening to? And what planet are they from? They seem to have descended from a place where Arkansas in the 1850s meets Rigel Seven...
Yet, as the set progresses, they seem more like the Big Brother we know. And it's quite clear that Janis is, at this point, just another member of the band. Albin is as much up-front as she is. His "Moanin' At Midnight" is utterly ferocious -- he may have been the first White Boy to really, truly understand the deep blues, to get under its fingernails and into its heart. (Two separate issues, you understand.)
Additionally, it’s on this song and “I Know You Rider” that Big Brother, in these early days, sounds most like some of the other Bay Area bands. Listen to just the instrumental breaks in these songs, minus the distinctive Albin/Joplin vocals, and you could easily be listening to the same vintage’s Jefferson Airplane or Quicksilver.
“Hey Baby” gives you your first taste of the future Janis -- a raw nerve-ending tossing sparks this way and that. Following which, she tears up future classics "Down On Me" and "Ball and Chain" much as you'd expect she would -- but still with a kind of freshness and "newness" that only an early-days recording can have.
These performances are a revelation. And not in a Beatles-at-Twickenham '69, evolution-through-fifty-takes-of-"Let It Be" sort of way. No, this is a snapshot -- a quick peek through a window into a time when this music (and this band) was becoming itself. These versions stand up very comfortably next to their latter-day counterparts -- less polished, maybe, but with considerably more power, more drive, more FUN.
(Yes, I know. "Ball and Chain" does not, on its surface, suggest "fun." But when you hear it you’ll understand what I mean.)
“Blow My Mind” might be the standout here -- on the surface it’s a simple blues-based form -- but taken at such violent, breakneck speed that it seems only drummer Dave Getz can keep up with the thing, wit the rest of the band hanging on for dear life and Albin wondering where he’ll ever find enough breath to sing it.
In fact, it must be said: as wild and seemingly untamed as Joplin is, Albin manages to “out-feral” her throughout the set. Even early on, you really do get the feeling that he’ll tear his throat to shreds before the evening’s through.
The set closes with the early Big Brother’s show-stopper, “Hall of the Mountain King.” And if that seems trite in 2009, it was certainly nothing of the sort in 1966. For a rock and roll band to riff for seven minutes on an excerpt from a piece of classical music was, at the time, revolutionary. And, again, it must be noted that Janis was just one-fifth of the band at that point -- it meant nothing at all to the audience, seemingly, for her to be completely absent during the closing number.
The second show in this set -- the one that comprises Disc One -- is quite another animal. It was recorded in January 1967 at The Matrix -- the club part-owned by Marty Balin, at which the pre-Grace-Slick Jefferson Airplane was virtually the house band for awhile.
None of these tracks has ever appeared on bootlegs, and the tapes were in fact only recently discovered by the surviving band members. And what a discovery they are. The difference between this set and the earlier one is immediately apparent; more of the songs from the band's debut LP are here, and virtually all of them in breakneck versions that make the studio tracks sound virtually polite by comparison. "Bye Bye Baby," in particular, is the greatest version of that song that you will ever hear. And “Women Is Losers” pounds along with a gentle-but-insistent beat and twin-lead guitar harmony that was unheard-of at the time.
Again, you need to listen to some of this with a fresh pair of January 1967 Ears -- else you'll likely scoff at this acapella-changing-to-steam-locomotive version of "Amazing Grace." What a tired, hack, overdone retread of an idea, eh? Well no -- not if you do it before anyone else does it. And there are many such moments in this set -- including Albin's "Great White Guru" tour de force, with Peter playing the white-suited Southern hell-fire and brimstone preacher (and making Joplin laugh so hard that it seems she can barely stand up) several years before such a character, and his phrasing and speechifying, would enter the American lexicon. In early 1967 this was all wondrously, breathtakingly new -- and we can only guess at what it must have been like to see and hear it back then.
(It must have been fairly popular with Big Brother’s fans, though -- since Peter goes back to the same character in the middle of “Amazing Grace,” and throws Joplin another curveball that leaves her doubled over again: “Well, ah wanna tell yew about a little story that happened to me -- on the way to the synagogue!” Janis starts into her standard reply but then realizes what he’s actually said: “You tell ‘em brotha -- wait, WHAT???”)
From here you’re whisked through some furious garage-punk (“It’s a Deal”) and a sleepy instrumental that builds to a Yardbirds-style rave-up (“Faster Pussycat, Kill Kill”) and then back to Earth, with a fairly straight (by comparison) version of “High Heel Sneakers” by Joplin. But then, the real revelation.
You’ll all be familiar with “Turtle Blues” from the “final” version that eventually appeared on Cheap Thrills. This is something else altogether, and hints at the likelihood that the lazy, piano-based song you’re familiar with may have been more the producer’s concept than the band’s. Because here it’s a smoldering electric blues that sounds like nothing so much as Joplin fronting Hot Tuna. Sam Andrew solos, then James Gurley, and the song gets bigger and bigger until Janis howls the proceedings to a close.
