Words by Frederic Bruhin-Price - @freddiebp
It is 1971 in the USA. Richard Nixon, divisive Republican President, is in office. Sly Stone, funk star turned black activist, releases There’s A Riot Goin’ On to a rather bemused audience. The seventies are underway. There is to be no looking back. There is to be no more "hot fun in the Summertime."
Listening to There’s a Riot Goin’ On can be a challenge. Especially in the daytime. It’s a murky listen, this American-flag bearing (or is that burning?!) dose of medicated goo, but its quality is all there. In its density of sound and general stoned-ness, it makes a worthy partner for Exile on Main Street. If you’re more inclined toward Exile than Sticky Fingers then there’s a good chance you will really dig this, brother.
Sly Stone, raised on gospel music, shot to fame in the mid-1960s, became a countercultural icon and in the process, like Otis Redding and Jimi Hendrix, broke through to a mass white market. Yet as the decade ended a shift occurred.
Stone became increasingly militant, joining the Black Panthers as America’s racial atmosphere once again turned ugly. Race Hate cast a black cloud, and once the sun had set on the Sixties the rain began to pour again. Retreating into addiction, Stone drew on this pervading sense of dread to create a brooding masterpiece.
At the time of this album’s release, it must have been difficult for critics to distinguish between the image they had of Stone, the figurehead with a reputation as a premier pop sloganist, slaying keys surrounded by the gang he named the Family Stone, wowing at Woodstock, delivering hit after hit, and the artist behind the image, clearly evolving as a human being and a creative at a rate proportionate to his immense talent.
To an extent, the boundaries between Stone and his image had become blurred. Abandoning the successful formula of The Family Stone’s dizzy heights, Sly plunged the depths of his soul to find his true musical self, unravelling himself in the process. As a result of Stone’s singular vision by the time he was recording Riot, he played many of the instruments on the album himself, including the primitive drum machines which can be heard on the album’s one smash hit, Family Affair.
If we start at the end (why not) we have Thank You For Talking to Me Africa. It is essentially a remake of the band’s hit Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again). It’s unclear whether the original’s title was cast in Ebonics, but with the remake the intent is clear – this is unmistakeably music of African origin. The track is funk essence, lurching bass notes, layered vocals and barking clav providing an irresistible template which would later be revisited to huge success on D’angelo’s Voodoo and Black Messiah.
Luv n’ Haight, the opening track, though effortlessly catchy, cast a long shadow over the hippy dream. The dashed-off quality of its title belies its implicit contradiction of The Haight-Ashbury district’s claims of “Free Love.” “Feel so good inside myself” – no need for my fellow American. It might have helped that Stone was fried on cocaine too. Yet drugs can rip a man apart, and the following track, Just Like A Baby, finds Stone sounding vulnerable, comedown-deep within himself.
Forty years ago, this was a new music for American ears. It is intensely rhythmical. So much so that when the melodies pop up, they really hit you, namely on You Caught Me Smiling, with its sneering brass and incessant "wah-wah" cooking away like hot funk stew, Sly Stone style.
Melodies come and go like fleeting moments of optimism, and You Caught Me Smiling gives way to the weary yet compelling Time. Stone lets loose his Gospel pipes and unleashes an unparalleled vocal range, from a whimper to croon to rasp to feral growl, with keys and guitars rising and falling like tides. Stone was recording after Hunter S Thompson’s famous “high and beautiful wave” had crashed, and the album is the sound of Sly sitting spread-legged, letting out a sudden cackle. Hell, the man can even let out a decent yodel, as you can hear on Spaced Cowboy.
This is not the sort of album that feels like a greatest hits package. Instead, it reflects a moment in time. It takes unexpected turns and expects you to bear with it. The first time you get it will be the best time. Much like some of the remedies, Sly Stone was messing with around this period (PCP anyone?) But with the prospect of Donald Trump in the White House for the next four years maybe we should cast our minds back to ’71 and take it nice and slow.
Buy this if… You prefer In Utero to Nevermind.
Don’t buy this if… You won’t drink orange juice with bits in.
Listen to it on Spotify. Or purchase it from Wilderness Record Store.