Sly’s the Limit

Sly & the Family Stone
A Whole New Thing

The curmudgeon’s party line goes like this: Contemporary music of any popular consequence merely veils its own myopia behind a bastion of familiar regurgitations. New music isn’t “new” at all, but one part commercial ingenuity and two parts déjà vu. Sly & the Family Stone’s discography, like James Brown’s, has been pillaged by the hip-hop, R&B, pop, and electronic communities; therefore, listening to contemporary music is an experience dominantly defined by reoccurring experiences: borrowed vocal and instrumental phrases, newly contextualized rhythm samples, melodies and ideas plucked from the not-so-distant past and planted anew. It’s an unavoidable phenomenon, especially within the domain of pop music, which depends upon a liberal amount of familiarity to be successful — a familiarity communicated with necessitated brevity, which ups the probability of history repeating.

If you don’t have any Sly & the Family Stone albums in your collection, you undoubtedly (and, in many cases, unknowingly) have pieces of their music embedded within other albums. Greg Errico’s wicked drum tracks, especially channel-isolated moments on songs like “Love City”, are, for all intents and purposes, inextricable strands of contemporary pop’s DNA; in fact, the drum tracks from “Sing a Simple Song” and “You Can Make It If You Try” are some of the most sampled in the history of sampling. “Loose Booty” became the backbone of the Beastie Boys’ “Shadrach”; the freak-out melody at the start of “Trip to Your Heart” was mutated into the song-defining groove of LL Cool J’s “Mama Said Knock You Out”; Fatboy Slim borrowed the stuttering opening statement of “Into My Own Thing” for his “Weapon of Choice”; and Arrested Development’s early-’90s top-ten single “People Everyday” and the Roots’ “Star” are both rewritten versions of “Everyday People” and “Everybody Is a Star”, respectively.

Epic/Legacy’s new reissues of Sly & the Family Stone’s seven studio albums from 1967 to 1974 shift the emphasis from these post-modern inheritances back to the band itself — a long-overdue reestablishment of the band’s catalog back in the cultural bloodstream. Until now, the band’s albums have been poorly represented on CD: the two-disc The Essential Sly & the Family Stone (2002) has been the only place to get remastered singles and a handful of album tracks, and even the original American flag cover art for There’s a Riot Goin’ On was unceremoniously replaced with a stock concert photo for its initial CD edition. Each album boasts a handful of bonus tracks, most of them mono single mixes, alternate/early versions, and previously unreleased instrumentals. (For the latter, this means propulsive rock tunes like “You Better Help Yourself” and “My Brain (Zig-Zag)” from the early years, and tedious, slo-daze untitled jams from the There’s a Riot Goin’ On sessions.) There aren’t exactly any major revelations to be found in the discs’ expanded sections, but it is a treat to hear the band rip through an apposite jam like Otis Redding’s “I Can’t Turn You Loose”. The one major oversight in the new editions is that critical singles like “Thank You (Falentinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” b/w “Everybody Is a Star” and “Hot Fun in the Summertime” are not included as bonus tracks, so completists need to also indulge in a largely redundant set like the Essential collection.

From 1967 to 1969, Sly & the Family Stone’s primary objective was to fashion some kind of tangible transcendence out of motley, pot-boiling music; to riddle pop music’s consciousness with a concentrated dosage of exploding possibility; to take you higher, as the vernacular of their songs so confidently instructed. In just two years’ time, the integrated San Francisco band led by former DJ Sylvester “Sly Stone” Stewart released four albums and a handful of singles, all of them rhythmically devastating and formally defiant, all of them jockeying to plant a flag in the name of their groove nation upon some undiscovered abstract plane.

This brief period of exponential growth peaked with Stand! (1969), the band’s greatest album and last before a prolonged creative implosion would sink its transcendental aspirations for good. It’s both their most sophisticated record and their most primal; pop-minded compositions such as “Stand!” and “Somebody’s Watching You” complement songs that are formally nothing more than glorified one-chord vamps, like “Sing a Simple Song”, “I Want to Take You Higher”, and “Everyday People”, the band’s first number one single. Stand!‘s A-side alone is one of the most visceral in ’60s pop, a succession of tightly wound performances bristling with jagged purpose and categorical focus. The Family Stone’s energy subsists at a breaking point, dangling on a precipice of immense release and counterbalanced by a conservative stranglehold on each groove, so as not to squander the hard-won pleasures. The title track’s coda and the main riff of “Sing a Simple Song” are two of the hardest pieces of funk the band ever cut; they inherited James Brown’s licking stick whip-cracks from the second half of the ’60s and bent them to the will of a multicultural pop audience.

Equally urgent to the sound of the music was Stand!‘s social message, which promoted idealism (“Stand!”), diversity (“Everyday People”), and self-advancement (“You Can Make It If You Try”) in the thick of the decade’s escalating disharmony (“Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey”). Sly & the Family Stone would put a face on that message at Woodstock later in the year, where they delivered one of the festival’s most breathtaking and iconic performances. “I Want to Take You Higher”, then, was a mantra that meant as much to the promise of social progressions as it did to musical experience.

