Janis Joplin was a complete phenomenon - with a life as raw, painful, emotional, and fascinating as her singing. For many years I was a Joplin refusenik, thinking that she had a powerful voice, but it was simply too raw and unstructured to be worth serious consideration. I felt that if she had gained some of the control of Aretha Franklin she would have been a significant artist, and that part of her story was that she died before she really learned how to use her voice. Over the years I found myself listening and responding instinctively and at some deep emotional level to more and more of her songs. Over time I have come round to thinking that her voice sounds great exactly how it was. She is what she is. And what she is is something very special that only comes along once in a very long while.
1. Early recordings
2. The moment
3. The albums
4. Compilation albums
"What Good Can Drinking Do" (1962)
A home recording done at a friend's house when Joplin was 19 and covered in acne. This is believed to be the earliest recording of her singing. It's her own song, and is a fairly authentic sounding blues song. The primitive recording makes it sound like a field recording from the 1930s or something! Fascinating.
Assorted recordings (1963)
An assortment of live recordings from 1963.
The Typewriter Tape (1964)
* "Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out"
* "Trouble In Mind"
* "Hesitation Blues"
* "Long Black Train Blues"
A home recording with Jorma Kaukonen on guitar, and his wife Margareta occasionally tapping on a typewriter to provide some percussion (though some sources suggest the noises are incidental, as she was genuinely typing in the background). The recording was released as a bootleg with the title The Typewriter Tape. Kaukonen would later play guitar with Jefferson Airplane. It's basic, uninspired blues material, and Joplin is not using her voice to its full potential at this stage.
This is Janis (1965)
From what I can pick up at the moment this is a seven track demo Joplin recorded in 1965 with just her on acoustic guitar. This wasn't released in her lifetime. In 1995 some musicians were dubbed onto the original tape, and an album released with the title This is Janis. I understand that the original undubbed recordings were released on a comprehensive 9 disc set Blow All My Blues Away in 2012.
Love Pageant Rally (Oct 1966)
This is the earliest filmed footage I have found of Janis Joplin performing. Big Brother played at the Love Pageant Rally in San Francisco in October 1966. It's a silent home movie (which unfortunately someone has dubbed Muzak onto), but it's a fascinating moment in time, and we see Joplin playing to an informal crowd before the success of Monterey.
Monterey Pop Festival (1967) audio only
* "Ball and Chain" from the film
Monterey was set up to introduce unknown and lesser known acts alongside better known acts. At the time Janis Joplin was unknown, and the local band she joined, Big Brother, hadn't even released their first album which they had recorded for a local label (as a result of Monterey, the band were signed to a major label, and the album was re-released). Monterey records her first significant public appearance. A particularly acclaimed shot in the film is of Mama Cass' response during Joplin's astonishing performance of "Ball and Chain". Also noteworthy is the audience's indifferent response to her name when the band are introduced, and the difference to their reaction when she finishes "Ball and Chain". That's the exact moment a star is born. And it's captured on film. That rarely happens.
I was curious as to why in the clip of Joplin at Monterey the band are filmed performing at dusk, with the audience in shade, while Mama Cass is shown in an audience flooded in afternoon sunlight. After doing a bit more research, I find that the band's manager had refused permission for the band to be filmed, so when they performed on the Saturday afternoon. only the audience were filmed - which is why we get Mama Cass' reaction. Joplin's performance of "Ball and Chain" was so stunning that the film makers wanted the band to perform again so they could film it. The band's manager still refused, but the band over-ruled him. There are different versions as to who convinced the band to perform - some sources say it was Bob Dylan's manager, others say it was the band themselves, and one person thinks it was Joplin herself who persuaded the band. Whoever it was, the band performed again on the Sunday evening, and Joplin did it again. I've heard other live performances of "Ball and Chain", including the one included on Cheap Thrills, and none of them quite match her Monterey performance. That is probably Joplin's finest moment.
|Big Brother & The Holding Company (1967)|
The band's debut album was recorded for the Chicago label Mainstream Records in Los Angeles over three days in December 1966. The band had signed with the label when they ended up stranded in Chicago, with no money to get home. They were in Chicago to do a series of concerts, but the promoter went bust after two weeks as the expected audience for Big Brother did not turn up. They did try recording in Chicago, but the results were unsatisfactory, so the label allowed them to go home to San Francisco. They recorded two tracks in Los Angeles, , which were released unsuccessfully as a single, then returned to the Los Angeles studio on 12th December, laying down ten tracks, two of which were released separately as another unsuccessful single. The tracks from the previous single were added to the album, and it was released shortly after the band's success at Monterey. When Columbia took over the band's contract, the album was reissued with the two tracks from the second single, making the album 12 tracks long, and adding the words "Featuring Janis Joplin" on the front cover.
