If you want a musical hint of what There’s A Riot Goin’ On is all about just track down the original LP release and look at the red, white, and black American flag with suns instead of stars dominating the cover.
A lot happened to Sly & The Family Stone and to America in the nearly two years between studio albums. The civil rights movement, riots in major cities, political assassinations, and The Vietnam War dominated the news. Sly and other members of the group had found hard drugs and were constantly late for concerts when they bothered to show up at all. Tensions were high as Sly was at odds with Larry Graham and brother Freddie. Against this background they would produce a brilliant album that remains a statement of the time.
There’s A Riot Goin’ On is far removed from the joyful and exuberant Stand and Dance To The Music. Its lyrics are dark, uncompromising, urgent, and frighteningly realistic. They were also set to some of the best funky rhythms ever produced. It would resonate with the public as it became the group’s only chart topping album in The United States.
The title song clocked in at 0:00 which gave an indication of Sly Stone’s mind set. On the other hand “Family Affair” would be the number one song in America for three weeks and Rolling Stone magazine would rank it as the 138th greatest song of all time. It featured on of the first usages of a programmed rhythm section. Sly and Sister Rose sang about the positives and negatives of family life.
Most of the tracks would present a challenging listen. “Runnin’ Away” is about responsibility or the lack there of. “Spaced Cowboy” just wanders aimlessly. “Just Like A Baby” has got to be one of the most depressing songs of the early seventies. “Thank You For Talkin’ Me To Africa” was a remake of their hit “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin).” It is dramatically slowed down and the remarkable bass playing gives it a whole new feel.
If you want to explore the world of 1971 then this is an album for you. If you want to hear a fully formed funk sound that would reverberate down through music history then again this is an album for you. It certainly is not Sly Stone’s easiest listen but it may be his most creative release. There’s A Riot Goin’ On is like a black hole in space sucking you in and never letting you out again.
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