From the start, Sly and his band — brother Freddie Stone on guitar, sister Rosie Stone on keyboards, Jerry Martini and Cynthia Robinson on sax and trumpet, bassist Larry Graham, and drummer Errico, most of them sharing in the group’s trademark communal vocals — soused their effusive music with messages of positive change. Their 1967 debut, A Whole New Thing, opens with “Underdog”, a horn-stoked rock tune that declares solidarity with social outcasts deemed too different or dangerous to the existing norm. As the first introduction to the band, it’s a locomotive of announcement propelled by Graham’s and Errico’s filthy groove and Sly’s impassioned lead vocal. The celesta-peppered “Run, Run, Run” reports on society’s knee-jerk opposition to the counterculture’s lifestyle (“Things we do upset their flesh and blood and bone / Maybe what they ought to do is leave their flesh and blood and bone at home”), and “Trip to Your Heart” filters traditional R&B love declarations through a more modern psychedelic viewfinder. A Whole New Thing bears a strong resemblance to the Mothers of Invention’s Freak Out!, released a year earlier; both records encourage individualist divorce from the restraints of so-called “normalcy” while flirting with conventional pop song structure. Unlike Freak Out!, however, A Whole New Thing isn’t a thinly veiled satire, but a genuine invitation to discard societal hang-ups and cut loose.

The band’s second album, Dance to the Music (1968), puts greater emphasis on the sound of things; it is, effectively, a blueprint for the manufacturing and sustaining of a hybrid groove, parts rock, pop, and soul. The title track finds each band member introducing his or her instrument’s contribution to the song, like an instructional manual simultaneously teaching and executing a strategy. The 12-minute “Dance to the Medley” offers a more extended run through each of the musicians’ part in the construction of the song, and both “Ride the Rhythm” and “Are You Ready” draw attention to their respective orchestrations mid-song. “Higher” isn’t as breathless as “I Want to Take You Higher” would later prove to be: perhaps ironically, its employment of rising chord changes actually inhibits the kind of release that a single-chord groove would ultimately unlock. Nonetheless, “Higher”, like the album entire, is a declaration of the music’s physical intent, demand, and impact. “Are You Ready”, like “Dance to the Music”, employs its titular phrase as its only sung lyric; while we’re never told exactly what we should be ready for, it’s quite obvious by the band’s instrumental response to the howled phrase that some sort of transcendent ascension is upon us.

Dance to the Music is noteworthy in that it introduces the concept of restless rhythmic pursuit into Sly & the Family Stone’s evolutionary arc. The more traditional songwriting elements at play in A Whole New Thing are set aside in favor of repetition, beat, and the consequence of pop-music fervor. Their next album, Life (also released in 1968), combines the strengths of those first two albums; it represents a critical developmental step between Dance to the Music and Stand!, sustaining the former’s pent-up momentum while exponentially diversifying the style of individual songs. Where Dance to the Music feels like an exploitation of a single groove, Life is a series of concise pop tunes with rapturous rhythm bombs dropped into each one. While it continues to endorse the power of diversity (“Harmony”, “Into My Own Thing”) and make more Mothers-esque commentary (“Plastic Jim” and “Jane Is a Groupee”) , Life is built of raucous party tracks like “Fun” (“When I party, I party hardy / Fun is on my mind”), playful calls to courage (“Chicken” — dig Freddie Stone’s nasty pecking assault of the guitar), and declarations of carefree voraciousness (“I’m an Animal”).

Next to A Whole New Thing, Life is probably the least-known of the band’s early albums — it wasn’t a commercial success and its main single, “Life” b/w “M’Lady”, stalled at #93 on the US charts and barely cracked the Top 40 in the UK — but it’s certainly one of the most fun. The only time Sly & the Family Stone sounded more inspired on record was Stand!, but Life retains its own sort of unfettered ecstasy cobbled together by carnival-like abandonment. Life was recorded and released at a time when existing conventions in rock, soul, and jazz were being reconsidered — James Brown was knocking R&B off balance with “Cold Sweat” and “The Popcorn”; Miles Davis was splintering the psyche of jazz with Filles de Kilimanjaro and the long-form minimalist piece “Circle in the Round” — and it retains its sense of adventure and discovery even today. The music on Life is neither loyal to any one particular genre or presumption, nor is it bound to the ideology of a movement: it is its own movement, the next step in a fast-moving pattern of creative elevation.

From Stand!, Sly & the Family Stone could only go down. Their next record, 1971’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On (its title a reaction to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, released earlier in the year), sank their previously burgeoning idealism at a time when social disillusionment was all the rage. Sly had found something else to take him higher and, as a result, Riot is a record very much informed by drugs, paranoia, and a sort of halfhearted malcontent. As an album, Riot is perhaps more interesting to talk about than it is to listen to; listening to it isn’t exactly a pleasurable experience. It’s significant in the annals of pop and soul because it is blunt and unflinching, because it reflects personal and cultural crises in a manner unbecoming for pop records at the time. Riot can be classified as avant-soul only after being recognized as a soul nightmare — the “nightmare”, so to speak, being a reflection of an unfortunate and uncompromised reality, not a glossed-over pop-music approximation of reality.

