The digital radio display showed “Big Brother and the Holding Company.” Remembering their songs from childhood years, it would have been disappointing if the voice had been other than that of Janis Joplin. Despite the band existing for decades after the death of their former lead singer, it is her singing that has become what is expected when their name appears.
A colleague who is lead singer in an R & B band that plays in pubs and clubs says audiences expect them to play songs that are recognized, songs to which people know the words. Although their set list includes covers from established artists, the music is often not the sort that is widely known and is sometimes assumed to be the original work of the band and does not enjoy a reception comparable with that of the crowd pleasing tunes.
Originality does not seem to enjoy favour now. It is hard to imagine some of the bands that appeared in the 1960s would have enjoyed the fame they found fifty year ago. Would Big Brother and the Holding Company have found a platform for their work? Perhaps on BBC Radio 6, perhaps on the stages of some of the music festivals, perhaps among afficionados of rock music, but would their lead singer have become a household name?
Perhaps the mood of the 1960s was one in which people were ready to embrace that which was new and different, sometimes that which was radically different. The psychedelic era was one marked by a spirit of radical dissent from the norms of the society of the time. The music was a vehicle for revolutionary sentiment, it was subversive of convention and respectability and deliberately set out to challenge tradition. Even if the Vietnam war and the civil rights protests had not provided focii for songwriters and singers, there would still have been plentiful targets in the political and social establishment.
Perhaps it is the mood of the present times that militates against that which is radically different. Fear and uncertainty prompt a search for that which offers reassurance, that which brings a feeling of security. If people want songs that they know, tunes they can whistle, perhaps it says more about a mood of defensiveness and retrenchment than about the quality of the original music that is on offer.
Like seeing the name of Big Brother and the Holding Company and automatically expecting to hear Janis Joplin, what is wanted is the same thing, even if it goes by another name.