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Music Review: Sly And The Family Stone – Fresh; Small Talk (Original Recordings Remastered Part 3 of 3)

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The seventies were not nearly as good to Sly and The Family Stone, and particularly to Sly himself, as the sixties had been.

The legacy, of course, continued to live on in the form of bands like Earth Wind & Fire and Parliament-Funkadelic. But as for Sly And The Family Stone itself, by the early seventies the wheels were pretty clearly begining to come off of the wagon.

A couple of years had lapsed between the release of There's A Riot Goin' On and 1973's Fresh. And despite it's cover art of an apparently exuberant Sly jumping for joy, there was clearly trouble in paradise. Most distressingly, Sly and The Family Stone's reputation as rock's greatest live band had been replaced by Sly's new-found reputation for showing up late or not at all to scheduled performances.

In all of music at the time, this was a reputation for no-showing scheduled concerts rivaled only by country music's famously late George "No Show" Jones. I actually have my own rather bizarre experience with this to relate.

As a then fourteen year old music freak, I had already seen many of my heroes — from the Airplane to Jimi Hendrix to Janis Joplin — in concert, and desperately wanted to see Sly. So I was downtown on the day of Sly's show at the Paramount, without a ticket, trying to figure out a way in, when I ran across this rehab group for heroin addicts called "Methadone Now". After a brief discussion with the guy in charge, I learned they would have a booth in the lobby of the concert soliciting donations and that if I wanted to work the booth, I could get in for free.

Imagine my luck.

The problem was I never told my parents. So after working the booth during the opening act (a stand up comedian of all things), I patiently waited for Sly to show up. And waited. And waited. And waited.

By this time it was well past midnight with no sign of Sly, and my parents (who you remember I failed to inform where I was) had understandably become concerned. So they called a friend of mine who informed them I was downtown working a drug rehab booth at the Paramount.

So, at about 12:30 AM, I was escorted out of the Paramount by a uniformed police officer. And I can honestly say I was never so embarrassed in my life. From what I understand, Sly finally showed up about an hour later and did a thirty minute set with no encore.

So much for my last chance to see the great Sly Stone.

Listening to the album Fresh now as I write this, I can tell you that the album has its moments like on the song "Skin I'm In." The band sounds as good as ever. But the songs themselves have nothing remotely approaching the creative and energetic spark of something like "I Want To Take You Higher." The bonus tracks included on the remastered version consist mainly of alt versions of songs who even in their original versions constitute the dying gasps of a once genius-level songwriter.

The cover of Sly's last official album Small Talk rather famously features Sly and his wife (at least I'm assuming) holding up his baby boy. Supposedly by this time Sly had somewhat rehabilitated himself. The music on this album however does not evidence this at all. Rather, it is more of the experimental meanderings which began (interestingly) with There's A Riot Going On and climaxed (much less so) with the relative mess of Fresh.

Again, this album is mainly characterized by little bits and pieces that, while musically interesting at times, far more often serve as frustrating and unfortunate reminders of the greatness that once was Sly And The Family Stone.

And don't get me wrong here. Fragments are fine. Especially if there are enough of them that are interesting enough to sustain an entire album — such as is the case with eighties hip hop artists clearly inspired by Sly Stone like De La Soul and Public Enemy.

But by the time of Small Talk, it was pretty clear that Sly had run completely out of gas. Sly was for all intents and purposes done.

There have of course been rumors off and on over the past thirty years or so of a comeback. And for an old fan like me, his appearance at the Grammys two years ago was very encouraging.

Whether anything comes of it of course remains to be seen.

But if Brian Wilson can come back from the dead, I suppose anybody can. One can only hope.

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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, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at The Rockologist, and at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.
  • http://www.soundclick.com/jcmosquito JC Mosquito

    Glad to read your series, Glen. I hope the remasters sound good – I’ve never pursued listening too much to S&FS because their recordings sound so thin & tinny to me, so hopefully this fixes things.

    Sk.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    I agree that CBS never really did get the sound right on those records JC. I’m not going to call these 100% perfect either, but given what they had to work with, I think they sound about as good as you are going to get. Stand! in particular is a lot brighter sounding then I remember, with the all important bass tones of Larry Graham popping right out of the speakers. I think you’ll be pleased if you give the remasters a try.

    -Glen