Perhaps the most influential Rock/Soul/Funk record of all time, There’s A Riot Goin’ On was actually the beginning of the end for Sly Stone as he descended deeper into drugs, alienation from his band mates, involvement with gangsters and the Black Panthers and a general realisation that the utopian vision of an interracial band with male and female members that stood for peace, love and harmony could no longer live up to the principles that made them unique.
The band had a shaky start with the soulful A Whole New Thing in 1967, a commercial failure and they were urged by their label to come up with a more commercial sound. On the next album released in 1968 they did just that with the perennial Dance To The Music reaching the top 10, but then it all went awry again with the 1969 Life album that fell somewhere inbetween the soul of the first album and the commerciality of the second. So back to square one, they didn’t actually establish themselves as musical giants until 1970 with Stand, despite critical acclaim and a past hit. But Stand was the album that made them hugely popular. It contained two hit singles the first released in late 1969 was Everyday People reaching Number 1, the second was Stand, the title track reaching Number 22. Although not a mega hit like Everyday People, this was still a high chart position in the American charts in 1970 and established them as a musical force. Other singles reached the lower reaches of the Top 100.
But then it all began to change as Sly failed to follow up on the album’s success and with sporadic attendance in the studio, three songs were recorded for an album that never materialised. To bridge the gap Epic Records released a greatest hits album and included these new tracks. This spawned more hit singles anyway and a Number 2 album in the charts. Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin), Everybody is A Star and Hot Fun In the Summertime had been added to the collection that also included Dance To The Music, Everyday People and Stand and was released in the wake of the band’s lauded appearance at Woodstock, exposing them to a huge new audience. Now everyone waited for the next album.
Sly increasingly started to work alone and the vibe that the band created together was no longer there – although they had certainly taken to bad drugs together. These were difficult times as the hippie dream had faded, Vietnam was in full swing, and the transition from the sixties to the seventies wasn’t an easy one. America was disillusioned and with continued drug use and erratic behaviour so was Sly. And ultimately he would take his psychedelic soul, love and peace message to a gloomy place as the times changed. But somehow he transformed the band into a groundbreaking darker heavy funk and this newer less accessible version debuted at Number 1 in the American charts. Family Affair the first single also went to Number 1. The song featured just him and Rose his sister from the original band along with Billy Preston and Bobby Womack on keyboards and guitars and a drum machine. When I was growing up this song was one of my favourites and even with the drum machine the song has a fantastic feel. Rose’s easy vocal along with Sly’s growls, vocal strangulations and deep resonance blew me away. The song seemed to reflect the good and the bad things in family life as his family broke down all around him.
That breakdown is reflected here – a lack of elevated spirit and descent into a slow muddy torpor. He was too rich, too fucked up, paranoid and sleepy – he would sing the vocals using radio mics whilst lying in a bed he had set up in the studio. The album title was in response to Marvin Gaye’s landmark album What’s Goin’ On – There’s A Riot Goin’ On! But that was outside the studio, the riot inside was a personal challenge of whether he could keep it together in this emotional chaos. But still the album starts with Luv and Haight and it’s a positive message in true funk style about ‘feelin’ good’ so at first there’s no sign of this lethargy or disappointment with the Haight/Ashbury scene in San Francisco at the turn of the decade. Although he was born in Texas he was raised here and saw the late sixties go from hope to hopeless in a very short period of time. Racism, police brutality and politics – Nixon’s election, the carpet bombing of Cambodia, the shootings at Kent State. Fame, drugs and a disenchanted society – he was mixing a potent cocktail. But the music soared despite his troubled soul – wah wah, hi hat and funky bass in a groove that was absolutely irresistible, vocals interjecting into a churning soup.
Just Like A Baby sounds like the tape has degenerated and become wafer thin, but the swing still holds you in its arms. Sly allegedly recorded and erased the tapes so much and overdubbed so much that the tapes were all hiss. The song is just a jam really with some fantastic groaning and controlled screeching but he must have done countless takes to capture the magic on the whole record like he did. Poet follows the same pattern of a jam, irresistible groove and a lyrical idea that just tells us he sings about what he sees. Then comes Family Affair. It’s a classic. His voice sounds like dark chocolate or the texture of bark or perhaps soft sandpaper. The melody is enticing, the delivery is perfect, but this is where the cracks appear as the lyrics take you through the good and the bad times. His screeching is pure dark beauty.
Africa Talks To You ‘The Asphalt Jungle’ is a 9 minute jam and the singing must have had Prince agape. They simply don’t /can’t make records like this anymore, it’s the sexiest music in the world, it makes you close your eyes and sway, you have no say in it. But the summer of psychedleic soul love had gone. The melody is replaced with grooves, dense grooves. There’s an uneasiness in the mood, something lurking underneath, a discontent but that just adds to the mixture.
Timber…all fall down
Watch out, ’cause the summer gets cold
When today gets too old
In reality this record is completely obscure and like nothing else before it, it is incredible that it went to Number 1 in America and produced hit singles. On Brave & Strong you can hear the hiss and the technique and somehow the haze elevates him to an innovator because raw talent and boredom mixed with drugs and not caring what anyone thought was like something that Miles Davies or James Brown might tap into in their own search for meaning and magic in music.
Frightened faces to the wall
Oh, can’t you hear your mama call?
The brave and strong survive
Those brass stabs, that run over into brass surges in (You Caught Me) Smilin’ but his screams and grooves are a bubbling stew of emotion. Time sounds like it’s recorded under a bed. It’s so raw, it’s almost demos but you can’t make this better with more attention to the sound quality or to melodies in the jams because his wailing and his natural feel are its whole beauty. Spaced Cowboy you can here a humming amp just sitting there in the mix. It’s like a mad black Brian Wilson who can dance. And on this track he’s yodelling! It’s the sound of an intoxicated lunatic.
But Runnin Away suddenly appears and it is so great – Burt Bacharach meets Al Green, wonderful melody and childlike lyrics in a self analysis of his own psychological state.
The deeper in debt
The harder you bet, hee! hee! hee! hee!
Need more room to play! look at you fooling you!
The final track, Thank You For Talkin’ To Me Africa is just a slowed down Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin) as a 7 minute jam. The record is like an untreated wounded animal, a dark canal full of demons, dragging its tail through the mud but it never once loses its swing or its intensity. Whether you can feel it in the rhythm or experience it in the atmosphere, it traps the very essence of your being and grips and shakes your soul from within an inch of your life, as if somewhere deep inside of you- There’s a Riot Going On.