Sly & The Family Stone
A Whole New Thing / Dance to the Music / Life / Stand! / There’s A Riot Going On / Fresh / Small Talk
1967 / 1968 / 1968 / 1969 / 1971 / 1973 / 1974
B- / C+ / B / A / A / B+ / B-
here the hell does one start with Sly & The Family Stone? (Sly himself started at age 4, in his familial gospel group...) Put simply, the crop of remasters released as a box set two weeks ago and now available individually contain some of the greatest music ever made. No matter what your usual tastes may be, everyone can love Sly & The Family Stone—if you don’t, you probably really are dead inside, and should get help—simply because the multi-racial, co-ed group surfed their way through so many different styles, grooves, melodies, and emotions over their peak years.
The Family Stone’s 1967 debut, A Whole New Thing, as you might imagine, was not part of their peak years. In fact, it wasn’t released on CD until 1995 (at which time it was digitally mastered by Vic Anesini—the man responsible for the superb sound quality of this present batch of remasters). Completely failing to trouble the charts, the bouillabaisse of psychedelic rock soul was uneven, as you’d expect from a group finding their feet, but it does contain some serious gems. The best of these have either been sampled to death, or should have been. By far the album’s best song, though, is opener “Underdog,” which features what might just be the most exciting drumroll ever. This new release of A Whole New Thing even has the album’s original, more honest cover (check those dreadful threads, dude, especially Jerry’s socks/sandals combo), and adds, like the rest of the set, a handful of bonus tracks in the form of single versions, instrumentals, and b-sides. Thankfully, the wonderful “What Would I Do,” first released on that 1995 edition of the record, is one of the bonus cuts here.
1968’s Dance to the Music is an odd affair—it exists seemingly only as a vehicle for the eponymous hit single, as evidenced by the fact that the bulk of the album shamelessly attempts to recreate the vibe and formula which made that song such a smash. “Dance to the Medley” is probably the most pointless attempt—three songs each stealing an aspect of their avatar, mashed together over ten minutes. Elsewhere “Ride the Rhythm” is as brazen in concept as it is in title, even if the groove is good. In fact, as aimless as the songwriting and sequencing of the album may be, the grooves are never less than good, and are often great—“Are You Ready” is scintillating, while “Higher” plants a seed which would be rewritten a year later into perhaps the group’s greatest moment. On the whole, though, Dance... is less illustrious than its titular hit would lead you to believe.
Before 1968 was out, Sly and his able cohorts had flung out another, better record. Life saw the group finding their own voice with idiosyncratic pop-soul grooves like the title track, the jittering, deranged horn hooks of “M’Lady,” and “Dynamite!” (just get a load of that mental psyche guitar riff). Again there are missteps—“Plastic Jim” attempts to rewrite “Nowhere Man,” “Norwegian Wood,” and a couple of other Beatles’ tunes at the same time, while “Jane Is a Groupie” is mean-spirited beneath its frivolity—but they’re much fewer and less distracting than before. Listeners playing spot-the-sample will realize that “Into My Own Thing” provided the excitable hook that would later fuel Fatboy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice” just as much as Bootsy Collins, Christopher Walken, and Spike Jonze.
Stand!, from 1969, is where things get seriously awesome. Just consider the last 45 seconds of the title track, recorded after the main body of the song because Sly thought it was missing something; taken on its own, it’s a fun, funky coda, but in context it becomes possibly the greatest 45 seconds of music the ‘60s produced. For the first time in the group’s career every cut is awesome, even the 12-minute plus instrumental jam “Sex Machine”; more than half the album rightly ended up on 1970’s epochal Greatest Hits collection. Seizing on the essence of “Higher” from Dance to the Music, Sly and co. transformed it into “I Want to Take You Higher,” one of the four greatest singles of all time (the others being “Groove Is in the Heart,” “I Want You Back” and “Once in a Lifetime,” obviously), while “Everyday People” effortlessly invented and popularized the utopic meme “different strokes for different folks.”
