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There's a Riot Goin' On

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  • Posted June 10, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Sly Stone's Moody Masterwork

    In 1969, Sly & The Family Stone were one of the greatest American bands around. They had just released "Stand!", a fantastically uplifting album that embodied all the positive notions about the Woodstock generation and it goes without saying that they also appeared at Woodstock. Within the next two years, Sly Stone was becoming a conflicted recluse, surrounding himself with drugs and dangerous hanger-ons. He was showing up late for concerts; sometimes he never showed up at all. He had only released a couple of singles during this time, "Everybody Is A Star" and "Thank You (For Lettin' Me Byself Again)". People were itching for new material from Sly Stone. What happened next was totally unexpected. The result was "There's A Riot Goin' On", an album that was so directly opposite what "Stand!" was all about that you'd swear these records were made by two different artists. Recording for this album took a much longer time than usual and Sly brought it so many different musicians that the only way to give them credit was to picture them all on a collage on the back cover sleeve. Sly was also relying heavily on rhythm machines instead of drums. Unlike the hopefulness and exuberance of "Stand!", "Riot" was sad, introspective and compelling. It was one of those albums that people either totally loved or totally disliked. There was no middle ground here. In any case, it still managed to go to Number One when released in 1971. Sly's vocals were mostly incomprehensible and he sounded stoned throughout much of the record. But if there can be such a thing as "an electronic blues album", then this is it. Here, Sly just seems to drift away into his own bluesy world with "Time", "Just Like A Baby" and "Spaced Cowboy". "Family Affair", one of the few songs where you can actually understand Sly, became a huge hit, wormy truths and all. Sly even had the audacity to make "Thank You For Talkin' To Me, Africa", a burgeoning, slower version of his previous hit. And despite its title (in which the title track clocks in at 0:00), this is not an album about physical violence. It's more about the violence of the soul and the heart. Listening to this powerful record, one realizes that the Sixties were truly over. Sly & The Family Stone would continue to record but they would never reach the critical and commercial highs like this again. Sly, who filed for bankruptcy in 1978, has become so reclusive and unpredictable that even major appearances at The Grammy Awards and The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame resulted in what would become sudden walk-aways. For the most part, nothing can dim the moody intensity of this album, forty years old this year, and the long post-Woodstock shadow it casts on the listener.

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