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JSngry

SLY & THE FAMILY STONE - THERE'S A RIOT GOIN' ON

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Spent the last few days going through one of my periodic "obsessions" over this album, and yet again it proves to be one of those rare works that reveals more as the years pass and presents new things to ponder.

One thing has become clear to me over the years - the music on this album affected Miles from ON THE CORNER on to a greater extent than even those who acknowledge the influence might realize. RIOT, like said Miles music, is one big stoned/coked haze of an experience, with Sly in the middle, fully aware of the cliff he's hanging from (and was about to fall off of). The music is much more "jammy" than anything he did, before or after, yet Sly is always there to put things in focus, vocally and/or instrumentally, at exactly the moment things threaten to meander. The use of various sonic textures as pure compositional devices on this album is very striking as well - there's a perhaps hedonistic concern with sound for its own sake that continues to fascinate me. It's rich and varied, yet very much of a single mind. All of this very strongly echoes Miles to me, not just in the obvious musical techniques used (I swear you could dub him into the middle or almost any track on RIOT and it would sound like it was supposed to have been there all along), but also in the overall concept of self-awareness and the leaders place in the midst of a teeming self-sufficient organism that could easily veer off into chaos and self-defeating self-indulgence.

The thing that got me most recently though, wasn't the music, but the lyrics. Somebody once said, with arguable accuracy, of Dylan's "prime" years that every time he hurled accusations at "you" that he was really hurling them at his own inner demons. Sly doesn’t even bother with the “you” very much here, but much has been made, over the years, of the album as a response to the tensions between Black Militancy & Flower Power, which, although perhaps a superficially accurate analysis, misses the true INNER tension of the lyrics (and the music). Here Sly presents a selection of lyrics that are at once obtuse yet wholly (and frighteningly) direct. The opening line of the album - "Feel so good inside myself, don't want to move/Feel so good inside myself don't need to move" - says it all. Gone are the days of wanting to take us higher, replaced by a state of totally stoned (he COULDN'T get any higher and still function, which is, tragically, exactly what happened of him) "just is"-ness that would soon become "death" for Sly, but for this brief moment, we catch a genius (and make no mistake - Sly once was possessed of/by a pop genius of the richest kind) in that rare state where his intoxication and his ability were not just in full sync with each other, but were fully AWARE of each other . He neither wanted nor need anything, and was content to just let it be like that. A thin line between euphoria and death, it is...

The lyrics of this album are full of such frightening self-awareness, as if the guy knows that he's killing himself, yet for whatever reason he refuses to stop. Take "Poet" - "My only weapon is my pen", he says, and then he goes about creating a supremely funky jam with next to no lyrics! What does that say about his will to go on “fighting”, especially in light of such succinct-yet-deep lyrical gems like "Everyday People", "Everybody Is A Star", "You Can Make It If You Try", etc.? And what about "Africa Talks to You "The Asphalt Jungle""? "Must be a rush for you to see a lazy. A brain he's meant to be. Cop out? He's crazy." “TIMBER! ALL FALL DOWN!” Yeah, I think Sly was fully aware of the fate that awaited him due to his insanely heavy coke use, and, to me, that's what makes the lyrics on this album so strong. It's like a fully coherent suicide note written, not moments before the act, but several years before.

The music is still the most relevant part of this album for me, though, and the marvels thereof are seemingly inexhaustible. This is the album, more so than anything by JB, I think, that created the blueprint for funk and for the funky side of "fusion", especially Miles & HEADHUNTERS-era Herbie. JB no doubt bought the land and poured the foundation, but THERE'S A RIOT GOIN' ON is the album that actually built the house. There's SO much detail in the music here, so many "touches", some incidental, some in the forefront, some obviously planned, some not, that it takes more than a few casual listens to even begin to sort them all out. Definitely a "headphone album" if ever there was one. Hitting just the highlights would require a post at least as long as this one, so I'll pass for now.

I don't know how much THERE'S A RIOT GOIN' ON is on the "radar screen" of today's audiences. Sly long ago ceased being a viable player on the scene, and all you hear of him anymore is the few "feelgood" hits on oldies radio and assorted commercials. But there was a time when this guy ruled the world, and this is an album that had huge musical & social significance in its time. I wonder how many of the younger fans of Miles' electric music have really absorbed this album, as well as how many of the fans of that era of Miles who don't stray too far outside the realm of "jazz" have done likewise. If you haven't yet done so, you owe it to yourself to check this one out, not just because of its influence, but also, no, especially because it's a strong, innovative work of the highest order on its own terms.

