SLY AND THE FAMILY STONE-THERE’S A RIOT GOIN’ ON.

SLY AND THE FAMILY STONE-THERE’S A RIOT GOIN’ ON.

Two years in the making, Sly and The Family Stone released There’s A Riot Goin’ On was released in November 1971. It was the followup to 1969s Stand, Sly and The Family Stone’s fourth album. Released to critical acclaim, Stand was Sly and The Family Stone’s breakthrough album. Reaching number thirteen in the US Billboard 200 and number three in the US R&B Charts, Stand was Sly and The Family Stone’s most successful album. That was, until the release of There’s A Riot Goin’ On, which will be rereleased by Get On Down on 30th July 2013. A psychedelic, genre-melting album full of biting social comment, There’s A Riot Goin’ On was instantly hailed a classic album. That’s despite the turmoil that surrounded a band lead by the charismatic Sly Stone. 

Ever since the release of Stand, chaos and controversy had surrounded one of the most flamboyant bandleaders of the sixties and the seventies, Sly Stone. There were tales of large scale drug usage, possible changes in personnel and involvement with gangsters and The Black Panthers. Then there’s the infamous violin full of drugs which allegedly, accompanied Sly Stone everywhere. That There’s A Riot Goin’ On ever got made is a musical miracle. During the two years Sly and The Family Stone spent making There’s A Riot Goin’ On, much had changed in the world of Sly and The Family Stone. Society had also changed, and There’s A Riot Goin’ On, which I’ll tell you about, would reflect these changes.

While Stand had been Sly and The Family Stone’s most successful album, it was their fourth album. A Whole New Thing, their 1967 debut album, failed to chart. Things improved with their sophomore album 1968s Dance To The Music. Spurred on by the anthemic title-track, it reached number 142 in the US R&B Charts and number eleven in the US R&B Charts. Life which was released later in 1968, received encouraging reviews, but stalled at number 195 in the US R&B Charts. Then came Stand. Released in 1969 to critical acclaim and commercial success, Stand kick-started the career of Sly and The Family Stone. 

Following Stand, Sly and The Family Stone were one of the stars of Woodstock. Their early morning set on 17th August 1969, was one of the highlights of Woodstock. This further cemented their huge popularity. After Woodstock, CBS, their record company were desperate for a new album. No wonder. Sly and The Family Stone’s profile was at an all time high. Deadlines for a new album were set, and deadlines missed. For CBS, this was frustrating. They were desperate for a new album. Realizing a new album wasn’t going to be imminent, a Greatest Hits album was released in 1970.

Featuring three new songs, Greatest Hits reached number two in the US Billboard and number one in the US R&B Charts. Certified gold, Greatest Hits surpassed the success of Stand. Greatest Hits is held in such high regard, that it was included in the Rolling Stone magazine list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. By releasing their Greatest Hits album, Stand, Sly and The Family Stone had bought some time. All wasn’t well within Stand, Sly and The Family Stone.

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. Tense doesn’t come close to describe their relationship. Ironically, Larry’s bass playing would be crucial to the success of what became There’s A Riot Goin’ On. It provided the heartbeat to the album. Sadly, the tension between the band members wasn’t the only problem surrounding Sly and The Family Stone.

A huge 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 went. Drug use had worsened when the band had relocated to California. PCP and cocaine were now the drugs of choice for the band. This started to affect the recoding schedule and tours. Sly’s moods changed One minute he was upbeat and happy, then suddenly he was moody. His behavior started to become erratic. Between concerts, it was reported that he spent much of his time taking drugs. For a band who’d just enjoyed two hugely successful albums, Sly and The Family Stone were shooting themselves in their foot at every turn. Controversy then arose when Sly Stone became friendly with The Black Panthers.

Adding to the controversy surrounding Sly Stone, was his 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, lyrically and musically. The Black Panthers also felt that Sly and The Family Stone should reflect the movement’s beliefs. Even more controversial was that The Panthers wanted Sly to fire the two white instrumentalists Greg Errico and Jerry Martini. Their replacements, The Panthers said, should be black musicians. Their final request, was that manager David Kapralik be sacked. Replacing him, should be a black manager who would represent the group. Soon, politics were the least of Sly’s problems. Sly was involved with gangsters.

