Graded on a Curve:
Sly and The Family Stone, There’s a Riot Goin’ On

By 1970, Sly Stone was no longer his happy-go-lucky, upbeat-hits-producing self. Stone and his band had taken to ingesting large quantities of cocaine and PCP, a paranoia-inducing combo if ever there was one, and Sly’s own intake was such that he carried his stash in a violin case. The results were predictable. Sly went from multi-racial inspiration to Richard Nixon-level paranoiac, and hired shady characters, gangsters, and even a Mafioso as a Praetorian Guard to keep an eye on his “enemies,” some of whom happened to be members of The Family Stone. Recording came to a standstill, and Stone began his infamous habit of missing gigs.

When Stone finally dragged his bad self into the Record Plant in Sausalito to record the band’s fifth album, the results were completely unlike any previous Family Stone release. What is surprising, given Stone’s precipitous psychic decline, is that the result, 1971’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On, is perhaps the most brilliant LP he ever recorded.

Dark? No shit. Gone was The Family Stone’s trademark cheery psychedelic rock and soul, replaced by a raw funk—which would reverberate in the ears of George Clinton and innumerable future funkers like a revelatory crack of thunder—that was as every bit as murky and hopelessly disillusioned as it was bracing. “I Want to Take You Higher” had become “I Want to Bring You Down, Way Down.” There’s a Riot Goin’ On was a sign o’ the times—of riots in the inner cities, Altamont, The Manson Family, and the Death of the Age of Aquarius—just as his more playful earlier LPs had been signs of theirs. But Sly had done more than just tap into the gestalt; he had just recorded his Exile on Main Street.

There’s a Riot Goin’ On’s gritty, tape-hiss heavy sound was the result of Stone’s incessant overdubbing and erasures. The album’s unique sound also stems from Stone’s use of a rhythm box instead of drums, as well as programmed keyboards and synthesizers. Evidently Sly played many of the instruments himself, although you wouldn’t know it from the album credits, which include Family Stoners Larry Graham (bass, backing vocals), Greg Errico and replacement Gerry Gibson (drums), Little Sister (aka Vet Stewart, Mary McCreary, and Elva Mouton, backing vocals), Rose Stone (vocals, keyboards), Freddie Stone (guitar), Jerry Martini (tenor sax), and Cynthia Robinson (trumpet), as well as luminaries Ike Turner and Bobby Womack (guitars) and Billy “The Black Beatle” Preston (keyboards).

The most intriguing cut on There’s a Riot Goin’ On—a title’s a response to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On—is the title track, because, well, it’s not there. The title is there, right on the LP for all to see, but there’s no song. When asked why he did this, Stone supposedly replied that he didn’t want any riots. Nevertheless, the album is a riot in and of itself; Stone had concluded that “Love City” was in reality a ghetto, and Riot was the aural equivalent of a cry of, “Burn, motherfucker, burn!”

Opening track “Luv’N’Haight” is so muddy you’ll want to listen to it with waders on. It opens with some impossibly funky bass and wah-wah guitar, then Sly sings, “Feel so good inside myself/Don’t want to move” and Rose Stone follows with, “As I grow up I’m growing down/And when I’m lost I know I will be found.” And from there on in it’s all funky guitar, some cool horn, and that impossibly catchy beat, with Sly and Rose swapping vocals, Little Sister singing “Feel so good” and “Don’t wanna move,” and Sly throwing in some screams for good measure.

“Just Like a Baby” is slower and features lots of keyboards and one bad-ass bass line, not to mention the sultry vocals of Sly and Rose. There’s a freaky instrumental section that is very, very heavy, and oodles of repetitions of “Just Like a Baby,” not to mention tons of mad cool vocal interjections. And the bottom on this song! It’s a bottomless pit that moves, and you’ll find yourself saying, “Do fries come with that shake?”

The midtempo “Poet” is one endless slinky groove, with lots of funky percolating keyboards, programmed drums, and Sly slurring his words (“I’m a shongggwri…ter”) cuz he’s a poet and he can do whatever the hell he wants. And what he wants to do, soon enough, is shut up, so that deep-fried groove can go on and on and on until “Poet” finally fades out. Everybody knows, “Family Affair,” with its wonderful chiming keyboards and superfunky groove. Rose Stone’s opening repetition of “It’s a family affair” is followed by Sly—his vocals as insinuatingly funky as they ever got—singing about the joys and pains of family until Rose comes back in and Sly lets out a couple of great screams, before Rose puts the whole family to bed with one final, “It’s a family affair.”