Anybody else dig this one? If so, let the discussion begin, And if not, get ye to a music retailer! ;)

Edited by JSngry

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Jim, as I am supposed to be working I don't have the time to read thoroughly through your post, but HELLYEAH! What a great album! I think this one must have been among my first ten or fifteen CDs (I came to be after the end of the LP era...) and I loved it ever since.

As I recently (finally!) got "On the Corner" and listened to it a few times, I guess yes, Miles has really been influenced by the Sly-sound.

ubu

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Just want to add a perhaps relevant detail - on the label of the LP issue, the last cut on Side Two is listed as "There's A Riot Goin' On". Time is given as 0:00. No time, and no time left.

What that says about Sly's mindset at the time, and how it relates to this album, I'm not sure. But it seems to me that his sense of "impending demise" is at least a part of it.

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What eventually became of Sly? Is he still alive?

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Last I heard, Sly is alive and living modestly but comfortably in a private community somewhere in California. Supposedly, however, the inhuman amount of coke use he indulged in has left him w/permanent brain-damage, and periodic attempts at recording sessions have resulted in nothing, absolutely nothing, of use, even for exploitative purposes. The guy seems to be Brian Wilson with an UNhappy ending (irony fully intended).

This I got from a rather detailed and well-researched article in some British music magazine that I spent about an hour reading at a newstand (don't ask why I didn't just buy the damn thing. I should have) in the early 90s. It included then-current interviews w/the various members of the Family Stone, most of whom, perhaps not suprisingly, have become quite religious, some (Larry Graham) quite visible, and others (Sister Rose & Freddie Stewart/Stone), quite privately and locally. The article also included a photo form Sly's induction into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame that damn near made me cry, so obvious was the man's condition.

From genius to near-vegatable. With this album as a warning to all concerned, including himself.

LET'S PARTY!!!

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AMG mentions he signed with Avenue Records in 1995, but has not been recorded or at least has not brought out anything.

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The article I referenced mentioned attending a session where a lethargic but (mostly) coherent Sly spent about 30 minutes getting a basic groove out of some session musicians, after which he laid down for a 2-3 hour nap under the board. And that...was that.

I'd love nothing more than to be proven wrong, but I think he's gone. Forever.

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here's an article from the Dallas Morning News on occasion of Sly's 50th birthday in 1994: link

If this is starting to read more like an obituary than a birthday acknowledgment, that's because "Sly Stone" - the unpredictable musical visionary who brought poetry to dance music, anger to pop and soul to nursery rhymes - pretty much died in the late '70s. He burned brilliantly, but for only a very short time. His last studio album, which wasn't very good, came out in 1982. His next album, which won't be very good, is scheduled for release in early '95 on Avenue Records. This from an artist who released three classic albums from 1968 to 1971.

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Well, Corcoran's on my "Enemies List" of music journalists (his deliberately inflamatory (I hope) "Most Overrated" list included Otis Redding & Charlie Parker), but that's a good article indeed.

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Jim,

I find your thread quite interesting as always. While I am not nearly the student of the music that you are, your comments about Sly's influence on Miles and others rings true with me. Just recently I had occasion to listen to Archie Shepp's Attica's Blues, at the request of a friend of mine. After a pretty fair sampling I remarked that instead of purchasing that one I would just go out and buy a Sly Stone album. Didn't think much of it at the time but your thread made me recall my comments.

I am not a trained musician but my instincts suggest that Sly Stone influenced many more jazz muscians than just Miles. Groundbreaking in many ways.

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Thanks for the link, John. :tup

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This thread makes me want to search those Sly Stone LPs I have stored somewhere. They got a lot of play when they were around.

Caught the Sly Stone gang when they were in town for a concert at the Olympia theater. How many years ago was that? They caused a near riot. That music moved...

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The 1970's really begin with this album and The Stooges FUN HOUSE, in the sense that they really bring the "pop" 60's to an end -- chronologially, musically, ideologically -- without an ounce of sentimentality.

Try and find an original vinyl pressing. CBS's super-chintzy CD issue of this detracts mightily from the experience. Absence of the "0:00" track, as Jim notes, but it also uses different cover art and the mastering is terrible.

