Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Sly & The Family Stone—
Life


Released 1968 on Epic
The Seth Man, March 2007ce
Sly & The Family Stone’s follow up to “Dance To The Music” was the album “Life,” which amazingly failed to surface on the R&B charts and initially sold very poorly. In light of their then-recent success with the “Dance To The Music” single and the gigantic status of the album that followed, “Life” was all but ignored and for years was Sly & The Family Stone’s most unjustifiably overlooked album of all. It had two fantastic singles in the form of “Dynamite!”/“Chicken” and “Life”/“M’Lady” (with “Fun” released the following year as the 45 flipside to their lightest pop moment ever, “Hot Fun In The Summertime”) while it continued to press onwards toward joining the twain of soul and Rock with “Into My Own Thing” and “I’m An Animal” as well as possibly one of the finest tracks released by the band, “Plastic Jim.” “Plastic Jim,” man: have you ever heard it? In terms of fusing the momentum of soul, the power of Rock, wrapping it up with social observations and never doing another song like it again (OK, possibly edged out only by “Sing A Simple Song” and “Thank You”) “Plastic Jim” is a stone singularity. Why was it was absent from “Greatest Hits,” “Anthology,” and “The Essential Sly & The Family Stone” 2CD set? Even the promo “Everything You Ever Wanted To Hear By Sly Stone But Were Afraid To Ask For” had no time or space for it, nor even the 6-track 33 and a third, seven inch ‘Little Stereo LP’ of “Life” had it! Oh, the indignation: the only place to hear the true stereo of “Plastic Jim” and they fucking left it off for “Harmony”?!! Whoa. It’s the perennial deepest Sly & The Family Stone cut and it’s a total mystery as to why. You can dance to it like nothing at all, it’s Freddie Stone’s defining moment as a deeply intuitive guitarist, the horn section could’ve been on “Forever Changes,” the lyrics would’ve fit on “Absolutely Free,” swings like a bitch in white heat and...well, EVERYTHING (Another reason: although Sly produced all the Family Stone albums he had engineers help with the mastering and when you have Don Puluse in the mix, you are gonna wind up with a one booming sonic warp and woof that just doesn’t quit because it doesn’t even know HOW to.) All that’s left to say is that “Plastic Jim” is the longest track on “Life,” passes the quickest and the lyrics “Plastic Jim/Will steal a blind man’s glasses/Will steal a dead man’s ashes” always chill with its cutting delivery and oh I’ll shut the fuck up: there’s plenny more classics on this album of nothing but. (But “Plastic Jim”? I can spin that song over and over and still not get enough of it. Mercifully, I can’t even hear the “Eleanor Rigby” rip-off chorus anymore due not only to Sly’s astute arranging skills but always hearing it as though being sung by Ray Collins and Frank Zappa in the early Mothers instead.)

The album rips open with Freddie Stone’s screaming, stuttering guitar and Graham’s amplified-indigestion fuzz bass growl with more woof than a kennel and the overall boisterous fanfare of “Dynamite!” A circular soul groove that recounts a meeting with the ‘together and nice’ Miss Clean whose gone straight to Sly’s head while the memorable line “she’s got a beautiful tan” is Sly at his best and, yup: most sly and oblique (you figger it out.) “Dynamite!” builds to the severest of heads twice, and twice does Errico detonate his kit with quadruple time fills and it is truly DY-NO-MITE! Once the smoke clears, all that remains is the coda of Freddie’s repetitive guitar burst and tagging on it in unison is a matching horn reading of both that and the melody to “Dance To The Music” amid studio chatter and laughter. (One would think doing an entire medley based on “Dance To The Music” on the previous album would get it out of Sly's system, but no way -- he’d go on to reprise it constantly and it in the most unlikely of places for years to come.) “Chicken,” the B-side to “Dynamite!” follows and is more than slightly foreboding as Larry Graham’s basso profundo voice lures the listener uneasily into his confidence. Sly’s continual plinking of high organ keys underscores the retorting “Bok, Bok, Bok!” chicken vox and it’s only when Rose sings “You just think I'm scared to party/Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't” that Graham’s role as a drug pusher is revealed. But in contrast and on the far side of “Plastic Jim” the track “Fun” holds the refrain “When I party/I party hearty” as though purposely placed in that order by Sly himself just to keep you guessing and on your toes. It‘s all on the good foot, with Graham’s loping basslines and Sly cajoling us to “leave that bummer behind” but when “Into My Own Thing” follows, it is evident that one of the touchstones of George Clinton’s early Funkadelic is upon us. A slow and heavy groove, Clinton would incorporate its title chorus into his own “Mommy, What’s A Funkadelic?” in the following year, among several other places. And with yet another tip of the hat to the structure of “Dance To The Music,” Sly calls out the band each by name for them to do their own thing, which they all do obediently and on the one. “Harmony” ends the first side and is by far the most traditional and old-tymey of the album, with tinkling piano and organ lines backing yet another message from Sly for everybody just to be themselves.

Keeping the tone positive and upbeat, side two is heralded with a corny, carny barking “Hurry, hurry, hurry step right up” hoo-hah and the title track “Life” enters with circus organ and peals of laughter as trumpet and saxophone blare in uplifting counterpoint throughout. Sly must have obviously relished the role of ringmaster as much as he must have secretly relished “Lies” by The Knickerbockers, which “Life” vamps like crazy in the chorus. Taking soul verses and pop choruses and melding them together was becoming easier for Sly and at this point he had it nailed down, in the pocket, signed, sealed, delivered, you name it. With several BRAAANNGGs ripping through fuzz bass and guitar simultaneously, “Love City” opens with one of the steadiest and grooviest drum patterns of Gregg Errico’s entire career and it’s one the entire band are hanging on. While horns stab out at right angles, big fuzz bass sweeps the perimeter while gongs and cymbals resound in the background, Sly wryly suggests “you might even see Harry Hippie groovin’ with the squares” and still Errico is unswervingly ON IT. The slow, sinewy “I’m An Animal” emerges as elements of hard rock with a gentle horn breakdown reminiscent of Gil Evans combine with a bizarre, Troggs-like simplicity (Which is shored up by the inclusion on the new CD reissue of an outtake called “Pressure” that is like a soul version of “Louie, Louie” only more stompingly Troggs. Heck: Sly even throws in “heart sing” in case if no one got it.) By the end, Sly’s so into it, he’s on all fours, pawing the air, growling and speaking in a variety of animal tongues.

The upbeat “M’Lady” follows with the now all-too-familiar “boom-boom-boom-boom” vocalising from (you guessed it) “Dance To The Music” and one more time, Larry Graham adds bottom to your groove while also singing the second greatest line of the album (“She’s got a beautiful tan” remaining at the permanent number one): “A pretty face...A pretty face...And oh, what a gorgeous mind” while perforating the thing with a thundering, over-amplified bass line. Ending this album is “Jane Is A Groupee” and as much as Sly was expanding, the band followed suit: Cynthia Robinson and Jerry Martini hold together huge blocks of brass and juggle them at a variety of speeds, Rose Stone’s higher vocals and second keyboard parts were now meshed together with the band, Gregg Errico was just getting better all the time while Freddie Stone and Larry Graham showed no aversion to fuzztones or even letting up for a moment. Best of all, Sly was about to write eight songs that would expand both the sound and reputation of Sly & The Family Stone in the following year.