There's a Riot Goin' On

by: Sly & the Family Stone

Strange things happened to Sly and his Family Stone between the wild celebratory party and tour that followed the release of Stand! and the beginning of the trip into the studio that yielded There's a Riot Goin' On. Stand! was released in 1969 to critical and public acclaim and became a hit financially. It was followed by a long, fruitful tour that included a triumphant appearance at the Woodstock festival. The band recorded two singles in between albums. The first was "Hot Fun in the Summertime," issued in August 1969. It hit the number two spot on the Billboard chart. Its follow-up was the funk monolith "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)," which went to the top of the Billboard chart. It's important to note that neither of these cuts are available on the 2007 Legacy reissues of Sly's Epic catalog even as bonus cuts, since they were recorded without a specific album in mind, but rather as tracks to keep the band on the radio and in the public consciousness. This was a period when the band, once a communal troupe through and through, began to live in different places. Sly was living in a rented mansion once owned by John and Michelle Phillips, getting loaded all the time and missing concert dates on tour. According to Joel Selvin's excellent liners, Sly canceled 26 out of 80 dates. During the two-year break between records, Sly wasn't exactly laying in bed. He was recorded all the time, even if what he was recording, and with whom, produced nothing substantive. He bought a primitive drum machine and began experimenting with it. Different bandmembers, most notably bassist Larry Graham, would show up at different times to add parts to songs and find themselves mixed out of the proceedings. Through the madness that went on in the mansion and at Record Plant, where Sly would park a Winnebago and party and record at the same time, a recording began to come together. Before a three-night stand at Madison Square Garden, Sly offered the album to Epic. Credits are sketchy as to who did what, though when Graham or Freddie Stewart are present, their parts are unmistakable. The album's first single was "Family Affair," a skeletal track on which Billy Preston played keyboards, the drum machine counted rhythms, and Sly and Sister Rose sang, according to Selvin's notes, through cupped hands, as there were no vocal treatments. It's a strange, disorienting tune with an infectious melody. It's the seduction for an album that is a nightmare journey through disillusionment, with racial and class politics, a resignation to drug addiction and to the nightmare of trying to ruin one's life in the face of reigning chaos and the pressure of the four preceding years. The tune, like the album it comes from, seems to drift with no center, no anchor except that drum machine. Sly sounds weary even if he pretends an optimism. He's resigned, and stating a simple truth, that "blood is thicker than mud." Remember this was the Vietnam era. The slippery funk and Preston's killer fills give the track its irresistible riff. "Luv N' Haight" is a dark, fractured funk tune that passes its own judgment on the new Aquarian Age with insulations and allegations that nothing much has changed. Still, its arrangements are killer. There's a ton of space between instruments, but the whole is cohesive, slithering, sliding, and greasy. It's night-time gospel from the pusher's living room. Other places here are nearly impenetrable. The music becomes so dense. Legend has it that Sly overdubbed and overdubbed until things bled out into the margins, leaving a muddy, sludgy sound to permeate the record's grooves. If the earlier, joyous psychedelic funk sides were a reflection of optimism and possibility, There's a Riot Goin' On's sound is one of entropy, the sound of the funk caving in on itself and the hope of a generation falling into a place of darkness. This is after Malcolm X, Dr. King, and Bobby Kennedy, after the escalation of the war, and more recently, after Kent State. Sly and his collaborators are circling their wagons and projecting grooves inwardly here, though they still manage to reach outside themselves. Even on "Just Like a Baby," the weariness in the keyboards and Greg Errico's drums are barely enough to keep up the heroin-sounding groove. It's all slow, slow, slow. And if a child is being celebrated, it's from some emotionally distant place. The shimmering funk of "Africa Talks to You" is led off by the drum machine again and Freddie's guitar, with fills on keyboards by Graham, Sly, and Preston; it trips, stumbles along, and nearly falters, but the groove stays intact. One can here in the falsetto Sly employs here, and in their staccato lines and choruses, where Prince snagged his entire thing from. "Brave & Strong" is simply the tough funky bassline and a horn head; everything else is layered underneath for the first 30 seconds: "I've been down/Ain't got a friend/You don't know/Who'll turn you in." This is a far cry from "I Want to Take You Higher." The slow, wispy soul that sounds like it's drifting in from a distant radio somewhere is what introduces "You Caught Me Smilin' (Again)." It's an unabashed hymn to getting high. Sister Rose's voice is all sweet, and at first so is Sly's, but as the horns and bassline come stepping in, Sly's voice gets heavy and is distorting in places deliberately. The delicate keyboard lines, luxuriant and in the pocket as they are, cannot keep the voice contained. There's a minimal instrumental break in the tune and it suddenly fades just as it emerged. "Time" is a blues where spooky keyboards haunt Stone's voice on the fringes as he expounds on the concept cynically. The blues and urban soul meet here under a cloud, through the haze, and the listener is a left at the gate of the audio speakers, trying to hear her way into this sound world. The world's political situation at that time -- and much more so right now -- was inaccessible to the masses, especially the young: "The universe seems to be a little stronger/Time is shaped in the hands." The set picks up, just as you are so completely sucked into the dark murky grooves on "Spaced Cowboy," which is a travel tune in that its circular grooves actually go somewhere and is deeply cohesive despite attempts at tape manipulation and chaos. Its melody and yodel are satirical perhaps, but Sly is dead serious. "Runnin' Away" is one of those beautiful jazz-funk tunes where muted horns, a funk and pop bass belie what is nearly a nursery rhyme tune: "Runnin' away/You're wearin' out your shoes." It breezes by, but it never stays long enough for the listener to get inside it; it's all fluid in slow motion travel. The original set ends with "Thank You for Talkin' to Me Africa." It's over seven minutes and begins in a menacing, backbone-slipping FONK stepper: get close, let the bass speak to the drums, the guitars translate, and the rest can come and go as it pleases. Vocals are more ritualistic chant than song. The words "thank you falettinme be myself again" come through the middle, but the other lyrics are almost impenetrable and it becomes a spiritual cousin to Dr. John's "I Walk on Guilded Splinters," but more seductive and thicker, like cough syrup, like opium tar, like surrender. This is the mirror image of Marvin Gaye's "What's Goin' On," released in the same year as plea for dialogue and forgiveness and togetherness in solving problems. It's the embodiment of frustration, weariness, isolationism, and the desire of letting things fall apart. And while it may be disturbing and narcotic to listen to, it's an absolutely essential exercise in the kind of funk that belies, underscores, and amplifies life's circumstances. That funk can be the music of the anti-party as well as the genesis of the thing itself. [The Legacy edition with its expert remastering makes the original album considerably less muddy. And while it may sound a bit like a different recording than the original, one has to consider that with all the overdubbing that went on with the limited number of original tracks, this might be closer to what Stone wanted rather than settled for. There are four bonus tracks, including the single version of "Runnin' Away" and three instrumental jams recorded during the creation of the album, none of which has been released before. And while these final tracks are illuminating regarding the long and labyrinthine process it took to get the record made, one has to wish that Sony would have included the two singles that preceded it, "Hot Fun in the Summertime" and "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)," for the sake of continuity and completion of the period.] ~ Thom Jurek

Please enable Javascript to view this page competely.