Posts Tagged ‘Big Brother & The Holding Company’

One Part Bliss, Two Parts Agony

Wednesday, June 16th, 2010

What is it that qualifies a record for my Ultimate Jukebox?

Well, it’s not universal acclaim, for there are few records that would qualify under so stringent a rule. I’d hazard that a few Beatles records might. (The 1992 edition of the Rolling Stone Album Guide noted that “not liking the Beatles is as perverse as not liking the sun.”) I do have two records by the Beatles among the songs I’ll be featuring here, but they are, I guess, quirky picks and thus might not find unanimous support. And if Beatles records aren’t unanimous choices, I don’t know what records might be.

Obviously, the records highlighted here are songs that move me one way or another: Some of them make me want to dance (a sight not often granted to non-family members, which is good for the welfare of all). Some of them astound me musically. Some take me to other places and times, both good and ill, and some remind me that there were times when folks were making great music in many places before I was aware of it or even before I was born. And some of them tug on my emotions, bitter and sweet alike.

“Cherish” by the Association is one of the latter. It’s also a record that I once acclaimed as the perfect single or as near as one can get to a perfect single or something like that. And I still think it’s that good. So did a lot of people: Written by Association member Terry Kirkman and produced by the legendary Curt Boettcher, the record spent three weeks at No. 1 during the early autumn of 1966.

And “Cherish” is one of those relatively rare pre-1969 pop/rock records that broke through to me at the time of its release, during the years before I became an active Top 40 listener. Romantic that I was even at the age of thirteen, I’d had crushes, but I recall thinking as I sorted out the record’s lyrics that “Cherish” was describing something several magnitudes greater, a kind of worshipful enchantment that I thought – admittedly vaguely; I was thirteen – must be one part bliss and two parts agony at the same time.

When I finally got my own futile chance to truly cherish someone a few years later, I learned I was right. Even so, or maybe because of the formative memory, “Cherish” remains atop my all-time list:

A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 21
“Yakety Yak” by the Coasters, Atco 6116 [1958]
“Cherish” by the Association, Valiant 747 [1966]
“Piece of My Heart” by Janis Joplin/Big Brother & The Holding Company, Columbia 44626 [1968]
“Going Up The Country” by Canned Heat, Liberty 56077 [1968]
“Spirit in the Sky” by Norman Greenbaum, Reprise 0885 [1970]
“Dreams” by the Cranberries from Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We? [1993]

“Yakety Yak” was one of the little playlets that writers Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller put together for the Coasters and other R&B groups during the mid- to late 1950s. The genius of the song is having the tale told almost entirely from the father’s perspective; as I hear it, “Yakety Yak” is the only thing the kid gets to say. And that’s trumped every time by Dad’s “Don’t talk back!” Add to that a stellar saxophone solo by the great King Curtis, and it’s no wonder that “Yakety Yak” was a No. 1 hit, reaching that spot for a week on the Top 100 chart of the time, and topping that era’s R&B chart for seven weeks.

“Piece of My Heart,” which is almost entirely linked to Janis Joplin these days, was originally recorded by Erma Franklin, Aretha’s sister. Franklin’s R&B/soul version of the song did fairly well, making it to the Top Ten of the R&B chart and to No. 62 on the pop chart. Then Joplin and her backing band of the time, Big Brother & The Holding Company, got hold of the song and drenched it in acid. By the time Joplin and her band were done, the song was hers, though I think one can hear echoes of Franklin’s performance in Joplin’s work. The record was released as a single and went to No. 12 during the autumn of 1968.

When those of us of a certain age hear the opening riff to Canned Heat’s “Going Up The Country,” most of us, I’d wager, see the opening sequence to the 1970 documentary Woodstock, which tells the tale of the legendary three-day music festival of the previous summer. The use of the blues ’n’ boogie band’s anthem for the film was a brilliant idea, benefitting both film and band. Now, Canned Heat was hardly unknown at the time, as “On The Road Again” had gone to No. 16 in the autumn of 1968 and “Going Up The Country” had reached No. 11 as 1968 turned into 1969, but I’m sure that the group became far more visible as a result. In another vein, I still have fun demonstrating to music-attuned visitors the opening riff on the quills from Henry Thomas’ 1928 recording of “Bull Doze Blues,” clearly the source of the opening flute riff of “Going Up The Country.”

When my mind wanders to the topic of my favorite one-hit wonders, Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit In The Sky” usually floats to the top of the pool fairly quickly. I like too many one-hit wonders to be able to sort out an utter favorite, but Greenbaum’s fuzz-drenched single – which went to No. 3 in the spring of 1970 – would certainly be one of the finalists. I’ve seen it lumped in at times with other hit songs of its era that actively promoted religion (see “Put Your Hand In The Hand” by Ocean, as an example), but I don’t think “Spirit In The Sky” is quite as clear in its theology. Not that it matters when the guitar solo hits.

The shimmering and jangly “Dreams” remains an enigma to me. It’s not the lyrics, which tell a pretty straight-forward tale. Nor is it the music, per se. What still puzzles me is Dolores Riordan’s odd keening. Don’t get me wrong, I like it. But it’s such an odd sound – I like odd sounds, sometimes – that I sometimes wonder at the popularity of the Cranberries during the 1990s.  When I first heard the Cranberries sometime around 1993 – almost certainly on Minneapolis’ Cities 97 – I was intrigued but I figured I’d be part of a minority. If so, it was a substantial minority, as the Cranberries did quite well: The group’s debut, Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We?, was a Top 20 album and “Dreams” made it to No. 42 in the Billboard Hot 100. After that, the three succeeding albums went to No. 6, No. 4 and No. 13 before 2001’s Wake Up And Smell The Coffee reached only No. 46. That’s a pretty good run; I won’t say “Dreams” is the best the group did in that run, but it is the track I like the best.

Taking A Few Days Off

Thursday, February 18th, 2010

The Texas Gal is taking a few days off, and I’m going to join her. I should be back here Monday or Tuesday with another six songs for the Ultimate Jukebox. In the meantime, enjoy this little nugget from a long-ago February. And then go read a book or something.

“Down On Me” by Big Brother And The Holding Company (with Janis Joplin)
Live in Detroit in February 1968
From Joplin in Concert [1972]