Don’t know where I keep digging these up from…..first written in 2006.
Sly & The Family Stone: There’s A Riot Going On
Try to imagine the most fucked up, off its head album that you can? If you multiply that thought by about a hundred the answer you’ll get is There’s A Riot Going On; the 1971 album by Sly & The Family Stone.
By 1970, the band should have been at their creative and commercial peak. A run of top selling albums and singles had been topped off with a performance at the Woodstock music festival. However, things were far from good; the band had been missing performances and Sly was slipping into drug problems of epic proportions.
On top of that, their new album was taking forever to record.
The majority of the album was being recorded at Sly’s rented LA mansion. His home had become like your worst nightmare; full of friends, hangers on, drug dealers, drug addicts, armed bodyguards and several pets. These included a vicious pit-bull and, for some reason, a baboon.
Recording sessions went on and on. Sly, often working for days on end without sleep; kept awake by a cocktail of cocaine and PCP. The bands record label, Epic had no idea what was going on at the house; recording costs increased and the release date was put back time and time again. Even the bands manager had no control over Sly; who by this stage had become a law unto himself.
People involved with the making of this record are not even certain if their contributions are included on the finished recording. If you look at some of the people possibly involved however, its amazing. At some point, Miles Davis, Billy Preston and Bobby Womack were involved, although its almost impossible to tell where. Billy Preston however, was almost certainly responsible for the electric piano parts on Family Affair.
We talk these days about Lo-Fi albums; recorded work that has a rough, recorded at home feel to it. This was the original Lo-Fi album. The songs sound raw and the sound quality at times is really poor. Don’t think that this was on purpose however. The only reason the recordings have this quality to them is because the tapes were almost worn out due to the amount of re-recording and overdubbing that took place in the studio. One story recalls how Sly would get various girls to sleep with him on the basis that they could sing backing vocals on the album. This would take place and when they’d left and Sly had had his way, he would wipe the vocal tracks and start again.
I think this album is amazing. Compared to the bands earlier work, its a very dark, bleak recording. If you compare it to the other major release of 1971; the seminal Whats Going On by Marvin Gaye, you can see how these two albums are the polar opposites of each other.
Gaye’s album shows concern for the environment, war and the people affected by the fall out of Vietnam. But most of all it does carry a positive message of hope and faith in God. The Family Stones album is down in the gutter; its the 1970’s and life looks bad. Too many problems, not enough time, and no solutions.
This is a late night album; one which sounds best at three in the morning when you cant sleep and the world seems against you. Its very easy to sink into the tracks on this album, to become part of them, letting them envelop you – proper headphones music.
This album contains some key Family Stone tracks, Family Affair, Runnin’ Away and (You Caught Me) Smilin’ amongst them. I love the whole album, in Slys hands, warm funk rhythms become a vehicle for regret and despair. The first four tracks on this album, (Family Affair included), Luv’ N’ Haight, Just Like A Baby and Poet are just incredible; lyrically and musically.
If you’ve not listened to this before – get it. You need this album