Sunday, 7 June 2020

Sly & The Family Stone




"I've got a few reasons why I've got to maintain stability. I've got into wanting people to hear my music. I've got something I want people to hear because I know they'll like it. They've gotta like it!" - Sly Stone

 

A Whole New Thing (1967)


Underdog/If This Room Could Talk/Run, Run, Run/Turn Me Loose/Let Me Hear It From You/Advice/I Cannot Make It/Trip To Your Heart/I Hate To Love Her/Bad Risk/That Kind Of Person/Dog        
                               
The earthy, horn-driven funk, with its riff taken from the French “Frere Jacques” of Underdog kicks of the recording career of this seminal soul/funk band. As always, the bass/drum underpinning of the sound is both integral and outstanding. The funk is really cooking on a high temperature on If This Room Could Talk with its Native American-influenced horn intro riff. Again the bass is big, rhythmic and rumbling.

Run, Run, Run is a frenetic Beach Boys meets The Small FacesNorthern Soul and early Rolling Stones. It is a bit bizarre, to be honest. Something about it doesn’t quite click, despite its best intentions.

Turn Me Loose sees the band operating at 100 mph and Sly using one of his more crazed vocals. Certainly it was clear, at this point, that this new band had something. It was not quite clear to anyone, least of all the band what they had, however. This is almost a “work in progress” album. Let Me Hear Hear It From You is a classic slow soul ballad in the Atlantic Records style, it could almost be Otis ReddingAdvice features some killer cymbal work from drummer Greg Errico and some truly funky rhythms too. As too does the melodious I Cannot Make It. The remarkable thing about this album is that it was recorded “live” in the studio, no overdubs or the like. The sound is all the more impressive for it.



The album didn’t chart and a more commercial sound was requested from the record company for the next album. It was not hard to see why, really. Experimental tracks like the druggy Trip To Your Heart might sound good in a Haight Ashbury house-share party, but not on mainstream radio. I like it though, and stuff like this was way in advance of much commercial music of the day. As “weird” music goes, it knocks spots off The Beach Boys and their “vegetables” from the same year.

I Hate To Leave Her is again a great piece of bassy, soulful trippy, hippy funk, if there was such a thing. As with all the band’s recordings, the brass section is essential to the sound, and sounds great on every track. These current remasterings are absolutely fantastic too. Crystal clear, big, bassy and punchy. Bad Risk is a magnificent slab of proto-psychedelic soul, the like of which The Temptations would out out between 1968-72. Check out those drums, bass and guitar. This was quite adventurous, ground-breaking material. Soon, many bands would be playing soul like this. That Kind Of Person is soulful, jazzy and a seriously quality song. Who else was producing innovative soul like this in 1967? Prince must have listened to this, without a doubt.

Dog is another upbeat song about “dogs having their day”, with a great Sly vocal over yet another wonderful, addictive bass line. The extras include the funky Only One Way Out Of This Mess, the jazzy and soulful What Would I Do and the jaunty instrumental You Better Help YourselfA brave, musically brilliant debut album that introduced the world to a unique band.


Dance To The Music (1968)


Dance To The Music/Higher/Ain't Got Nobody/Dance To The Medley/Ride The Rhythm/Color Me True/Are You Ready/Don't Burn Baby/I'll Never Fall In Love Again 

Sly & The Family Stone’s second album, released in 1968, was a ground-breaking piece of work, packed full of funky horn-driven upbeat, uplifting soul.
       
Dance To The Music needs no introduction, as in 60s soul style, Sly introduces the band members to contribute their instrumental pieces - “all we need is a drummer, for people who only want a beat…” You get the picture. Higher and Ain't Got Nobody are both vibrant tunes, with those wonderful horns dominating the sound, over Greg Errico’s pounding drums. The eleven-minute Dance To The Medley takes up where Dance To The Music left off, giving band members like bassist Larry Graham longer in the spotlight. In effect, it is Dance To The Music in an extended jam workout but no matter, it is truly great.

Ride The Rhythm has a spectacularly funky, bass-driven intro and develops into a masterpiece of jazz funk. Superb big, rumbling bass. Color Me True provides a prototype for the wonderful “psychedelic soul” tracks that The Temptations were soon to release. Sly and his band did it first. Wah-wah guitar and bass all over it. Check out that great guitar on Are You Ready, and then those horns again. Man, this is a great album. To think it was only 1968. Sly was considerably ahead of the game.

