I was listening to a recent purchase, umm, recently* Blues Pills and really enjoying it, thinking that the singer sounded a lot like Janis Joplin, which got me thinking I hadn’t played any Janis for a very long time. I put it on and … Bang! Janis Joplin Pearl, her (just) posthumous LP from 1971 is the real deal. I can’t remember where I picked up this, suitably, beat up original copy of it, unusually for me.
First off I have to say that Janis Joplin had my favourite ever female voice, and it saddens me sometimes that all you ever tend to see and hear of her is that clip of her belting out ‘Ball and Chain’ with Big Brother & The Holding Company – wonderful and raw though that is, it really is only a fraction of the story, a few notes on the scale. For sure Janis had a mighty ragged Howitzer of a voice but, certainly on Pearl, she is never guilty of just unleashing it and over-singing for the sheer effect of it as so many others do – mistaking volume for emotion**. Just listen to the way she croons, purrs and sings all through the album. But with Janis it’s that unique ragged edge she has, I know it’s the worst kind of cliché and involves a lot of romanticized hindsight, but you feel that every high and low, mostly lows, she sings are real and based on her life and all that living she did. She sells these songs like no other. And since I’m wading through the Lake of Cliché here, I may as well dive in properly and get my long, luxuriant hair wet, I can’t help wondering how much these amazing performances took out of her; how much of herself she had to give, to get this art out of herself.
But this is always the way with the long-gone mythologized early fallen. It’s so difficult to listen to Jimi and Janis, Syd Barrett, Ian Curtis et al. without placing their lives and, more tellingly, their deaths (burn-outs), front and centre of the whole experience. Deep down we love it, voyeuristic little ghouls that we are, we have the complete story in our hands; the art, the life and the death. How many of us out there are secretly glad in some dark recess of our soul that Hendrix never ended up duetting with Clapton and Phil Collins in the 1980’s, or that some ghastly clapped-out version of Janis Joplin never ended up a vocal coach on the X-Factor?
The fact that Pearl was a posthumous album makes this impossible to avoid whilst listening, at least on a low level. Listen to ‘Buried Alive In The Blues’ a Full Tilt Boogie super-fly funky blues instrumental track that she was due to put down vocals on days after she died, or ‘Mercedes Benz’ her last ever session. BUT the beauty here is that Pearl in all its frayed glory is such a wonderfully life-affirming experience, just listen to Janis’ declaration that ‘I’d like to do a song of great social and political import’ and her laughter at the end of ‘Mercedes Benz’^, or the joy in the sheer story-telling of ‘Me & Bobby McGee’, or the upbeat ‘Half Moon’ with its ‘your love brings life to me’ refrain.
Right from the first seconds of ‘Move Over’ Pearl commands you to listen, demands your attention and that’s just the opening 6 seconds of drums from Clark Pierson laying down a fantastic go-go beat before Janis enters the fray and lays everything to waste with that voice. At the moment my favourite things about this track is the way her voice follows the beat and the organ stabs from Ken Pearson. This really is my favourite piece of music in the world by far at the moment and you can bang your head / nod emphatically to that organ, easily.
I’m surprised that Janis Joplin is remembered as an artist more in the rock and pop tradition than as a soul artist, because whilst Pearl has fine moments of all three the lasting impression I’m left with is of a terrific-sounding soul album – maybe this is just a product of the whole binary nature of US radio at the time; although I suspect that colour issues aside, Joplin’s vocals and Full Tilt Boogie’s arrangements were just too full-on for the increasingly slick soul tastes of the times. you want proof? check out the Bobby Womack-penned ‘Trust Me’, there’s real hurt and desire in those grooves, real feeling, real soul. In modern terms a lot of this music may be urban, but it is a million miles from urbane – which is precisely why I like it so much.
Full Tilt Boogie merit a proper mention too, never spoken about in the same reverential manner as Big Brother & The Holding Company, they seem to get a bit of a dismissive press. Nonsense. You may not have any sky-scraping virtuosos here but that wasn’t part of their brief on Pearl. Their job was to provide great backing for a great singer, melding several genres at once and quite simply, they smashed it. They’re all great but my ears just zero in on that organ sound every time, take another bow Mr Pearson. And whilst we’re at it producer Paul A Rothchild, of the Doors and (more relevantly to this LP’s sound) the Butterfield Blues Band-fame does a perfect job, the sound is full, warm, balanced – everything this record needed it to be.
If you want a good snapshot of why this album is so great check out ‘Cry Baby’, which sounds like the Rolling Stones fronted by an anguished female Otis Redding**. Plenty of volume here but without taking a stroll down Histrionic Street (just off Melodrama Avenue) and Janis even gets a talkie bit in towards the end! Be still by beating heart! Perfect, or as near as we’ll get down here.
Can you tell I’m a fan?
*note to self, you’re never going to win the Nobel prize for music blogging if you can’t ‘spress yourself better than that.
**one of my all-time pet hates and the reason that huge swathes of soul, in particular, remain uninhabitable for me.
^surely one of the most unlikely songs used for advertising ever? do the people who actually sign these things off listen to them first? what’s next using Dylan’s ‘Masters of War’ to advertise Lockheed Martin?
**Stones comparison interesting given Jerry Ragovoy, who co-wrote this, also penned ‘Time Is On My Side’ for England’s newest hit makers.