Sly & The Family Stone - There's a Riot Goin' On (1971) (1 Viewer)

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Lili Marlene

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Right, so the below is a bit of a disorganized ramble through the Sly Stone history to try and contextualize the album a little, maybe help explain what makes it so unique.

in the beginning... in 1966 Sly Stone was a popular San Francisco DJ, occasional producer, singer and musician, and ex student of music theory with a Beatles mop top.
singer-sly-stone-as-a-radio-dj-on-ksol-fm-before-he-started-the-soul-picture-id74000916




He wrote a few minor, generally novelty hits with names like The Swim,for others and produced the debut album by weird mersey-beat-by-way-of-San-Francisco group the Beau Brummels.




He’d play around town a bit with his band Sly & the Stoners but filled with older guys more interested in getting a bit fucked up than in playing well he eventually drew a line in the sand and called a meeting to formally start a new band.

Sly & the Family Stone were purposely put together to be Sly’s vision of a new America - multi-racial and male and female, all playing and singing in harmony. Most crucially they were to be a group at a time when most R’n’B groups were singers playing with a backup band.

slyfamilystone.jpg




They played incessantly and got a huge local following. Sometimes they’d jump off stage and dance around the room and even lead the crowd into the street, while still playing. They were quickly signed to CBS and their 1967 debut album, A Whole New Thing, was released in 1967 mixing hard soul and acid rock with some early psychedelic tracks. Still underrated today, it was popular among musicians at the time but was accused of being too sophisticated by critics and sank without a trace commercially.

Clive Davis of CBS suggested to Sly that he should try writing something simpler to appeal to a pop audience. Racking his brains, Sly came up with the dumbest track he could possibly think of – Dance to the Music – in its entirety the song tells the crowd to Dance to the Music again and again and then almost painstakingly lists all the instruments playing in case people needed more explanation. Amazingly it worked. To this day, just like the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, their first tv performance is often the first thing any kind of retrospective will go to when they are mentioned.



The accompanying album is good but faltered commercially in comparison to the single, i'd say not helped by the fact that the band pushed the Dance to the Music idea to its logical conclusion by including a 12 minute vamp version – Dance to the Medley. A follow up attempt a few months later, Life, failed to chart entirely. For those who were listening though, the albums showed a further progression into psych-soul. A live album recently came out covering their live show at this time, they really sound like the most fun band of all time.

It wasn’t till early 1969 when they really broke through with Everyday People though, it hit number 1 in February 1969 and stayed there for a month. Seen by many as the crowning album of the band, the parent album, Stand!, included both the most positive song of all time, You Can Make it if you Try, but also hinted at something else going on with the 14 odd minute instrumental Sex Machine and the beginnings of lyrical paranoia in Somebodys Watching You. Still though, with the title track being a hit and then Hot Fun in the Summertime reaching number 1 that summer as well, things looked great for the band. This sudden fame hit an even higher level when they played Woodstock and are fairly credited with getting the flagging crowd going at 4 in the morning. God I dunno, I don’t understand Woodstock, but the footage is fairly spectacular.



In December that year they put out another single, another number 1, Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin). An absolute cornerstone of funk and bassist Larry Graham’s most famous bass line by miles, only James Brown can really boast hits sounding this hard before it. Despite this, it would also be the last time they really appeared together as a unified band.



There’s a great bit in the 33 and a third about the album that points out that at this point in their career Sly & the Family Stone were seen a black Beatles. Even the biggest Temptations fan could see that at their live show they would have a fairly anonymous backing band but the Family Stone were a self contained band who wrote and played all their own songs, were absolutely massively famous and were developing new sounds quicker than the audience could keep up.

But then…. nothing.

Behind the scenes the band had gone from proudly clean living (even singing about it on Run, Run Run) as late as 1968, to next level drug takers, Sly more than anyone. As a unit they were disintegrating quickly, with their last actual full band recordings taking place in January 1970.