After the forced jollification of Dance... and the roiling, psychedelic positivity of Life, Stand! sees paranoia start to creep into the Family Stone’s worldview. Alongside the exhortations to self-reliance of “You Can Make It If You Try” there is the voyeuristic “Somebody’s Watching You,” and the racially taut groove of “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey.” Next to the infectious psychedelic pop-groove of “Sing a Simple Song,” and helped by the consistently high quality of songwriting and arrangement in general, the negativity is far from consuming, but it’s a sure sign of what was to come.
By 1971 and the rightfully legendary There’s a Riot Goin’ On, the Family Stone had practically disintegrated. Sly recorded the album mostly alone, holed up in his mansion with a bag full of drugs and a head full of paranoia, supposedly inviting a string of women to record backing vocals as a pick-up line and recording over his own tapes so much in the process that the end result was a murky, insular mess both sonically and emotionally. The remastering thankfully doesn’t lose that confused, muddy atmosphere, but it does reveal just enough detail to make Riot more enjoyable than it ever has been on CD before.
If enjoyable is even the right word for this oft-shrouded set of grooves that are blighted by agoraphobia, social unease, racial tensions, and floundering personal relations. Indeed the paranoia is made explicit by the schizophrenic album credits, which claim “all songs written, arranged, and produced by Sylvester Stewart and Sly Stone,” suggesting that Sly had lost sight of who he was at a fundamental level. Even so, There’s a Riot Goin’ On, non-existent title track and all, remains the pinnacle of Sly’s career. The bonus tracks here include a single version of “Runnin’ Away” and three sympathetically-chosen instrumentals, including the fantastically-titled “My Gorilla Is My Butler.”
It took another two years for Sly to produce any further music. 1973’s Fresh tried to claw the group back out of the hole they’d sunk into, and gets admirably close to succeeding, injecting some light and pop back into the elastic funk grooves. Containing some of the group’s most recognizable songs, including “Skin I’m In,” “In Time” and the brilliantly skewed “If You Want Me to Stay,” Fresh is probably the group’s most straightforwardly “funk” album. (Much of the joyous fusion of pop, rock, and psychedelia that typified their pre-Riot material had been exorcised by the daemons of the intervening years.)
1974’s Small Talk doesn’t hold a candle to anything from Sly’s peak, but it still provides a slew of new ideas—just check out the string arrangements that start to seep in—as well as plenty of fuel for both the Beastie Boys and the Charlatans (both covered “Time for Livin’,” albeit in radically different forms, while the former also sampled “Loose Booty” to death for “Shadrach” on Paul’s Boutique). Informed by parenthood, marriage, and turning 30 (as well as a new rhythm section), it’s Sly’s most relaxed and introspective record. And, like the rest of the albums here, it now sounds fantastic; alive and warm with color, timbre and space.
If there’s any gripe to be had with this outstanding set of reissues it’s that the Family Stone’s three awesome stand-alone singles that followed Stand! in 1969 aren’t included anywhere; by anyone’s standards “Hot Fun in the Summertime,” “Everybody Is a Star” and “Thank You (Falettineme Be Mice Elf Agin)” are staggeringly good tunes. Thankfully they are available in remastered form on the excellent Essential compilation. Even better than that, though, is the rumor of a forthcoming reissue of Greatest Hits from 1970, which features all three and is probably, song-for-song, one of the greatest records ever released. It was my introduction to the music of Sly & The Family Stone, and remains the order that I think those particular twelve songs sound best in.
It’s taken a long time for these albums to get the reissue treatment they deserve, and now that Sly, Can, and Talking Heads have been done over the last couple of years the only major name left unticked on my personal list of stuff I want to see remastered properly is the Beatles. The only danger in rushing out and buying all of these Sly & The Family Stone records at once is that you’ll forget to listen to anything else for an awfully long time.