In 1971 Sly (& The Family Stone) released one of the very best albums of all time: There’s A Riot Goin’ On. Gone was the happy, uplifting music that had ignited the Woodstock Festival. Dark, claustrophobic funk was the new norm. A look back at a classic album.
The story of Sly & The Family Stone is available in the story Sly And The Family Stone release one of the best compilations of all time that focuses on the Greatest Hits album, which was released on November 21st, 1970. This story focuses more on Sly Stone in person, as he was the main instigator behind There’s A Riot Goin’ On.
Following the success of the group at the Woodstock Festival, demand for their music was bigger than ever, yet none was supplied. The group’s next album was originally slated for 1970. To keep appetites warm Greatest Hits was released in 1970, which contained the latest single release Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin). It was a huge success. Clearly, the audience was far from done with Sly & The Family Stone.
Essentially, the group had everything going for them. Unfortunately, the group, and Sly Stone in particular, proved to be (self)destructive. By the end of 1969 Sly Stone had moved to Los Angeles, where Sly’s growing drug dependency came into full bloom. Cocaine and PCP were daily regulars.
Politically Sly had developed an interest in the Black Panthers, who urged him to let go of every white person in his immediate surroundings: drummer Greg Errico, saxophone player Jerry Martini and manager David Kapralik had to go. For now, Sly didn’t comply. But relations within the group were tense enough already. Bass player Larry Graham was on Sly’s radar, his role in the new music was minimal. The role of the rest of the group was minimized as well. New music was recorded by Sly himself.
The drugs fueled Sly’s paranoia. He used bodyguards, many with ties to the local mafia, who were given the task to keep away all those Sly didn’t trust. Apparently, this applied to everyone, including members of The Family Stone.
To top it off: Sly & The Family Stone/Sly Stone’s reputation as an unreliable act started around this time. In 1970, Sly didn’t show up for one third of the planned shows, and when he did show up, he often disappeared midway through the show. Being on time wasn’t part of Sly’s vocabulary.
And yet, despite it all, Sly kept on creating new music, beautiful music even. Sly recorded his new music at The Plant Studios (better known as The Record Plant) in Sausolito and at his home studio in Bel Air. Sly worked by himself, playing all the instruments. For the beat he used a drum machine, the Maestro Rhythm King MRK-2. By utilizing inventive recording techniques, Sly created a highly original sound, that was far removed from the frivolous group sound. From time to time the group was used to play along to the basic tracks recorded by Sly.
Additional vocals were done by group members and other guests. The story goes that Sly regularly invited women into his home and studio, who were subsequently asked to sing along. Their recorded vocals were erased the next day. Due to the numerous recording and erasing, the tapes wore thin, resulting in a somewhat dim sound on the album.
In the autumn of 1971, Sly delivered the tapes to the record company. Almost immediately, Family Affair was released as a single. The audience was still eagerly awaiting new Sly & The Family Stone music: it was a huge international hit.
There’s A Riot Goin’ On
The exact release date for the album isn’t quite clear. November 1st, 6th, 20th and 21st are often named. The last 3 can be discarded, as those dates are days in the weekend. November 1st seems implausible as well, as the album first entered the Billboard album charts on November 13th. The album was likely released between November 4th and 12th, 1971.
It’s often said that There’s A Riot Goin’ On presented a huge thematical deviation from everything that came before, but the latest Sly & The Family Stone studio album, Stand!, also contained a number of songs that were less positive and optimistic than usual.
But, to be fair, the melancholy on There’s A Riot Goin’ On was overwhelming and can be interpreted as an answer to that other masterpiece from 1971: Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. But the music was still funky, very funky indeed. It’s a ‘groove’ album, much like D’Angelo phenomenal Voodoo.