Ostensibly recording a new LP, Sly locked himself up in a Beverly Hills Mansion and, high and paranoid on an endless amount of Cocaine and PCP; with his new fame attracting the attention of the Black Panthers who pressured him to remove all the white people from the band; he watched his vision (and the 60’s dream) fall apart – Martin Luther King had been killed only weeks after Everyday People was number 1, the Beatles would split up, two fellow Woodstock stars, Jimi and Janis, proceeded to die, and race riots were flashing up all across America. As his drug use escalated, Sly surrounded himself with some hanger-on thugs from his past and proceeded to alienate everyone he ever worked with; band members would fly up to record and last a few days of madness before leaving out of fear for their own safety and sanity,

Bobby Womack said:
I used to go over to Sly's place just for entertainment value. It was crazy. Everything you could think of, girls, drugs, guns, completely wackadoo. He even had a zoo. A fucking soul zoo. He had this monkey. Every time I went over this monkey would clamber down and bash his pit bull over the head before jumping back on the fence. It drove the dog wild. Only this one time Sly greased the fence and the monkey slid back down. The dog tore the monkeys chest out, right in front of us. It was always like that at Sly's. It was like the fall of Rome with afro's.'


Throughout 1970 the band attempted to soldier on as a live unit, booking shows and tv appearances. Sly would sometimes turn up. As a product stop-gap his record company put together a Greatest Hits compilation ( which also contained a load of songs that weren’t actually hits) that just happens to play as one of the greatest ever records. If you’re looking for a way in, play this first.

Meanwhile, recording with no consistent band, Sly relied increasingly on overdubbing tracks on the same tape and using a very early drum machine called the Rhythm King. Not programmable, Sly would get over its limitations by lining up several of them at the same time and sequencing them together on tape manually. Some songs would be released in obscure ways on his own Stone Flower vanity label that year that pointed towards the sound he was coming up with for There's a Riot Goin' On.

.

The extreme drug usage and overdubbing on the same tape would continue for the best part of two years. There’s an endless amount of grim and ugly stories from the recording sessions as Sly descended further and further into his own drug-fuelled madness - overdoses, maulings, shootings, abortions, you name it.

The mastertapes are famously so overdubbed that they're purportedly practically translucent. As a result, no one really knows who plays what on the album (Miles Davis and Ike Turner were certainly around, whether or not they're on there is a different matter). The back cover including a collage of all the people whirling around at the time. What is known for sure is that the only two songs the full band play on are the last two, Runnin’ Away and Thank You for Talking to Me Africa, both of which were recorded in January 1970 and December 1969 respectively. Billy Preston plays keyboards on A Family Affair. As for the rest, similar to Phil Spector's Wall of Sound, what is presented is not clean, separated instruments where you can marvel at the technique of various players but a muddy murk that comes across like a recording of pure emotion. Unlike the giddiness of Spector's stuff though, the emotions on here are cynicism and despair.
 

Lili Marlene

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continued:

egg’s observation that the album has funky sounds but isn't funky, while a laughably ignorant statement, does raise the point that as far as funk albums go this album isn’t what people expect. You can't strut around your block doing finger guns at people while to this album. Sly had a vision for a unified America that he had watched disintegrate before his very eyes and this album is a record of this. He wasn’t going to step lively and play the smiling black entertainer that people loved, instead he was exploring the dark, undercurrent of what comes after; of people dying, of riots in the street and CIA assassinations - all filtered through his own drugged viewpoint. While there’s nothing explicitly political on here like James Brown's hits, or indeed what Sly himself had been singing only a year or two before, what imho this album does if you give it a chance is to allow you to feel, even if only as a musical hallucination, the politics of the time. Or at least that's my white boy from Europe 40 years later take on it.

A lot of the comments on here about the songs being fairly indistinguishable are fair enough, it does have a style of its own and the tracks do kind of merge together. I see this more as a strength rather than a weakness, it's not really a collection of songs where some have a stronger middle 8th or whatever, each one adds to the overall album (and that's what this is right? album club, not singles club)

The very first track Luv N' Haight opens with his mantra “Feel so Good, inside myself, don’t want to move”, he’s either self content or drugged up. Allegedly a lot of Sly's vocals were recorded as he lay back on his bed, you can kind of tell. As the song progresses this line becomes more and more desperate and it ends with a bit of a back and forth between him and backing singers, “Want to move”, “Don’t Want to move”, “Want to move”, “Don’t need to Move”…This doesn’t mean a lot on its own, but clearly there’s a battle going on here.

Next up is Just Like a Baby, probably the most straight forward of tracks on here. It moves at a slow, loping pace. It's one of the few tracks that is known to have an earlier demo version which suggests it's more of a song Sly had written beforehand, rather than built up over time.

