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…