The album starts off with Luv ‘N Haight, which introduces the album perfectly. Innovative music, weird voices, barely audible lyrics (“Feel so good inside myself, don’t want to move”) and music that’s all over the place. Alienating and beautiful. The following Just Like A Baby is a great grooving song, followed by Poet. Funk version 2.0. Great song, with Sly commenting on his art and modus operandi:
My only weapon is my pen
And the frame of mind I’m in
I’m a songwriter, A poet
I’m a songwriter, A poet
And the things I flash on everyday
They all reflect on what I say
I’m a songwriter, I’m a poet
I’m a songwriter, Oh yeah a poet
© 1971 Sly Stone
And then there’s Family Affair, the first Sly & The Family Stone song I ever heard. It was part of a compilation album my father owned. The Sly picture on the cover fascinated me (it turned out to be part of the Greatest Hits cover). I must have been 9 or 10 years old, so I guess I heard it around 1975/1976 and was immediately smitten by it. I never forgot about it and as soon as I was a bit older and had the money, I started buying Sly & the Family Stone albums.
Family Affair also sounds different and fits within the context of the album. Strikingly, it was Sly & The Family Stone’s biggest hit ever. The lyrics are stunning:
It’s a family affair
One child grows up to be
Somebody that just loves to learn
And another child grows up to be
Somebody you’d just love to burn
Mom loves the both of them
You see, it’s in the blood
Both kids are good to mom
Blood’s thicker than the mud
It’s a family affair
Newlywed a year ago
But you’re still checking each other out, hey
Nobody wants to blow
Nobody wants to be left out, uh-huh
You can’t leave cause your heart is there
But, sure, you can’t stay cause you been somewhere else
You can’t cry cause you’ll look broke down
But you’re cryin’ anyway cause you’re all broke down
It’s a family affair
© 1971 Sly Stone
Next up is an almost 9 minute funk opus entitled Africa Talks To You (The Asphalt Jungle), followed by the ‘song’ There’s a Riot Goin’ On which isn’t a song, as it consists of 00:00 minutes of silence (on CD releases and streaming services extended to 4 seconds).
On the second side of the record the highlights just keep on coming, among which the singles (You Caught Me) Smilin’ and Runnin’ Away, but also favorites like the languid Time and the song with the yodels Spaced Cowboy. The album is closed off by yet another definite highlight. Thank You For Talkin’ To Me Africa is a new, slowed down, version of Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin). Both versions are equally brilliant and it shows the difference between Sly Stone in 1969 and 1971 perfectly. Thank You For Talkin’ To Me Africa is irresistibly funky and stands as a prototype to the ‘groove’ on There’s A Riot Goin’ On.
Cover and liner notes
The album cover contains an image of what appears to be an American flag, but the color blue has been replaced by black and the white stars have been replace by suns. The cover doesn’t feature any reference to both the artist and/or title. Sly Stone stated: “I wanted the flag to truly represent people of all colors. I wanted the color black because it is the absence of color. I wanted the color white because it is the combination of all colors. And I wanted the color red because it represents the one thing that all people have in common: blood. I wanted suns instead of stars because stars to me imply searching, like you search for your star. And there are already too many stars in this world. But the sun, that’s something that is always there, looking right at you. Betsy Ross [designer of the American flag, according to some] did the best she could with what she had. I thought I could do better”.
The back cover contained a photo collage, depicting early 1970s scenes and people. The album was accompanied by a lay-in that contained the liner notes and the album lyrics. The liner notes were written by Sly Stone:
What it is…
Sly & The Family Stone
It’s about time
It’s about space
It’s about ups and downs caused by life in general
It’s about the music
It’s about the people who are interested
It’s about runnin’ away
It’s about love and hate
It’s about brave and strong
It’s about smilin’ just like a baby
It’s about a poet
It’s a family affair
It’s so complex
Words get in the way
Just look at the faces
On the outside and the inside of this album, they’ll tell you
Thank you agin’
© 1971 Sly Stone
The album was met with mixed reviews by press and music lovers. The new sound, the lyrics, it was too much to handle for some. But there were also many who quickly realized just how special and important this album was and would be for the future of (black) music, and funk in particular. The album ended up in several end of year lists all over the world. Over the years the album’s reputation kept on growing and is nowadays commonly regarded as one of the most important and best albums of all time.
Rolling Stone saw it early on, see the original 1971 review below.
There’s A Riot Goin On
By Vince Aletti
Maybe this is the new urban music. It’s not about dancing to the music in the streets. It’s about disintegration, getting fucked up, nodding, maybe dying. There are flashes of euphoria, ironic laughter, even some bright stretches but mostly it’s just junkie death, oddly unoppressive and almost attractive in its effortlessness. Like going to sleep very slowly. The music has no peaks, no emphasis, little movement, it seems to fall away like a landslide in a dream (you falling slowly too, not panicking) or merely continue, drained of impetus, self-destructing. Smack rock.
