SLY and the FAMILY STONE – ” There’s a Riot Goin’ On ” Released 50 Years Ago Today

Posted: November 28, 2021 in CLASSIC ALBUMS, MUSIC
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If one album summed up the mood of 1971 in 45 minutes, it was Sly & the Family Stone‘s There’s a Riot Goin’ On. Dark, druggy and depressing as hell, the fifth album by the San Francisco group led by multi-instrumentalist Sly Stone was the recorded equivalent of a gut punch to a nation already knocked senseless by war overseas and social unrest at home.
Almost exactly a year before “There’s a Riot Goin’ On‘s” release in November 1971, Sly & the Family Stone put out their massively popular “Greatest Hits” record, which collected singles and deep cuts from 1968 and 1969. The dozen tracks wrapped up the brief history of one of R&B’s best crossover bands, chronicling a dizzying couple of years that yielded some of the era’s most enduring songs.
But anyone expecting a second sunshine-kissed greatest-hits volume in a few years was most likely side-lined by the despairing tones crawling throughout “There’s a Riot Goin’ On“. Originally titled “Africa Talks to You“, and recorded partly in response to Marvin Gaye‘s sociopolitical “What’s Going On” (another era-defining album released in 1971), the album was a moody, murky indictment of the United States at the turn of the decade.

There’s a Riot Goin’ On” is a striking example of a pathfinder taking a road, both musically and personally, that tests every relationship to the brink and beyond to a place and time where tumult is inevitable and damage is dealt harshest of all to the protagonist at the centre of it.

The cover art, featuring an American flag with suns replacing the familiar stars, says it all: Blood-red stripes offset the remaining black and white.
It wasn’t an easy record to listen to then, and it’s still tough to get through at times now. But Sly & the Family Stone never made a more significant album. It’s their masterpiece, but it’s also one of music’s most harrowing and desolate works, and one that reflected the turmoil going on within Sly Stone.
After Sly & the Family Stone’s rousing Woodstock performance, their leader became unreliable. He missed shows. He missed album deadlines (prompting the release of “Greatest Hits“). He became more and more paranoid. He moved to Los Angeles. He joined the Black Panthers, who urged him to drop the white members of his multi-racial group. And he started to take more and more drugs, which clouded his mind and, to an extent, his creativity.
When he was able to get it together, he didn’t like what he saw, particularly the end of civil-rights activism and the dark pall cast on the final years of the ’60s. So he made an album about it, replacing his band’s usual psychedelic pop and funk with a deeper, sleepier version muddled with gut-churning bass rumbles, mumbled lyrics and a sense that there was a violent revolution brewing, but only if its leader didn’t nod off first.

But the groundwork for this new blueprint of soul and funk lies in its predecessor “Stand” and, more importantly perhaps, the success it brought with it. Released in 1969 after three solid, if unspectacularly performing albums, it reached #12 Top 200, whereas none of the previous three albums had broken the top 100. Part of its success can be attributed to a moment that goes down as one of the most important in 20th Century musical history: the Woodstock Festival

When Sly and the Family Stone took the stage at 3.30am on Sunday August 17th, 1969, their lives and careers changed forever. Almost knee deep in mud and worn low by the ravages of a weekend of intoxicating substances and little sleep, the crowd was revitalized by the surging, infectious performance the band gave—a lengthy, exultant “I Want To Take You Higher” lit the touch paper and the band never looked back. In fact, it was a palpable moment of realization for those involved, as well as those in the crowd. Larry Graham, the slap bass innovator, recounted in later years the fact that the band fully grasped their potential and realized what the awesome power of the fully operational group could attain.

But the savage irony of that realization is that the seeds were sown at that moment for the gradual dissolution of the group. For with success, came money and, somewhat inevitably, distractions. It may be a tale oft-told but it remains true—no one prepares you for success and all the trappings it brings. The distractions that afflicted Sly Stone in particular are well documented—for him it was cocaine and PCP that were his escape. Scanning through the interviews he gave to journalists in the early 1970s (which were few and far between), each and every single one of them makes mention of his cocaine habit.

