Sly & the Family Stone – “There’s a Riot Goin’ On” (1971)

August 29, 2008 at 5:42 pm (Reviews & Articles, Sly Stone)

Vince Aletti wrote this review of this infamous classic for Rolling Stone Dec. 23, 1971…


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 “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.
Gone is the energy and flash that exploded in Sly’s early music. In the beginning, the message was music is alive, dance to the music, sing a simple song, I wanna take you higher. Then, you can make it if you try, everybody is a star, Stand! (all the things you want are real). And the music repeated that message with intensity and joy. But there’s no exhilaration left and no immediately clear message. Only an overwhelming feeling of exhaustion.
After all the past electricity, the first shock of the new album is its sound. Listening to it is like watching a junkie nodding, each breath measuring the slow descent of his head as he drops his comb for the tenth time in two minutes. It feels like slow motion, like batteries running down, like a lot of downs. But once you get into the haze of it, it can be rather beautiful: measured, relaxed, hypnotic. The new version of “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)”–inexplicably retitled “Thank You for Talkin’ to Me Africa” (a cross-reference to another cut and to the original title for the album, Africa Talks To You) but otherwise unchanged lyrically–is paced at about half the speed of the original. The reduced speed is perhaps more appropriate to the dream-like quality of the opening verses but gives a bitterly ironic feeling to the refrain, sung over and over to the fade-out, passionless and dead: “Thank you falettinme be mice elf again”, even if it means destroying myself.
“Thank You” provides the link between Riot and Sly’s previous work and points to the radical changes his music has undergone. A relentless pattern, varied only slightly throughout the song’s more than seven minutes, is repeated three times before the vocals begin: a deliberately plodding, thick bass, echoed by drums with a nervous, sharp guitar. At times Sly underlines the guitar on organ or slashes at the keyboard for an accent, but the monotony of the pattern remains. When the voices enter, they sound agonized and weary, pulled up from the depths, struggling against inertia. Sly stands out from the others who set a purposely flat, low-key tone for him to play against. He seems to scrape his voice across the song, bringing phrases out of full-throated growls or stifled screams. It’s a magnificent, if frightening, contrast with the original; at first I was appalled, now I’m fascinated.
The rest of the album brings out a similar ambivalence, When you get over the initial shock (Sly ain’t gonna take anybody higher this time), the minimal, downer qualities of the music and singing begin to take on a certain appeal. This doesn’t cancel out the overall sense of disintegration but it does make such a state of euphoric coming apart seem somehow enviable.
The tone is set with 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, it’s inside Sly Stone. David Kapralik, Sly’s manager, has a line about the “riot” being in the environment, implying that the title cut, listed 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 at 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 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 “Tracks 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 sane 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”), cute, dumb (“Spaced Cowboy”), inconsequential (“Time”). Kapralik, again, says that when any “great creator” has reached the top, “the only thing 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 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 this year. 

VINCE ALETTI

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Band of Gypsys – “Them Changes” (Live – 1970)

August 29, 2008 at 5:37 pm (Jimi Hendrix, Music)

Live at the Filmore East….Jimi Hendrix, Billy Cox and Buddy Miles (who recently passed away), performing Miles’ greatest song. Hendrix plays great funky guitar, while Buddy improvises lyrics on the spot.

The video quality on this is just average (a bit dark in spots)…but it’s a great performance.  

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Diamond Head – “Borrowed Time” (1982)

August 29, 2008 at 5:29 pm (Music)

After recording a heavy metal classic debut album, DH stumbled on their 2nd album, due to tampering from the producer and record company. This title track though was one of the better tracks.

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The Strokes – “Is This It” (2001)

August 29, 2008 at 5:28 pm (Reviews & Articles)

Written by Joe Levy for Rolling Stone (issue #879 – Oct. 11, 2001)) – this is a great debut album by one of the few great rock bands of this decade…


