Sly & The Family Stone—
There's A Riot Goin' On

Released 1971 on Epic
The Seth Man, May 2007ce
The most introspective and intriguing work of Sly & The Family Stone, “There’s A Riot Goin’ On” caught the artist known as Sly Stone at one remove at all times in an organic environment of his own making that was languid, harrowing and syncopated to extremes. Reflecting the literal riot of life changes Sly had been experiencing in the two-year interim since “Stand!” throughout all of its grooves, “Riot” WAS a riot as Sly painstakingly worked everything into it with an exhaustive amount of overdubbing to make it an embroidery of life about as tight as one of the knit hats that imposed upon his now huge and loose afro.

Although the record’s label bore the credit ‘All Songs Written, Arranged and Produced by Sylvester Stewart & Sly Stone’ it may not have been as tongue in cheek as initially suspected for Sly had transformed into an entirely person since the elevated status he and his band accorded directly after the grand successes of “Everyday People” and Woodstock. And like the musical and lyrical counterpoint he regularly employed in his art, Sylvester Stewart the person was starting to both play up to and rebel against the image of Sly Stone as his behaviour turned increasingly erratic and insular once he moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles in late 1969. In the next year he would preside over his personal and professional affairs like a king while creating a distance between himself and the band, missing a sizeable amount of concert appearances and letting his record company hang fire for two years with no new material forthcoming. It was that same old song:

With the success came the fame.
And with the fame came the pressure to produce.
And with the pressure came ulcers.
And with the ulcers came pharmaceuticals.
And with the pharmaceuticals...

...came the snowballing effect of even more pharmaceuticals.
As all this began to play on Sly’s perspective like a handkerchief in the breeze, it was as though the struggle Sly sang of two years earlier on “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” had been made to come to life and with a force no less or greater than himself. But if the re-recorded version of the track that wound up as the finale to “Riot” was any indication, it was hard to tell if Sly emerged as victor -- if at all -- from his interior deadlock. For in the uptight, hallucinatory atmosphere he then inhabited, there was little in the form of solace but much in the form of escape which led to Sly’s musical approach to drift into regions previously uncharted by himself (or anyone) to such a degree that if all the previous Family Stone records were ‘tight but loose’ then what followed on “Riot” could only be called ‘loose but tight’...while at times bordering on quietly shaking derangement.

Even the sleeve was in stark contrast to those which preceded it. In place of the usual band photograph front cover there was instead a close up of an altered American flag with its blue field replaced with black and the five-pointed stars hijacked by nine-pointed suns while the only typography was swept together on an enclosed sheet that afforded the lyrics, along with the explanation:

“It’s so complex
Words get in the way
Just look at the faces
On the outside and the inside of this album, they’ll tell you
Thank you agin’”

It WAS complex. Inertia draped over the proceedings like a benumbed caul shrouding a pulsating core of dark heat that made “There’s A Riot Goin’ On” unlike any other album ever recorded as it carved out a slice of the future and brought it back to earth in the shape of eleven songs plus one titled patch of silence that ran a full gamut of emotions at great depth, sometimes at great length, sometimes muted, sometimes dark, sometimes light, sometimes deadly earnest and sometimes playfully comic. Sly took all these opposing emotions and arranged them into a pin-wheeling sequence that is the densest Sly & The Family Stone album, ever. Where once omnipresent horn arrangements blasted triumphantly, loose guitar rhythms weaved and bobbed against metronomic drum machine rhythms in electro-juju pulses. And when there were drums, they were rendered about as rudimentary as the slow grooves they propelled were multi-layered. The former wall of brass was all but scrapped with only a handful of tracks destined for single sides scored with the lightest of horn touches while Sly’s vocal delivery was slow, low and continued to waver like crazy over the record’s leveled topography. But instead of the confused jumble it had every right to be, what emerged instead was much to hear within the interplay of vocals and music, much to read in between the lines all was pressed to the ceiling by a heavy gravity created by its inferred off-beats, horizontally-inclined electronic rhythms and small yet highly detailed guitar and electric keyboard interactions.