That said, Riot is a challenging listen, at times rambling (“Africa Talks to You (The Asphalt Jungle)”), incoherent (“Spaced Cowboy”), dissonant, and just plain uncomfortable (“Just Like a Baby”). There are some episodic moments of pop greatness to be found, like the boisterous “Runnin’ Away” and the band’s last #1 single, “Family Affair”. Ironically, the “family” aspect of the Family Stone began to dissipate around Riot‘s recording; Errico and Graham would both be gone by the time the album was completed, while many of Sly’s famous friends (Ike Turner, Bobby Womack, Billy Preston) would find their way onto the album in one capacity or another. “Family Affair” was recorded by a decimated fraction of the band’s lineup, in fact: just Sly and Rose on vocals, Preston playing keyboards, and a drum machine. It’s all a complete 180 in style and sound and attitude, spun round from the high-energy, lucid singles “Thank You (Falentinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” and “Hot Fun in the Summertime”, released just two years earlier.

“Luv N’ Haight”, Riot‘s opening track, is rubbery and malleable, the sort of euphoria-indifferent groove that would define the band’s post-Stand! proto-funk. Three untitled instrumental bonus tracks on Sony/Legacy’s reissue further illustrate the burbling, weightless grooves that Sly had begun favoring in the early ’70s. It was an explicit abandonment — betrayal, even — of the band’s previous rhythmic aspirations and boiling-point temperament, an attempt to divine resonant vibrations from…well, from apathy. (“Feel so good inside myself / Don’t want to move”, the lyric to “Luv N’ Haight”, is a far cry from something more physically inviting like “dance to the music”.) Can we even call this soul music or pop music or rock ‘n’ roll? There’s no fire in the tracks, no loyalty to form, no attempt to deliver a payoff. With Riot, Sly & the Family Stone painted unflattering pictures in pop’s immaculate halls with the impudence of disgruntled ex-winners who knew they would never sit atop the heap ever again.

The final two albums featuring what was left of the band’s original lineup, Fresh (1973) and Small Talk (1974), remain, relatively speaking and perhaps rightly so, the underrated portion of the band’s discography. By this point in their career, Sly & the Family Stone really did sound like a completely different band than the one that had torn at the time-space continuum a few years earlier. While neither of these records can even begin to compete with the quality Stand! or Life (or even A Whole New Thing), both aren’t without their own charms. Fresh‘s title implies a new start following Riot‘s turmoil (as did the overenthusiastic Richard Avedon photo gracing the cover), and in some ways it was. Bassist Rusty Allen and drummer Andy Newmark were the band’s new rhythm section; unlike Graham and Errico’s crushing dominance over a groove, their push-and-pull slackness on songs like “In Time” and “If You Want Me to Stay” was inherited from the “Luv N’ Haight” prototype. There’s no longer a collective bumrush for a sustained moment of musical rapture (that was indeed a pursuit long since abandoned); however, “Thankful N’ Thoughtful” does ride a repetitive, focused groove, and “Keep on Dancin'” resurrects the “dance to the music” mantra over a slowed and minimally orchestrated groove, as if Sly is damned to deliver that message for a tiring eternity.

If Small Talk is a slightly less successful late-period effort, it’s only because it bears such a close resemblance to Fresh. It spins the wheels of Fresh‘s formula (a stricter, more focused version of Riot‘s glassy haze) while assimilating further into generic hallmarks of ’70s R&B production: the loosely moving wah-wah guitars, almost-bluesy string arrangements, and muddy, plunking rhythm section are all endearing homogenizations attributed to any number of albums released circa 1974. Small Talk sticks with mid-tempo grooves and undemanding rhythmic sensibilities, but there’s intermittent passion to be found in the ragged choruses of “Mother Beautiful” and “Say You Will”. “Can’t Strain My Brain”, with its spry horns, is just infectious enough to make the grade; singles “Time for Livin'” and “Loose Booty” are respectable, if not groundbreaking, slices of relevant R&B; and the record’s final track, “This Is Love”, takes a surprising detour back to ’50s doo-wop and ’60s Motown.

The band’s ’70s albums act not only as a stark contrast to those made in the ’60s, but also as an enlightenment of sorts — a reminder that pop music’s stakes are scarcely so high. A Whole New Thing, Dance to the Music, Life, and Stand! are as thrilling as they are virtuous — or perhaps they’re especially virtuous because they are thrilling. Music as rapturous as this no longer exists, as much as we’d like to think it does. It has lost its innocence through the rigors of Riot et al; it’s been absorbed by those who have, in turn, misappropriated it as an effervescent foundation for otherwise disposable ideas; and, ultimately, it represents the sort of pinnacle that is so extraordinary because it is matchless. Fraudulent transcendence is one of pop music’s prime currencies — a contemporary band such as the Polyphonic Spree, for example, may share the Family Stone’s gimmick of fashion and embrace of community, but its supposedly ecstatic music lacks any sense of mortal urgency. Understand this: Sly & the Family Stone’s music is not just a feel-good grandiosity, but a bid for higher things, once-attainable things of irregular power, things that would prove more vulnerable to humble truths than musical fantasy.

RATING 9 / 10