Sean O’Hagan – “Sly Stone: I Want to Take You…Lower” (2007)

September 9, 2008 at 2:57 pm (Reviews & Articles, Sly Stone)

An article written July 15, 2007 for The Observer, talking about Sly Stone’s recent tentative step back into the music world. Let’s hope for new music soon – or at least someday… 


Sly Stone was the funkadelic pioneer who made the world dance, broke racial boundaries, raised hell and set Woodstock alight. Last week, in Italy, after years in the shadows, the famous rock recluse finally walked back on stage. Could he still cut it?

In pop’s small but stellar pantheon of legendary recluses, Sylvester ‘Sly’ Stone occupies an exalted position. His long disappearance from view has made him, in his absence, one of music’s mythical figures, up there with the likes of Brian Wilson and the late Syd Barrett in the lost genius league. If even a fraction of the anecdotes about his self-destructive tendencies are true, Sly is lucky to be still walking the earth, never mind performing.
It is over 20 years since he went completely AWOL; 36 since he made his last masterpiece, 1971’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On; 39 since Sly & the Family Stone had their first hit with ‘Dance to the Music’, and subsequently stole the show at the Woodstock festival with their extended, crowd-galvanising performance of ‘I Want To Take You Higher’. Now, 40 years after he formed the group, made up of friends and family members, that went on to change the course of popular music, Sly Stone, the Godfather of Seventies Funk, the first Psychedelic Soul Brother, the original gangsta, is back. After a fashion.
The crowd who almost filled the open air Arena Santa Giuliana in Perugia, Italy on Thursday night were comprised of the faithful, the curious and the couldn’t-care-less. They had all come to see a living legend. Having made us wait so long, Sly seemed determined to live up to his bad reputation and make us wait even longer. The band who shuffled on stage a half-hour after Solomon Burke’s no-holds-barred showbiz-soul set were patently not Sly & the Family Stone, although Cynthia Robinson was visible in gold lame, trumpet held high, among the four-piece horn section. I think I spotted saxophonist Pat Rizzo in there, too. It almost goes without saying that this bunch were not a patch on the original Family Stone. Then again, it is hard to imagine that a fully-reformed Family Stone would be a patch on the vintage version who, if the collected evidence currently collected on YouTube is anything to go by, was surely the most effortlessly dynamic and musically taut funk group ever to tread the boards.
Tonight, Sly’s sister, Vet, is out front for the obvious opener, ‘Dance to the Music’, which lifts the crowd to its feet. The song ends, though, without any sign of Sly. As does ‘Everyday People’. And ‘Hot Fun in the Summertime’. Likewise, ‘You’re the One’ and an extended ‘Somebody’s Watching You’, by which time the crowd are palpably restless and one or two of the band palpably nervous, throwing worried glances at the side of the stage. We’re six songs into what is starting to resemble a tribute-band set when the main man finally makes his appearance, flanked by what look like three black biker chicks, his head down, his arms aloft, his face hidden behind shades and underneath an outsize baseball hat.
The gaunt figure that shuffles unsteadily towards the keyboards centre stage is just about recognisable as Sly Stone. The signature afro is long gone, and, with it, the flamboyant stage clothes, replaced by an odd red, white and black ensemble that is a cross between a track suit and some old-school Formula One leathers. Sly does not look well. In fact, he looks like a broken man, old and infirm, the swagger that once bordered on pure arrogance replaced by a tentative, almost fumbling, vulnerability.
Then again, I tell myself, this is someone who first made his mark on pop music in 1964 – co-writing Bobby Freeman’s crossover soul hit, ‘C’mon and Swim’ – and is now 64, just one year away from retirement age. He seems much, much older though and, in close-up on the big screens that flank the stage, you can see he is wearing a neck brace beneath his high-collared top. His hunched gait is the result, not of the inevitable ravages of age and excess, but of a recent fall from the clifftop on which his Beverly Hills house is perched. “I had a plate of food in my hand,” he told Vanity Fair recently. “And when I landed, I still had a plate of food in my hand. That’s the God-lovin’ truth. I did not drop a bean.”
Tonight, though, there are more than a few dropped notes, several fluffed cues, and a general air of not-quite-thereness that makes even Brian Wilson’s tentative stage presence seem dynamic in comparison. He sits floppily at the keyboard like a broken marionette, barely moving the top half of his body, and begins singing the familiar line, “If you want me to stay…” His voice sounds even more low and hoarse than of old, but utterly unmistakeable. It raises a goodwill cheer from the crowd. He seems oblivious. Sly Stone is back. Almost.
To even begin to understand the legend of Sly Stone, and the weight of expectation that he carries as he walks on stage in Perugia, you have to step back in time to the moment when he reinvented soul and funk in the late Sixties, updating and expanding James Brown’s original template, and creating a series of ever more intricate and uplifting songs. In 1969, Sly & the Family Stone released Stand!, an album that bequeathed five hit singles and invented a psychedelic soul-funk sound that perfectly matched the tenor of the times. In his history of the group, For the Record: Sly & the Family Stone, Joel Selvin writes: “There are two types of black music: black music before Sly Stone, and black music after Sly Stone.” For once, the hyperbole is justified, even if the group’s reign was all too brief.
