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Revisit: Sly and the Family Stone: There’s A Riot Goin’ On

Revisit: Sly and the Family Stone: There’s A Riot Goin’ On

A confused, confusing, brilliant record where everything suddenly makes frightening sense.

The best writing on There’s A Riot Goin’ On, one of the best funk albums of all time, isn’t all that positive. “At first I hated it for its weakness, and I still hate those qualities,” wrote Vince Aletti in his Rolling Stone review from 1971. “But then I began to respect the album’s honesty.”

I suspect it’s impossible to love There’s A Riot Goin’ On without having some beef with it, whether because it’s too slow, not fun enough, doesn’t sound like Stand!, because it’s morally confused and hypocritical. Like Aletti, I’m suspicious of how it presents itself as a call to action – a statement on the horrors of being black in America and the activism intending to expose them – when it’s mostly just Sly and his buddies doing drugs andsinging about the end of the world.

Sly sings about poverty and violence through a haze of princely indulgence, noseholes caked in cocaine. “My only weapon is my pen,” he cries on “Poet,” before self-satisfyingly musing, “I’m a songwriter, nah, nah, nah, poet.” He positions himself as a jester outside the field of action, leading the band while the ship goes down instead of trying to stop it from sinking. He was probably aware of the discrepancy between the militant-chic packaging and the album’s apathy, but, rather than doing anything to bridge the discrepancy, he wrote “Poet” as a cheap excuse.

This is the ugly, pathetic dark side of the saintly auteurism we associate with jolly sports like Brian Wilson and his pal Paul McCartney. While those geniuses at least had an army of great musicians to realize their acid-addled ideas and translate them into something resembling sense, the musicians here sound as though they’re barely in control of their instruments. This is probably on purpose. Like Wilson, Sly found surrendering to debilitating drugs gave him the extra push to make the opus he’d dreamed of. It’d be a stretch to say he sounds like he’s having fun, but he luxuriates in the looseness his increasingly steady diet of drugs allows his music.

Everything I’ve said so far is probably making this album sound dreadful. But this thing is funky. So goddamn funky. And it’s helped me unpack what makes things funky. A lot of it, for me, is astonishment, listening to something and thinking, “what the hell is that sound, and where in the world did they get the inspiration to make it?” Listen to the rhythm guitar about halfway through “Africa Talks to You ‘The Asphalt Jungle,’” the way the guitarist (probably Stone) plucks away at one note for a while before going into the full riff. It sounds like someone digging at their butthole (it’s the same finger motion); indeed, throughout the album, I tend to get images of shit, puking babies, garbage, sludge. It’s a disgusting, sickening, beautiful sound – and an inspired one.

Listen to the warm organ drone that gives depth to the circular, endless loop of “Just Like a Baby.” Listen to those amelodic duhs bassist Larry Graham makes throughout; he sounds like a ground sloth plucking idly at fruit, fully capable of killing you but more content to bask in the sun. This is one of the most influential bass performances of all time, one that set the foundation for “slap bass” – though Graham’s own description of “thumpin’ and pluckin’” is more accurate.

Listen to Sly Stone’s voice. Throughout, the man croaks, screams, gasps, wails, hiccups, coos, goo-goos, and gurgles like no one ever told him how to sing, then multitracks the shit out of everything until we’re drowning in a sea of vocal slurry. Maybe a little less than half of the lyrics on the album are comprehensible. I’m reminded of the holistic new wave of rap represented by artists like Young Thug and Future, whom, like Sly here, often pride creating an atmosphere of depressant-choked ugliness above traditional tenets like deft lyricism and political astuteness. Stone even sounds like fellow vocal intrepid Fetty Wap on one of the “Just Like a Baby” ad-libs.

It might seem reductionist to praise this album as among the greatest ever made just because it’s funky. But it’s pretty damn hard to: 1) make funky music and 2) do it so completely outside the box of what stereotypically scans as “funky.” I’m reminded of Rufus’s hit “Tell Me Something Good” from three years later, which plods at the frustrating pace of doom metal but would lose its most bewitching qualities – its raunchiness, its atmosphere, its general “off”-ness – if it were sped up. It helps that funk was still embryonic in 1971 and its clichés weren’t yet set in stone, though There’s A Riot Goin’ On and especially Graham’s bass helped establish some of them.

So why can’t There’s A Riot Goin’ On stand on the merits of the strange, inspiring sounds that brim throughout – even if it’s a failure as the political record it’s supposed to be? I’ve heard this album perhaps a hundred times and still find new things. Just the other day, I noticed that wahed-out, impatiently plucked guitar note on the bridge of “Time,” and how smoothly the song shifts from that burst of energy back to washed-out, slow blues. It’s one of the rare moments on this confused, confusing, brilliant record where everything suddenly makes frightening sense.

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