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Sly & The Family Stone - There’s A Riot Goin’ On

Drift Sunday Classic

Sly & The Family Stone - There’s A Riot Goin’ On

Released late in 1971, ‘There’s A Riot Goin’ On’ isn’t just the sound of a comedown, the album conveys the political tensions and death of the 1960’s ideals as vividly as any album.

Formed in the mid-sixties, the seven-piece, mixed gender and racially integrated Sly and The Family Stone had progressively become one of the most politically outspoken bands of the times. They pioneered psychedelic soul and never shied away from pop sensitivity to reach huge critical acclaim and commercial success. But coming off the back of barnstorming performances at Woodstock, the Harlem Cultural Festival and the release of the hugely successful 1969 Stand! LP, Sly Stone had become increasingly cynical, fractured from the rest of the band and his psychedelic experiments had developed into a full-on addiction.
Sly & The Family Stone - There’s A Riot Goin’ On
Released halfway through the band’s storied discography, the backdrop was dark. Sly was lost to drugs and had increasingly surrounded himself by characters who wanted to lead him towards their own political agendas. As part of an ever-escalating deterioration, the album was recorded and produced almost entirely by Sly Stone, often in the confines of his own bed. The irony being that lead single "Family Affair" was a chart goliath, evocative lyrics - “Ain't nothing but a family. Nothing but a family affair.” - that seemed to pertain to togetherness, whereas the band were dissolving and Sly Stone sounded beaten and dejected.

Through all of the adversity, There’s A Riot Goin’ On (apparently a response to Marvin Gaye's ‘What's Going On’ LP that had dropped six months earlier) is a remarkable record. The production is aggressive and densely layered, with flashes of the counterculture ideals like a bad trip. The bass is so thick, warbling across the entire stereo as the drums (and early use of drum machines) click and pop through the fug. Sly’s voice is both rousing and heartbreaking, the wails that once sounded so full of optimism are now cracking and disappearing into a heavy baritone.
Sly & The Family Stone - There’s A Riot Goin’ On
The artwork (a red, white and black American flag with nine-point suns in place of five-point stars) is as iconic as the title. There was no opportunity to misunderstand, the party was over. It is the comedown to spiritual awakening and idealism, it is a disillusioned and apathetic statement of what America really was like in 1971. No one else truly conveyed that and no one else came within a country mile of making it sound so damn funky. An icon of style and substance.

Further Reading

“A nation’s fabric unravelling” - Musicians from Nile Rodgers to Johnny Marr, Moor Mother and Booker T Jones discuss Sly and the Family Stone’s drug-fuelled landmark in US social commentary.

The Guardian | Read More

Sly Stone’s Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin) was published late 2023 on White Rabbit and is a quite extraordinary read.

Drift Sunday Classic