I have no trouble remembering the first time I saw and heard Sly And The Family Stone. It was in 1977 and I was watching the Woodstock movie for the first time. All of a sudden the screen filled with men and women, black and white, wearing bright colours, and playing what seemed like a multitude of instruments blasting out some the purest funk music that I'd ever heard.
You have to remember that 1977 was the height of the Disco years, music which was a pale imitation of what Sly And The Family Stone were playing up on the big screen in front of me. So seeing them was a kind of musical epiphany for me: it was possible to create dance music you could actually listen to as well as only mindlessly move to.
I was watching them ten years after the band had been formed out on the West Coast as part of the thriving San Francesco music scene. But even before he formed he formed the family he was involved with music. Slyvester Stewart was born in Texas and begun recording when he was four, taking part in a family gospel album.
In his teens the family moved to California and he kept on recording with bands of his own and producing others. One of the early songs he produced was for a band called Great Society. Grace Slick would take "Somebody To Love" with her to Jefferson Airplane and have pretty good success with it. In 1967 Sly put together Sly & The Family Stone and they released their first album A Whole New Thing
It was definitely a whole new thing in many ways, not just musically. First of all it was a mix of races and genders. In 1967 it was not normal for black and white musicians to be playing in a band together as equals, nor was it normal for a woman to be anything but a vocalist and maybe play keyboards. But in Sly & The Family Stone not only were there both black and whites playing together, women were also key members of the horn section.
Then there was the music. Sly and his people drew upon everything from rock and roll to the blues to gospel and soul to make a sound that really hadn't been heard before. A Whole New Thing sounds just as fresh today on the Legacy Edition being released on April 24th, as it must have sounded thirty years ago when it first came out.
It sure sounds as exciting to my ears as when I first heard them playing in the film version of Woodstock twenty years ago. From the opening track "Underdog" right through to "Dog" eleven songs later. These tunes are fresher and more original sounding than anything you're going to hear on the radio these days or in the dance clubs.
They don't just play the same thing over and over again for one thing. There's no mindless repetition of drum machine saying "Stupid, stupid, stupid" over and over again in the background. These songs have melodies and tunes with lyrics that, if not brilliant poetry, assume sentience on the part of an audience. While there are no attempts at social commentary on A Whole New Thing like later albums, which have songs like "Everyday People" or "Thank You (For Letting Me Be Myself Again)", they still are a step above boy lusts for girl, or the misogynist crap that passes for lyrics today where women are "Hoes" and "Bitches".
Instead of selfish anger and the glorification of violence, there is a feeling of optimism that pervades this music, whether it's implicit in the lyrics or not. The music is lively and energetic and the singing is soulful without being sentimental. You can't even visualize Sly Stone closing his eyes and clutching the microphone in both hands and trying to deep throat it while singing to prove how much the lyrics mean to him.
A Whole New Thing by Sly & The Family Stone was the beginning of the funk revolution. People like George Clinton and Parliament would result from this opening shot across the bows of the music world. Sony Legacy editions have remastered Sly's entire back catalogue and are releasing it throughout April.
A Whole New Thing comes with some bonus tracks, including the mono single versions (the ones released to AM radio were mono in those days) of "Underdog" and "Let Me Hear It From You", two extra tracks not originally on the album – "Only One Way Out Of This Mess" and "What Would I Do", and an unreleased instrumental called "You Better Help Yourself".
All I can say is that you better help yourself to some of these discs. If for no other reason than to remind yourself what real dance music is supposed to sound like; that you can move your body without shutting your brain off and music can express emotions and feelings all on its own without any histrionics on the part of a singer.
Thirty years ago Sly & The Family Stone released A Whole New Thing and changed the face of Rhythm and Blues music. It's probably too much to ask that this re-release has the same impact, but perhaps it will open some ears to the potential for dance music to be more than mindless drivel.