Sly also replaced the former Family Stone tradition of shared vocals with his own and they seemed to emanate not from his head so much as his entire body -- the range of which bottlenecked into the lowest lung rung, peaking in a shrieking, pained psychosexual register he all but infrequently hit in the past while the words he sang were all but impossible to discern as the lyrics twisted round the grooves like secrets in curlicues of art nouveau ivy or extended into diffused mumbles, lazy drawls, letters slurred into words or words slurred into sentences and laid out above the burning sun of his soul to dissipate into vapour.

Music journalist David Dalton accurately observed the contrast of “Exile On Main Street”-era Stones to their former musical incarnations when he wrote: ‘Their own removal from action infused their albums with a diffuse, electric, reflective, anomalous, and prolix sound and the lyrics...were now no longer buried but hermetically sealed beneath its murky grooves. They developed a disembodied intimacy that was not only the opposite of the punch, drive and clarity of their great albums of the sixties but precluded any contact.’ This statement squares perfectly with the differences between “There’s A Riot Goin’ On” and all previous records by Sly & The Family Stone. “Riot” was the first album of new material that sounded like a completely different band altogether: stripped as it was of its former utopian flash and bang while all tracks dealt with Sly’s interior world as opposed to the exterior, social world which was to a great extent the previous focus of his songwriting.

The back cover held images as collaged as the music within, while the UNIPAK gatefold within was decorated with concert shots of the group from Madison Square Garden and here, Sly’s portrait was the picture of self-assured confidence: his afro coiffed into a foot high explosion of oiled ringlets as he promenaded the stage bedecked in a red, white and blue waistcoat with a smile (THAT smile) about as wide as a miles of aisles. Conspicuous in his absence from the gallery is drummer Gregg Errico, who had only recently dropped out of the group after the first recordings were laid down for “Riot” (His replacement came in the unlikely form of Gerry Gibson, previously the session drummer on the studio recordings of the television cartoon band, The Banana Splits.) The album was also shored up with uncredited appearances by auxiliary musician pals Bobby Womack, Billy Preston as well as a few other unconfirmed guests while the like of Miles Davis, Ike Turner, Buddy Miles, Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Joe Hicks and Jimmy Ford all dropped in at Sly’s Bel Air mansion to hang out, party, jam or record.

With the entry of the opening track “Luv N’ Haight” Sly is galloping astride his funky steed flanked by muted horns. Loping and overwrought snare and egg whisking to the hi-hat erupt as accents of horns, keyboards and ensemble vocalising dance all around. Soon, a detailed latticework appears with the overlapping rhythms as fragments of guitar riffs loophole in and out as Sly bellows out for the first of hundreds of times “Feel so good/Don’t wanna move” and it’s soon becoming the mantra of not only the song, but the rest of the album as well (Apparently, Sly recorded many of the vocals on his back from a bed in the studio.) Rose sings unaccompanied for two lines and is the only singer to feature as the counterpart to Sly’s lead vocals for this and precious few other of tracks on “Riot.” When the chorus resounds with an “a-a-a-h-h-h-h” it almost sounds ominously like “t-i-i-i-m-e...” rolling over the rhythmic shifting sands of the piece. Sly thought enough of the track to have it featured on two different successive 45s and the title alone obviously must have tickled Sly’s sense of counterpoint and opposing principles.

Following is the molasses-paced, blues-based and PCP-laced “Just Like A Baby.” Sporting the most traditional arrangement of the album, it’s also the simplest and eeriest of side one. The double-tracked drumming, Sly’s frighteningly ingrown vocals and his spidery, overdubbed clavinet accents are at the fore of the mix, but it’s spattered with further tiny keyboards and shards of guitar riffs that hang in the corner behind that seat you hear creaking a couple of times at the beginning and who knows who’s on bass. An ominous organ drone hangs WAY in the background only to disappear with the next phrase and reappear towards the end and the effect is of very late nights after days of successive work in a studio with deeply baffled walls.

