This is a monthly feature where classic and cult albums are revisited and reassessed for the modern listener. The only rule is that it must be a critically acclaimed or cult record released before 2000.

Sly and The Family Stone – “There’s A Riot Goin’ On” (Epic Records, 1971)

This month’s selection for Classics Critiqued is one of those albums that always feature in Greatest Albums of All Time polls, it’s acknowledged as a watershed moment in black music. In this article I will explore the following ideas that are frequently discussed about the album, its creation and its reputation, I will talk about its murky production job, pioneering use of drum machines, the steady collapse of the Family Stone, Sly’s decent into cocaine hell and challenge the album’s status as a classic.

The album came out a few months after Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” Gaye’s personal reaction to his brother’s experience’s in Vietnam, after this album was released Sly decided to change the album’s title from “Africa Talks to You” to “There’s A Riot Going On” to reflect the sense of political and racial unrest America was experiencing at the time. The album had been two years in the making with Sly working alone recruiting members of the Family Stone and musicians such as Billy Preston (electric piano), Booby Womack and Ike Turner (both guitar) as and when they were needed. The band even lost drummer Greg Errico early in 1971 as a rift formed between Sly and the other members of the band, fuelled by the influence of the Black Panther Party who Sly had joined in 1969 and wanted to the band to pursue a more militant sound and lyrical content and shed the white bands of the band (Errico was one of these) and manager David Kapralik. The album’s long gestation period has been put down to a combination of this rift, Sly’s spiralling cocaine and PCP habit and his insistence on recording the album alone, using a drum machine over a drummer and overdubbing the instrumentation onto tape, thus causing the record’s often commented on murky sound quality and atmosphere.

A lot is of the album’s title and socio-political content; however it seems that this is something that has been overstated during the album’s reassessment in the years after its release, it initially received a lukewarm critical response and unfavourable comparisons with previous album “Stand” (1969). In fact, some songs don’t feature vocals or only melody sung with vocal adlibs “yeah”, “oh”, “la, la” etc underlining the lack of socio-political content. Equally the album has been acclaimed as a classic and pivotal moment in the development of black music, especially funk. However, I’d argue it’s not a classic though it does serve fit in to a set of Afro centric and politically charged albums that came out in 1971 such as “Maggot Brain” by Funkadelic, “Roots” by Curtis Mayfield and the aforementioned “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye. Instead of an emblem of Black Power it’s an album that represents Sly and the Family Stone’s failed mission to create and sustain a band made up of male and female and black and white members, it was the beginning of end. As the 60’s hippie dream of peace, love and understanding turned into the 70’s cocaine induced nightmare of excess in both alcohol and drug use, sexual exploitation, the band disintegrated with bassist and key member Larry Graham following Errico out the exit door. “There’s A Riot Goin’ On” also represents the overly indulgent music that went with this life style and dominated the early 70s, the key guilty genres being funk and progressive rock. Many of the songs on the album meander and lack of clarity and purpose of both the band’s earlier work and of the other similar albums mentioned in this article, though Funkadelic could stray occasionally into guitar lead wig outs on “Maggot Brian” .

“There’s A Riot Goin’ On” turned the band’s formula in its head, “it was stripped of the effervescence that flowed through even such politically aware records as “Stand!”. The “is idealism soured, as hope is slowly replaced by cynicism, joy by skepticism, enthusiasm by weariness, sex by pornography, thrills by narcotics”. The production and pacing of the album slowly to almost a crawl, as if the music’s “moving through hot molasses”, a hot and humid feel hangs over everything, tense and irritable, just waiting for the explosion of riot, though it never seems to come weighed down by the heaviness of the production. In my mind’s eye I picture Sly sat in his L.A. high on cocaine and PCP staring blankly out the window expecting or imagining a riot to erupt outside, a solitary figure disturbed by the effect of the drugs and the voices of the Black Power elite in his ear. For me this isn’t an album of revolutionary ire but of a man’s world slowly collapsing around him as he grows ever more paranoid.

I can understand why many critics and magazines have placed this album in their Best Albums of All Time lists as it is an album that though some of lyrical content, its iconic cover and its unique sound marks its self from those other similar albums of the time. However, I feel that all of this is an elaborate mythology constructed by these critics and magazines to give “There’s A Riot Goin’ On” a greater level of perceived importance that on closer inspection it doesn’t deserve. If you feel differently let me know in the comments below or via our Twitter.

Listen to “There’s A Riot Goin’ On” here.

Liam Flanagan

Advertisements