For many aspiring rock bands, signing a record deal is a dream come true. For Big Brother & the Holding Company, it was more a matter of fiscal necessity.
In September 1966, the San Francisco band – which included guitarists Sam Andrew and James Gurley, bassist Peter Albin, drummer Dave Getz and singer Janis Joplin – found themselves stranded in Chicago. Even though they were paid for some performances at Mother Blues, there wasn’t enough money for plane tickets back to California. Bob Shad of the California-based independent record label Mainstream Records offered a solution: Sign a contract to make the money. Up until that point, Mainstream produced jazz albums. Big Brother & the Holding Company would be the label’s first rock act.
Looking back, it was a rushed decision, but, as Albin recalled to Relix in 1992, the band was eager to keep Joplin as their lead singer. “We thought that it might lock Janis into the group a little bit better,” he said. “[But] it was definitely a mistake. It cost us a lot of money. We never got paid any of the revenues from that record.”
It had been only eight months since the band’s debut performance together at the Trips Festival in January 1966. And Joplin still hadn’t fully developed her big voice. “We weren’t flattened by her, and she wasn’t flattened by us,” Andrew said in a later interview. “It was probably a pretty equal meeting. She was real intelligent, Janis was, and she always rose to the occasion. She sang the songs. It wasn’t like this moment of revelation like you would like it to be. Like in a movie or something. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, my God, now we have gone to heaven. We have got Janis Joplin.’ I mean, she was good, but she had to learn how to do that. It took her about a year to really learn how to sing with an electric band.”
On the flip side, it was Joplin who brought some structure to the fledgling group. “We would put bacon in a hot plate on an amp and plug the hot plate into the amplifier and play the song until the bacon was cooked and then we would stop playing the song and eat the bacon. Now, Janis is not going to put up with that,” Andrew recalled. “I think it was like a thought experiment or something … we had a lot of things going like that where we would play real loud and because of the strange sounds in that, it would shift into a different gear and kind of levitate and go somewhere else into intuition land. It was a lot of fun but you can’t do that with a singer.”
That kind of experimentation also wasn’t going to fly during recording.”In the studio, you have headphones on,” Andrew explained. “You are not playing with everyone. It is just a totally artificial thing. You have to learn how to work within that. … It is an entirely different thing and we were all intimidated by it.”
Plus, the band’s two guitarists were coming from different points of view and had to learn how to interact with one another’s playing styles. Andrew was more structurally inclined; Gurley was the opposite. “I just always learned by ear, so I had a more emotional approach to it because I didn’t have any technique there or technical-theoretical nonsense to get in the way of something,” Gurley said in 1978. “It was a little hard at first because I didn’t understand the technical things that [Andrew] would be talking about, and he wouldn’t understand the emotional intensity place that I was coming from.”
Recording sessions started in Chicago, but after the results were unsatisfactory, the band made its way back to Los Angeles, where they finished recording the rest of the songs. In July 1967, the first single from the album, “Blind Man” with “All Is Loneliness” as the B-side, was released, but it earned little attention beyond the Bay Area. A month later, on Aug. 23, 1967, the band’s self-titled debut album came out on Mainstream.
But it was far from the acid-rock sound the band became known for. Much of Big Brother & the Holding Company even leans toward country rock. “They put this out and [we] just hated it,” Andrew said. “It sounded really weak and folk rocky.”
Listen to Big Brother & the Holding Company’s ‘Blind Man’
Clocking in at less than 24 minutes, the LP contained mostly original numbers contributed individually by each member (“Blindman” is the only track to be credited to all five of them). Joplin, for her part, didn’t put much stock in her writing.
“I’m not really a songwriter,” she said in a 1968 interview. “When I write a tune, it’s just about the way I feel. My songs sort of sound the same after awhile. … I can only write about the inside of Janis Joplin, that’s the only thing I can write about.”
A handful of the album’s songs were arranged by Joplin, including “Down on Me,” “an old spiritual that we had originally gotten from listening to a John Lomax recording of slaves washing their clothes in a river in Mississippi in the early 1900s,” Albin recalled. “She liked that sort of stuff, and she adapted the words to be her own and more contemporary.”
Watch Big Brother & the Holding Company Perform ‘Down on Me’ in 1968
A month before the album’s release, the band appeared at the Monterey Pop Festival, where they performed several tracks that appeared on the LP and effectively cemented themselves as a popular live act. Joplin, in particular, had blown away the audience with her voice and stage presence.
Without intending to, Joplin represented a different sort of American woman, the opposite of what she called “bleach-blonde cellophane chicks.” It wasn’t meant to be a political statement, but Joplin touched on what it was like to be a woman in a male-dominated industry. “Well, I know you must have heard it all,” she sang in the self-penned “Women Is Losers.” “And everywhere men always seem to end up on top.“
She was met with both applause and criticism in the women’s-liberation movement, with some implying that Joplin was too liberated. “How can they attack me?” she asked The Village Voice in 1970. “I’m representing everything they said they want. You know what I mean? Well, I have an opinion about this. It’s sort of like: You are what you settle for. Do you know what I mean? You’re only as much as you settle for. If they settle for being somebody’s dishwasher that’s their own fucking problem. If you don’t settle for that and you keep fighting it, you know, you’ll end up anything you want to be.”
Listen to Big Brother & the Holding Company’s ‘Women Is Losers’
Big Brother & the Holding Company peaked at No. 60 on the Billboard 200 in October and remained on the chart for 30 weeks. Columbia Records eventually took over the band’s contract and rereleased the album — this time with the words “Featuring Janis Joplin” on the cover – in 1970. “We said, ‘These tapes are no good,'” Gurley later recalled. “‘We want to do them over again and do them right,’ because they were just made overnight.” The updated version included two new songs: Albin’s “Coo Coo” and Joplin’s “The Last Time.”
By then, the band had risen to national prominence, achieving the recognition they had always hoped for.
“I felt like I was expressing them as much as me,” Andrew said in 1978. “It wasn’t like relating to an audience – in other words, that those were the record buyers out there. It was more like, ‘We’re all in this together and we’re really doing something that the world needs.'”
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