It’s Sly & the Family Stone’s fifth album (not counting the Greatest Hits collection) and their first new LP since April 1969. Perversely titled – There’s a Riot Goin’ On (Epic KE 30986) implies action – irrelevantly packaged – a wordless open-fold with a “flag” cover, the stars replaced by white sunbursts on black and a terrible junior high Polaroid collage of Family and friends on the back – the album is a testament to two years of deterioration rather than two years of growth. One of the most influential innovators in recent years, Sly retains a certain inventiveness and a characteristically high-strung sound but he’s left behind much more.
The tone is set in the opening cut, “Luv n’ Haight” which begins, “Feel so good inside myself/Don’t want to move/Feel so good inside myself/Don’t need to move.” Although stripped of the force of Sly’s old stuff, “Luv n’ Haight” is practically speedy in the context of the Riot album. The tension between the song’s languid, stoned qualities (mainly the vocals, with Sly again, and throughout the album, playing with the limits of his voice) and the prodding, nervous qualities of the music (especially the wah-wah guitar) is the perfect mirror of the lyrics, which vary in their wasted indecision between the original “Don’t want to move” and “Feel so good/I want to move.” But you know the dude is too fucked up to move even if he wants to.
“Luv n’ Haight” also contains these lines: “As I grow up,/I’m growing down./And when I’m lost/I know I will be found.” As one of the many cryptic hints of Sly’s condition spread through the album, this is a typical combination of hope and pain, two elements constantly at war here.
It’s a very personal album and if there’s a riot goin’ on, its inside Sly Stone. David Kapralik, Sly’s manager, has a line about the “riot” being in the environment, and timed at 0:00, is space for examination of the “riot” all around you, the interpretation is up to you. If Sly seems weaker lyrically than on his previous work, it can be laid in part to pure stoned self-indulgence and the kind of dumb incoherence he often displays on stage, but more importantly, it’s the result of a very real personal struggle, with only tentative, vaguely grasped solutions. On “Africa Talks to You” he asks (himself), “When life means much to you,/Why live for dying?/If you are doing right,/Why are you crying?”
“Family Affair,” its sound once mournful and playful, deals with these questions a little further down the line toward understanding them and their answers. The double meaning of the title – a private matter, A Family (Stone) affair – emphasizes its concerns are close to home. The singing is plain, gritty, stripped of any pretty vocal qualities, just Sly in the lead with Sister Rosie repeating almost plaintively, “It’s a family affair.” At the end, Sly states quite clearly the conflict at the center of the album: “You can’t leave, ’cause your heart is there./But you can’t stay, ’cause you been somewhere else!/You can’t cry, ’cause you’ll look broke down,/But you’re cryin’ anyway ’cause you’re all broke down!”
“Runnin’ Away” picks up the conflict with more irony, more distance, but the same painful self-awareness folded into a deceptively bright package. “Look at you fooling you,” the song taunts, “You’re stretching out your dues.” As an insight into Sly’s own delusions and everyone’s, the song is one of the only moments of the genuine self-satisfaction on the album. “You Caught Me Smilin’,” on the other hand, seems full of self-deception, the smile sounds like a mask and Sly is really saying, like Smokey Robinson in “Track of My Tears,” “Take a good look at my face/You’ll see my smile looks out of place.” He drops the pretense slightly in the last line: “In my pain, I’ll be the same to take your hand,” but covers himself immediately with the smiling mask of sanity. Look at you fooling you.
“Africa Talks to You ‘The Asphalt Jungle'” and “Brave & Strong” are both more complex, more irritating and less accessible. The lyrics are broken and puzzling, near-impenetrable in “Africa”; the sound, too, is fragmented, ominous, jittery, again, more so in “Africa” where the last half of the cut drifts off as if dazed, mixing with these ghostly voices warning “Timber!” Both songs seem to be warnings, personal, but directed outward to all of us more so than much of the other material here. In “Africa” the warning is “Watch out, ’cause the summer gets cold…/When today gets too old”; time is running out (“Timber…all fall down!”) and ain’t nobody gonna save you but yourself. “Brave & Strong” pushes the point – “Survive!” – more emphatically but less effectively – a more muddled, less interesting song.
