Sly & The Family Stone—
Dance To The Music

Released 1968 on Epic
The Seth Man, March 2007ce
Maintaining his debonair hipster flair for knocking the corners off the squares, Sly Stone finessed into shape with Sly & The Family Stone a series of albums that stand as the first original syntheses of Soul and pop and Rock and R&B. Although parts of their second album “Dance To The Music” were recorded at the same time as their debut “A Whole New Thing” LP, it displayed a far more defined direction for Sly & The Family Stone, seeing them leaving behind many of their previous Soul/R&B conventions while exhibiting wholesale absorption of new sounds and aspects taken from psychedelic pop and acid rock. The bass and electric guitars of Larry Graham and Sly’s brother Freddie were given more prominence and pushed through with colossal amounts of fuzztone. Drummer Gregg Errico pounded out beats, off-beats and snare rolls boisterously strident and always to the best use. Sly’s sister Rose joined full-time on vocals and keyboards while Cynthia Robinson and Jerry Martini on trumpet and saxophone melded together into a single, two-ply reeds-person and one of the fullest two-piece brass sections ever. And directing it all was Sly Stone: on vocals, electric keyboards and writing, produced and arranging everything. No longer a DJ, session player or staff producer and songwriter for others, he now had the freedom to channel his musicality into a creation that was his from the ground floor up and he had it all in place AND in the pocket.

In many ways, “Dance To The Music” was the album that should have been called “A Whole New Thing” because it was the place where Sly’s own unique musical mixture had undeniably risen to the surface while the first album, although displaying a highly competent set of songs sharply produced and tautly performed, its impact was blunted by its own eclecticism as a complex Sly original (complete with an introductory “Freres Jacques” fanfare) followed by an Otis Redding homage lodged next to a candy-coated, xylophone-accented’66-pop art statement cheek by jowl to a Lou Rawlsian ballad and backfilled with several love’n’heartbreak themes. Many people on both sides of the racial divide that Sly was seeking to bridge with his musical vision were probably stumped by it all. Though it did score high in the subtle humour department, which was about as oblique as Sly’s seriousness was direct, a balance that would be maintained throughout all Sly & The Family Stone albums. “A Whole New Thing” began with “Underdog” and ended with “Dog” and it was obvious it was Sly himself who was the underdog who had to be “twice as good” and he was: with talent and commercial savvy that would ferment very quickly into a CAREER of whole new things on the “Dance To The Music” album.

It all began with a dialogue Sly had with Epic Records’ David Kapralik, who suggested that the reason behind the marginal sales of “A Whole New Thing” lay in its complex arrangements and that a larger acceptance of his music lay in writing simpler, pop songs. This provoked Sly with retaliating with writing “Dance To The Music.” It was so simple, that if it were a person instead of a song it would be cross-eyed, drooling and propping up a doorway. It WAS ridiculously simple, but it was also so catchy that it became their first Top 10 pop single. The sum total of the lyrics only the song title and a series of band introductions, after which each musician supplied a short solo or riff. If that wasn’t enough, Sly went even further by re-writing an entire MEDLEY based on “Dance To The Music.” Appropriately enough, it was called “Dance To The Medley” and was comprised of the trio of “Music Is Alive,” “Dance In” and “Music Lover” that roughly kept to the same format of song title/instrumentalists vocalisin’ their respective duties/prior to a brief solo or riff. But instead of vindictively handing over to Epic blatant re-writes, Sly elongated and sculpted the medley into a precursor to the 12 inch megamix single as it ran for twelve minutes in length for near-uninterrupted groovin.’ Sly even delved back into his old DJ patter with quick catch phrases thrown in over the beat as “L-O-V-E across the nation with a Gee-double-Oh-Dee vibration,” “ladies’n’gentlemen, boys’n’girls, cats’n’kitties, hippies’n’squares” and “sweet thang” sprinkling further upbeat vibes all over the place. By the end, sister Rose is providing the future Michael Jackson with his range as she vamps The Fifth Dimension with a series of “up, up and away”s over a dense background mix of fuzz guitar, fuzz bass and electric keyboards that rise in the mix. The longer it continues, it swerves through a succession channel panning, blocks of music cutting out and returning as Sly’s stylophonic-type scribbling burrows through it all as if to render the repetition of the horn blasts useless. It continues like this for the final two minutes of “Dance To The Medley” with the nasally quavering stylophonic keyboard continuing until a quick backward drum crash shuts the hugely echoed lid to close out side one.

This was definitely not your Dad’s R&B record. After “Higher” (the B-side of their first single they’d revisit later to far greater effect), the Otis-Redding influenced “I Ain’t Got Nobody (For Real)” and with most of side one taken up with various configurations of the “Dance To The Music” theme, side two was where the newly-loosened up Sly continued to expand into the realm of social commentary -- In particular, the topic of racial division he’d previously only hinted at in “Underdog.” Inserted between the ebullient “Ride The Rhythm” and the last of the old school Autumn Records-era Sly ballads that closes the album (“I’ll Never Fall In Love Again”) are three soul movers with a little more beneath the surface that rise with each track: “Color Me True,” “Are You Ready” and “Don’t Burn Baby.” Against a lazy, “Suzie-Q” chiming guitar and buoyant organ, “Color Me True” is a series of questions that investigate the motivation of both ‘hippies’ and ‘squares’ alike: from “do you laugh at the boss’s jokes when they ain’t funny?” to “When you retire do you go to sleep / Or do you toss and turn for being such a freak?” Comprised of both black and white members and singing in unison the chorus “Color me true” resounds on a level it doesn’t even have to openly address while “Are You Ready” does -- with Sly advising “Don’t hate the black/Don’t hate the white/If you get bitten/Just hate the bite” as the brass fanfares strongly against the groovin’ and ever-swingin’ drums of Gregg Errico. And Sly is just as equal opportunity on “Burn Baby.” This lightly arranged track is almost a near-samba version of “3/5 of A Mile In 10 Seconds” until the pace and Sly’s delivery turns fiercely into rapid suggestions for more positive steps forward with a “learn, baby, learn” quickly dissolving into an ad-libbing frenzy where he’s losing his mind finding every word to rhythm with ‘burn’ and when he can’t, he just makes them up. By the end, he’s shimmying up against the mike and voluptuously exhorting “I want to see you churn, baby, churn...” then letting loose a tempestuous scream that communicates he understands the frustration of the situation all too well, but instead of “sitting around like underdog” he’s adopting a more positive stance -- one heading FOWAD -- and that stance would serve him well for the rest of the recordings he made in the sixties and well into the next decade.

As one of several bonuses to the upcoming reissue of “Dance To The Music,” the most astonishing is the previously unreleased “We Love All.” Unlike anything else Sly had written up to this point, it blended social commentary with a freeing optimism to match the musical setting outside the boundaries of both soul and Rock and something as yet unnamable. The arrangement of “We Love All” is so dynamic you can hear faint print-through of the horns before they cut through the dramatic scrim of silence, while Sly’s voice soars once the deceptively quiet opening is dispensed with after tossing off lines like “I like the fuzz and his gun” and “I like the local meter mam.” The build at the end is fierce with Errico exploding all over his kit while the combined horns of Robinson and Martini roar like a Jericho bandstand, and the effective ending that paces back quietly into silence makes one wonder why it didn’t make it onto the album instead of “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again.”