Soon after the success of Stand!, and the now-legendary Woodstock performance, stories of Sly’s excesses began to make the rounds in pop circles. The follow-up album, scheduled for release in early 1970, had not materialised by the end of that year, by which time Sly had become notorious for either arriving on stage several hours late or simply not turning up at all. He was known to promoters as Sly ‘No Show’ Stone. Most of the musicians quoted in Selvin’s book pinpoint Sly’s move from the Bay area of San Francisco to Los Angeles as the moment when he fell prey to his demons. Surrounded in his mansion by celebrity hangers-on, dealers and petty gangsters as well as a retinue of “bodyguards” and a pitbull terrier called “Gun”, Sly entered the terminal zone of drugs, guns, chaos and paranoia.
The effervescent character who had created the first soul-rock group where black and white, male and female came together to create that psychedelic soul signature had mutated into a monster, cut off from the friends and family members who had been his musical and spiritual mainstay. His music shifted in tone too, mutating from a thing of joyous, brightly hued celebration into insular, shadowy self-absorption. In 1971 Sly & the Family Stone released There’s a Riot Goin’ On, which came wrapped in a Stars and Stripes sleeve, and sounded like a warped reflection of early Seventies America, a country beleaguered by a war that had lasted too long, and shaken to the core by the race riots that flared across the inner cities in the previous few years. It wasn’t the sound of Watts burning, though, so much as an aural approximation of the paranoia and chaos inside Sly’s own head.
That this dark, brooding masterpiece had been made by the same group that had created ‘Dance To the Music’, ‘Everyday People’ and ‘Hot Fun in the Summertime’ seemed scarcely credible. But make it they did, and at Sly’s beckoning. The catalyst was cocaine and PCP, more commonly known as angel dust. The mood was enervated going on extremely strung-out.
For all that, There’s a Riot Goin’ On is an extraordinary artefact, not just for its dense and implosive energy but for the fact that it manages to be so listless and dark and yet so mesmerising. Like the Rolling Stones’s rough and tumble masterpiece, Exile on Main Street, Riot was recorded and mixed in a portable studio, which Sly had set up in a Winnebago near his home. The group that had made their name with the sheer propulsive energy of their playing, and the effortless musical chemistry that comes of years of dues-paying, were summoned one by one into the Winnebago to lay down their parts. Sly, strung out on powders, kept on overdubbing the tracks until the end result sounded literally overloaded, drained of clarity and focus. Then he put his own dreamy, drifty, oddly chilling vocals on top. To this day, ‘Family Affair’, the album’s hit single, sounds unlike anything else in the soul-funk canon.
The dislocated cocaine-funk of ‘Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)’ spurred the American music critic Greil Marcus to re-imagine Sly as a latterday Stagger Lee, the mythical bad-to-the bone black antihero whose ruthlessness is matched only by an utter lack of remorse. Even before he retreated into the realm of rumour and conjecture, Marcus’s book, Mystery Train, had conferred a kind of mythic status on Sly Stone, one that would only grow and grow in his long absence. On YouTube you can witness him in all his stoned arrogance on the Dick Cavett show, jiving with his bemused host. “You’re great, Dick. You are so great,” drawls Sly. “You’re not so bad yourself,” counters Cavett. “No,” Sly responds, shaking his head and closing his eyes, “I am kinda bad.” Back then, he seemed intent on being the baddest.
There were flashes of the old Sly Stone during this time. In 1973 he released the uneven Fresh. In 1974 he briefly broke cover to wed his 19-year-old girlfriend onstage during a sold-out Madison Square Gardens show. He still had the sass, the swagger, the confidence that blurred into arrogance, but the inspiration had all but dried up. His 1976 album was called Heard You Missed Me, Well I’m Back, but it bombed. By the mid-Eighties he had all but disappeared from view, another pop eccentric existing primarily in the realm of rumour and conjecture.
Sightings of Sly Stone have been rare in the last 20-odd years, though he did make a brief and eccentric appearance, sporting a blond Mohican haircut, at last year’s Grammy Awards, singing a snatch of ‘I Want To Take You Higher’ with an all-star tribute band. Rumours of a Sly & the Family Stone reunion have surfaced and died with a monotonous regularity.
It is somehow typical of Sly that he finally chooses to return without most of the original musicians who were such an integral part of the musical revolution he set in motion. In Perugia, they were sorely missed. Then again, so was Sly. The figure who graced the stage for about 15 minutes and a handful of songs seemed like a phantom, oblivious to the crowd’s goodwill and, as the minutes passed awkwardly, to their growing bemusement. He seemed barely there on ‘Sing A Simple Song’, and took ‘Family Affair’ at a slow and wavering pace that was fascinating to behold but only in the manner of a faltering tightrope walk.
‘I Want To Take You Higher’ almost took off when he rose, Lazarus-like, from his chair and shuffled to the front of the stage, almost animated, a cruel caricature of his former self. Then he was gone without a backward glance, and the group lurched into an extended jazz-funk jam that, in its interminable pointlessness, eventually drove me to the exit. It was an oddly enervating night, sad and somehow unnecessary. I guess he needs the money but one can’t help thinking that Sly’s heart is not in it. Never mind his soul.


