Friday, August 10, 2007
No. 99: There's a Riot Goin' On
Band: Sly & The Family Stone
Album: There's a Riot Goin' On
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: In 1971, America was out of the idealistic '60s and just into the darker '70s. The optimism of Martin Luther King and the Kennedies has turned into Richard Nixon being president. The free love has turned into sexual aggressiveness and the easygoing soft drugs have turned into cocaine and heroin. Sly & The Family Stone put this into song. While not violent or miserable, "There's a Riot Goin' On" is dark. The optimism of the '60s is gone. There's stuff to be done and it's not getting done.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Well, I still fancy "Stand!" as the best Sly record.
Best song: "Family Affair" was a no. 1 single, but it's hardly the record's best song. "Thank You For Talkin' to Me Africa" is a great extension/reworking of "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)."
Worst song: "(You Caught Me) Smilin'" isn't fantastic.
Is it awesome?: It's amazing.
A year before Curtis Mayfield released "Superfly", Sly & The Family Stone put out the aptly titled "There's A Riot Goin' On." Coming off the heels of the unrest of late sixties, "There's A Riot Going On" focused on a darker sound, largely due to the pessimism brewing, post-civil rights. Martin Luther King's non-violence turned into the Nation of Islam's militancy. Acid, marijuana and freeing one's mind is now heroin and cocaine.
The first tinges of the "what happened?" question that most white boomers refuse to ask appear here. The title track ends the first side, though, it doesn't really exist (Stone told a fan that "There's a Riot Goin' On" has no running time because "I felt there should be no riots.").
The album took nearly three years to make, largely because of Stone's increasing drug use. The line "feel so good/don't wanna move" in the opening song likely is a reference to Stone's recreation at the time. Stone was an optimist in his earlier years, but his lyrics bely something more apathetic this time around. "Time they say is/The answer/But I don't believe it" is a glimpse into the "they've sold me a bill of goods" attitude of the black community at the time.
As Robert Christgau puts it, "The inspiration may be Sly's discovery that the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow doesn't mean shit, but what's expressed is the bitterest ghetto pessimism." Fitting and true.
One thing about "There's A Riot Goin' On" is the use of newer percussion. Before Mayfield's breakthrough, Stone used percussion in layered ways, exemplified by the raucous "Family Affair." Different types of drum lines -- most of which were later copied by so many rappers -- dot the song, accenting Stone's muffled vocal style.
"There's A Riot Goin' On" is, like "Superfly," a darker record than Sly's earlier hits. It's funkier, it's muddy and it's less fun. Just like black America in the 1970s.