Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Sly & the Family Stone - A Whole New Thing

Sly & the Family Stone
A Whole New Thing

Released 1970 on Epic / Sony Legacy
Reviewed by Dog 3000, 22/02/2003ce

The Family Stone album "A Whole New Thing" was originally released in 1970 when they were at the peak of their popularity, though the material was recorded prior to their first LP "Dance To The Music" back in 1967. The only track that had previously been released from these sessions was their debut (flop) single "Underdog". The 1995 CD reissue includes the 12 tracks from the 1970 release plus one bonus track, "What Would I Do".

It's a surprisingly strong debut and the fact that it didn't get released in '67 is probably just another case of a record company being afraid of "new music" that didn't fit into any established category at the time. In fact, it's actually a better album than the band's first two official releases (the "Dance" LP from 1967 has many great moments, but on the whole seems to be mostly a cash-in on the monster hit single title track; for example it includes an overstuffed-wedding-cake three-part psychedelic jam called "Dance to the Medley". The follow up "Life" from 1968 is half-great and half-embarassing when they try to play into the "San Francisco sound" which was all the rage at the time; Freddie Stone is a great funk guitarist, but he doesn't do "trippy" very well.) The band on this unoffical debut is the same group that would later hit it big, with the exception that Sister Rose Stone (vocals, keyboards) had not joined yet.

The first track is "Underdog" and it establishes the pattern for classic Sly records to come -- driving psychedelic-tinged rock with a soul horn section and lyrics that are "political" without being overbearing or obvious: "when you're the underdog, you've got to be twice as good". Of course he's talking about Black America, but the sentiment is populist enough that almost anyone can empathize with the statement.

Just about every other songs on the album is great, I'll just concentrate on some of the best:

"If This Room Could Talk" is a powerful semi-ballad with a low-key arrangement driven by the bass punctuated by horn blasts and with a hint of acid organ bleep bleep and some interesting cross-rhythms on the tom toms to give it that "acid rock" vibe. "I made a mistaa-aake in this room . . ."

"Run Run Run" is a sooper groovy flower generation anthem, with Sly preaching lines like "say dig! the groovy music inside my head is soakin' / then a commercial comes on and tells me what I ought to be smokin'" and "thangs we do upset their flesh and blood and bone / but I got an idea! maybe what they ought to do is leave their flesh and blood and bone at home". Another highlight is a breakdown section with the whole band singing "bop bop bops" accompanied by slippery horn riffing, an early example of Sly's trademark genius arrangements on singles like "Dance to the Music" and "Sing A Simple Song".

"Turn Me Loose" is an under-two-minute burning soul-rocker that recalls the similarly titled "I Can't Turn You Loose" by Otis Redding. The three male singers (Sly, Freddie & Larry) trade off every line during the verses creating a truly exciting momentum. At the end Sly whispers "whew! turn me loose!", which later turned up as a sample in a Public Enemy song.

"Advice" features a neat off-tempo tumbling-down-the-stairs horn riff which has made it's way into quite a few hip-hip/breakbeat tunes in more recent times. As with "Trip To Your Heart", the most explicitly psychaydelic tune on the album, which also features a great "ahh-ahh-ahh-ahh" vocal riff that was the basis for LL Cool J's "Mama Said Knock You Out" (among other songs) -- which also makes it probably the most familiar-sounding jam on the whole album. Echoey slide guitar skronking, spacey keyboard noise (a mellotron?), everyone in the group screaming freakishly and spastic free drumming on the intro and outro also makes "Trip" one of the weirdest Sly tunes of all time.

"I Hate To Love Her" is a truly beautiful slice of "rustic soul" with lazy blues harp and a wonderfully weird sighing low-register lead vocal by Sly, probably his strangest vocal performance until the celebrated stoned mumbling style he unleashed on "There's A Riot Goin' On" several years later.

"I Cannot Make It" and "Bad Risk" are also great songs with great arrangements -- basically only the three slower and more conventional-sounding love ballads (one of which is the bonus track) are subpar efforts. Interestingly, two of these three are sung by Larry Graham and the other by Freddie Stone -- and as near as I can tell they never got to sing lead on any other Family Stone songs on subsequent albums, though as always their roles in the group vocal arrangements are crucial.

Basically "A Whole New Thing" is the first of many albums showing off the incredible talents of Sylvester "Sly" Stewart, one of the greatest singer-songwriter-arranger-bandleaders the Rock World has ever seen. An auspicious debut, it's about as good as their much more widely praised album "Stand!" from 1969 -- making it a contender for the best of the band's pre-"Riot" albums. It's also the only 60's Sly album from which no tracks were taken for their rightly-celebrated Greatest Hits albums (quite possibly the greatest "Greatest Hits" album in history.)

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