In Poet I see Sly defying anyone to say the lyrics to the album aren't up to much by calling himself a poet and a songwriter with almost no further explanation in the lyrics. There's almost no other lyrics. "I am a poet and i'm a songwriter, no questions please". I'll leave Julian Cope to describe the music, Severe drum machine wedded to a simple hi-hat/snare beat, darting clavinet clusters, wah-wah’d organ and bubbling bass are at the root of the following track, “Poet.” After Sly’s vocal statement of artistic intent, “Poet” weaves to and fro into an instrumental comprised of several clavinet overdubs, bass and several settings of drum machine punched down together and just as it begins to blossom and yield rich polyrhythmic textures and ceases to only appear as merely erratic, it fades off into silence.

Then the hit, A Family Affair. What would end up being their last number 1 hit, apparently the first number 1 track to feature a drum machine rhythm track as well, It’s still a very strange sounding song. It has a refrain alright but a lot of what makes it good are the little vocal and instrumental inflections throughout - the opening wah's, Sly’s wailing out of and in the murk, Billy Preston’s keyboards. It sounds like Larry Graham is thumping away on at least some of the bass on here but it's hard to tell. The number 1 before this was the Theme from Shaft, you can’t really get funk sounds sounding so very different.

The album centerpiece, and probably my fav track, Africa Talks To You "The Asphalt Jungle", is something else. The groove seems to swirl from all sides without any obvious focal point, it all it just envelopes you. Timber! All fall down.

The title track is listed as 0:00 seconds long on the album, why exactly? Hard to tell. Many years later Sly would say its because he didn’t think there should be any riots. But it’s probably also a reference to the famous Coasters song - Riot in Cell Block Number 9, which reached number 1 back in the 50’s. I’d venture there’s something to be said here about Sly erasing the idea of African American problems being used as entertainment by white people, The Coasters (a semi-comedic band whose music was written by two white guys) track isn’t funny any more when people are actually dying. I don’t personally believe the title was actually a response to the Marvin Gaye album (What’s Going on) from earlier that year, it doesn’t fit to me, but it’s certainly a theory.

Side 2 opens with Brave & Strong, more of Sly’s paranoid soul. He sounds like he’s having fun though.One of the strange things about this album is how he seems to sing a lot of it with a smile. Speaking of which, up next is You Caught me Smiling - on the surface one of the more positive songs on the album but I dunno, Sly sounds so stoned on it I can only hear it as a drug addicts smile after getting hit. Musically Sly is just jamming away with himself on here.

Then onto Time, a song built on the lightest of elements, it’s barely there but it’s beautiful.

Spaced Cowboy is disliked by many for its yodelling, understandably enough. It’s a bit of a joke song, but i’m not sure who the joke is on. I really like the groove to it.

Then the final two tracks, the ones played live by the original line-up. Runnin’ Away was originally recorded for the abandoned Little Sister album. It’s light and sad at the same time, the muted horns are great. I believe this was Sly’s choice of single but he was overruled by CBS in favour of A Family Affair. Knowing that the band never recorded again after this is quite sad, it’s missing the energy of their earlier work; not in a bad way, just as if they knew this was it. This final session would be mined again for similar light pop tracks on the next two albums as well.

The last track was the first recorded for the album, a long, slowed down take of Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin). What most surprises me about this is how well it fits in with the rest of the album considering a) it was recorded first, and b) it was recorded live without the hours of overdubbing

Finally i'd like to point out that the album is also remarkable for being released by a major artist. You could point to the early Funkadelic albums that came out around the same time for reaching even further into drug-fuelled madness but in 1971 they were a cult band years away from a hit, Sly & TFS were top of the pops. I can’t think of any major popstar who would put, or be allowed put, something like this out now. (Well Kanye would, but he’d ruin it by telling you all about how brave he is to be doing this before it’s even out. )

Anyway, the sad story of the band is that by the time the album came out they no longer existed, Larry Graham and Greg Errico were long gone and the rest would follow, on and off. This and any further albums are to a large extent Sly Stone solo records, even if under the Family Stone name.

As for @Scutter’s question as to what to listen to next, the next album Fresh sounds quite similar and although it isn’t quite as dark it’s far from a turn around. The rot sets in pretty quickly after that as Sly's drug abuse overtakes his inspiration.
 

Lili Marlene

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Yeah so I dunno, on the one hand it's just an album by a guy who was so far gone on drugs it would take him 2 months of studio time to write a single song, but on the other hand it's the best album of all time. o_O

15/10




edit:


Bobby Womack said:
I used to go over to Sly's place just for entertainment value. It was crazy. Everything you could think of, girls, drugs, guns, completely wackadoo. He even had a zoo. A fucking soul zoo. He had this monkey. Every time I went over this monkey would clamber down and bash his pit bull over the head before jumping back on the fence. It drove the dog wild. Only this one time Sly greased the fence and the monkey slid back down. The dog tore the monkeys chest out, right in front of us. It was always like that at Sly's. It was like the fall of Rome with afro's.'

fixing that quote thanks.
 
