Album of the Week: “There’s a Riot Goin’ On” – Sly and the Family Stone

 

On the surface, “Thank You for Talkin’ to Me, Africa” is essentially a re-write of “Thank You (Falentinme Be Mice Elf Agin)”.  But where that song sounds like a proto-funk party anthem,  “Thank You for Talkin’ to Me, Africa” is a slow-burn.  The groove is slower and darker.  Both songs contain the same lyrics, but the paranoia seeps in.  What was once a rave-up with a goofy title becomes something much more sinister. “Lookin’ at the devil, grinning at his gun,” Sly sings slowly over the dark and distorted bass.  A little bit later, he sounds defeated when he sings, “Thank you for the party.  I could never stay.”

There’s little doubt that the party he’s referring to is the late 60’s idealism. In the late 1960’s Sly and the Family Stone were one of the most groundbreaking acts around – politically and musically. Their previous album, Stand! was a call to arms for anybody and everybody. The album’s breakthrough single “Everyday People” was a soulful ode to end prejudices of al kind.   The very fact that the band was a multi-racial and multi-sex act was a statement by itself.

But There’s a Riot Goin’ On contains very little of that idealism.  Sly’s cynicism seeps through every single song and every funky rhythm the band takes on.  Like “Thank You For Talkin’ to Me, Africa” most of the songs on the album are slowed down forcing the listener to engage in the music and the mood it emotes.  But still, this being Sly he doesn’t alienate his audience.  Much of the album is a trip through his stoned and weary mind, but it’s not a psychological expose like John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band.  The proto-funk of the album keeps it from being depressing, even as it crawls again.

Though the two albums are musically different, I’ve always thought of There’s a Riot Goin’ On as the funky brother of the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers.  Both albums are fueled by their creators’ reaction to the end of the 60’s and of course, their drug-use. There’s a murky under-tone to both albums that was ground-breaking in each of their respective genres. Sticky Fingers found the Stones embracing their bad-boy and hedonistic image more than before, and set the path for most hard-rock bands afterwards.  There’s a Riot Goin’ On paved the way for funk and many of its songs were used as samples in early hip-hop.

However history looks at There’s a Riot Goin’ On, ultimately none of it would really matter if Sly wasn’t able to deliver songs.  “Luv n’ Haight” contains some of the group’s best vocal melodies along with Sly’s trademark wails.  “Spaced Out Cowboy” is one of the album’s lighter moments and despite being an instrumental it contains some great harmonica playing and some weird yodeling by Sly.  As always with a Sly and the Family Stone album, the rhythm section remains one of the best in rock.  It’s not easy to sound both loose and tight at the same time, but somehow the group manages to do it throughout There’s a Riot Goin’ On.

There’s a Riot Goin’ On might not have many of the group’s best known songs, but it contains some of their best and most engaging music.

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