Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Sly & The Family Stone - Dance To The Music

Sly & The Family Stone
Dance To The Music

Released 1967 on Epic
Reviewed by griddell, 01/04/2006ce

Sly Stone: 23 years old ; already a composer, arranger, producer and player extraordinaire. He looks about 12 on this lp cover.
The guys descent into cocaine-addled, self styled pimp exile is well documented but it shouldn’t be forgot he produced the groundbreaking ‘There’s A Riot Goin’ On’ and mighty fine ‘Fresh’ during that slide from fresh-faced optimism.
With hindsight, it’s easy to pick apart the naivety of the original ‘melting pot’ 60’s idealism and see how Sly’s positive message songs would ultimately give way in the face of sickening reality (assassinations, riots, etc).
Fuck hindsight.
This is simply a funky, up-lifting album packed with top song-writing, musicianship, energy, enthusiasm, belief, personal & political messages and, last but not least, FUN.

Based on the simplicity of the title track and opener, it’s clear Sly had a theme in mind for this album. ‘Dance To The Music’ is simple. No, not just basic or raw, but really, really simple - he wanted even the un-funkiest ‘cats‘ to get this.
3 minutes of funk-rock rhythm are nailed down by that bass & drum intro - straight away you’re urged to ‘Dance To The Music’. And in case that’s too complicated, Sly & The Family break it down to just a drummer - no coincidence that break has been sampled and stolen numerous times: it’s just plain funky. Now let’s build the song back up, and tell you what, why not have the band members introduce themselves. Here’s Sly’s brother Freddy -
‘I’m gonna add a little guitar - to make it easy to move your feet.’
It really is that basic.
The building block idea continues, with bass, organ then brass leading into the only chord change before back to that thudding groove. It’s hard to imagine anyone hasn’t heard this song at some point, but writing about it brings home just what a fantastically simple concept the’ breakdown then build’ theme is - and it crops up several times before the close of this LP.
Cheesy Sale-Of-The-Century keyboards herald the start of ‘Higher’ before the main, funky riff slips in almost by surprise. A little cousin to the later Sly epic (I Wanna Take You Higher), this is a fine example of the arrangements he was capable of . Amidst the dual meaning of the lyrics, there’s a fantastic middle section with wailing harmonica and roving bass-line, all delivered via an authentic 60’s stereo production that still sounds fresh.
Track 3 is a gem. ‘I Ain’t Got Nobody (For Real)’ is full of swirling Hammond keys, old-style soul moments, and several fake gospel endings, but it’s undoubtedly FUNK. Beautiful horn blasts and another top bass-line are the main hook of this track, also notable for Sly’s piano runs and lyrics about his search for love:
‘She don’t have to wear a wig - she don’t have to be too big….’ Classic.
At least 20 years before most people grasped and ran with the concept of mind-altering dance music, there was ‘Dance To The Medley’. Remember that basic theme? Well this is that concept expanded to a psych-funk suite in three parts!
First off Sly’s telling us that ‘Music Is Alive’, backed by a fuzz/wah guitar lick and a rhythm very, very similar to the title track. Then it’s back to the Sly blueprint for funk: breakdown & build, especially notable for sister Roses angelic vocals, ‘the ‘Ready Freddy’ spoken piece and top notch brass bursts. A few minutes of this ‘sweet thing’ tune before it slowly fades, guitar buzzing around like a demented bee, then…..
‘Dance In’ just continues the theme. The riffs altered slightly again, but essentially you are dancing to the same song (!) though now it’s slightly more direct, more trance-dance, drummer Greg Errico (nickname ‘Hand-feet’) excelling, more sweet soul vocals from Rose and a few JB style ‘Good-God’’s thrown in.
‘Music Lover’ may be more familiar to some. S’Express did a very decent cover/update, particularly on the William Orbit remix. Guess what - it’s a very similar riff to ‘Dance…’, and, prepare yourself, it follows the breakdown & build theme. There’s more uplifting chords here though, and without losing any of the groove, Sly throws in a chorus and brass hook so infectious they should carry a health-warning. Stand-out of moment of this third part has to be Larry Graham, both by the split speaker fuzz bass (listen & you’ll get what I mean) and for his spoken piece:
‘Music for the human race - I’m gonna add some funky bass!’. Enough said.
Except that ain’t the end. Just as the song hits a plateau of high pitched sax/trombone/’up & away’ vocals and you may just think it’s over, there’s still a few minutes of glorious fade-out to come. Grinding bass and wah guitar are joined by wobbly-space rock keys, horns and I kid you not, a Rolf Harris style-a-phone solo. 12 minutes of psychedelic funk-rock wound down by a chill-out section. This is a total fucking EPIC.

