Life and our society as we know it might be descending into an apocalyptic hellhole, but at least Sly and the Family Stone provide a piercing musical landscape that goes along for the ride.
In 1971 Sly Stone despised what was playing out in front of his eyes – Nixon’s America, the Vietnam War, repressive social policies – and spun that discontent into an anarchic dance record chock full of pessimism, grit and foot-stomping grooves.
“There’s a Riot Goin’ On” burns with ferocity.
“Family Affair” is thick as a bowl of molasses, “(You Caught Me) Smilin'” sears musical speakers with its sexiness and the opening “Luv N’ Haight” introduces the listener to the dark despair Sly was swimming in when he recorded this album.
And the closing “Thank You for Talking to Me Africa” is a seven-minute-plus endnote riding the tide out with horns and jumpy bass.
The album is a postcard from a man who has flushed the idealism of the 1960s down the toilet and acquired a nasty drug addiction to boot. “There’s a Riot Goin’ On” marks the beginning of the end for Sly and the band.
Along with their early-70s masterpiece, six other Sly and the Family Stone’s albums have been re-released from their Epic/Legacy record years.
“Stand!” has Sly belting out “Sex Machine” a year before James Brown made the term synonymous with his name and “Don’t Call me Nigger, Whitey” is a blues-infused tune with Sly channeling his inner cyborg. The 1969 album also contains some of their most famous hits, such as “I Want to Take You Higher” and “Everybody People,” before the song was peddling Toyotas.
All seven of ’em are worthy of spin and are brilliant flashpoints of how commanding and influential the Family Stone was, from 1967’s “A Whole New Thing,” up until their last noteworthy record “Small Talk” in 1974.
After that Sly Stone became more disenchanted, cynical and inundated in drugs. Over the last 30 years he hasn’t produced much that’s worth listening to at all, and has degenerated into a frail old man ravaged by addiction. Anyone who witnessed his unhealthy and forced performance at the Grammys can attest to that.
But Sly and the Family Stone, while never witnessing the utopian dreams they had for America become fulfilled, did leave enough ferocious funk behind, even if it did cost them their sanity and lives along the way.
There’s a Riot Goin’ – 5 out of 5 stars
The Collection (all seven albums) – 4 out of 5 stars
Staff writer Brian Park can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.