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rettucs

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they do have one copy of this on vinyl in Tower (26 euro - checked yesterday). Almost pulled the trigger but already had an armful of stuff that took me over my budget for the day.

Will procure a copy somewhere next time I'm record shopping.
 

Cornu Ammonis

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So, initially I felt like this was a wet fart. Based on the title and the little I knew about it (which turned out to be very little indeed), I was expecting something with more pyrotechnic flair like Funkadelic. And in a way, it is very much Funkadelic once I got used to it. But not the shake your booty side of Funkadelic but the weirder, slower stuff that appears like a murky pool in the middle of some of their albums. Reading that Sly was on PCP around this time makes sense; as far as psychotropics go, that's a fairly claustrophobic way to go.

The paranoia, the almost one dimensional sound (it sounds like a 10th generation tape copy with the amount of hiss and grain on it) makes for a heavy listen but I can hear so much that would come after in this. @Lili Marlene mentioned Miles Davis, and you can hear elements of this on the stuff Miles did shortly after this (On the Corner and live recordings from 72/73). Equally, there seems to be a bit of In A Silent Way going on here on There's a Riot Goin' On. Beyond that obvious connection, you can hear the influence this had on Tricky, especially on his early albums with their hazy, druggy feel.

Back to the actual album here, the drum machine grated on me at first because I thought it was a really badly recorded drummer. Listening now, I don't know how I ever thought that. The primitive and robotic works well against the more organic sounding guitar and bass, along with Sly's vocals. It's not an easy-listening, smooth funk sound at all but I think it gets closer to that social unnease/base human nature vibe that defined the best funk from this era. I think George Clinton made the point that funk is another way of saying a smell, that the music was supposed to capture that sweaty, post-coital air. Here, I reckon it smells more like dried blood and unwashed bodies.
 

Lili Marlene

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Whaaat? What has Da Funk got to do with knowledge or ignorance? Funkiness is something you experience
What i'm saying is that calling one of the cornerstones of funk "unfunky" because you can't be bothered to understand it is ignorant.

I mean obviously you don't have to like it but I take calling something funky or unfunky very seriously
icon_hammer.gif


No white guy in Ireland gets to dictate what is funky and not funky, the weight of 40 years of evidence is that this album is funky.
 
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hugh

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I'd say it is indeed "funky" but in an "I'm in a bit of a funk right now" kind of "funky" as opposed to a "I want to get up and shake my booty" kind of "funky".
 

Lili Marlene

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And I'm saying that you're missing the point, and it's you who doesn't understand :p
What is your point so?

Aside from "funk is something you experience" i.e. black people can't make music that you can think about
 

hugh

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My point is - subjective experiences cannot be intellectualised.

This is a particular position though and ignores the fact that there are entire intellectual traditions devoted to doing exactly what you are saying can't be done (e.g. phenomenology, psychoanalysis). In fact the only intellectual tradition I can think of that would support this view would be a very hardcore objectivist science and even at that, I'd be willing to wager there's someone doing a neuro-science Ph.D. right now about analyzing which particular neurons trigger the physiological phenomenon known as "booty-shaking".

(apologies to Cornu for this gross oversimplification of what Neuroscience does).

(if someone isn't doing this then someone should).
 

Lili Marlene

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I'm not saying you're a klan-joining racist egg but I am saying that, as far as i'm concerned, there's a real issue* in saying that Funk music is just something you feel and is somehow beyond cognition.

As if we're not products of our own culture, as if we didn't grow up in a time or a place, as if we didn't have 50 years of history telling us what funk music can and can't be. As if everything ever written about funk music should be written off because you just feel this music, not think about it.

and yeah, its tied to race and tied to racial ideas about blackness and the idea that music invented by African-Americans is somehow closer to a "natural state" to the point where it bypasses your conscious mind and enters directly into your nervous system.

But if you're not willing to budge a little then there's really no discussion to be had here. It's a stance I am utterly opposed to but there we have it.





*i'm just gonna say it lads, it's problematic.
 

Denny Oubidoux

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Oh come on! It might be funk on paper but if you're not feeling the funk then you're not feeling it and it doesn't matter who writes what about it. That racist stuff is crazy talk.
 

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