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Music Review: Sly And The Family Stone – Stand!; Theres A Riot Goin’ On (Original Recordings Remastered part 2 of 3)

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By 1969’s Woodstock Festival, Sly And The Family Stone’s reputation for incendiary live performances had grown to the point where they were regarded by many as the greatest live act on the planet. If there was any doubt whatsoever of this however, it was completely shattered by the band’s historic performance at Woodstock.

Looking past Woodstock’s images of stoned out hippies dancing naked in the mud that have become forever ingrained into the consciousness of a generation, there are really only a handful of images of the actual musical performances that took place there which have become likewise etched into memory.

Of these, only three were truly star making turns. Santana’s electrifying rain chant during “Soul Sacrifice;” Ten Years After’s Alvin Lee’s blistering, teeth-clenched guitar soloing on “I’m Going Home”; and Sly And The Family Stone’s unforgettable, call and response during the medley of “Dance To The Music” and “I Want To Take You Higher.” The energy of this performance was absolutely off the charts, and the image of Sly throwing the peace sign in the air with fringe flying, is arguably the most lasting musical snapshot of that historic event.

It was a landmark performance whose way had been thoroughly paved by a landmark album, 1969’s Stand!. While many music historians justifyably will point to There’s A Riot Goin’ On as Sly And The Family Stone’s greatest work, my own vote goes to Stand! hands down. Either way you choose to slice it, these two albums represent the creative and artistic peak of Sly And The Family Stone.

But for my money, Stand! is where everything absolutely came together. From the first notes of the opening track, this album just flat out kicks ass and takes names. On a musical level, the band plays as tightly as any musical unit had ever done up to this point and establishes the standard for every single self-respecting funk band which would follow. Not to mention quite a few rock bands as well.

The album’s original seven tracks include at least four hit singles: “Everyday People”; “Sing A Simple Song”; “You Can Make It If You Try”; and of course, the band’s signature song made famous by it’s Woodstock performance, “I Want To Take You Higher.” The band was also by now fully incorporating the politics of both the civil rights and anti-war movements into it’s lyrics via both “Everyday People” and the racially charged call to empowerment of “Don’t Call Me Nigger Whitey.”

Rounding out the album, the thirteen plus minutes of the instrumental “Sex Machine” begin with a slowly percolating wah-wah guitar that slowly builds in tension before finally exploding into a cacophonous wall of sound of crashing drums and screaming horns. The final effect is a virtual eargasm of sound (hence the title perhaps).

For my money, Stand! is just about as good as it gets on a purely musical level. On the reissue, the single versions of the title track, “Higher”, and “You Can Make It If You Try” are included along with two previously unreleased tracks.

In between Stand! and Riot, Sly And The Family Stone released two more big hit singles in the form of “Hot Fun In The Summertime” and “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin). So I guess we know now where Prince gets his penchant for oddly spelled song titles from.

There’s A Riot Goin On was widely regarded at the time as Sly And The Family Stone’s big “political statement” album (and the American flag imagery of the album art did little to dispell this notion). And while the album was his most experimental to date, the sad truth was that the stardom of Stand! had already begun to take a personal toll on Sly Stone himself. On tracks like “Luv N’ Haight” the band perks along sounding as tight as ever, but there is a disjointed feel to this album that stands in stark contrast to the undeniable musical unity of Stand!.

Riot does have it’s share of political themes such as on “Africa Talks To You (The Asphalt Jungle)”. And there are a number of musically interesting things on the album, even if most of them seem to come in fragments, something which could never have even been imagined on the tightness that is the Stand! album. The song “Poet” for instance features an interesting bass and keyboard based riff that I would bet you dollars to donuts inspired Chaka Khan and Rufus’ “Tell Me Something Good.”

The reissued version of Riot’s bonus tracks are mainly untitled instrumentals, which perhaps represent Sly’s apparently scattered state of mind at the time.

For my money, Riot is probably Sly’s most interesting and musically intriguing album all these years later. It is most certainly the one which most stands out as having the sort of depth which is benefited best by repeated listenings. Riot’s lone hit single, “Family Affair” also stands up nicely next to other hits like “Everyday People.”

But it lands nowhere near the knockout punch of it’s predecessor Stand!.

It was also quite clear that the drugs had begun to take effect.

To Be Continued…

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About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, Ultimate Classic Rock, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.
  • Thanx for the comment Rodney.

    Understand that I don’t diminish the greatness of Riot at all. I actually think it is overall the most musically interesting of Sly’s albums. But the dark Underlying tone of the album (that you actually allude to in your comment) is for me what seperates it from the infectiously “up” quality of Stand!, which is what I feel makes the latter the better record of the two.

    I like to remember Sly Stone as the energized performer that absolutely electrified half a million people at Woodstock, rather than the darker personality he became during the band’s latter day period, and the drugs began to really do a number on him — eventually dulling his genius altogether.

    But don’t get me wrong here about Riot, because it is a great record in it’s own right. I just feel that Stand! is a better representation of what was at the time, the tightest band in rock period.

    Thanx again for the comment.


  • Riot is one of the greatest, darkest, and fiercest albums ever made. It’s Sly Stone’s Tonight’s the Night, and it is every bit as powerful as that record — maybe more so. Both are scary records, scorched by drugs, death and, in Sly’s case, raw anger. Sly’s vocals throughout are slurred and the lyrics occasionally trail off into incoherence, not unlike that of someone who had to get flat-out ripped in order to say what he really, really felt, sort of the way Anthony Burgess had to get drunk in order to deal with his own wife’s rape when he was writing A Clockwork Orange. It was Sly Stone at his most frustrated and vehement — as if he wanted to make damn sure no one ever thought of him as a happy Negro in Nixonland. “Family Affair,” for example — that is one bleak social portrait to wind up on the Top 40. To listen to Riot is to listen to turmoil, and even it’s lightest, happiest moments are bleak and menacing; the music bounces along in “Spaced Cowboy,” but then you hear Sly say: “Well once I saw a bore,/Who was a social whore…”

    When I listen to “Africa Talks to You (The Asphalt Jungle)” — it’s as if you can smell the smoke from a dozen urban communities about to go up in smoke, and “Thank You for Talkin’ To Me Africa” is an almost nightmarish rewrite of “Thank You Fallettenme Be Mice Elf.”

    Sink yourself into that record and it’s like a thunderbolt hyperdermic driven right into your brain. Think of a drug that doesn’t blot out illusions, but illuminates them. That is what Riot is.

  • Count me in – Stand over Riot.