Ah, that drum machine on "Family Affair" makes that performance even more menacing... as if the lyrics weren't already chilling and hard to take on their own. Contrast this with Shuggie Otis' INSPIRATION INFORMATION, which embraces many of the sounds of RIOT but puts them to utterly different, if still cracked, ends.

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Well, Corcoran's on my "Enemies List" of music journalists (his deliberately inflamatory (I hope) "Most Overrated" list included Otis Redding & Charlie Parker), but that's a good article indeed.

Not to hi-jack a well-deserved Sly thread, but Otis Redding over-rated? C'mon, man... he was only 23 years old when he died. 23 years old and he had more soul than 99.9% of every single R&B artist to come along since...

Over-rated my ass!

And I won't even begin on including Bird on such a list. Inane.

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I love Sly, he's as funky as it gets! I was just listening to this the other night:

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I'll second the complaint about the crappy CD issue of this album. I have it, and for that reason I don't think I've ever esteemed "There's a Riot Going On" as I otherwise might. Sony's been doing some very good reissues lately. This should be at the top of the list to be fixed. I'd run out and buy it in a heartbeat.

I like the comparison with Shuggie Otis' "Inspiration Information." That's a fantastic album, and a stark contrast with "There's a Riot Going On." Shuggie wouldn't burn out until later...

"Riot" also makes an interesting contrast with Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On?" I once read that "Riot" was the "answer" album to Marvin's masterpiece. Any truth to that?

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The title might very well be, but otherwise, I don't know. WGO was released May 20, 1971; TARGO Nov 20, 1971. Marvin recorded most of his album in early 1971. Sly worked on his for over two years.

That's the gap between STAND (another serious classic, but an ENTIRELY different kind of music in both feel and lyrical content) & TARGO, anyway. Only the single of "Thank You..." b/w "Hot Fun In The Summertime" & the GREATEST HITS album (one of the all-time great "feelgood" records) filled the gap (and by all accounts, Epic/Columbia was getting REALLY antsy about that). The article I mentioned earlier tells tales of tracks being recorded on the run and on the fly (apparently, between the heavy drug use and the group's being the target of several militant groups "attention", things were more than a little hectic during those years, and there was never really time for "rest" in the conventional sense of staying in one place for very long, although AMG says that the album was recorded at John Phillips' home studio. I suspect the truth lies somewhere in between), and innumerable groupies being "auditioned" as vocalists using the tapes, which is why a lot of the vocal tracks sound so hissy - there had been so many erasures that that ended up being the "natural" sound of the tape!

So, sure, I think the album titles might be related, but otherwise, I don't think so. They lyric concerns are waaaaay different between the two albums. Marvin is reaching out to the world, and Sly is watching himself die.

Edited by JSngry

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I don't necessarily want to hijack the thread, since I am enjoying this discourse, but...

I have INSPIRATION INFORMATION and SHUGGIE'S BOOGIE: SHUGGIE OTIS PLAYS THE BLUES, and both are really good. Have any of you guys heard his other studio albums? How do they measure up to I.I.? Also, did he completely slip under the radar back then? Or were some of you listening to Shuggie concurrently to Sly & Marvin?

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I slept on Shuggie on the basis of hearing some of his blues-rock stuff, which did nothing for me at the time. Like most, I didn't get hip to I.I. until the recent reissue (and unlike most, I have my homie Joe Milazzo to thank for pulling my coattails to it). Fascinating stuff, almost the "missing link" between drugged-out Sly & drugged-out Brian Wilson!

Another point - upon further reading of that Cocoran article, he goes back onto my Enemies List, most likely permanently. Every damn thing he mentions on there comes from that British magazine (VIBE, perhaps?) article, not a bit of original information, so he can bite me. :o

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Another point - upon further reading of that Cocoran article, he goes back onto my Enemies List, most likely permanently. Every damn thing he mentions on there comes from that British magazine (VIBE, perhaps?) article, not a bit of original information, so he can bite me. :o

but the english magazine article exists only in your head for now, the Cocoran can be read by anybody. ;)

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The first time I heard this album, it was right outta high school (1988) on an LP. It did nothing for me. Just sounded like someone kept the tape rolling during a pot party. Of course, I'd just graduated high school, and I knew everything. :rolleyes:

Fast forward to the holiday season last year, and I picked up a CD copy after having heard "Family Affair," "You Caught Me Smilin'," "Runnin' Away," and "Thank You for Talkin' to Me, Africa" on a compilation disc. Now I know what I missed all those years ago: real life. Granted, I'll never have the kinds of experiences that drove this music, but time has put it all in its proper perspective for me. Those howls on "Thank You for Talking to Me, Africa" are geniune, and rip me down to my soul. And how about the cries on "Just Like a Baby?" This is musical exorcism at its starkest; not to mention at its finest.

