Before and after the Riot

Sly Stone’s lost utopia
By CHARLES TAYLOR  |  June 12, 2007

STARTING AT ZERO: As befits the leader of a racially and sexually integrated band, Sly Stone had confidence that people were better than their prejudices.

When Sly Stone sang “Listen to the voices” on the 1968 “Dance to the Music,” who could have known that, in just three years, voices of an entirely different sort would take him over? But when you listen to the rhythmic strands of nonsense syllables that provide the break in “Dance to the Music,” building tension until Sly and the rest of the Family Stone return in full euphoric force, it’s hard not to hear the buried, cryptic voices that crawl out of the recesses of the band’s 1971 There’s a Riot Goin’ On, a sound that would cause Greil Marcus to call the album “golem music.”

Three years. Not too little a stretch of time for a ’60s performer to end up at a place that would have been unthinkable when he started. That was the time it took the Beatles to go from A Hard Day’s Night to Sgt. Pepper, Dylan from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan to Blonde on Blonde. But no one besides Sly Stone in effect ended his career with the implicit message to his audience that what had come before was a lie. There were records after Riot, just as Jean-Luc Godard made movies after Weekend. Yet if the music that preceded Riot still sounds too good and too true to be a lie, the finality of the album cannot be argued with. For Sly, it was the equivalent of the finish of Weekend, when the title “Fin du cinéma” made it seem as if Godard had just jumped off the planet.

There are other albums to talk about — six, in fact — in the new Epic/Legacy limited-edition box set Sly and the Family Stone: The Collection. (They’re also available individually.) But with the exception of the 1969 Stand!, they’re all swallowed into the black hole of Riot. The attraction of this long-overdue reissue series is the remastered editions of albums that have been unavailable or available in cheap first-generation CD configuration. The bonus material to be found is mostly instrumentals and a few edits for the singles market. None of it is memorable. Worse, Epic/Legacy has failed to include the non-album singles. Which means that you can blow $70 on this set and still come home without the essential “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin),” “Hot Fun in the Summertime,” and the band’s most beautiful song, “Everybody Is a Star.”

The uneven early records show Sly itching to encompass all the music he can. (The first track of their first album, 1967’s A Whole New Thing, opens by quoting “Frère Jacques.”) But, really, a perfectly good S&TFS library can be built from Stand!, Riot, the old (1970) Greatest Hits, and Fresh, the album that followed Riot and includes the great “If You Want Me To Stay” and Sly’s indelible duet with his sister Rose on “Que Sera, Sera.” That version of the Doris Day standard turns it into a languid, emotionally tough blues, the sound of a black mother saying to her children, “Don’t count on anything in this world.”

1  |  2  |  3  |   next >
Related: Nightwatch, In the realm of Oshima, Finding the future in the past, More more >
  Topics: Music Features , Entertainment, Music, Music Reviews,  More more >
| More

Most Popular
Share this entry with Delicious
  •   CHARLES JACKSON’S SECOND ACT  |  March 18, 2013
    F. Scott Fitzgerald claimed there were no second acts in American life.
  •   KATE BEYOND TIME: THE KATE MOSS BOOK  |  January 08, 2013
    Almost all models who achieve some degree of fame find themselves blamed for whatever agenda their era's most vocal scold happens to be pushing.
  •   INTERVIEW: NINA HOSS ON BARBARA  |  December 18, 2012
    Quietly over the last 11 years, one of the strongest collaborations in contemporary cinema has been developing between the German director Christian Petzold and the actress he often chooses to star in his films, Nina Hoss. Petzold and Hoss's latest collaboration, Barbara , is their richest and finest film.
    With porn so privately accessible now, we don't worry about the stigma attached to its consumption, the thought of someone pausing to peruse the art in front of an adult movie theater (hell, the thought of an adult movie theater) instead of just ducking in before being seen is almost touching.
  •   BUNNY YEAGER’S NAKED AMBITION  |  October 05, 2012
    Pin-up photography has served so many purposes — outlet for male desire; outlet for feminist ire; retro kitsch emblem — that it has barely been talked about as photography.

 See all articles by: CHARLES TAYLOR