  1. charlie said,

    I can’t say I agree with it. Just for example — if you watch the Youtubes of Sly’s interviews with Cavett – the first one, where he’s dressed in black and after the playing of “Thank You”; Cavett is unbelievably disrespectful and sarcastic — poking fun at his name, his clothing, the band’s name, the wearing of funky clothes – and everything else. Sly however easily keeps him in his place, and shows how much more of a class act he is than Cavett. Then for the second interview at least the ones on Youtube; Sly is now in brilliant orange with lots of bling – and obviously feeling no pain. When he says “Well I am kinda bad”, he does not close his eyes – he moves from looking at Dick to looking very directly at the camera – and this is a man who knows how to play the camera – he is brilliant in all aspects of stage craft. So — the writer here didn’t really watch the youtubes, and it seems that a lot of writers don’t really pay attention to what Sly has done. They draw on former articles, without REALLY listening to Riot, and without REALLY listening to Fresh, or any of the rest of it.
    Sly is constitutionally incapable of writing a bad piece of music. It is all excellent – all of it is complex, multi-layered, original and wonderful. Some of it can be a little obsessive – but that goes with the territory.
    Good article – but as per usual – it fades off after talking about Riot is the usual, unoriginal way of journalists who just rely on reading other authors. The writer has not truly studied Sly’s music. And oddly enough – another writer from England has commented about the same tour, that there is “nothing of the Brian Wilson vacant-ness” about Sly at all; he’s fully in control of his faculties, and delivered a sharp performance – although short.

  2. jmucci said,

    Well, I agree that most writers seem to dismiss him out of hand after There’s a Riot Goin’ On – or at least after Fresh. I think Sly did alot of great work in the mid to late 70s. Obviously it wasn’t as brilliant as his earliest stuff and maybe it was no longer groundbreaking but it is definitely worth still listening to.

  3. stephane said,

    I agree with you guies, sly’s album Small talk, high on you , and even Ain’t but the one way are worth to listen Lp’s. many are people who find find them more soulful that his firt records which were too pop oriented and commercial.

  4. jmucci said,

    Small Talk and High on You and Back on the Right Track all had great tracks on them. Just as good as alot of the other stuff coming out at the time. Why do they get such little recognition? The only album I haven’t heard yet is Heard Ya Missed Me.

  5. Robert said,

    “Heard Ya Missed Me” starts off with two great tracks, but I remember it fading quickly and sharply after that. But I’d love to hear it again. I now wish I hadn’t sold it back in 1998 a year after buying it, but I bought it at import prices from Tower Records and wanted to recoup some of the cost. Those two great songs weren’t worth $30. Has anyone seen it uploaded on someone’s blog?

  6. Chris said,

    I was one of the “curious” at that concert in Perugia and Sean O’Hagan really does tell it the way it was and some. I don’t imagine Sly and his lot will be coming down to visit us in New Zealand anytime soon

  7. [uzine] said,

    hi gave yer excellent blog & its sly posts a mention here:

    • jmucci said,

      Thanks!! I really appreciate that.

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