This is the stuff of which legends are made. Recorded in a sub-basement studio off Avenue A in Manhattan, where the air was blue with cigarette smoke and three pictures from a Victoria’s Secret catalog were taped to a cabinet for something like inspiration, the Strokes’ debut album is pure New York rock & roll: all gray-pavement aggression wrapped in black-leather cool. Less than a year ago, the Strokes were handing out gig fliers to uninterested fans at Weezer shows; now, they are the subject of British magazine covers, schoolgirl crushes (assuming you know the right schoolgirls) and, already, disgruntled in-crowd jealousy.
The object of all this attention is a group of five young men of cosmopolitan, privileged upbringings – the oldest twenty-three, the youngest twenty – who have a pronounced fondness for kissing each other in public. (For them, the more comfortable you are with your masculinity, the more tongue you slip.) In the last two years, they have perfected their sound: a rhythmic snarl that draws on Seventies punk and New Wave but recalls nothing so much as a bunch of British mods – the Yardbirds or the Who, say – tearing through Chuck Berry and James Brown covers for the freedom and sense of possibility they found there and nowhere else. Their songs are twitchy tales of time spent chasing or running from New York girls, which is to say girls who are too smart, girls who take too much or too little of whatever’s handy, girls who have everything you want and nothing you need.
So what does the best young rock band in America sound like? Frantic, for starters. The eleven songs on Is This It speed by in just slightly more than half an hour, each one so tightly constructed and urgently delivered that even the ballads seem fast. The Strokes are obsessed with rhythm, and at times their approach is more like that of a soul or funk band than a rock band: Each player, even the drummer, pushes at the melody from a different rhythmic angle until there are no more angles left to explore. Albert Hammond Jr. and Nick Valensi’s interlocking, incessant rhythm-guitar parts free bassist Nikolai Fraiture to sweeten songs such as “Someday,” “Last Nite” and the title track with graceful, Motown-like countermelodies. On “The Modern Age,” Hammond Jr. and Valensi work things into a frenzy, doubling up on rhythm and stutter-stepping around the beat, then pushing the melody skyward in the chorus with ascending, circular chords until there’s nowhere to go but further. A solo lifts off like a rocket, leaving a trail of distortion in its wake, then disappears into more guitar chatter. There’s a gloss on the music that’s scientific, cold, British, but underneath, things are distinctly passionate, American. The short, choppy guitar riffs and bottles-breaking-on-the-sidewalk drumbeats bring to mind the punk rock of New York and London, to be sure, but Is This It jumps along like punk as played by a boogie band; that is, a band in a mad rush to get to the finish and grab a cold beer and a warm girl.
Like John Lennon double-tracking his vocals so he could scream across the gap it created or Bryan Ferry lounging in the back of his songs to draw the listener in, frontman Julian Casablancas uses distance to communicate passion. Half the time, he seems to be singing through an intercom, like he’s buzzing at the door asking to come into your life, and his greatest trick is a pleading tear in his voice that lets him slip around the songs, crooning one second, leering the next, then exploding into a throat-shredding shout. His message is relatively simple: I’ll try harder, but don’t bother leaving, I’m walking out the door. Or, as he says in “Take It or Leave It,” “Girls lie too much/Boys are too tough/Enough is enough.” He papers over his vulnerability with arrogance the way Mick Jagger did early on, but everywhere on Is This It he is lamenting relationships that go nowhere but won’t go away. He can also be frustratingly oblique, as likely to focus all the album’s emotional energy on a lyric whose meaning is entirely private (“Why won’t you wear your new trench coat?”) as on one that will stick in your brain to last (“Alone we stand, together we fall apart”).
At the start of “Last Nite,” a woman turns to Casablancas and says, “Oh, baby, I feel so down. Oh, it turns me off when I feel left out.” Exactly what fun he’s left her out of is unclear, though I’m relatively sure it isn’t dinner-party conversation. Is This It is laced with decadence and heartbreak: Strange scenes inside the bedroom, boys on their knees instructed to take some time for her, the fabulous pickup line “Life seems unreal/Can we go back to your place?” It works up quite a buzz, but when the buzz clears, most every song comes back to the same territory – the push and pull of troubled relationships – and not in a way that offers many fresh insights. Women – can’t live with them even if you offer to be their slave, pass me a pill or a bottle of something expensive. For now, the Strokes have mastered their style; they have yet to come up with the substance to match it.
But the music leaves no doubts – more joyful and intense than anything else I’ve heard this year. As a starting point, I’d say that’s pretty good indeed.

JOE LEVY

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Cluster & Eno – “Für Luise” (1977)

August 29, 2008 at 5:23 pm (Brian Eno, Krautrock, Music)

Brian Eno was a big fan of Can and some of the other Krautrock bands, including Cluster. He made an album together with Mobelius and Roedelius in 1977. This is reflective of the more ambient pieces they both did.    

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Alton Ellis & the Flames – “Dance Crasher” (1966)

August 29, 2008 at 4:56 pm (Jamaican Music, Ska)

Alton Ellis was generally revered as the greatest and most soulful singer the country ever produced – until Bob Marley broke big. Ellis was one of the first singers to enter a Jamaican music business. This is one of his great ska hits from 1966. He also made many great songs during the rocksteady and reggae eras.

NOTE: Please double click on this video in order to get it to play.

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The Sonics – “Strychnine” (1965)

August 29, 2008 at 4:36 pm (Garage Rock)

This legendary Northwestern band of lunatics from Tacoma, WA, put out this great bit of mayhem in 1965, which must have made it seem even more insane, considering the time. Lead singer Greg Roslie was like a demented white version of Little Richard and the band matched him in sheer, unbridled power. They were an influence on many bands to come. They are simply one of the great garage rock bands of all time! 

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The Haunted – “1-2-5” (1967)

August 29, 2008 at 4:29 pm (Garage Rock)

A Canadian band from Montreal, this song was later covered by 80s garage revivalists The Fuzztones to spectacular effect.  

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The Zodiac – “Aires – The Fire Fighter” (1967)

August 29, 2008 at 3:35 pm (Psychedelia)

This album, made by some of The Wrecking Crew session musicians (Hal Blaine, Carol Kaye, Emil Richards), came out in late 1967 on Elektra Records and is very rare. On the back of the record is states to play the album in the dark. As somebody said, the result was something like a cross-bred monster of Sunset Strip psychedelic rock and the kind of incidental music that you heard on the original Star Trek when aliens appeared on the screen.
Every song on the album is named after a Zodiac sign, with a subtitle also. Hard to tell if all of this was meant to be sincere or a goof.

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The Incredible Bongo Band – “Apache” (1973)

August 29, 2008 at 3:09 pm (Funk)

This version of this song (originally done by The Shadows in the early 60s and covered by just about everyone) has been sampled for years by just about every rapper you can name – it is simply one of the most sampled songs in history.
This revolving-door band of musicians was led by bongo player Michael Viner (hence the name of the group) and made 3 albums in the early 70s before disappearing.  

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