Sly Stone missed 26 of the 80 planned shows, but things may not have been quite so straightforward. For all that the drugs would inevitably contribute to the problem, there was the idea that some form of scam was being run by those around the group. If Stone was waylaid by someone, resulting in a missed show, it was alleged that that person got a split of the resulting financial payoff Stone was obliged to produce. When he was interviewed by David Letterman in 1983, he addressed the issue head on: “There’s no way to make three gigs in one night, if you only know about one.”

Stone used The Plant Studios in Sausalito and the loft of his Bel-Air mansion but with one added curiosity. Sly also owned a Winnebago that was fitted out (somewhat chaotically) with recording equipment that added to the places Stone could hide himself away and create what would become Riot. It was a solitary endeavor for the most part though, something that was made possible by the advent of the most basic of drum machines. 

The Maestro Rhythm King MRK2 had preset patterns that he would use in a new, exciting way as Greg Errico (a real human drummer!) grudgingly testifies in Kaliss’ book:  “The machine. . . was a lounge instrument that the guy at the bar at the Holiday Inn might have used.

Stone worked on the album, mostly by himself, throughout 1970 and 1971. Many of his vocals were recorded in his bedroom, with a drum machine driving the beat. The other members of the group later overdubbed their parts. And Stone himself overdubbed even more on top of that. The result was a mix so thick and muddy that it perfectly suited the album’s themes of disillusionment and despair.

There were the internal band tensions that had been present since almost day one. Larry Graham and Sly tussled numerous times as the former challenged Stone’s authority. There were also rumours of Graham having affairs with Rose (Sly’s sister) and Sharon (Sly’s brother Freddie’s wife)—hardly a cocktail for healthy relationships and dynamic musical brotherhood. The upshot of all that was that Graham barely appeared on “There’s a Riot Goin’ On“, instead bass parts were played by either Stone himself or Rustee Alan who was more in line with James Jamerson’s luxuriously smooth bass playing than Graham’s newly minted slap bass techniques that had contributed so memorably to “Stand’s” success.
From the opening “Luv n’ Haight” — one of the few songs here that doesn’t sound like a 45 played at 33 1/3 — to the closing “Thank You for Talkin’ to Me Africa,” a gloomy, seven-minute reworking of Sly & the Family Stone’s 1969 No. 1 hit “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin),” There’s a Riot Goin’ On plays out like a drug-induced nightmare that’s a simultaneous end to the ’60s and the start of an equally tumultuous decade. The title track, which closes out Side One, runs 0:00, erasing all time and space from the record.

It’s a fitting summation of the album, because nothing else sounded like it at the time. All these years later, it remains one of the most distinctive records ever made. It confused a lot of people then, and it still does. But the success of the single “Family Affair,” which hit No. 1, drove the LP to the top of the album chart.
It would be the group’s last No. 1s, though they did manage to make one more great album, 1973’s Fresh, before Stone couldn’t keep it together anymore. There’s a Riot Goin’ On touched just about everyone who heard it. Jazz got darker and funkier, funk got darker and deeper, R&B got weirder and druggier and rock ‘n’ roll got more adventurous and complicated (the Rolling Stones, for one, were influenced by the murky production enough to bury Exile on Main St. in a similar mix).

It seems almost beyond comprehension that the group’s biggest song would come from this album, but “Family Affair” hit #1 on the charts and stayed there for three weeks. Recorded with Billy Preston on electric piano and Bobby Womack on rhythm guitar, it buried Sly’s guitar in the mix and featured his singing in an entirely different register. Gone were the urgent gospel-like vocals of previous years and in its place came a guttural, underplayed vocal that mirrored the gloomy approach to recording and the overall feel of the album.

The other singles released from the album were “Runnin’ Away” and “(You Caught Me) Smilin’” both of which did pretty well

The music on “Riot” is funky, very funky, but it is of a totally different ilk to the funk others offered. Take James Brown’s work of the time with his new line-up that included Bootsy and Catfish Collins. Their brand of funk was expansive, punchy and dancing to it meant the chance to use huge movements—spins, pirouettes and leaping splits; arms and legs flung as extensively as possible. But it is hard to imagine those same movements in response to the deep, gloopy funk of “Riot“. Here the funk is wearing a strait jacket—the movements it provokes are limited in scope and scale, instead the neck bears the brunt of the groove.

  1. Fascinating album, fascinating reading. Excellent piece on a unique moment

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