Don't Burn Baby has a rhythmic conga/guitar intro and the track mutates into a frenetic, almost Rolling Stones-ish number backed by some Latin-Influenced guitar and some wild 60s organ, man. Sly’s vocals show the first signs of the madcap delivery he utilised on occasions. A mini masterpiece of several styles crammed into one.



I'll Never Fall In Love Again ends the album with a more traditional Stax-style soul number, but one that is infused with some deliciously jazzy brass work. Once more, spectacular bass sound.This really is a phenomenal album for the time and the remastered sound is truly sensational, again considering the date of recording. Top notch.

With regard to the extras, I am sure Paul McCartney used the organ riff/high pitched “oohh” backing vocals from Soul Clappin' on Mumbo from his Wild Life album and there is a deep saxophone bit on the slow burning funk of We Love All that David Bowie used on one of his “Heroes” instrumentals. I Can't Turn You Loose is an improvised version of the Otis Redding Atlantic soul classic. Great horns, as you would expect, particularly on this track. Never Do Your Woman Wrong is an impressive, toe-tapping organ/horn/drum instrumental workout in a sort of Booker T & The MGs on acid style. Fantastic drum sound half way through. Listen to those keyboards too.


Life (1969)


Dynamite!/Chicken/Plastic Jim/Fun/Into My Own Thing/Harmony/Life/Love City/I'm An Animal/M'Lady/Jane Is A Groupee  

Moving on in the same upbeat vein from the previous album, Sly & The Family Stone cemented their burgeoning reputation with this, their third album.
                       
The opener, Dynamite! is an upbeat, rhythmic slab of funky soul, with the trademark horn breaks and backing vocals. Chicken jumps on the contemporary Funky Chicken bandwagon, started by Rufus Thomas. Lots of clucking type vocals over a persistent, funky drumbeat. Plastic Jim has an Eleanor Rigby borrowed line in “all the plastic people, where do they all come from”. One thing that is apparent already in this album, is the funky guitar sound that is very dominant.

Fun is another upbeat number that explores one of the band’s main recurring themes of unity and integration (another is partying and the groupie scene). This album is noticeable for its more rough and ready, straight up, musical approach. Very little use of studio effects. As on their debut album, they are almost playing “live”. Into My Own Thing is a slowed down Dance To The Music type groove, in that the musicians are credited, Cynthia And Jerry, the horn players again, and the drummer. There is where the similarities end. It is much slower song, with some killer funky guitar.



Harmony, once again, is upbeat and has excellent horns and vocals, as it now simply to be expected. Life has a circussy horn intro (sort of popular in 1968 - Sgt PepperSatanic Majesties and Magical Mystery Tour all had that sort of vibe) but then it develops into a storming piece of vibrant funky soul. As throughout all these albums, Greg Errico’s drumming is superb. A most underrated drummer.

Love City is a barnstormer of a track. Wonderful everything - horns, drums, vocals, bass. A piece of Sly funky heaven. Much of this album’s instrumental breaks have been latterly sampled by hip hop and electronica bands. Not surprising.

I'm An Animal is a semi-experimental, innovative sort of jam that fits with the zeitgeist of 1968. They were all at it - The Beatles, The Stones, The Beach Boys, The Temptations, Jimi Hendrix, Cream. Although this track is ok, there are much better ones on this album and those before and after. M'Lady lifts so much from Dance To The Music that it loses a little bit of creativity - the guitar, The tenor saxophone, the organ riff, the “boom-ba-boom-bi-dum” backing vocals, even the solo pounding drum bit, they are all there. Still love the track though. 

Finally, Jane Is A Groupee must have been written by Prince! Again, Sly namechecks some of the band (presumably those who enjoyed the pleasures of Jane - “she’s got a thing about the guys in the band”). It is an amusing song that displayed the band’s always-present playful side.

The extras are not as essential as on some of the other albums. Seven More Days is a bit of a shapeless throwaway, to be honest. Pressure is ok, but not worthy of a place on the album. Sorrow is an impressive instrumental though.


Stand! (1969)


Stand!/Don't Call Me Nigger, Whitey/I Want To Take You Higher/Somebody's Watching You/Sing A Simple Song/Everyday People/Sex Machine/You Can Make It If You Try       
                   
Social themes are now very much to the fore by 1969, with The Vietnam War and racial tensions simmering all over the USA. The catchy opener, Stand! has an uplifting horn-drive vibe and a catchy vocal. Great guitar too. Its handclapping gospel-influenced ending tends to detract attention somewhat from the song’s “call to arms/be proud” message. Overall, a Sly classic though. Up there in their top five-ten songs.

