Counterbalance No. 155: Sly and the Family Stone’s ‘Stand!’

[6 December 2013]

By Jason Mendelsohn and Eric Klinger

Mendelsohn: It’s funny how time flies, Klinger. It has been just over 100 entries on the Great List since we last talked about Sly and the Family Stone. (How long have we been doing this? Don’t answer. I’m just waxing rhetorical.) The first Sly album we had the pleasure of tackling was There’s a Riot Goin’ On, the dark, cocaine-fueled funk odyssey that was light years away from the “Everyday People” and the psychedelic soul that is all-around smooth as silk and meticulously put together. But then Sly got himself a nasty cocaine habit and everything got weird—it was great for a while, but really, really weird.

On Stand! we get to see the Family Stone firing on all cylinders, really hitting the groove at every possible point, and it is a sight to behold. Makes me wonder what could have been? Or maybe what the world would have missed out upon if Sly had never taken a ride on the white horse?

Klinger: I suppose it’s impossible to say, what with the space-time continuum and all, but If I have one wish for future generations, it’s that they never ever have to dive into the Sly and the Family Stone catalog beginning with There’s a Riot Goin’ On. It’s a great album, but it really works best as a function of the unmitigated joy of the group’s earlier work—and Stand! is probably the best non-anthology example of that spirit of celebration. I would love for everyone to not only hear songs like “I Want to Take You Higher” or “Stand!” in their formative years, but also for them to understand just why Sly and the Family Stone mattered—and why what they represented should still matter today.

I have only the vaguest recollection of these songs appearing on top 40 radio when I was little, but I do know that “Everyday People” was little-boy Klinger’s favorite song (possibly due the “nyah-nyah-nyah”-style chorus). And when you can appeal to everybody from the funk freaks to the hippies at Woodstock to a suburban toddler, you’re really onto something. Sly and the Family Stone should have been the culmination of the Age of Aquarius. That’s what could have been—and luckily for Stand!, I hear that potential in the songs way more than I hear the missed opportunity.

Mendelsohn: I don’t have any real connection to this record, aside from the over whelming urge to buy a Chevrolet every time I hear “Everyday People”—but that’s just Grade-A, All-American consumer manipulation. I can’t be faulted for that. And thanks for the insight into your youth and upbringing. Little boy Klinger singing along to Sly and the Family Stone would have been a sight to behold. Is there film of that? I would pay dollars to see it.

Klinger: It was, by all accounts, adorable.

Mendelsohn: I’m sure it was, especially now that I’m imaging full-grown Klinger’s head stuck on child’s body. There isn’t any question that Stand! deserves a place on the Great List. I have absolutely nothing bad to say about this record. If anything, I wish every song was as long as “Sex Machine”, the highlight of the record for me, simply because it goes on for nearly 15 minutes and I never get sick of listening to it.

You do bring up an interesting point about how listeners could come to discover the Family Stone and how There’s a Riot Goin’ On might not be the best entry point. Stand! is phenomenal, no question, but is this the record that “made” the Family Stone, or was it Sly’s coked out space funk on There’s a Riot Goin’ On? As you say, There’s a Riot Goin’ On is a function of the unmitigated joy that was Stand!, but without Riot, an album that cemented Sly’s legacy as a musical genius, does Stand! receive the same amount of recognition?

Klinger: If Stone hadn’t made There’s a Riot Goin’ On—or if it hadn’t been received as well as it was—we would still be talking about Stand!. There’s no doubt in my mind about that. In fact, maybe we would have recognized him less as a burnout cautionary tale and more for what we he was: the greatest pop sloganeer this side of John Lennon. So many of the lyrics on Stand! would make perfect bumper stickers or t-shirts or protest signs, and I mean that as the compliment that it is—that kind of simplicity is seriously hard to accomplish. The lyrics throughout this album are full of optimism and grace and humanity, which were starting to become rare commodities in 1969.

Add to that the fact that the Family Stone was a brilliant construction in its own right. Black and white, male and female, all participating at peak capacity. The horn section of Cynthia Robinson and Jerry Martini bring a punch throughout. Larry Graham’s bass-playing is consistently inventive—he’s probably one of the most underrated bass players in rock history, and you hear how completely locked in he is with drummer Greg Errico. All through Stand!, everyone everywhere melds perfectly to create simmering jams that are sustainable over long hauls. Your “Sex Machine” is a great example, but I’ve been just as impressed with the more concentrated dose of “I Want to Take You Higher”, a song that should be dulled to me through overhearing. But I never fail to be impressed at the way they create a bubbling stew of sound, with pieces and parts wending their way in and out of the mix. It sounds effortless, but upon closer inspection it’s pretty carefully constructed. An apt metaphor for the band at the height of its powers? Probably.

 

Mendelsohn: Stand! might be one of the most complex albums we’ve heard in a while, especially considering when it was recorded in the late 1960s. The technology had been improving an amazing rate over the decade but still paled in comparison to what we have available today, or even 20 years ago. You and I just finished talking about the Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream, a complicated monster that benefited from the extensive use of overdubbing. Corgan spent a great deal of time arranging a rock record from little bits and pieces. Sly and the Family did without the high-flying technology. The focus on arranging is stunning and it was done live, in the studio. Sly Stone is the musical equivalent of a Swiss watchmaker.

On a completely different level, we’ve talked at length about the social impact of some of the records we’ve come across and Stand! is another example of an artist address social problems through their music—prime example “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey”. While the message isn’t all that unique, the main difference is Sly and the Family Stone didn’t just sing about it, they were living every day, as you pointed out above, by being a diverse group of individuals drawn together by the power of music.

Klinger: But even that song avoids the traps of outrage and simple indignation. Based on the title alone, you might expect it to be an incendiary call to arms. But the only actual verse in the song (sung with great passion by Sly’s sister Rose Stone), “Well I went down across the country, and I heard the voices ring / People talking softly to each other, and not a word could change a thing”, suggests that there aren’t any easy answers. And by reversing the order of the epithets, the song makes clear that an eye of an eye leaves everyone blind. In Sly’s world, it’s a communication problem that’s there in the people’s screams—and in the things they mutter under their breath.

That’s a powerful notion, and it’s delivered with the same off-the-cuff manner as the rest of the wisdom that pervades this album. Hearing those thoughts presented so simply and effectively, as well as those heard throughout “Everyday People”, “You Can Make It if You Try”, and the title track, is just stunning. You hear how easy Sly and the Family Stone made it all seem—beautiful sentiments are laid out as if they were conventional wisdom, black and white musicians are working together seamlessly (even in presenting uncomfortable truths) to build complicated musical architecture that seems to have spontaneously sprung up from the ground. It’s never happened in quite the same way again (Prince and the Revolution may have come the closest, but Sly never made his women perform in negligees). In listening to Stand! in these concentrated doses you just have to wonder why these seemingly simple ideas of respect and cooperation have to be so stinking difficult.

 

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/177058-counterbalance-no.-155-sly-and-the-family-stones-stand/