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. 



1 Comment

  1. How rock became white – part 3 – Tempest said,

    […] There’s a Riot Goin’ On was released in November 1971, the titular answer to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On?, which had been released just six months earlier. It initially met with mixed reviews. John Morthland (Creem) wrote that it was “plodding” and “lethargic.” Robert Hilburn (LA Times) said that “there is little on the album that is worth your attention.” But Vince Aletti (Rolling Stone), while criticizing it as having “no peaks, no emphasis” and describing it as “junkie death,” admitted: […]

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