Don't Call Me Nigger, Whitey is a cornerstone of the album, a slowed-down, insistent groove full of funky guitar and the repetition of the two lines - “Don’t call me nigger,, whitey. Don’t call me whitey, nigger”, which highlights the utter playground-level inanity of racial abuse. (Something that would be highlighted later in Everyday People with its deliberately infantile chorus). This song, though, in its simplicity sums up the pointlessness of it all and serves wonderfully as a two-line protest song.

The band are in full funk/rock groove by now, the finished product. I Want To Take You Higher is another copper-bottomed funky, wah-wah drenched Sly classic. Check out that trumpet solo at the end., then the bass part. The band had truly nailed their sound now. Somebody's Watching You has more of a lighter, more catchy, sweet soul vibe to it, in comparison to the intensity of the previous three tracks. Again, the sound quality on these tracks is just superb. Sing A Simple Song is a return to earthy funk, the type of which Parliament would produce in the 70s and 80s.



The short but incredibly uplifting Everyday People is just a delight. That beat, the stabbing guitar the backing vocal, Sly’s beseeching “we got to live together”. It is just perfect. One of the band’s finest moments..as too is the thirteen-minute dirty instrumental funk groove of Sex Machine, although to be honest, it does go on about seven or eight minutes too long! A bit of unnecessary indulgence. The final track, You Can Make It If You Try is a welcome return to quality horn, drum, bass and vocal funk.

The extras are a re-recording of Soul Clappin’ from Dance To The Music’s extras, and the by now traditional funky instrumental in My Brain (Zig-Zag).

Talking of indulgence - we hadn’t seen anything yet!

 

** The album also served as the studio album that opens the compilation called The Woodstock Experience. The second half of this collection is the group’s entire set from the legendary festival. The sound quality is far better than you might expect from an outdoor and often chaotic festival and the group's set, although not without a few problems at the beginning, gets into its groove and the songs just flow effortlessly into each other. Sly and his mates are on top form, delivering an invigorating, adrenalin-pumped, pounding set. The audience singing along in Higher and the part where the horns kick in is vibrantly uplifting, as is the following I Want To Take You Higher. Check out those horns. As for Love City - wow. Live music of the absolute highest quality. I simply cannot praise it enough - it kicks ass.


 

There's A Riot Goin' On (1971)


Luv 'N' Haight/Just Like A Baby/Poet/Family Affair/Africa Talks To You ("The Asphalt Jungle")/There's A Riot Goin' On/Brave and Strong/(You Caught Me) Smilin'/Time/Spaced Cowboy/Runnin' Away/Thank You For Talkin' To Me, Africa 
    

The seventies were here now, and Marvin Gaye had released his classic album questioning What’s Going OnSly Stone, by now drugged-up and sexually insatiable in a big way, told us that, even worse, there was a riot goin’ on. He tapped into the racial tensions of the age perfectly, even through the drugs’ fog.

There certainly was some fog in the studio. Multiple recordings of the same track. Gone was the refreshing “play it straight” live feel of the earlier albums. An obsessive/compulsive Sly recorded and re-recorded songs until the tapes eroded.

He also promised several sexual conquests a place singing backing vocals on the album, hence the many female voices piling up.



Instead of the optimistic, rock-laced soul that had characterised the band’s 1960s output, There's a Riot Goin' On was urban blues, filled with dark instrumentation, filtered drum machine tracks, and plaintive vocals representing the hopelessness Sly and many other people were feeling in the early 1970s. The album is characterised by a significant amount of tape hiss – the result of Sly's afore-mentioned extensive re-recording and overdubbing during production.

Only four short years had seen immense changes in the band’s work. Gone were the spectacular horn riffs, the individual band members taking vocal parts and the great, melodious bass lines. Now we had some of the heaviest, speaker-shaking funk bass they ever laid down in tracks like Just Like A BabyPoet and Time. Heavy clavinet now dominates. Not a horn within earshot. Jerry Martini was on his way out of the group, as was Greg Errico and Larry Graham, in the midst of a number of unsavoury incidents and claims and counter claims. All that joyous bonhomie of the band had evaporated.