“Africa Talks to You (“The Asphalt Jungle”)” opens with a beatbox, one groovy bass riff, and some high-pitched guitar that I would love to think is Ike Turner, and this bunch go their merry way until Rose Stone and Little Sister jump in singing, “Must be a rush for me/To see a lazy/A brain he meant to be/Copout? He’s crazy!” Meaningless, sure, but no biggie, because before you know it a whole slew of voices are singing the chorus (“Timberrrr…all fall down/Timberrrr…Who’s around?”), which is followed by more fancy guitar riffage and a great scream by Sly. And on and on it goes, with that bass doing amazing shit and some vocalists going “Wow wow wow” and Sly and the family all crying “Timber!” over and over again. Then some funky organ comes in, joining that great guitar and the miracle bass in a fantastic groove that could go on forever as far as I’m concerned. If Heaven’s a bar (and I like to think it is) this baby is, I kid you not, on heavy rotation on the incandescent atomic jukebox in the corner, right by the machine that sells cigarettes that don’t cause cancer.

“Brave & Strong” is a horn-heavy and guitar-riff happy tune that opens with some screaming and “Well wells” before evolving into a slinky groove, propelled by one throbbing, bouncy bass. “Brave and strong,” repeats Sly before giving out a great scream while that bass bounds all over the damn place like a superball, and there’s lots of horn blurt and some freaky organ and instruments and voices jump in and out haphazardly in a mad funk caterwaul kept in rein by one bondage-up-yours tight groove. (“You Caught Me) Smilin’” is as happy-go-lucky as There’s A Riot Goin’ On gets, with its cheerful vocals and nice as nice gets melody. Sly does some screaming and frenetic vocalizing while the backup singers sound like its Christmas morning. Then comes a great instrumental featuring horns, programmed keyboards, and some tasty guitar riffs, before those gladsome backing vocalists come back, Sly screams some more, and the song ends.

“Time” is one the two tracks on the LP I’m not crazy about. A slow shuffle propelled by snare and some easy listening keyboards, it highlights Sly’s great voice, which goes from a whisper to a scream and from insinuating to gruff. But nothing much happens, although at one point the volume increases and a keyboard plays a simple riff, while other keyboards come in and out and Sly takes the song out. “Spaced Cowboy” is a different story altogether, a wonderful organ- and bass-propelled slice of superfunky in which Sly plays ghetto cowboy, yodeling like a fro-wearing Roy Rogers as the song races along and a guitar fires off random riffs. Then a marvelous harmonica comes out of the blue, a great rhythm guitar and organ do their things, and Sly lets out a sort of groan, taking the song out.

“Runnin’ Away” is the other song I’m not mad about. A spritely tune that kinda reminds me of Stereolab at their poppiest, “Runnin’ Away” features a childish melody, lots of perky horns, one cool rhythm guitar, and Rose Stone and Little Sister singing, “Runnin’ away to get away, ha ha, ha ha/You’re wearin’ out your shoes.” The song continues in this vein throughout, with the ladies singing “he he” and the horns playing a brief and very Burt Bacharach-like instrumental, and I’m afraid “Runnin’ Away” is a bit too easy listening for my tastes.

Fortunately it’s followed by the deep-as-the-Grand-Canyon bass, drums, and strafing guitar that establish the slow as frozen molasses groove of “Thank You for Talkin’ to Me Africa.” The bass is especially funky—heavy as Leslie West yet flexible as Gumby, damn it—as the intro goes on and on, until Sly finally comes in, along with the ladies and some dudes, to repeat the refrain of the band’s 1969 single, “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin).” That’s when Sly’s not emitting screams over the unchanging monster groove, which cuts a funky furrow through your mind and plants the seeds that will blossom into a deep and abiding love for this song, which is as unrelenting as something off PiL’s Metal Box. Towards the end Sly is one non-stop screaming machine, and I defy anyone to find another groove as deep and remorseless as this one.

Everybody knows what happened afterwards. Sly and The Family Stone recorded a few more influential funk albums before Stone vanished in a haze of substance abuse. He released a series of increasingly unsuccessful albums, missed gigs the way Karen Carpenter skipped meals, and finally became a veritable recluse, alternating the occasional contribution to somebody else’s LP with one of many cocaine busts. Come 2011 media reports had him living, a ranting paranoid, in a tiny camper, his fortune and mansions and fancy cars gone, dependent on a retired couple to make sure he ate at least once a day.

True or not, it’s hard to foresee a happy ending for Stone, who gave us so much—including a handful of brilliant albums, lots of positive vibrations, and one funky downer of a masterpiece in There’s a Riot Goin’ On. Sly Stone’s self-immolation is one of the greatest tragedies in rock history, and while there were real riots going on when Sly bequeathed us There’s a Riot Goin’ On, the only riot nowadays—and it’s been going on for decades—is the one in Sly’s head.


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