Severe drum machine wedded to a simple hi-hat/snare beat, darting clavinet clusters, wah-wah’d organ and bubbling bass are at the root of the following track, “Poet.” After Sly’s vocal statement of artistic intent, “Poet” weaves to and fro into an instrumental comprised of several clavinet overdubs, bass and several settings of drum machine punched down together and just as it begins to blossom and yield rich polyrhythmic textures and ceases to only appear as merely erratic, it fades off into silence. A completely different Maestro Rhythm King-generated tempo surfaces as the introduction to the well-known “Family Affair.” Starting up with a spinal column bass plucking as though strung with high tension wires plugged through a coffee percolator, it is equally as rhythmic and percussive as the strands of drum machine patterns that frame it. One of the most unique Top 10 singles to grace the charts EVER, its pulsation, half-mysterious lyrics and Rose and Sly’s muffled call and response voices were unlike anything I had ever heard on my clock radio during the early seventies -- AM or FM -- and it was played on both ceaselessly.1 Sometimes the DJ would fade it just before Sly’s final depth charge utterance of a scream followed by his highly sexual “h-h-h-h-H-H-E-E-E-E-E-Y-Y-Y-Yyyyy...!” But when it was, damn but I was allowed to be touched by an alien sensuality which to my then-seven year old mind was nonetheless enchanting as hell. Even then, I knew Sly & The Family Stone were worthy of attention because the song was powerful yet unrestrained and I was hooked: I’d imitate Sly’s vocal line to school pals, my brother and anyone else who’s stop and listen and wind up irritating the hell out of everybody and get called retarded in the process. “Family Affair” was an unsolvable puzzle until you took in the lyrics together with its unchanging accompaniment as a whole and realised that what it was about was something that was none of your damn business. Sly’s electric piano line is co-joined with old cohort Billy Preston’s immediately identifiable, rolling flourishes and gently hints of a more sprightly version of Manzarek’s e-ivory tickling on “Riders On The Storm” from the same year.

The lulling and meditative “Africa Talks To You ‘The Asphalt Jungle’” follows. The drum machine is like an amplified stop watch being clicked off and on every four seconds, contributing to the flurry of syncopated polyrhythms that nudge along under a tense crosstalk of jittery Telecaster guitars that weave in and out. The majority of the track continues long after the main lyrics are sung, and only on the surface does it seem an irregular jumble of instrumentation but there is a pattern with the continual return of certain motifs on its wide rhythmic orbit around the instrumental groove. One is the set of five reprises of the chorus chant “Timbe-r-r-r-r-a-a-a-h-h-h!/All fall down,” slurring bass, Sly’s mouthing “wah-wah-wah, wah-wah” and a pair of electric keyboard dashes across the Hohner. The secret of the track’s complexity is in its unhurried measures and the space between the clusters of riffs, rhythms and vocals.

What closes the album side is silence although listed on the album as the title track “There’s A Riot Goin’ On.” The meaning of the title has been all but surrounded in rumour and conjecture. Was it a reference to The Coasters’ “There’s A Riot Goin’ On,” Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On” album or the riots at that occurred during two of their concerts? Apparently, according to a fairly recent interview with Sly, he revealed that he wanted no riots and that was why the unbanded title track was listed as 0:00: right before the needle hits the matrix trail off to lift up off the record.

Like the cluttered “Luv N’ Haight” did for side one, so does side two’s introduction with the equally jumpy “Brave And Strong.” Opening with bass and a slight horn arrangement, snare drums and hi-hat are hit alongside then mysteriously replace the opening drum machine pattern. Again, a massive amount of overdubbing is prevalent, especially with the bass and multi-layered keyboard parts. “Brave And Strong” hints at the direction of arrangement Sly would investigate to its ultimate conclusion with severe funk angularity on his 1973 album, “Fresh” (from which “Skin I’m In” and “If You Want Me To Stay” were first worked on during the “Riot” sessions.) Also similar to his future approach on “Fresh” is “(You Caught Me) Smilin’,” which is nearly Al Green caught in a terminal comfort zone. Sly’s vocals lunge between near-spoken and hollering screams while the slap-happy bass and keyboards rebound off the horns and into the pocket, every time.