“All Is Loneliness” is a deep mutation of the song that appeared on the band’s first LP -- here it’s a nine-minute raga. And then finally, “Light Is Faster Than Sound.”
The third disc, the DVD, is the real treasure here -- a live warts-and-all performance captured in the studios of KQED-TV (San Francisco's non-commercial Public Broadcasting System station) in April 1967. It's seen here in its entirety for the first time ever, in glorious black-and-white broadcast quality, and it's a revelation indeed. Note the timeline -- it was filmed just weeks before the band's performance at the Monterey International Pop Festival, the show that would catapult them to stardom.
Several things will strike you as you watch it: most of all, again, that this was a BAND. Not just a stellar, stunning frontwoman backed by some deservedly-anonymous musicians, which was -- sadly -- the de rigeur opinion after Janis left the group and went solo in 1969. This performance puts the lie to that ridiculous hypothesis once and for all. Because each band member contributes in irreplaceable fashion.
Next, you notice something else that might not have occurred to you earlier: these were some fine-lookin’ boys. None of your ragamuffin-princes here. None of your just-crawled-off-a-desert-island Hungry Hermits. None of your bear-like, pod-like young men who had nothing going for them other than their ability to coax something entrancing out of a guitar.
No. They’re not “hippies,” with everything that word conjures up for you. They’re all well-and-thoughtfully dressed, for a start. And Sam and Peter are wearing hairstyles which are only in mid-evolution from “parental acceptability” to “EEEEEK!!!” -- a sort of collar-length adaptation of “normal.” Only Getz and Gurley are sporting the Full Freak Flag -- Dave’s is a frizzy, massive, backswept mane, and James’ is a strikingly-long blond curtain of the sort which, in 1967, would have prompted much police attention in the polite suburbs. In fact, he looks like he could be the spawn of Paul Kossoff and David St. Hubbins, if you please. Okay, you probably don’t. Noted.
And then there’s The Girl.
She looks so young here. And so strikingly beautiful, in her own way, as she always did. Do not scoff. Skin problem? Untameable hair? Unfortunate W. C. Fields resemblance? Please. Look at those eyes. LOOK at ‘em. This is the quintessential Girl Next Door Look -- if, mind, you happen to live next door to your little town’s only Hippie Chick. It’s all there, right in those two eyes -- that unique, bewildering combination of timid wallflower and supremely charismatic hellraiser. A combination that, by rights, should not exist -- and rarely has.
Oh, yes, there’s music here, isn’t there. Right. Sorry.
“Down On Me” is the opener. It’s a bit “polite” by comparison to later versions you’ve heard (the band may have found the concept of playing in a stark, deserted TV studio -- with no audience -- to be somewhat daunting) and slightly slower as well. But so powerful -- beautifully filmed, and picking up steam as it goes. It’s interrupted mid-stream by the first of several interview segments -- in which the resolutely deadpan Albin manages to put on the hapless (and mercifully silent-and-invisible) interviewer while simultaneously letting him in on the joke. Lucky interviewer, and woe -- I suspect -- to he who might ever ask a truly stupid question in Peter’s presence.
No point in cataloguing any of this for you, since you’re holding the damned thing right in your hand, but I should go ahead and offer two quotable quotes by way of illustration:
“San Francisco’s a very very relaxed place. We’ve been in Chicago, and, uh, L. A., and Vancouver -- uh -- we haven’t been in Paso Robles, yet.”
“All the rest of the places outside of San Francisco seem to be, how they say, ‘uptight,’ which is a term that refers to ‘uptightness.’”
Following “Down On Me” it’s straight into a song the band refers to as “Cuckoo” but which also borrows liberally from the traditional “Jack Of Diamonds” -- with Gurley and Joplin sharing the lead vocal. It’s frenetic and barely-controlled without being over-loud -- the band here isn’t generating excitement the way rockers do. They’re doing it the way bluegrass bands do, with dynamics and interplay. They’re all listening to each other, watching each other. And it’s in this song in particular that the viewer realizes just exactly who Big Brother’s biggest fan is: it’s Janis Joplin. She’s whooping, hollering, and grinning along like a blissed-out audience member, till it’s her turn to sing -- at which point there’s no mistaking where the camera ought to be looking.
