Often a band will change musical direction. There can be many reasons for this. Sometimes, it’s because they’re looking for commercial success, other times, they’re moving with changes in musical trends, it can even be to reflect changes in society. Another reason can be problems within the band, and personnel changes. When Sly and The Family Stone set about recording There’s A Riot Goin’ On, these were indeed, turbulent times for the band. Since the release of their previous studio album Stand!, much had happened had happened, and it was a in a very different environment that the band set about recording their new album. 

Their previous album Stand!, had been critically acclaimed, and a huge commercial success. When the group appeared at Woodstock, this further cemented their huge popularity. CBS, their record company were desperate for a new album, however, deadlines came, and passed. New deadlines were set, and they too, were missed. To ensure their profile remained high, and to give fans a “new” album, a Greatest Hits compilation was released. This too, proved to be hugely successful, reaching number two in the Billboard 200 and becoming the band’s biggest selling album. So well thought of is the album, that it was included in the Rolling Stone magazine list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.

At this time, relationships within the band were at an all time low, especially among The Stone brothers Sly and Freddie, and bassist Larry Graham. Another problem was that drug use was rife within the band. Stories emerged that Sly Stone allegedly, carried a violin case full of drugs everywhere the band were. Drug use had worsened when the band had relocated to California. PCP and cocaine were the drugs of choice for the band, and this started to affect the recoding schedule and tours. Sly’s moods changed, suddenly he was moody, his behavior started to become erratic. Between concerts, it was reported that he spent much of his time taking drugs.

What caused a lot of controversy was Sly Stone’s newfound relationship with The Black Panthers. This was said to be affecting the band’s music. They wanted the band’s music to be more militant, both in style, and to reflect the movement’s beliefs. The Panthers wanted Sly to fire the two white instrumentalists Greg Errico and Jerry Martini, and their replacements to be black musicians. As well as this, The Black Panthers wanted manager David Kapralik sacked, and a black manager to represent the group.

Adding to all these problems was Sly Stone’s decision to hire of gangsters to manage his affairs, protect him and source him drugs. Add to that band members leaving, and this was a tumultuous time for the band. Drummer Greg Errico decided to leave the band. This was the backdrop for the recording of new album in 1970 and 1971.

With all of this going on around the band, it must have seemed unlikely that they would be in the process of recording a classic album. This they were, and on its release, There’s A Riot Goin’ became one of the most successful albums the group would ever release. The music on the album was very different to previous albums. Whereas previous albums were full of melodies, There’s A Riot Goin’ has a much darker heavier funk sound. On its release in November 1971, the album entered at number one in the Billboard 200. A year later, it sold over 500,000 copies, and had been certified gold. Although the album sold well, it provoked a mixed response from critics and fans. However, as often happens, critics revised their opinion of the album, and now, it’s perceived as one of the greatest, most influential albums of all time. Originally, the album was meant to be called Africa Talks To You, but after the release of Marvin Gaye’s seminal album What’s Going On, earlier in 1971, it was retitled There’s A Riot Goin’ as a response to What’s Going On. Having told you about the background to the There’s A Riot Goin’ On, I’ll tell you just what makes it such a classic album.

There’s A Riot Goin’ On opens with Luv “N’ Haight, a track that deals with the euphoric feeling you get when you take certain drugs. It begins with some amazing bass playing, drums playing and the rest of the band singing backing vocals behind Sly. His sister Rose sings parts of the vocal. Straight away, the change in sound is apparent. It’s a much heavier, darker, and fantastically funky sound that greets you. A Wah wah guitar plays intermittently throughout the track, adding to heavy duty funk sound. Backing vocals soar, and Sly’s vocal sounds ad-libbed in parts. Sometimes, Sly howls and screams, his vocal loud and strong. Interestingly, he recorded many of the vocals in his home studio, whilst lying in bed. Much of the album was rerecorded and overdubbed several times. This however, hasn’t dampened this magical mixture of bass heavy funk, wah wah guitar and Sly’s frenzied vocals. It’s a potent combination, one that was instrumental in changing and influencing the sound of future musicians, including the Ohio Players, George Clinton and Funkadelic.