“Time” brings it down. ALL the way down to an epic at dehydrated, forced-crawl-across-the-burning-desert pace. The metronomic drum machine pattern, tape hiss (organ?) gauges the sand draining from Sly’s own personal hourglass. Like watching the minute hands pass at the speed of hour hands, or slower. The electronic amp and tape hiss builds at the end, like the sunset tide’s electric waves rolling in then wafting away free of earthly gravity that sweeps it all away. This melancholy is then swiftly whisked away with the most playful moment of the album: “Spaced Cowboy.” The joker of the “Riot” pack, “Spaced Cowboy” is a complete anomaly in the Sly canon. Beginning with the firing up of the Maestro Rhythm King drum machine with combined massive banks of tape hiss and a quick “Shortnin’ Bread” vamp on the electric keyboard, massive wah-wah’d clavinet and gnarled bass plonks, Sly...sings. Then yodels the chorus. He does it again, and then again. His yodeling is distorted, funny, frightening and sometimes falls off uncontrollably into guffaws. Sly throws in some harmonica, which I believe is a vamp of “Livin’ In The USA” by The Steve Miller Band as a nod to the song’s title provenance for “Space Cowboy” by Steve Miller Band was the track that put the term on the map (Itself probably inspired at least in part by the sleeve design of The Byrds’ “Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde” that saw the band transformed from helmeted Mr. Spacemen 4 to a quartet of rangers hitting the high and lonesome trail on horseback.) Once abruptly cut off in its tracks, what then emerges is the succession of snare hits of “Runnin’ Away.” Another ‘conscience’ song of Sly’s, “Runnin’ Away” is analogous to “Somebody’s Watching You” from his previous “Stand!” LP only here the vocals are even softer and more feminine as Rose Stone sings the lead with brother Sly faintly harmonising in the background. Describing how the hour of decision has all but edged into the ever-receding past, somebody somewhere has taken a wrong turn and is overdrawn on their cosmic credit. The memorably cosmic statement “Time is here to stay” makes you wanna set about doing things in your life differently to give it meaning because even though time is the waiting room and you are the patient, time is more patient and it can wait an eternity because it IS eternity. The most pop-angled moment of the album, it features Cynthia Robinson’s light and quick double-tracked French horn playing throughout, and her solo in the coda is beautiful.

The album is finally finished off with a harrowing re-recording of “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” retitled here as “Thank You For Talkin’ To Me Africa.” Ground out for over seven minutes with an excruciatingly dragging, lead-booted tempo that bore little resemblance to the original, even though the lyrics remained the same it does not ring half as triumphantly as it had two years earlier on their last single. In fact, it smacks of defeat as Sly’s torturously slow vocal delivery turns the meaning of the lyrics inside out into a gruesome mirror image of the original as if he had discovered a terrifying and penetrating glance that caused him to question deeply his own success and realise the song was on some level saying two things simultaneously and dependent only on the groove alone to either breathe it full of life or suck it dry as a bone. The track is also the only appearance of drummer Gregg Errico on the album and his achingly slow pattern continues to appear and disappear ghostlike from the sparse mix. Even after repeated listens, it is impossible to catch their comings and goings. And still this sucker-punched crusher staggering on its last legs funk dirge continues to grind itself down at the same unchanging pace for 7 minutes and 14 seconds until that cumulative trauma known as “There’s A Riot Goin’ On” finally ends.

Note: The Sony/Legacy reissue of “Riot” include three bonus instrumental sketches from the period of its recording and their drum machine patterns, washes of wah-wah’d organ and melodic bass lines all show in embryonic form low key, complex grooves of suspended animation that are easy to slip inside, get lost in or just groove to.

  1. Years later, I was surprised to learn that Sly was pissed when Stephen Paley, an astute person at Epic Records took it upon his own to see “Family Affair” released as a single because it was so obviously great a track. It would appear that Sly had earmarked as singles the only tracks on “Riot” to featured horn parts, however toned down: “Luv N’ Haight”, “Brave And Strong,” “Smilin’” and “Runnin’ Away.” In any case, “Family Affair” wound up being Sly & The Family Stone’s biggest single, selling a million and a half copies.