Sly & The Family Stone had spent their early beginnings crafting songs from blueprints that were almost illegible. There were all sorts of musical genres and ideas mapped out, but they all skewed off in different directions, which meant the music just missed the mark at times. However, on the tracks where they did manage to harness all their influences and impart their own sense of identity within them – the results were amazing.
The endless possibilities prevalent during the latter years of the psychedelic explosion of the sixties was what bandleader Sylvester ‘Sly Stone’ Stewart drew on. The former radio DJ had spent his formative year’s zig-zagging between all kinds of music (folk, pop, rock and soul). So when it came down to making his own, it was only natural that he would approach it with a similarly wide open mind-frame.
His vision was perfected on 1969’s Stand! But in the two years it had taken to record and release its follow-up, things had changed. America was in the grip of severe civil unrest, the Vietnam War was plundering on with no end in sight, and Sly had reached such a high level of fame and fortune that he locked himself inside a Hollywood mansion armed with a bottomless pile of cocaine as he tried to escape away from it all.
“If the previous Family Stone records were ‘tight but loose’ then what followed on There’s A Riot Goin’ On could only be called ‘loose but tight’,” one reviewer wrote about the resulting album, which was released 45 years ago last week(November 20th 1971).
As the dawn of the new decade arrived, Sly moved into an illustrious mansion owned by John Phillips, from the Mamas And The Papas. It had been a difficult year for the front man as he had slid into a decline. Of the 80 concerts his band had been scheduled to play, Sly had missed 26 of them. His increasing unreliability and erratic behavior had understandably created divisions within the band. And these circumstances only worsened when he took off for Los Angeles.
Eating up studio time with the sort of nonchalance and righteous debauchery that Keith Richards would soon make his trademark, Sly attempted to create the next album at Record Plant studios. However, despite also having a fully equipped Winnebago to record in, neither option particularly appealed. Instead, it was at his house where the album would gradually be made.
His vicious pet dog, appropriately named Gun, patrolled around the property while all manner of people came and went during all hours of the day and night. With cocaine available in frightening abundance, it is easy to see how the scene unsurprisingly wasn’t really conducive to getting work done.
“There was nothing but girls and coke everywhere,” jazz legend Miles Davis remembered in his autobiography Miles. “I told him I couldn’t do nothing with him. Then I told Columbia I couldn’t make him record any quicker. We snorted some coke together and that was it.”
Davis wasn’t the only star to show up at Sly’s door though. With the majority of his band left behind in San Francisco, apart from trumpeter Cynthia Robinson and saxophonist Jerry Martini who moved in with him, the sessions took on a free form structure. The likes of Bobby Womack and Billy Preston helped Sly record whenever the mood took him. They were usually the only ones left around. Band members flew over intermittently to record their various different parts. But these contributions were often just recorded over by Sly, which gave the album its distinctly worn sound.
“The funk never lets up on Riot. But it’s not dance funk or party funk or even P-Funk. It’s lonely, claustrophobic, 3am funk,” Robert Cass described in Pop Dose.
The sombre sounding record traded the irresistible rhythms of previous albums and instead fixated on withdrawn grooves that captured a slow decline. The horn arrangements were sparse, only occasionally breaking through in triumphant blasts. While the drums provided a steady beat beneath Sly’s drugged-out vocals.
His delivery is where the music gains some of its greatest moments though. The slurred words, which are at times indecipherable, only adding to the general sense of decay around the whole album. Lines come and go, but on specific lyrical points, Stone attempted to momentarily raise his game. The fact that his drawled register that cries out in desperation doesn’t hit the required marks only makes it that much more harrowing and real.
In Just Like A Baby Sly’s vocals are swamped within the murky instrumentation like a fish swimming beneath a surface of visibly impenetrable water. Confined to his mansion, he overdubbed the vocal takes to such an extent that the tapes began to audibly smudge.
Lyrically, the focus was mainly switched from what was going on in society to personal matters. On Brave & Strong he declares “Out and down, ain’t got a friend,” and you sadly tend to believe him. The fact that a rich man who had the adoration of millions could feel so hopeless and alienated was striking in its very notion at the time.
With the group essentially disbanded, and a host of big names acting as Sly’s own personal backing, he needed to get creative with his song arrangements. The drummer, Greg Errico, had quit part way through the Riot sessions, which led the frontman down an entirely new avenue of instrumentation. Utilising the new Maestro Rhythm King drum machine, Sly found a key component of his new sound.
“He used it like a stripper pole,” Sam Sweet wrote in Wax Poetics. “It was a solid, stable median around which he could allow his woozy music to writhe and gyrate.”
The dark funk that seeped out was a significant departure from the sunny disposition of the band’s earlier recordings. Gone was the optimism to be replaced by pessimism. And in the place of Sly’s extravagant showmanship and energy was the shell of a man who had retreated into his own world. Where before there were messages of hope and excitement to the people, now there was nothing but a resigned ‘fuck you all’. Their earlier notions of idealism and togetherness had been banished, just as the sense of social disillusionment soared to its highest point in quite some time.
The isolation, paranoia and bloodshot eyes are prevalent all over the record. If there’s ever a song that warns you about the adverse effects of sustained cocaine use it is Spaced Cowboy. In a house that was famous for its complete lack of clocks, the track captures the sound of 4am delirium almost perfectly.
Meanwhile, Family Affair is a dark piece where the divides between just about everyone from siblings to newlyweds is as inevitable as it is heartbreaking. “You can’t leave ’cause your heart is there, But you can’t stay ’cause you’ve been somewhere else, You can’t cry ’cause you’ll look broke down, But you’re crying anyway ’cause you’re all broke down,” Sly sang on what would be his third and final number one hit single, capturing a dysfunctional relationship at its very core.
And that is perhaps how Riot can best be summarized too. It’s a statement on Sly’s dysfunctional relationship to his own country, his own band and with drugs. It is not an easy album to listen to and only occasionally could it actually be classed as enjoyable, but that is not what it’s meant to be. Given Sly’s own personal circumstances at the time, and indeed that of the world, it is hardly surprising that such a challenging record was the outcome. The unflinching struggle is raw and uncompromising, but beauty can be found in it.
Upon its release the record, which now regularly features in ‘greatest ever’ lists, wasn’t met with any particular affection. It was only later in the decade when dark funk and soul began to emerge fully that its influence was recognised.
“If you don’t have any Sly & the Family Stone albums in your collection, you undoubtedly and, (in many cases, unknowingly) have pieces of their music embedded within other albums now,” Zeth Lundy wrote.
The sound of disintegration has perhaps never been so accurately captured as it was on Riot. The bones in the body crack and ache, while there are heavy sustained blinks regularly. There is a voice that is weary after it has been kept up for far too long into the morning for its liking, and an assortment of sounds that linger around in the background seem as if they were double-dipped in tar. It is woozy, dirty, sleep-deprived, anxious and dissatisfied, and it is also classic.
Image: Sly & The Family Stone