 

In the midst of all this, a remarkably catchy, soulful hit single appeared in Family Affair, whose perfection sits slightly at odds with the rest of the album’s extended funk outs and multi-layered madness. The opener, Luv 'n' Haight is relatively tuneful too, but still pretty heavy and layered. Africa Talks To You ("The Asphalt Jungle") is one such drawn-out semi-jam, but sort of appealing it is too, but a world away from all that horn-driven beauty of Dance To The Music and Everyday People and those wonderful first four albums, this was dense, intense and introspective. In a way, the joy had gone out of the band, sniffed up its collective nose. Brave And Strong continues in the same vein. Funky as hell, but a muddy mess, sound wise.

You Caught Me Smilin' has a soulful groove, but again, the production spoils it, and while Spaced Cowboy is impossibly funky in places, the tape hiss is awful and the less said about Sly’s yodelling vocal the better!

Running Away was, surprisingly, another acceptable, tuneful choice for a single, but Thank You For Talking' To Me Africa was another extended funker, a slower arrangement of the previous years’ single Thank You Falettin’ Me Be Mice Elf Again.

The extras are all instrumentals and pretty inessential, to be honest. Nowhere near the standard of the instrumentals from the previous four albums’ extras.

Overall, the album is a difficult listen. I much prefer the previous four abums, by far, whatever critics say. It is sort of fashionable to praise this as being Sly’s masterwork. Come off it. Check out the next album for evidence.


Fresh (1973)


In Time/If You Want Me To Stay/Let Me Have It All/Frisky/Thankful 'n' Thoughtful/Skin I'm In/I Don't Know (Satisfaction)/Keep On Dancin'/Que Sera Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)/If It Were Left Up To Me/Babies Making Babies

This album, from 1973, was where Sly Stone really got it together as a funk artist. The sloppiness and general undisciplined mess of the previous album was replaced by an infinitely better quality sound and all-round cohesiveness. This was funk of the highest quality, with a slight poppiness to it that made it far more accessible than the previous work. The sound quality hits you between the eyes (and ears) as the booming bass and funky guitar pounds and slaps out of your speakers. You know what I mean by “slap”, don’t you? That pure funky guitar sound. There’s plenty of that here.

It is one of the great funk albums - unique, quirky, but earthy enough to appeal to funk traditionalists. It was a shame that it was Stone’s last great piece of work. I would actually go so far as to say it was his finest album, actually. It is a pity it has slipped under the radar somewhat, critically.

In Time is a superb, rambling, staccato but chunky opener, enhanced by some fine saxophone (that strangely fades briefly at one point). It is overflowing with great instrumentation and an attractive sleaziness, if that is not too oxymoronic. Dirty keyboards, scratchy clavinet, fatback drums and a killer vocal make for a wonderful start to the album.

The catchy, Stevie Wonder-esque If You Want Me To Stay is the album’s most well-known track and it is here that pop and funk merge perfectly. Let Me Have It All has some infectious cutting, stabbing guitar and keyboard interjections, together with a seductive female co-vocal and Frisky is blessed with a bass line as deep as the earth’s core, some enticing wah-wah guitar and one of those loose, drugged-up sounding vocals from Sly. The funk is so hot on this it hurts. Truly great stuff.

 

Thankful 'n' Thoughtful is a grinding, slow pace, earthy funker, with a brooding, late-night, menacing atmosphere and some excellent horn parts. Check out the funky, bad-ass drumming too. Skin I'm In has another absolutely delicious bass backbeat and a fine, grittily soulful vocal. I know I am repeating myself, but that bass line is to do for - so big, so rubbery. the same superlatives can be applied to the cookin' funk of I Don't Know (Satisfaction). Material like this influenced many a funk band for years to come.

Keep On Dancin' name-checks Dance To The Music in its first line, but from then on it is pure bubblin', slow boilin' funk. The cover of Que Sera Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be) took the headlines at the time for its sheer quirkiness but, although it is a bit incongruous in comparison with the rest of the album, it has its appeal, especially in the wah-wah guitar. Sly always threw in a curveball, after all, didn't he?

The final two tracks are the short, female vocal-led If It Were Left Up To Me, which has a bit of a crackly sound of a throwaway demo to it, and the superb, industrial-strength funk of Babies Making Babies.

As I said earlier, I rate this as Sly's best album.




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