Adding to all these problems was Sly Stone’s decision to hire 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. Sly and The Family Stone were up against it when recording of There’s A Riot Goin’ On began.

Recording of There’s A Riot Goin’ On took place between 1970 and 1971 at the Record Plant, Sausalito. Sly and The Family Stone recorded twelve songs penned by Sly Stone. The rhythm section included bassist Larry Graham, guitarist Freddie Stone and drummers Greg Errico and Gerry Gibson. Ike Turner and Ike Turner contributed guitars, Billy Preston keyboards, Cynthia Robinson trumpet and Jerry Martini tenor saxophone. Rose and Little Sister added backing vocals, while Sly played drums, synths, guitar, bass, keyboards and programmed drums and keyboards. Sly’s other roles were that of arranger and producer. Eventually, amidst rancour, tension and a haze of drugs, a genre-melting album was recorded. There’s A Riot Goin’ On was a delicious fusion of funk, soul, rock, psychedelia and jazz. Ironically, There’s A Riot Goin’ On wasn’t immediately recognized as a stonewall classic.

On the release of There’s A Riot Goin’ On, opinion was divided amongst critics. Some hailed the album a masterpiece, others weren’t won over by the change of sound and style. Produced by Sly Stone, There’s A Riot Goin’ On was the result of long sessions where Sly spent honing the album’s sound. This involved lengthy overdubbing sessions, which gave the album its multilayered sound. The music had a darker, harder edge than the soulful Stand. Gone was the optimism of previous albums. Pessimistic, even nihilistic describes some of the music, which describes a world that’s gone wrong. In reality, this was more a description of Sly and The Family Stone. Despite critics and fans’ opinions being divided, There’s A Riot Goin’ On was a huge commercial success.

There’s A Riot Goin’ On was also released in November 1971, reaching number one in the US Billboard 200 and US R&B Charts. Originally certified gold in November 1972, There’s A Riot Goin’ On was then released platinum. Family Affair was the lead single from There’s A Riot Goin’ On. Released in November 1971, it reached number one in the US Billboard 100 and number three in the US R&B Charts and was certified gold. Runnin Away’ was released as a single in February 1972. It reached number twenty-three in the US Billboard 100 and number fifteen in the US R&B Charts. You Caught Me Smilin’ was released in April 1972, but reached just number forty-two in the US Billboard Charts. Despite the turmoil surrounding Sly and The Family Stone, they’d produced the greatest album of their five album and four year career, which I’ll now tell you about.

Opening There’s A Riot Goin’ On opens is Luv “N’ Haight. Straight away, the change in sound is apparent. It’s a much heavier, darker, and fantastically funky. An uber funky bass line grabs your attention. It’s joined by wah-wah guitars, jangling piano, rasping horns and pounding drums. They accompany Sly’s languid, lazy vocal, as he describes the euphoric feeling you get when you take certain drugs. Harmonies soar dramatically, accompanying Sly, before Rose Stone delivers a vocal powerhouse. As they share the vocal, Sly’s vocal sounds ad-libbed, as he howls and screams. Meanwhile the rest of the band create a complex, multilayered potent fusion of funk, psychedelia, soul and rock. This influential musical melting pot marks the sixties death and the birth of the seventies and influenced the sound of the Ohio Players, George Clinton and Funkadelic.

Just Like A Baby is a complete contrast to the opening track. It’s much more mellow and laid-back track. From the get-go, this is apparent. Chiming guitars, a wandering rhythm section and keyboards accompany to Sly’s wistful vocal on this song about relationships. It’s quieter, much more controlled. No longer is he prone to the frenzied exertions of Luv “N’ Haight. Likewise, the arrangement is much more laid back, their playing looser and more relaxed. This suits Sly’s languid vocal, as he ad-libs his way across a song that’s mellow, laid-back and quite beautiful.