Much of the rest is just bad: pretentious (“Poet”), cut, dumb (“Spaced Cowboy”), inconsequential (“Time”). Kapralik, again, says that when any “great creator” has reached the top, “the only ting to do is step back and lay back.” Is that what you call it? Feels more like being knocked back and struggling to recover. “Thank you for the party/I could never stay,/Many thangs [sic] is on my mind/Words in the way.” Sly has cut to the minimum, reduced his music to bare structures, put aside the density and play of voices in the Family in favor of his anguished, unpolished lead and quiet choruses. Maybe he had little choice. You couldn’t say Riot is a pulling through or an overcoming. It’s a record of a condition, a fever chart.
As such, it doesn’t invite an easy response. At first I hated it for its weakness and its lack of energy and I still dislike these qualities. But then I began to respect the album’s honesty, cause in spite of the obvious deception of some cuts, Sly was laying himself out in all his fuck-ups. And at the same time holding a mirror up to all of us. No more pretense, no more high-energy. You’re dying, we’re all dying. It’s hard to take, but There’s a Riot Goin’ On is one of the most important fucking albums of this year.
Rolling Stone, 23-12-1971
There’s A Riot Goin’ On is not an easy album, but it possess an infallible beauty and pureness, that impresses to this day. Given the state of Sly’s psyche at the time, it’s almost inconceivable he was capable of making music at all, let alone such brilliant music! It seems that the drugs, depression and (self-imposed) loneliness have led to an unprecedented masterpiece. Its influence can be traced all the way through George Clinton’s Parliament/Funkadelic, Prince and D’Angelo. Not a bad legacy!
Three singles were culled from the album:
- Family Affair
(released in October 1971)
- Runnin’ Away
(released in February 1972)
- (You Caught Me) Smilin’
(released in April 1972)
All songs composed, arranged and produced by Sly Stone (Sylvester Stewart).
- Luv N’ Haight
- Just Like a Baby
- Family Affair
- Africa Talks To You (The Asphalt Jungle)
- There’s A Riot Goin’ On
- Brave & Strong
- (You Caught Me) Smilin’
- Spaced Cowboy
- Runnin’ Away
- Thank You For Talkin’ To Me Africa
- Sly Stone – drums, drum programming, keyboard programming, synthesizers, guitar, bass, keyboards, vocals
- Rose Stone – keyboards, vocals
- Billy Preston – keyboards
- Jerry Martini – tenor saxophone
- Cynthia Robinson – trumpet
- Freddie Stone – guitar
- Ike Turner – guitar
- Bobby Womack – guitar
- Larry Graham – bass, background vocals
- Greg Errico – drums
- Gerry Gibson – drums
- Little Sister – background vocals
After There’s A Riot Goin’ On
Both Larry Graham and Greg Errico left the group and Sly lost himself ever more in drugs. Miraculously, he produced one more masterpiece in 1973: Fresh.
In the midst of chaos, personal problems, drugs and paranoia, Sly Stone delivered a phenomenal work of art with There’s A Riot Goin’ On, one the world enjoys to this day. A wondrous story.
What’s your take on There’s A Riot Goin’ On? Let me know!
This story contains an accompanying video. Click on the following link to see it: Video: Sly Stone’s masterpiece There’s A Riot Goin’ On. The A Pop Life playlist on Spotify has been updated as well.
Sly & The Family Stone image: sfgate.com
Sly Stone in his bedroom image: musicvibesnetwork.com
Sly & The Family Stone – There’s A Riot Goin’ On image: spotify.com
Sly & The Family Stone – There’s A Riot Goin’ On – Gatefold, Sly & The Family Stone – There’s A Riot Goin’ On – Back cover, Sly & The Family Stone – There’s A Riot Goin’ On – The singles images: discogs.com
Sly & The Family Stone – There’s A Riot Goin’ On – Ad image: superseventies.com
Sly & The Family Stone – There’s A Riot Goin’ On – Gold record image: gottahaverockandroll.com