Counterbalance No. 51: Sly and the Family Stone – ‘There’s a Riot Goin’ On’

Sly and the Family Stone
There's a Riot Goin' On

Klinger: Where would pop music be without drugs? Ever since Louis Armstrong and his jazz ilk started “Kickin’ the Gong Around” sometime during the Hoover Administration, Schedule 1s have been a part of the culture and mythology of popular music. And so many albums are inextricably tied to the pharmaceuticals that fueled them, including many that we’ve covered in the past year. Rubber Soul‘s hazy mellowness and slap-happy humor totally smell like Otto’s jacket. The Velvet Underground and Nico of course leaps to mind when you’re looking for the noddishness and lugubriosity of Sweet Lady H. And Sticky Fingers is the audio equivalent of ingesting an entire pharmacy, including the baby powder and foot spray.

Now we come to There’s a Riot Goin’ On, a record so steeped in Bolivian marching powder that I half expected a little spoon to fall out of the sleeve as I was listening. And say what you will about it as a listening experience (critic Greil Marcus famously said that the record was “no fun”), it still manages to sound like a powerful statement. So say what you will, Mendelsohn.

Mendelsohn: It is certainly hard to look past the white powder that fueled the recording of this album. And I think Greil had it right, this album is no fun, but that has more to do with the fact that it was recorded by a bunch of cokeheads and in listening to this record, it feels like you are hanging out with a bunch of cokeheads. And if you’ve ever hung out with cokeheads, you’d know it’s no fun—all they do is snort coke or talk about snorting coke or try and figure out how to score more coke to snort. But, if you can look beyond all of that, put the white powder out of your mind, dig through the rambling, uneven tracks, you’ll find snatches of pure genius. I particularly like the title track. I think they found the winning formula with that track and should have stuck with that.

Klinger: Oh, I agree. In fact, as I go back and listen to that title track, I . . . OK, I see what you did there. And I suppose I can see why you might be inclined to feel that way. I’ve had the misfortune to find myself in the company of people under the influence of the cocaine, and they are insanely boring to be around, always hovering over their mirror and jabbering on about nothing. And there’s quite a bit of that on this album. But for some reason, I can’t seem to stop listening. Every time I think Sly has lost it and meandered off into the ozone, there will be a little blast of sound that will snap me back into the (very very) laid back grooves he creates throughout the album. I know I say this a lot, but understanding the context of this disc is really the key to appreciating it.

Mendelsohn: I’m just playin’. I’ve actually really enjoyed the week I’ve spent with Sly and the Family Stone. There’s a Riot Goin’ On is a perfect car album—roll the windows down and just cruise. I’m a little uncertain about this record’s placement on the great list, especially when you consider the overall uneven nature of this record. But I’m sure you will use your context magic to explain that away. So, by all means, get your wand out and abracadabra up some context for me.

Klinger: Here I thought you were going to make me try and talk you out of actively disliking this record. What did I tell you about tricking me? OK then, here you go. The reason There’s a Riot Goin’ On rates so highly on the Great List is due mainly to its transformational quality. Much like Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks (or, come to think of it, David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust), this album sounds like it was made by a different guy than the guy who made his earlier music. Prior to this album, Sly had blown the hippies away at Woodstock and released about 37 Top 40 hits—all in the space of about a year and a half. Then he moved to Los Angeles and all but disappeared.

In the interim he developed a crippling addiction to the devil’s dandruff, and the joy he had brought to his music became as corroded as his septum. He set up a studio that became Party Central for like-minded musicians, hangers-on, and women of easy virtue—all of whom would drift in and out, recording tracks that would likely end up getting wiped later. (Hence the tape hiss. Whoever manufactured the audio tape used to record this could conceivably receive a credit, such is the extent of the tape hiss that permeates the whole album.)

The album that surfaced, then, is light years away from “Everyday People”. It was a bafflement to people, as if Creedence Clearwater Revival had suddenly released Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma. It was only when the deep funk of the 1970s emerged with such a clear debt to this sound that its true importance could be assessed.

Mendelsohn: I can dig it. We will be talking about this type of musical evolution in our next Counterbalance as well when we try and dissect the non sequitur that is Radiohead’s Kid A.

There’s no question that Sly and the Family took a leap off the deep end with There’s a Riot Goin’ On. But sometimes, musicians need to take that leap of faith, even if it seems to the fans that they committing harakiri of sorts. Thankfully, the artists are usually vindicated once the dust clears, and instead of falling on their swords they are using them to cut through the convention or stagnation.

I like this album, but it still feels like it all blends together. As stand-out as this record is, nothing really stands-out to me. There are some great “phrases” in “Just Like a Baby” and I love the chorus, if you can call it that, on “Africa Talks to You (The Asphalt Jungle)”—the deep funk there kicks the door down for everyone else to pour through. The only thing on this record that really sticks in my head–aside from ethereal bits that float through my brain during the day that I have a hard time placing–is how weird and horrible “Spaced Cowboy” makes me feel.

Klinger: I can see where There’s a Riot Goin’ On, and “Spaced Cowboy” in particular, could make you feel that way. That’s really more yodeling than I like to hear on a funk album. But the whole album has a wrong side of the night vibe, as if you’ve wandered into a place where things could switch from fun to dangerous without warning. In fact, according to a fascinating piece I read in Mojo some years ago, that’s exactly what was likely to happen as tensions continued to grow between Sly and other members of the band, bassist Larry Graham in particular. He and the other members of the Family Stone seem to play fairly limited roles on Riot, as Sly spent more and more time holed up with his blow.

So I can’t help wondering if There’s a Riot Goin’ On is less the work of an artist taking a leap of faith than it is a desperate move from a guy who didn’t know where to turn. You can hear it in his voice—and the needle-pushing distortion as he sings his disjointed phrases with the mic way too close to his mouth. And you can hear it in the groove. It’s there throughout the record, but like “Luv N’ Haight” implies, it seldom makes you want to move.

Does all of this add up to an album that earns a place in the canon? As compelling as it is, I find it to be a hard album to listen to. You mentioned earlier that you’ve enjoyed digging into There’s a Riot Goin’ On. But I had heard the legend of the album before I actually listened to it, and I’m pretty sure that colored my perception of it. Does knowing that it came from a pretty dark place affect the way you relate to it?

Mendelsohn: No, it doesn’t. Drugs and especially darkness can be found all over the Great List. It’s a part of rock and roll, and on a much deeper level, it’s a part of the human condition—one that we’ve all experienced to some degree. It may be as benign as the brooding loneliness that pops up in the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds or as extreme as the funeral dirge of Joy Division’s Closer. There’s a Riot Goin’ On is just another point on that spectrum. Knowing that Sly had some problems doesn’t color the way I listen to this album but it does help explain some of the artistic choices he made. Besides, thinking about that too much will only serve to get in the way of a good groove and ruin a record that helped make funk a powerhouse in the 1970s.

Klinger: Well, I can’t really argue with that kind of logic. Groove on, my funky friend. Groove on.