In total contrast to Luv “N’ Haight, Just Like A Baby is a much more mellow and laid back track. From the start, this is apparent. Sly’s vocal is quieter, much more controlled, no longer prone to the frenzied exertions of Luv “N’ Haight. Likewise, the arrangement is much more laid back, and understated. Here, the bass is still prominent but isn’t as loud or heavy. The drums are slower, and here, they’re just keeping time more than anything else. Even the guitar solo, is much more subtle. Again, the lyrics are much looser in structure, and it seems Sly’s ad-libbing again. However, this works well, the band have produced a lovely laid back track.

A mixture of bass, wah wah guitar and drums emerge at the start of Poet. Then Sly sings, his vocal starts slower, still, it’s loud and strong. You get the feeling that he’s about to cut loose, and indulge in some soaring vocal gymnastics.That, however, never happens, Sly manages to restrain himself. What you notice immediately, is that it’s a drum machine that accompanies Sly. It has a slightly dated sound, as it slowly plays. The sound it produces is totally unlike the drum sound Greg Errico would’ve produced. Around Sly, a lovely warm arrangement is emerging. This is a mixture of guitar, keyboards and bass. However, just as you’re getting into the groove, loosing yourself in the rhythms and melodies that are emerging, the song ends too soon. Every time I hear this track I wish it went on for much longer, that the track had been allowed to develop and the group allowed to jam more. Although it’s a good track, I always wonder how much better it could’ve been.

Probably the best known Sly and The Family Stone is Family Affair, and when you hear that familiar introduction, you realize that for the next three minutes, you’re going to hear a fantastic track. From that introduction, the mixture of bass and drums, then the introduction of the electric piano and Rose Stone’s vocal quickly, you’re entranced. Rose and Sly spend the next three minutes, singing about the good and bad aspects of family life. Behind them, the electric piano is at the centre of the arrangement, accompanied by a combination of bass, drums and some virtuoso guitar playing. This, together with Rose and Sly’s contribution, is a formidable combination, producing not only one of the band’s best tracks, but their best known one.

Africa Talks To You was nearly the title of the album, and this would have been the title track. Nearly, to give this track its full title it’s Africa Talks To You “The Asphalt Jungle” There’s A Riot Goin’ On. It’s totally unlike the previous track, and has more in common with Luv “N’ Haight and Poet, with its looser, more freeform style and structure. Here, the lyrics are looser, they don’t have a traditional structure. Again, they seem ad-libbed, when they emerge from the midst of the arrangement. Even the arrangement has a looser, jazzy structure. Having said all that, it’s a brilliant and epic slice of funk, lasting nearly nine minutes. This is what I’d have liked to have seen Poet become, an epic jazz and funk workout. During this track, the bass plays a huge part, it’s deep, heavy and funky. Around it, guitars, drums, keyboards and percussion play, backing vocalists give a soulful accompaniment, and Sly whoops and hollers his way through the track magnificently. Truly, this huge track, about a huge continent is brilliant with a capital B.

The opening bars to Brave and Strong sound as if they could be closely related to Family Affair. It’s the drum sound that leads me to make this comparison. After that, we’re heading for another fantastic funk workout, although not magnum opus, of the previous track. Quickly bass and brass section combine, Sly decides to indulge himself in some vocal gymnastics, his voice veering between soaring and growling, to a much clearer, stronger vocal. Occasionally, you can hear the results of his overdubbing and rerecording during the track. This, however, doesn’t take away from an infectious, funky track that swings along, leaving a trail of magnificent melodies and rhythms in its wake. The addition of the brass section lifts the track to another level. Likewise, Sly’s vocal is perfectly suited to the track, adding the finishing touches to what is one of the album’s highlights.