Difference in track listing between the Columbia release and the original Mainstream release
The main comments on this album complain about the production, saying it was rushed. I'm not hearing that, and the evidence doesn't bear it out. The tracks on the album were recorded in two different sessions during December 1966, the second session lasted three days. And this was done after a previous attempt in Chicago in September 1966. So the recordings don't appear by dates to be rushed, and don't sound rushed. The Beatles recorded 10 tracks for their first album in 13 hours over one day, so 10 tracks in four days doesn't seem particularly rushed, particularly as the recording process started three months earlier. The production to my ears sounds crisp and clean and quite professional, and this would be appropriate given the producer was Bob Shad, who had been producing since the 1940s, including musicians such as Dizzie Gillespie, Dinah Washington, and The Platters. It sounds typical of the period, and is probably one of the best aspects of the album, given the weakness of the material, and the inadequate use of Joplin's voice. On some songs she is used simply as a backing singer. This is not a Joplin album, this is a band album, and the band are playing around with the psychedelic sound as explored by Jefferson Airplane, who appear to be a significant influence.
I like the album as an example of early American psychedelia and the San Francisco Sound, and it indicates the direction the band might have taken had the focus not shifted so strongly to Joplin during and after Monterey. It's not so good as an example of Joplin's singing because she is somewhat muted. And I think it is mainly because of that aspect that the album is largely ignored.
"Bye, Bye Baby" is a typical Joplin blues cover, with the raspy vocals we associate from her, and the loose, warm, casual backing from Big Brother. "Easy Rider" is a shambolic country pop Big Brother piece with Joplin only on backing vocals. "Intruder" is a Joplin song that sounds very Jefferson Airplane. "Light is Faster Than Sound" is another Big Brother song in a psychedelic pop style - the emphasis is on the band, with Joplin only on backing vocals. "Call On Me" is a Beatlesesque song with Joplin double tracked and supported in close harmony, which doesn't suit her voice or style. "Women is Losers" is another Joplin song, this one with a crude jug hop backing - she delivers the song well, but its a poor song. "Blindman" is a group composition with Joplin as a backing singer. "Down On Me" is a classic - a traditional song arranged by Joplin, and delivered with strength. "Caterpillar" is a nonsense song with Joplin only on backing group harmony. "All is Loneliness" is a Moondog song - it's more Big Brother than Joplin, with her voice double tracked, and she is one of the voices, albeit the main one. "Coo Coo" and "The Last Time" were added to the album by Columbia; they both sound like Jefferson Airplane, with "The Last Time" being closest to Joplin's typical blues style delivery.
|Cheap Thrills (1968)|
The band's second album, recorded by a major label, and taking advantage of the interest and acclaim Joplin gained after the Monterey appearances. The label, Columbia, wanted to capture the strength and excitement of Joplin's live performances, but the recordings did not work, and the live sound of the first track is apparently added to a studio recording, though the last track, "Ball and Chain", is live, which is what the buyers would want, as it is Joplin's live version of that song at Monterey which people were interested in. The two stand out tracks are famous, "Piece Of My Heart", which was released as a single, and the gentle cover of Gershwin's "Summertime" in which the inappropriately derided Big Brother explore very early use of twin lead guitars. Joplin's own composition "Turtle Blues" is interesting as an authentic blues pastiche, but is not in itself a great song or that well performed (it's rather ragged and amateurish). The rest of the album is OK, but not quite up to the standard of the two famous songs. "Oh, Sweet Mary" is a dreadful track, and is clearly the weakest on the album. The live recording of "Ball and Chain" is good, but does not come close to the Monterey performance.
The album was generally well received by critics, was a commercial hit, and consolidated Joplin's reputation. As with most material involving Joplin, it's very patchy and sloppy. It's far from the album you want it to be. The contemporary review by Rolling Stone perhaps best sums it up. The album cover information says the first two tracks and "Ball and Chain" were recorded at the Fillmore, but "Ball and Chain" is note for note the same as the Winterland performance.
Rolling Stone (1968),
|I Got Dem Ol' Kozmic Blues Again Mama!|
Advised to leave Big Brother, Joplin formed her own band, the Kozmic Blues Band, with a focus on soul which was a format that would be suited to her voice. The band is widely seen as being unsuccessful, and not able to adequately support her, so they were short lived. This is a short album that did not sell as sell as Cheap Thrills, and is not as highly regarded, but does contain "Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)", which was a hit single, and is seen as one of her best tracks, and on the whole the album is attractive, and shows Joplin attempting to control the raw power of her voice. I find this a more successful and listenable album than Cheap Thrills. "Little Girl Blue" is a lovely song, unjustifiably neglected in Joplin's canon.