Having said that, I have to think that remastering it and cleaning up the sound might actually have the reverse effect. Yeah, it'd be nice to get rid of all those hisses (especially on "Africa Talks to You"), maybe bring out some of the instruments a little better, heck even clean up the vocal tracks.

BUT, this is music from the deepest darkest reaches of the soul, and I think the crappy sound complements, if not adds, to the murky feel of the whole album.

However, better packaging would certainly be a plus!

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I personally think "Fresh" is a much better album musically, but this isn't so bad though it was essentially a response to Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" record in that it attempted to paint a much darker portrait of black life circa this era.

I think Curtis Mayfield had much more to say on his records...same with Donny Hathaway. Now those two are fine ghetto poets.

Edited by undergroundagent

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You really think Sly was a "ghetto poet"?

Some do, but I don't. Used to, but not any more, upon further review, as they say. Certainly, he was deeply racially aware (how could he NOT be?), and deeply in touch with his roots, but he was just as deeply in touch with some OTHER roots too, and I think he had a totally different agenda than, say, Curtis Mayfield. To me, the story of what happened to that agenda is the real story inside THERE'S A RIOT GOIN' ON. I used to think otherwise, but I've become convinced that the REAL riot that was goin' on in this album was inside Sly's head, not on the streets. THAT riot had already been covered, and covered well, with STAND. Now, Sly was taking it OFF the streets and into himself. DEEP into himself.

Remember, he was two - Sylvester Stewart, the child who "just loves to learn", who produced the Beau Brummels and who studied Rimsky-Korsakov's orchestration book & The Beatles as much as he did R&B and Gospel; and Sly Stone, the child "you just love to burn", who led a defiantly multi-racial, multi-gender band that white capitialists and black militants alike wanted to own in toto. After a while, they both got lost inside each other, and the only way out WAS out. So far out that neither would be heard from again, not even amongst themselves. FRESH, in spite of the funkiest jam EVER ("In Time") begs the question more than just a little too much. Did we want him to stay? Well, hell yeah. But did HE want to stay? That question had long before been answered. Watch out, 'cause the summer gets cold, even with all the hot fun in it. That's what happens when you look at the devil and grin at his gun. Once you get so far lost, can you ever be yurs elf agin? Can you make it if you try? Are you really crazy if you cop out? Even if you don't need to move?

Sounds like grounds for a riot to me.

Edited by JSngry

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After the dynamic performance at Woodstock Sly developed a reputation for keeping his audiences waiting for a very long time before he and the Stoned Family would hit the stage. I was in one of those audiences in Phoenix. We were made to wait at least several hours past the scheduled start time and when Sly hit the stage he and the group basically "phoned in" the performance. After that my attitude towards Sly was one of Fuck You Motherfucker and I never bought "There's A Riot Going On'' but after the glowing recommendations here I will reconsider that stance.

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Jim,

I totally agree with you. I was simply trying to point out that Hathaway and Mayfield did much more for the cause of bringing ghetto life to record. IMHO, Sly was probably never going to be a consistent artist anyways, even if he never suffered from the demons of excessive drug use. Like many artists in this era, his creativity was limited and his act got tired. Maybe even like Jimi Hendrix...though no one really knows for sure what direction he was headed in (jazz?). What was apparent with Hendrix was that people were tiring of the same ol' as was he.

I see similar things with Sly — he hit a crossroad, and kept running right through it. In the aftermath of RIOT, his record quality decreased drastically to the point where I think this material should've been shelved (FRESH excluded).

Who knows though...I don't rate Sly that high in terms of the soul/funk greats. I know many people consider him to be amongst the best, but I don't agree. To me, he is a capsule of a forgotten era.

Just an opinion.

Edited by undergroundagent

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