Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Sly & The Family Stone—
Stand!


Released 1969 on Epic
The Seth Man, March 2007ce
“Stand!” was Sly & The Family Stone’s breakout album. Catching the group at an all-time high, Sly’s songwriting was stronger and bolder than ever before courtesy of his integration of acid rock into the Family Stone’s mixed bag of influences while jettisoning nearly all vestiges of orthodox Soul/R&B trademarks. Half the album’s eight tracks were released as single sides that were all instantly recognisable radio hits while the ones that weren’t were either too long (“Sex Machine”), too controversial (“Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey”), too idiosyncratically weird (“Somebody’s Watching You”) or planned for single release but then withdrawn at the last moment (“You Can Make It If You Try.”) From the snare roll of the opening title track to the final fade of side two, the album is a perfect listen all the entire way through; courtesy of Sly’s dynamic production value, unremitting counterpoint in his songwriting, lyrics and arrangements. And the band is in excellent form, performing on the same wavelength as Sly as though intuitively feeling out all of his directed nuances in advance.

The album’s self-named “Stand!” is the anthem opens the album and is about as uplifting a track as Sly would ever write. Compassionate, strong and one of the most positive statements that could be written by a black American recording artist in his mid-twenties in 1969, it also marked the widening of the curious and oblique autobiographical angle within Sly’s songwriting that would increase with every album and even wind up slipping into outright self-prophecy, as it does with the line: “In the end you’ll still be you/One that’s done all the things you set out to do.” These are the words of a seer and someone who is so confidently embracing his artistic muse that he is afforded glimpses of his future self that others could not see. His life-changing triumph at Woodstock was still half a year away, but it was as though Sly saw it coming on as broad as daylight even at the beginning of ’69. And judging from the confidence that shines throughout “Stand!” he must have been aware of already crossing over into a new phase of his artistic vision, one that that was already transforming into something far more unique than everything else he had already achieved during the course of his longstanding music odyssey.

“Stand!” would be released as a single with an overhauled version of “Higher” revised and tightened up to steaming proportions as “I Want To Take You Higher” on the flipside. Both sides were such equal contenders that Epic reissued the single with the sides reversed after the B-side’s memorable rendition at Woodstock. Words fail at times to convey certain aspects of music accurately (if at all) so it seems unjust to even try to describe “I Want To Take You Higher” in words. But it is an incendiary device wrapped in a propulsive groove you wish never ended but only kept on going higher and HIGHER and...HIIII-YYYYYYYUH!!! Sly never worked himself up into as vocally a lather half as much as on the “Stand!” album, especially with his Louis Armstrongian/proto-Stevie Wonder guttural reflux vox by just letting it well up in his throat then unleashing it like an aural catapult. If it was lacking an iota of control, it would sound profoundly retarded but since it doesn’t it just fuels the whole piece like crazy as it steps everything up an extra notch. Corralled by Sly’s vocals and sinewy organ fills and consistent repeats of “BOOM-LAKA-LAKA-LAKA,” it’s an roaring groove FIYUH that fades too soon, stoked by Graham’s sphincter-contracting bass zooms, Cynthia Robinson on her throne, Jerry Martini on blaring sax, Gregg Errico’s solid beat, Freddie Stone’s slashing rhythm guitar and Rose Stone’s back line organ and vocals. All their contributions are relatively small strokes on their own, but the way they work as a sum total united into a furiously pitched groove express is the biggest stuff.

Poised in between those two towering utopian themes of side one, “Stand!” and “I Want To Take You Higher” lurks the ugly drag of “Don’t Call Me Nigger (Whitey).” Ungroovy or not, it’s time for a reality check thinks Sly. Sure, everything is cool when you’re in control but what about when you’re thrown a curveball that gets you uptight from your upright? Or the hate that kills and divides? It’s a molasses-phased harmonica sucking in and spitting out distortions while tramping through a spent and distinctly un-party terrain. Cynthia and Jerry’s horn accents sting then build and build in the instrumental bridge until they can’t build any more, then into a jam where Sly’s horribly-filtered harmonica runs together with rhythm guitar, bass and organ until you can’t tell one instrument from another. The refrain of the title re-enters, and the tension will last until the track stops dead in its tracks.

After “I Want To Take You Higher” has faded too soon into the distance, “Somebody’s Watching You” materialises. With lightly scored horns and even lighter organ, it’s a gentle musical nudge to Sly’s conscience that holds uncannily prognostic lyrics, one of which is: “Ever stop to think about a downfall?/Happens at the end of every line.” Now whether this line is a reference to cocaine is pure conjecture until one considers the following would seem to contrast his church choir days as a youth with wealth, position and possibly the devil’s snowflake shovel all in one: “Sunday school don't make you cool forever/And neither does the silver of your spoon.” As if drawing his own sense of worth into question with “Blind cos your eyes see only glitter/Closed to the things that make you free” Sly winds up concluding “the higher the price/The nicer the nice” which in light of the decade-long snow blind path Sly would take the following year is all too eerie a cost to contemplate. He was definitely feeling whatever it was he was plugged into, because he was plugged into it so directly.

Closing the perfect first side of the album is “Sing A Simple Song.” Fortunately, Sly never fully recovered from that first album criticism of concentrating on simpler songs for this reiteration of that earlier advice is one of Sly & The Family Stone’s greatest, funkiest and all-time best Rock moment, ever. Only in retrospect could it have been called “Thursday Night, August the 12th” but besides sounding like “Free Your Mind And Your Ass Will Follow”-era Funkadelic there’s a sly, Sly, SLY Manzarek keyboard vamp, solid James Brown drumming that pre-dates Jaki Liebezeit’s in early Can and is one of Sly’s most passionate vocal performances. Right at the end before he ad-libs “Sing it in the shower/sing it every hour” it’s even more powerful than his vocals on “I Want To Take You Higher,” but only just. He lets loose another extended scream during the “Yah...yah-yah-YAH-YAH” sequence that rockets from left to right speaker but the whole thing keeps together despite the stabbing horns counter-pointing the rhythm. “Sing A Simple Song,” man: it’s Sly’s heaviest moment.

Side two starts with Sly & The Family Stone’s first number one single, “Everyday People.” Although Sly had previous handled issues of prejudice with wit or humor but now he illustrated the power of tolerance and plain common sense with the lightest of touches, laying it all out for everyone to see: blue or green, yellow or black or white or square or longhair, we’re all part of the same thing no matter how or what we look like. After all the instrumentals left on the cutting room floor since their inception, there’s finally room for one in the form of the extended blues jam, “Sex Machine.” With several nods to The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s “Rainy Day Dream Away” it makes room for itself by swallowing half of side two in its distended psychedelic ballroom format while everyone except Robinson gets a solo spot. The album concludes with the slow, uplifting “You Can Make It If You Try.” Recorded in September before the main “Stand!” sessions began that winter, its prominent brass score and “don’t let the plastic bring you down” lyric places it in slightly earlier stage in the band’s development, only because their progress had been so swift and unyielding for so long.

With all this in one place, “Stand!” is rightly considered by many to be Sly & The Family Stone’s best album. The strongest of their first four albums, it would also unfortunately be the last with the original lineup. By the time their next album of original material appeared, provisionally entitled “The Incredible And Unpredictable Sly & The Family Stone,” both the lineup and sound of the group had transformed into something that was incredible and unpredictable and unlike anything attempted previously by Sly... Or anyone else.