Sly and The Family Stone – There’s a Riot Going On


A while back, my girlfriend seemed a little upset that there weren’t enough television shows that we could watch together…aside from “Family Guy.”

I’m just happy that I found a girl who’ll watch “Family Guy” with me.Besides that and “Lost,” I don’t watch an incredible amount of TV.But I’d like to take a moment to point out that HBO has just put out one of the best series I’ve ever seen on the tube.I’m referring, of course, to Danny McBride’s genius “Eastbound and Down.”

Written by McBride and produced in part by Will Ferrell, it is hands down better than 95% of the shit out there right now.I know my friends are already sick to death of hearing this from me, but fuck ‘em.This is too good not to share.

Danny plays Kenny Powers, former MLB star pitcher who let drugs and ego destroy his career.Thrown out of professional baseball, Powers heads back to the small town where he grew up to take a job as the grade school PE teacher. You get baseball, drugs, booze, a large dose of inappropriate behavior and …uh…swearing…you get lots of swearing!But what you really get is McBride’s brilliant ability to create flawed characters that just resonate with the everyman in all of us.If you’ve seen “The Foot Fist Way” you’ll know what I’m talking about.

If you haven’t seen it…go now…I’ll wait.

So aside from the regular album of the week knowledge that I’m dropping, take my advice and seek this out.If you don’t have HBO, you can watch it on the web. Now on to our next story of another man with a drug problem…summed up pretty well in Sly and the Family Stone’s seminal 1971 masterpiece “There’s a Riot Going On.”

Sylvester “Sly” Stewart grew up in a very religious family in Texas.    When the family moved to Vallejo California in the mid fifties, the Stewart kids Sly, Freddie, Roe and Vaetta formed a singing group called the Stewart Four and released a 78rpm record of gospel songs.  It was the beginning of the family’s life in professional music. After playing in a slew of high school bands and recording several singles, Sly hit the big time in 1964 when he scored the DJ job at the bay area’s KSOL and changed his name to Sly Stone, all while working as a producer for local bands.

In 1966 Sly formed a band called Sly and the Stoners, while his brother formed a group called Freddie and the Stone Souls.  Luckily, saxophone player Jerry Martini suggested that the two groups merge…and Sly and the Family Stone was born.  Since both Sly and Freddie both played guitar, it was decided that Freddie would be the band’s guitar player while Sly taught himself to play the organ.  But sister Vaetta wanted in as well.  She and her friends had a group called The Heavenly Tones and were soon inducted into the band as Little Sister, the backing vocalists.

The group was soon signed to Epic records and in 1967 released their debut “A Whole New Thing.” The album made a great impact on the music scene, but failed to chart…which is poison in the music industry. Despite the critical acclaim, label executive Clive Davis urged the band to come up with a sound that was a little more commercial.  Begrudgingly the band delivered “Dance to the Music” the following year.  The band wasn’t too fond of it, but it produced a highly marketable single and got them on the charts…and right before it’s release, Sly’s other sister Rose joined the band.

By the time the band released it’s next album, “Life”, the Sly Stone sound had begun to change the music scene.  The Motown sound that had dominated the soul scene was out – the era of psychedelic soul was in…and thanks to the brilliant bass playing of Larry Graham, the slap happy thump of funk had evolved.  When they released “Stand” in 1969, they had cemented themselves  as one of the biggest bands out there, scoring a prime spot at Woodstock and headlining a series of amazing tour dates.  Working politics and social commentary in their act had worked wonders, the album scored a number of hits like ‘Stand,’ ‘I wanna take You Higher’ and ‘Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey.’  But success had come at a price.

A lot happened between “Stand” and “There’s a Riot Going On.”  The Black Panthers demanded that Sly become more militant and fire the white members of his group.  The band began to splinter over creative and personal differences, and drugs began to figure prominently in all Sly’s activities.  Rumor has it that he travelled with a violin case full of drugs wherever he went.  Pressure from the label to produce more music had only resulted in one single ‘Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin),’ and they had to resort to releasing a greatest hits compilation.

Recorded almost completely by Sly himself in his Saulsolito studio and attic of his Bel Air.  It was almost entirely overdubbed and had the unusual inclusion of a drum machine on most of the tracks.  But what sets the album apart is the sound.  It’s not the frenzied, upbeat driving sound of the sixties…it’s the sound of confusion, paranoia, and depression.  I think that the single negative review on Amazon sums it up best.

I bought this CD and listened to it on the drive home – I thought my ears were playing tricks on me! I couldn’t make out the vocals. They were mixed very low, and were murky. Well you know, sometimes you need headphones. But at home I tried headphones, in vain.
The only songs with audible vocals were Family Affair and Running Away.”

It’s true, too. You can’t hear most of the vocals.  It wasn’t until years later when I picked up a copy of 331/3’s dissection of the album that I found out what the actual lyrics were. (if you want a really in depth description of the entire story of the album, I highly recommend picking up that book!) Here is a portrait of an artist in the middle of a complete breakdown…and one that would basically end his career.  I love it as a sort of demented counterpoint to Marvin Gaye’s  “What’s Going On.”  Because after “Riot” dropped, things did change.  In the world of music as well as the world at large.

Sly was simply there to document the fall.


1 Response to “Sly and The Family Stone – There’s a Riot Going On”

  1. 1 oldschoolfunker
    April 1, 2009 at 2:54 am

    by far some of the family stone’s best work, just love this album, hypnotic stuff!

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