A wah wah guitar, piano and the rhythm section open Poet. Next comes Sly’s slow assured vocal. It’s loud and strong, as he sings: “my only weapon is my singing…a songwriter, poet.” Soon, you get the feeling that Sly’s about to cut loose.That, never happens. He manages to restrain himself. What you notice immediately, is the robotic drums that accompany Sly. They have a slightly dated sound, as they slowly play. The sound it produces is totally unlike the drum sound Greg Errico would’ve produced. Around Sly, a lovely warm, funky arrangement is emerging, thanks to the rhythm section and keyboard. Then just as you’re getting into the groove, loosing yourself, the song ends way too soon, a tantalizing taste of what might have been.

Probably the best known track on There’s A Riot Goin’ On is Family Affair, three seminal minutes of music. The introduction is unmistakable, with the rhythm section and electric piano accompanying Rose’s heartfelt vocal. By now, you’re entranced. Rose and Sly spend the next three minutes, singing about the problems of family life. Behind them, the electric piano is at the centre of the arrangement. It adds a warmth, while the rhythm section adds the heartbeat. That’s not forgetting some virtuoso guitar licks. Together with Rose and Sly’s contribution, and the result is not just an anthemic track, but a true classic that’s one of the best songs Sly Stone’s penned.

Africa Talks To You “The Asphalt Jungle” was nearly the title of the album. It’s totally unlike the previous track. Instead, it has more in common with Luv “N’ Haight and Poet. 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. When they do, Sly is like the Pied Piper, the rest of band following in his wake, adding a soulful accompaniment. He whoops and hollers his way through the track. The arrangement also has a looser, jazzy structure, but is an epic fusion of funk, jazz, rock and psychedelia lasting nearly nine minutes. This is what I’d have liked to have seen Poet become. Here, the bass, guitars and keyboards play important roles in a deep, claustrophobic and multilayered track that’s jazz-tinged, soulful and funky. 

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. Quickly bass and brass section combine, Sly vamps, hollering and whooping. Horns growl, responding to his call. Washes of Hammond and scorching guitars join the horns and add to the drama. His voice veers 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 doesn’t detract from a deliciously, funky track that swings along, leaving a trail of magnificent melodies and rhythms in its wake.

(You Caught Me) Smillin’ has a lovely laid-back, feel-good sound. That comes courtesy of the rhythm section and keyboards. Harmonies sweep in, helping provided a melodic, relaxed vibe. Having set the seen for Sly, his vocal veers between lazy and languid to a rasping, growl. When this happens, the brass section join the arrangement. They help drives the arrangement along and sometimes, provide musical punctuation. This also helps fill the sound out. Melodic, mellow and hook-laden, it’s no wonder this track was released as a single.

Blues music influences Time, a track that explore philosophical themes. A Hammond organ adds a bluesy sound. Meandering along, it’s joined by a darker guitar sound. In the background the bass throbs, drums provide the heartbeat and Sly sings. His voice is quieter, before soaring, becoming a gravelly growl. Later, a wah wah guitar contributes towards the psychedelic, spacey sound that’s emerged. Then just as you’re starting to enjoy this glorious fusion of fusion of musical genres, it’s suddenly over. However, it’s brilliant while it lasts.

A heavy, dirty, funky bass combines with a keyboard and drums as Spaced Cowboy begins. For a while it’s an understated, intriguing instrumental jam with sounds emerging beautifully from the arrangement. When Sly sings, he decides to yodel, as he takes on the roll of the Spaced Cowboy. Accompanied by the rhythm section, scorching guitars and keyboards, harmonies accompany Sly. What follows is a leftfield track, laden with Monty Python-esque surreal humor. Best described as a musical collage where funk, country, psychedelia and rock meet head on, it’s an intriguing 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 chiming guitar plays some sweet licks. Overall, the stars of the track are Rose Stone for her vocal, and Jerry Martini for providing his 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, this 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 chime, drums pound and occasionally, stabs of keyboards escape from the mix. Mostly, but it’s the dark, throbbing bass that drives the track along. Sly’s vocal is much looser, augmented by harmonies. Rose sometimes can be heard. Mainly, it’s Sly, his vocal often soaring, leading to that familiar, raspy growl. This looser, much more freeform style allows the band to experiment, a song to develop, and usually, like here, a great track emerges. 

