Sly and the Family Stone: There’s A Riot Goin’ On
Purchased: Records on Wheels
Key Tracks: Luv N’ Haight, Just Like a Baby, Family Affair, Africa Talks to You, (You Caught Me) Smilin’, Spaced Cowboy, Thank You for Talkin’ To Me Africa
And you thought Axl Rose had rock’n roll madman all signed, sealed and delivered. (Un)fortunately, these shoes have been worn before. “There’s A Riot Goin’ On”, Sly and the Family Stone’s 1971 release has all the hallmarks of eccentric perfectionism and isolation present and accounted for. According to legend, Sly recorded this album with his band over a long period of time and under an increasingly large haze of drug induced psychosis from which, by all accounts, he never truly recovered.
Anyone who has watched Sly’s uplifting Woodstock performance will be taken aback by the sheer amount of cynicism and darkness cut into the grooves of this classic album. References to schisms in personal relationships, schisms in identity and schisms in world view are seemingly everywhere, including the wonderfully muddy production. Some tracks were so overdubbed that there is an audible hiss throughout the whole album that actually lends a sense of menace and disturbedness that somehow suit the songs.
The album is more musical than lyrical; with more time being devoted to either instrumental passages and scat vocalizations. The word here is menace. Tracks like “Just Like a Baby” give the listener an inside peek at what it must be like to be cradled in the arms of a warm heroin injection. It’s pretty darn scary, even scarier because it seems as though Sly is actually trying to promote it.
In “Poet”, Sly states “My only weapon is my band”…if this is the case, Sly is wielding this weapon with a less than noble purpose. The fact that the music is so incredibly danceable and seductive shows what a brilliantly warped mind went into creating it. Nightmares and death and insanity seem to be at every corner and every door on this 45 minute long plea for isolation. Sly makes a great deal of mention of Africa (“Thank You For Talkin To Me Africa”, “Africa Talks to You”) as tho he feels the need to escape to a scene that makes more sense than the insanity into which he’d obviously dipped himself by this point. “Family Affair” speaks to the difficulty of maintaining an equal portion of love for those around you who help you and for those who seek to drain you. All of this is done over the most minimal of funk tracks (one of the earliest examples of the use of a drum machine).
For those seeking to find the dirtiest funk imaginable or those seeking to wander down a dark musical path, this album is for you. What is most striking about the album tho is that there is a wonderfully small stream of joy throughout…kinda cracking out of the mire. The chorus chants in “Africa Talks To You” are so uplifting in their chaos; the feel of “(You Caught Me) Smilin” is so jubilant (despite the distinct possibility that the song is about hard drug use) that the listener can’t help but caught up in the possibility of joy in bleak reality.