In April 1967, a then little-known San Francisco group, Big Brother & the Holding Company, appeared on their local public television station, KQED. This was a few months before their legendary performance at the Monterey Pop Festival—which would make Joplin a star—and the release of their first album, which came out later in the year. Their live set for the KQED cameras is now appreciated for its documentation of Joplin pre-fame, but the highlight of the footage doesn’t involve her at all. It’s her band’s untamed interpretation of a nearly 100-year-old piece of music that made for unusually great TV. Still does!
“In the Hall of the Mountain King” was written by Norwegian composer, Edvard Grieg. It was commissioned for Peer Gynt, an 1876 play concerning the vagabond life of the title character. The Grieg piece is played during a fantasy sequence in which Grynt sneaks into the castle of the Mountain King.
The Charlotte Symphony Orchestra sets the scene:
The music begins with the tiptoeing theme in B minor, played slowly by the cellos and bassoons, indicating Peer Gynt’s careful footsteps as he creeps into the castle. A second statement of the theme, played at another pitch and on different instruments, represents the king’s trolls, who eventually give chase to Peer. The tempo gradually escalates, and the music gets faster and faster and louder and louder. A series of crashing cymbals and thunderous timpani rolls silence all the other instruments, as the mountain tumbles to the ground and destroys the trolls who have been chasing after the fleeing Peer.
Even non-classical music fans will probably recognize the piece.
The first rock arrangement of “In the Hall of the Mountain King” on record is believed to have come from the UK instrumental group, Nero & the Gladiators. It was released on a 45 in 1961 and was a minor hit in their home country, reaching #48 on the charts. It was a genius idea, really, to cover “Mountain King,” as the theme is catchy and makes for a great guitar riff.
Another instrumental band from the UK, Sounds Incorporated, proved a sax-driven version was possible. Their boss version, which captures the drama of the original work, came out in 1965.
Yet another UK unit, the Who, gave it a mighty whirl in 1967, though it didn’t come out until 1995.
For their KQED performance, Big Brother & the Holding Company played “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” minus Joplin, who sat this one out. The four-piece band use the theme of Grieg’s work as a springboard into a wild psychedelic workout. This odd jam eventually leads to a frenzied section—one that’s truly glorious—before returning to the riff and its appropriately weird conclusion.
Music historian Richie Unterberger praised the unusual interpretation in his All Music review of Ball & Chain, the VHS of the KQED broadcast.
A big bonus is the berserk psychedelic instrumental treatment of “Hall of the Mountain King,” with thrilling, even avant-garde feedback/ distortion duels between [guitarists] Sam Andrews and James Gurley. At the point it was broadcast, this particular bit may well have been the most outrageous rock & roll ever televised.