Just to get your feet back on the ground, ‘Ride The Rhythm’, is a gloriously happy , fast soul work-out with appropriate lyrics about keeping timing and not getting too carried away. Sometimes Freddy’s rock solos can raw on the ears, but there’s a great smooth lead burst and there’s also a flowing funk bass-line Lord Bootsy himself would’ve been proud of. In the sleeve notes, Sly describes Larry Graham as ‘funky as 9 cans of wet magic shave’. I ask you - who can argue with that!
Pushing it all along is Errico with some incredible drumming that poses another question: just how tight were this band & does anyone have any decent live bootlegs??
I digress. The intro to ‘Color Me True’ is a showcase for timing and arrangements, while lines like ’Do you laugh at the bosses jokes when they ain’t funny’ , show how serious (& seriously funky) this number is. It’s tempting to peg it as a ‘60’s message’ song, but that’s doing it a huge disfavour. The quality of playing continues to amaze - just listen to the sax/trombone stabs and that rhythm guitar near the end, backed by a sing-a-long-a-Sly piece of ‘boom, boom, ba-ba-boom, boom
‘Are You Ready’ continues that ‘message’ theme. Also continued is the ‘breakdown and build’ ethos and really, I’m running out of superlatives now. There just isn’t a weak link on this album, and amidst that soaring bass riff it’s the arrangements that stand out once more. Vocal highlight: Freddy’s ‘Groovy people how do you do, let me dedicate my fuzz to you’.
Now, superlatives aren’t needed for ‘Don’t Burn Baby Burn’. Don’t be fooled by the Latin-groove intro. Sweet as it is, what really gets me is the urgent riff that interrupts, exploding in high-energy soul, Sly evoking highly positive lyrics with a real sense of feeling. On one level he‘s urging rioters not to burn & destroy, on a personal level it‘s resisting the urge to self-destruct: ‘I can understand confusion - creates a bad illusion..‘ If only Sly could have heeded the words of his own songs, eh? Except no, that’s getting into that whole hindsight bollocks - this is a masterpiece that exemplifies what was good about the early Sly & The Family Stone. Super-fast funk guitar is well worthy of mention topped only by bizarre whooping from Sly.
The fun/positivity factor seems to drop on the original vinyl closer: ‘I’ll Never Fall In Love Again’. Musically it begins as an old-school soul tribute. Slow, broken-heart lyrics are delivered by Larry Graham - part of Sly’s all-encompassing communal ideal of the time, and the original funk bass player doesn’t disappoint. There’s great subtleties in the arrangements to help him, along with Sly on backing vocals, but just when you might think it’s a downbeat ending to such a positive album, there’s the ‘Never happen again’ middle-eight that grooves like a mother-fucker - even a ‘down’ song sounds up in this context.

Whatever your view on bonus tracks/re-issues, the previously unreleased ‘Soul Clappin’ is, for me, the perfect ending for ‘Dance…’. Why? Well, for starters it’s back to the riff and theme of the title track, which brings things to a close in a nice circular way and all that. Secondly, there’s a filthy fuzzed-up bass sound over a stompingly good beat, catchy shout and response vocals including a lovely high-pitched soul ‘Oooooh!’ and in case you still haven’t got the simple message, a whole LOT of clapping.

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