“Hall of the Mountain King,” again -- and even more interesting to watch than it was to simply listen to. In a lesser band’s hands -- and faces -- this song would most certainly carry an air of Look-How-Erudite-We-Are. But here, it fits in seamlessly -- and if you didn’t already know the piece, you’d never suspect its origin. And then it’s the best of the interview segments -- in which Albin, suddenly speaking from the heart and not trying to put on the interviewer, attempts to convey what separates rock and roll from “serious music” -- and, in trying to explain the Bay Area phenomenon, unwittingly describes to a T the ‘70s punk ethos of ten years hence as well. Following which, Janis sums it all up succinctly:
“Playin’ is, like, the mostest fun there is!”
“Blow My Mind” is up next -- and it’s astounding to see how easy Peter and Janis make it look -- roaring for all the world like Lord King and Lady Queen of the Jungle, but with facial expressions that could just as well be conveying “Yes, and a glass of ice water as well, please.”
Then it’s “Ball and Chain,” and suddenly here’s the band that would tear up the Monterey Fairgrounds just a few weeks later. This version is quieter, to be sure -- they are, after all, in a TV studio in 1967 -- but the reduced volume seems to somehow make it all darker, more menacing, more definitive. It’s a revelation to note that Gurley’s other-worldly soloing throughout is being executed fingerstyle -- without a pick and without a net.
And I must commend the director, one Robert N. Zagone -- somehow he resists the temptation, as D. A. Pennebaker was unable to do at Monterey, to sit on Joplin the whole time. Instead the cameras move around the set, slowly, catching the whole band at work throughout. And Janis is shown from several angles -- not just the mane-of-hair-and-tip-of-nose shot you’re used to seeing in Monterey Pop. She tears up the song but never breaks a sweat. If there could be only one filmed performance of Janis Joplin, or of Big Brother and the Holding Company, this is the one.
“Light Is Faster Than Sound” follows. And, perhaps again because of the reserved TV studio environment, the three-part harmonies are spot-on.
The show ends with the band, unseen, playing their very Zappa-esque tone-poem “Harry” under the closing credits. And then, finally, a poignant shot of Joplin looking into the camera and saying simply, “Hi, mom.”
Peter Albin is definitively the band's leader onstage, if in fact there is one. Janis may be the focus for most fans, yes -- but it's Albin who drives the band, who keeps the wheels on the road. And he’s shown here as a more-than-capable singer and frontman as well -- which makes sense, since this was his role before Joplin showed up and turned the band (and the city, and the world) upside-down.
Dave Getz stands apart from the drummers in the other Bay Area bands, the same way John Densmore stands apart from the drummers in the other L.A. bands. He dances in places where others would slam and bang. Most drummers, playing alongside Albin, would feel compelled to tie everything down and just play louder. Not Getz -- he adds to these songs, in places where anyone else would be tempted to just hang on. It's a shame you can't see more of his technique in this film -- but that's the Drummer's Curse, isn't it. In the back and out of sight!
Janis Joplin -- well, there isn't much more that can be said, is there? There have been many other groundbreaking singers in the history of rock and roll -- but what Janis did was truly unique and exemplary. She didn't pull some sort of "newness" from outer space -- she built an entirely new genre out of a purely classic form, even though The Pure Deep Blues was an idiom that most rock and roll fans of the day weren't (yet) familiar with. And it was a revelation. Not just because No Little White Girl Had Ever Sung Like That Before, but because she managed to take it so much further. It's a very long way up the road from the '66 performance's "Let the Good Times Roll" to the DVD's "Ball and Chain." And you, in 2009, finally get to see and hear the entire (forgive me) “trip.”
On the other hand, it's nice to finally be able to see what each of the two guitarists brought to the table in Big Brother. Even though the camera manages to be on the wrong one most of the time -- a maddening but all-too-common feature in most live rock-and-roll video of the day -- the interplay is stunning.
Sam Andrew and James Gurley do not fall into polite "lead guitar/rhythm guitar" categories. Each of them plays both of those roles, often at the same time. But as you watch these performances, you can finally see exactly what each of them is contributing. (Even if you're forced into looking at the other guy at that moment!) Andrew is a classicist; he knows his electric blues, his acoustic blues, his modal folk music, his hootenanny music, his rock and roll. He’s acutely aware of what’s going on around him onstage, and plays off of what he hears. His leadoff solo in “Down On Me” could easily have been played by the Surrealistic Pillow-era Jorma Kaukonen.
(And may even HAVE been, for all we know, since you -- the poor hapless viewer -- are forced to look at James the entire time!)
Gurley, on the other hand, is an explorer -- not only on lead guitar, but on "rhythm" guitar as well. He’s haunted. Possessed. There are times when it’s easy to convince yourself that he’s forgotten there’s anyone else onstage with him.
Halfway through the second song it finally hit me: Sam is a master at playing all the notes that are actually ON the guitar somewhere -- while James is off looking for the other ones.
You doubt this? You only need listen to the very first note in "Ball and Chain." It stops hearts. It makes angels weep.
It's NOT ON THE GUITAR.
-- Mike Fornatale