Although There’s A Riot Goin’ On took two years to make, it was worth every minute of that long wait. Against insurmountable odds, Sly and The Family Stone recorded the greatest album of their career. Somehow, they overcame influence of drugs, gangsters and The Black Panthers. There was internecine warfare between members of the band. This lead to drummer Greg Errico leaving the band. Up against it, Sly and The Family Stone dug deep. Fusing blues, funk, jazz, pop, psychedelia and rock musical genres and influences combine. Influenced by Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, John Coltrane, Muddy Waters, Sun Ra and The Beach Boys, Sly and The Family Stone recorded an eleven-song opus There’s A Riot Goin’ On.

Surrounded by a group of hugely talented musicians, they provided the genre-melting backdrop to his vocals. Veering between languid and lazy, to a rasping, grizzly, growl, sometimes his vocal is slightly muffled. Despite this, charisma oozes out of Sly Stone, the proverbial showman. A flamboyant showman, he was lead singer, multi-instrumentalist and producer. 

Produced by Sly Stone, he used multitrack recording to its fullest. Like a 20th century shaman, Sly locked himself in the studio and began work on his masterpiece. He recorded layer upon layer of music during long nights spent recording. Often he was on his own. This meant he’d no-one to challenge his decisions and authority. A perfectionist, much of the music was rerecorded. Overdubbing was used widely. Although it adds to depth and density to the music, it can detract from the sound quality. On There’s A Riot Goin’ On it adds to the album’s depth, darkness, charm and success.

Certified platinum, and featuring the dual number one single Family Affair, which was certified gold, There’s A Riot Goin’ On was their fifth album, and an album that wouldn’t be better. That’s why it’s included in the Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 best albums of all time. Sly and The Family Stone had recorded a stonewall classic. Up against unsurmountable odds, somehow, Sly pulled off the impossible and delivered an album that he’d never better. 

Despite releasing six further album Sly and The Family Stone never replicated the commercial success and critical acclaim of There’s A Riot Goin’ On. 1973s Fresh reached number seven in the US Billboard 200 and number one in the US R&B Charts. Following Fresh, each Sly and The Family Stone album sold fewer and fewer copies. Given the combined talents of Sly and The Family Stone, that’s hugely disappointing. The problems surrounding Sly Stone, the group’s leader and songwriter, lead to the group’s demise. His life became increasingly chaotic. Drugs were Sly’s downfall. Key members left the band. Gradually, the quality of music suffered. What had been in an innovative, imaginative band who released groundbreaking, influential music were but a shadow of their former selves. The best way to remember Sly and The Family Stone is the genre-melting, musical masterpiece that is There’s A Riot Goin’ On, an album that definitely deserves to be described as innovative and influential classic. Standout Tracks: Just Like A Baby, Family Affair, (You Caught Me) Smillin’ and Thank You For Talkin’ To Me Africa.

SLY AND THE FAMILY STONE-THERE’S A RIOT GOIN’ ON.

4 Comments

  1. Ross CMR

    I had no idea of Sly’s rough past. I just read an interview with him where he was living in his Van. I really hope this box set helps him get back on his feet http://smarturl.it/SlyGTRWRLD

    • Hi Ross,

      Thanks for your comments. Sly Stone as they say has lived the life. Thankfully, things have straightened out for him. I doubt he’ll ever make another album. The story about him living in a van was somewhat exaggerated.I read the same reports, and later, his attorney, denied that was the case. It was hard to know what to believe at the time (2011 if I remember right). I too hope the rerelease of the There’s A Riot Goin’ On and Higher box sets helps Sly financially. I’ll be doing a review of the Higer box set later this week, once I’ve had a good listen to the four discs.

      Best Wishes,
      Derek.

  2. The new album “Higher” drops on 8/27, I’m pretty excited for it! I feel that it’s going to be a big help overall! Really dig’n the new single “Higher” http://smarturl.it/SlyNPR

    • Hi Tony,

      Thanks for your comments. I’m glad you’re looking forward to Higher’s release. My copy arrived earlier this week. I’m just listening to it. It’s one of the best box sets of 2013. I’ll review it in the next week. To me, it sets a standard other box sets should try to achieve. Hope you enjoy Higher when it arrives.

      Best Wishes,
      Derek.

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