Recorded with Joplin's third band, the Full Tilt Boogie Band. She died of an overdose before it was completed, but there was enough material to release it posthumously, with "Buried Alive in the Blues" included (rather pointlessly) as an instrumental because Joplin died before doing her vocals on it. It's a patchy album, as with all things Joplin, but does contain nearly all of her best studio recordings - including "Cry Baby" and "Me and Bobby McGee". Quite possibly, after the Monterey "Ball and Chain", Joplin's finest performance, and an indication of the direction she was headed, to become a sensitive singer rather than a belter out of raw emotion. The emotional subtly and delicacy of her singing on that track is quite sublime. Regarded by most as her best album.
|In Concert (1972)|
Because there isn't much studio material, and also because there is both a lot of concert material and a strong interest in Joplin live, a number of the posthumous releases are live recordings. This is the first official release after her death which collects together recordings from the Big Brother and Full Tilt bands.
Score: 5 1/2
|Greatest Hits (1973)|
This is the album I had. It's a useful summary of her best known and most likeable songs. For most people this is all you need. It misses out on some songs I think are particularly fine, but I think that will be true for any collection. It has the advantage, also, of not being overlong. Pearl is her best studio album, this is her best album overall.
A soundtrack album that was released to coincide with the 1974 documentary Janis (see below). It combines album tracks with live performances and TV appearances.
|Farewell Song (1982)|
Contains tracks from various periods in her career not found on previous official releases. The tracks were (slightly controversially) digitally enhanced and in one case the original bass was over dubbed. Its value was decreased by the release of Janis in 1993.
|Live at Winterland '68 (1998)|
Janis with Big Brother on their last tour.
|The Woodstock Experience - Janis Joplin|
Joplin's complete performance at Woodstock - not one of her finest moments, she sounds tired and distracted.
FilmsJanis (1974) - not really a documentary, this is a collection of film clips of interviews, stage and tv performances.
Janis Joplin - Biography Channel documentary
Janis: Little Girl Blue (2015) - an excellent documentary which combines an understanding of the music with an understanding of the person.
This is the extraordinary aspect of Janis Joplin - this and her image. Her voice is quite exceptional. It is a little uncontrolled, and she was working towards gaining some control of it, though much of her appeal rests on the raw energy and passion of her uncontrolled voice.
Her image as a emotionally disturbed and slightly out of control individual matches her passionate out of control singing style. She seems to epitomise the image of a blues singer, and her life style and clothes style epitomises the wild Sixties, when everything seemed possible, and young musicians were pushing the boundaries of everything.
She didn't write much - only four of the songs on her four albums were written by her, though she did contribute to another four. She was, however, a good interpreter of the lyrics of others, and her version of "Me and Bobby McGee" is very sympathetic and moving, while her version of "Ball and Chain" at Monterey is inspired.
She started out copying the style of Blues singers, and did this very well, then got involved in early psychedelia with Big Brother, before starting to move more into soul. The musicianship is not high but is adequate and in keeping with the time. There is much discussion about how weak her supporting musicians were, but it seems to match her own casual style. With Pearl she had more professional musicians, and there was a more professional approach to the singing, but the best of Pearl doesn't quite match the excitement of her singing at Monterey.
She blasted onto the pop scene and made a huge global impact in a short space of time. She was one of the voices of the new generation, and was the most prominent female. In the pop/rock field there was no one to match her for impact until Joni Mitchell, and for many she is still better known than Mitchell. Indeed, it probably isn't until Madonna that we get another female to be as well known. Her influence on other singers at the time, and since is hard to see, though this article asserts (without backing it up with evidence) that she did encourage other female singers into the rock world.
She died before she could really get her act together, so her singing style was still emerging. She had started off copying blues singers, was somewhat in limbo with Big Brother, and then began to get into her stride and find her style with Pearl. Where she would have gone after that is anyone's guess, but as a symbol of a young woman with great vocal power and promise who died early, she is fairly unmatched.
She was the first female star of the rock era, and her name and some of her songs are well known and well liked, though her albums are not among the great all time top sellers.
She was a star. There was a lot of interest in her at the time, and that continues to this day.
Top. Her singing is as raw and emotional as you can get. Her very life was laid bare, and it is painfully emotional. Really, it doesn't get more emotional than Janis Joplin.
I think as long as people listen to music there will be a place for Joplin. Her singing is so exceptionally strong and raw, and is so matched to her life and life-style, that there will be an enduring appeal.
ConclusionEven though I knew her career was short lived, and she didn't release much, I am surprised at how little she recorded, and how little of that is any good. There really isn't one decent album she made, and to fully enjoy Joplin it is best to listen to a decent compilation album. And even though over the years I have come round to enjoying her ragged raw singing style, I do regret she didn't get the control over her voice that the truly great singers have, such as Aretha Franklin. I suppose this performance by Franklin in 2015 gives some indication of what she might have achieved if she had lived, though it is an empty debate as to if she would have matched or succeeded Franklin as a truly great singer.
Best Of The Best
303 April 2019