The music of Sly and the Family Stone is still as much ahead of its time today as it was when they emerged in the psychedelic metropolis of the Bay Area. They were a group of mixed races and genders who had managed to combine all musical and social trends of the era into their sound with a strong backbone of soul and funk. They preached good times, good vibes, and free love as all of their counterparts had done in that day and age. I may not have yet been born back then but I think I can say that it was an enchanted time to be alive just as long as you weren’t a war mongering square. Having released such groundbreaking and towering albums as Dance to the Music and Life, the band had even been an essential part of the Woodstock festival, providing a memorable set that will be remembered for ages to come. But as fast as the ’60s came in, they had left on a sour note. Enter December 1969. The Rolling Stones had put on a free festival at the Altamont racetrack, which was expected to be the Woodstock of the west coast. Having hired the Hell’s Angels to provide their security, things went awry, resulting in an outbreak of violence and the death of a fan. The dream was dead and the ’60swere over.
By the time the ’70s had come around, even leader Sly Stone wasn’t exempt from feeling the bleakness of a shattered era. Four student protesters had been gunned down at Kent State, America was sinking deeper into the hole of the Vietnam War by entering Cambodia, and minorities had not been seeing the promising results that they had envisioned almost a decade earlier during the civil rights movement. Any form of hope in America had all been pretty much dead. This nation was (and still is) anything but progressive. And Sly Stone had vented all of his frustration and disappointment on the 1971 release There’s a Riot Goin’ On.
In the process of making the album, Sly had been sinking deeper into his world of copious narcotic abuse by adding large amounts of PCP to his daily intake of various other substances. What was originally going to be titled The Incredible and Unpredictable Sly and the Family Stone had nonetheless turned out to become the masterpiece There’s a Riot Goin’ On. Sly had recorded the album in a Bel Air mansion that was inhabited by large groups of coattail riders, groupies, drug-dealers and an insane pit-bull named Gun who would attack anybody that was wearing a hat. The sound on Riot had taken a very dramatic turn to say the least. On their previous effort Stand!, the Family Stone had clearly expressed an optimistic social commentary in all of their lyrics. By the time Riot rolled around, the vibe was centered around the sourness of awful things had come to be. But it was all expressed in some good tunes to say the least.
The first two tracks on the album are probably the cornerstone of what the listener had expected to hear when they first laid the platter on their turntable. The opener “Luv N Haight” was the epitome of the “soul-rock” sound. Their was a substratum of friction that can be felt as the verses were sang. One verse even shows semblance of drug use in the form of “feel so good/don’t wanna move.” Anybody who did the scores to porno flicks in the seventies owes a huge debt of gratitude to this song and its bubbly fixtures. Sly & Co. didn’t skimp when it came to the solid funk purls of the old school electric pianos on the graceful melodies of “Just Like a Baby.”
The band had even jacked up the drama of psychedelic soul as the importance of artists being true to themselves is expressed on “Poet.” An almost loungy atmosphere is brought about with Sly’s yodeling alongside the bluesy harmonica flow of “Spaced Cowboy,” which, in and of itself, goes of into Grateful Dead-like acid jam mode. This band was even capable of capturing the aura of urban America with all of its sounds. “Family Affair” remains one of the greatest grooves in the history of recorded music. It has been a staple of every backyard barbecue and family reunion for the past three decades.
Not only had Sly been perplexed by the woes of society but he also managed to express his disappointment in people as well. “Brave and Strong” may fall into a foreshadowing ambience of sound in the background but the lyrical content of the song can seem to be a mix of the messages conveyed in Sam Cooke’s “Mean Old World” and Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up.” What little shred of joyous hope that the Family Stone had during the ’60s popped it’s head up on the semi-uplifting melodies of “(You Caught Me) Smilin.”
After Riot, which happens to be the most expensive album in the band’s catalog, Sly had a last helping of success with the friendlier Fresh! in 1973 and on Small Talk in 1974. By the mid-to-late ’70s Sly and the Family Stone had pretty much disintegrated, Stone entering a reclusive world of drug addiction and remaining hidden from the light to this day. I think one of the guys from Ween said it best when he claimed that Sly Stone is the only man who can save music in this day and age. Wishful thinking usually doesn’t pay off in the long run, but sometimes it’s all we have.
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