No band – on record or off – better encapsulated the demise of the sixties and that era’s spirit of excited possibility than Sly and the Family Stone. Formed in San Francisco in 1966, the group’s mixed-race membership reflected their sound: a spirited fusion of soul and psychedelia. Sonically and socially, Sly and Co. initially encapsulated a vision for an egalitarian and multicultural America. Yet by the turn of the decade, the dream had disintegrated. Torn apart by politics, cocaine, and PCP, the Family’s sound darkened and splintered as the optimism that had birthed them evaporated.
Though their first two albums sketched out Sly and the Family Stone’s template, it was on Stand (1969) that the group’s sound truly crystallised. The interplay between the funk-infused rhythms and the druggy-chug of guitars and keys on ‘Sing a Simple Song’ married Southern Soul to The Byrds. The epic ‘Sex Machine’, which dominates the album’s second half – capturing on record the spontaneity of a band jam – builds and builds layers of wah-guitar on a foundation of bass and drums à la Curtis Mayfield into a towering, ever-ascending epic. Indeed, ‘I Want to Take You Higher’ seems a more fitting title for an album whose tracks seem to compete in the heights to which they saw. Yet while Stand’s debts to LSD and Cannabis are self-evident, its prevalent mood of optimism was anything but a hallucination. Just three months on from the album’s release, Sly and the Family Stone joined the cream of Trans-Atlantic rock at Woodstock Festival, and in 2015 a copy of Stand was interred in the American National Recording Registry.
Two long years would pass before Slyreturned to record a follow-up. In between, the band’s spirit and sound were broken down. Caught between escalating pressure from Epic Records to return to the studio and from the Black Panthers to make his music more militant and replace band members, frontman Sly Stone retreated into himself. Escorted by gangsters, and with the band’s cocaine habit spiraling dangerously out of hand, Sly began to see enemies – both real and imagined – around him. The band themselves were now regarded as a ferment of anarchy. When a planned concert in Chicago in July 1970 descended into a riot before the performance had even begun, the band were held responsible.
Sly and the Family Stone’s sole new release from this period was the double A-side single ‘Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)’/’Everybody is a Star’. Whilst ‘Star’ recalled the exuberance of Stand, ‘Thank You’ was a far darker affair. A stark and relentless funk bass hook propels the track, over which Sly sings of running from the Devil and his alienation from the band’s previous work. Far more than ‘Star’, it set the tone for what was to come.
Originally titled after the track ‘Africa Talks to You’, the title for the band’s next album was subsequently changed to There’s A Riot Goin’ On: a biting reply to Marvin Gaye’s luscious What’s Going On, released six months earlier. Though both represented responses to the darkening mood of the 70s, the albums could not be farther apart. Sly’s riposte to Gaye’s intricately arranged choirs was stripped back tracks, driven into overdrive by drums and bass muddied by layers of overdubbing. Largely recorded alone by Sly in a self-built home studio with the aid of outside musicians such as Ike Turner and Bobby Womack, along with a primitive drum machine, the music on Riot reflects the isolation and paranoia of the group. Where Stand soared above the ground, Riot plunged into the asphyxiated asphalt of the band’s new LA home.
Yet while undeniably dark, Riot never fails to compel. The manic drive of opener ‘Love N’ Haight’ is just as engrossing as the unhappy groove of following track ‘Just Like a Baby’. Ultimately, though, the record collapses from sheer exhaustion: closing song ‘Thank You for Talkin’ to Me, Africa’ drags out and slows down ‘Thank You’ to the point of a funereal dirge. It was an apt finish: within 6 months the band’s original line-up collapsed backstage, as fears that bass guitarist Larry Graham had planned a hit on Sly Stone descended into a brawl.
Stand and There’s A Riot Goin’ On did not merely mark the pinnacle of Sly and the Family Stone’s output – they also reflected a fleeting moment when the group, disorientated by narcotics and rivalries as they were, succeeded in capturing the dying light of an era of unprecedented activism and cross-cultural fusion in the West. Fifty years on, Sly and the Family Stone not only remain historically relevant, but also musically engaging.