It’s a Hammond organ that provides a lovely laid back, melodic opening to (You Caught Me) Smillin.’ The mixture of keyboards, drums and guitar, provides a lovely melodic, relaxed vibe. When Sly sings, he too, decides to join in the lovely laid back atmosphere that’s emerging. Here, his vocal isn’t as clear on this track at times. Just as you were enjoying the more restrained vocal from Sly, he decides to cut loose, and when he does, his voice rasping, soars. Sometimes, he almost growls, as he sings. When this happens, the brass section join the arrangement. Their addition  drives the song, and sometimes, is like musical punctuation. This also helps fill the sound out. (You Caught Me) Smillin.’ was one of the singles released from the album, and given the melodic, hook laden nature of this track, it isn’t hard to see just why.

Blues music influences the next track Time, a track that explore philosophical themes. The blues influence is apparent in the Hammond organ solo that opens the track. It meanders gently, and is joined by a darker guitar sound. In the background the bass throbs, drums play and above all this Sly sings. Here, his voice is quieter, at the start, and it’s only after a while that his voice soars, becomes a raspy, growl like on (You Caught Me) Smillin.’ By now the sound is spacious, and a wah wah guitar contributes towards the spacey sound that has emerged. Again, it’s a track that almost ends too soon. You’re just starting to really enjoy this glorious, spacey sounding track when, it’s suddenly over. However, it’s brilliant while it lasts.

A heavy, dirty, funky bass combines with a keyboard as Spaced Cowboy begins. It’s an unusual track, laden with humor. For a while it’s an understated, instrumental jam with sounds emerging beautifully from the arrangement. Listen carefully, and you’ll hear bass, guitar, drums and keyboard. When Sly sings, he decides to yodel, as he takes on the roll of the Spaced Cowboy. The lyrics may not be the best on the album, but seem laced with humor. Joining arrangement is a harmonica, which is played brilliantly. However, much as I like the arrangement, Sly’s yodeling detracts from the rest of the track. 

Runnin’ Away sees Rose Stone take over lead vocal duties of what is a pop-soul track. It’s also one of the best tracks on the album. A tenor saxophone accompanies her vocal, playing above her vocal. Behind her, drums are prominent in the mix, the bass is still funky, and a guitar plays some great licks. Overall, the stars of the track are Rose Stone for her vocal, and Jerry Martini for providing his brilliant rasping tenor saxophone.

There’s A Riot Goin’ On closes with Thank You For Talkin’ To Me Africa, a track that’s a response to the earlier track, Africa Talks To You “The Asphalt Jungle” There’s A Riot Goin’ On. Like that track, hank You For Talkin’ To Me Africa, is another epic slice of funk, which sees Sly’s lyrics exploring hedonistic themes. The sound is dark, bass heavy and has a much looser feel and sound. Sounds emerge from the mix, guitars play, drums join in, occasionally, a keyboard plays, but it’s the bass that drives the track. For just over seven minutes this epic soundscape is driven by a dark, throbbing bass that reverberates from your speakers. Sly’s vocal again, are much looser, and he’s joined by the rest of the band on backing vocals. Rose sometimes can be heard. Mainly, it’s Sly, his vocal often soaring, leading to that familiar, raspy growl emerging from the mix. Personally, I love this looser, much more freeform style where Sly and the band have time to experiment, as it allows a song to develop, and usually, a great track emerges. 

Whilst I’ve been researching and writing this article, I’ve immersed myself in Sly and The Family Stone’s music, especially, There’s A Riot Goin’ On. This to me, was the greatest album they produced, and surpassed anything they’d previously produced, or would later produce. It’s hard to believe that such a seminal album emerged from the chaos that surrounded that band then. Considering the problems Sly Stone faced, he took great care in the recording of this album. It seems that he was something of a perfectionist, constantly rerecording and overdubbing different parts and the backing vocals. This lead to Sly rerecording many of the instruments himself, or getting people like Billy Preston and Bobby Womack to help him to this. He even brought in session singers to help rerecord the backing vocals. Although all of this lead to a much better album, it lead to a deterioration in the sound quality, erasing parts of the original reel-to-reel tapes. That was the downside to Sly’s perfectionism. However, the upside to his perfectionism was he produced a classic album, with a timeless quality, that’s one of the greatest, most influential albums of all time. Standout Tracks: Just Like A Baby, Family Affair, (You Caught Me) Smillin’ and Thank You For Talkin’ To Me Africa.


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