Sly and the Family Stone – There’s A Riot Goin’ On
Sly and the Family Stone could have exited the '60s with their legacy in music secured. They, under the tutelage of prime mover Sly Stone, had established intimidatingly high levels of musicianship, creativity, arrangement and social awareness. So of course they had to shatter the form and unravel completely to come up with something even better.
Stone recorded There’s A Riot Goin’ On’s 11 tracks himself at a custom-built studio in Sausalito and another one in his Bel Air mansion, bringing the Family Stone in for overdubs as needed along with musicians such as Billy Preston, Ike Turner and Bobby Womack for further assistance. By all reports his head was full of drugs; whenever he liked, he would bring in girls to sing over works in progress, telling them, “I’m going to make you a star,” then wipe the tapes the next morning.
The resulting murky sound has been hailed as a plus that fit the drug-addled mood of the music. “Luv n’ Haight” recast San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury as something that, at the dawn of the ‘70s, wasn’t too cool anymore. “Family Affair,” meanwhile, is a mid-tempo funk driven by Sly’s drum machine, stoned-sounding vocals, and Preston’s Fender Rhodes; a deep hit undeniable in any era. Equally riveting is “Time,” a fascinating oratory on the illusory nature of time from a man who was habitually late (his frequent no-shows at concerts caused riots, which is why the title track here goes on for zero minutes and zero seconds, because, Sly said, no time should be given to riots). Even a seeming throwaway like “Spaced Cowboy” is a thickly funky drum machine breakdown complete with yodeling.
When he finally decided it was done in the fall of 1971, Stone drove the master tapes over to CBS Records’ offices and personally delivered them to Clive Davis, who wisely didn’t tinker with them at all and promptly released the entire mess. It shot straight to number one on both the U.S. Billboard Pop Albums and Top Soul Albums charts and music critics continue to freak out over it to this day; proof that sometimes brilliance can emerge from chaos.