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Class ?

Main Category: Funk/R'n'B
Also applicable: Psychedelia
Starting Period: The Artsy/Rootsy Years
Also active in: The Interim Years, The Punk/New Wave Years,

The Divided Eighties



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Year Of Release: 1967
Overall rating = 11

A wonderful arrival - derivative mayhaps, but a lot of fun anyway. Did that phrase mean anything to you?


Track listing: 1) Underdog; 2) If This Room Could Talk; 3) Run Run Run; 4) Turn Me Loose; 5) Let Me Hear It From You; 6) Advice; 7) I Cannot Make It; 8) Trip To Your Heart; 9) I Hate To Love Her; 10) Bad Risk; 11) That Kind Of Person; 12) Dog; [BONUS TRACK:] 13) What Would I Do.

Now I'm no big wonderful Mr Know-it-all Sixties R&B expert-connoisseur, in fact I have a hard time knowing my Drifters from my Miracles. So I can't really tell you in what exact particular concrete way Sly & The Family Stone's A Whole New Thing was exactly particularly "whole" and "new". I do have my suspicions, though, and my suspicion number one is that somewhere around this time R&B as a whole started to depart from the traditional formula, which was write one or two unmistakable hook-laden hits, surround them with a sea of useless filler and repeat process three times a year (and if you have a whole gang of corporate songwriters to go for you, make that four or five).

Sly's debut doesn't do that. There is a minor "hit" on here, 'Underdog', which opens the record, but overall it's not about that. Instead of kowtowing to the Motown philosophy, Sly kowtows to the San Franciscan one - and makes a record that's a dozen times more open-minded, sincere, and actually coherent than the generic stereotypical R&B album of the times. It is true that he's only starting the process on here; the band's trademark funky formula hasn't been worked out yet, and there are only a few songs that suggest either a nod to psychedelia ('Trip To Your Heart') or a nod to counter-cultural values ('Run Run Run'). So the Motown and Stax-Volt influences are inescapable. But luckily Sly was a really talented fella, and he still had a long way to go before drugs and disillusionment drained that talent. So if the album doesn't get along on sheer power of innovation and daringness, it gets along on the power of songwriting.

The band doesn't waste much, or any, time on jamming; most of the tunes feature standard three-to-four minute lengths, and most of them have something going on in the "perk up your ears and listen" department. Funk as such didn't exist in 1967 - Sly (okay, together with James Brown) yet had to invent it - but blues, R&B, soul, pop, and gospel influences are already combined; and the band's tight rhythm section and those wonderlicious horns are already in full swing. As is, of course, the general colourfulness of the music: Sly might have gotten more powerful and ecstatic with succeeding albums, but he could hardly have displayed more sheer youthful enthusiasm than he does on here. This is music that jumps out of the speakers - music that clearly doesn't mind formula, music that revels in merely having the possibility of being free from conventional cliches, even if it doesn't always manage to escape them.

I mean, yeah, a few of the cuts don't seem too successful to me, just because I don't feel Sly really had to do them. For instance, the lush pompous ballad 'Let Me Hear It From You' just doesn't make it - Sly isn't that much of a "romantic" singer, and he delivers the slow-going lyrics somewhat clumsily, not to mention trying to sing in a lower range than he ought to. 'That Kind Of Person' moves at a slightly faster pace, but doesn't improve much on the formula; simply put, this was not a band fit to do balladeering. These guys were born to rip, not to bring to tears.

And they do rip on here, many times. 'Underdog' opens the album with a bit of social protesting, and is almost as dark in spirit as some of the songs on There's A Riot Going On - contradicting the notion that Sly & The Family Stone were nothing but happy-faced optimists before the Seventies crushed the Woodstock dream. Well, okay, so it's rather an exception, but never mind. The song is great, with a lot of tension throughout and a great anthemic brass riff in between the angry verses. And its socially conscious content was definitely a breath of fresh air in the R&B of 1967.

Then there's 'Run Run Run' (the title that almost holds the record of Most Frequently Used Title When Naming A Rock Song in my book), another little bit of social protest welcoming Flower Power changes, distinguished by funny chime work, complex multi-part vocal harmonies, and lyrics like 'things we do upset their flesh and blood and bone/Maybe what they ought to do is leave their flesh and blood and bone at home'. 'Turn Me Loose' is a real beast of a song, driven by a simple, but ultra-memorable brass riff and red-hot call-and-answer vocal deliveries from almost all the band members; in two short minutes it works up a frenzy that other bands might be taking twenty minutes to work up. Heck, I almost regret that stuff wasn't used as a basis for a wild wild jam. Two minutes? Ridiculous!

The second side is mainly distinguished by the band's most psychedelic song to-date (okay, so it's wrong to use "to date" when I'm only speaking of their first album, but technically I'm correct, so shut the hell up already). That's 'Trip To Your Heart', which is essentially just a love song, but when the band chants the wobbly chorus going 'I'm on a trip to your hea-a-a-a-a-art' and the other part of the band goes all wooh-wooh and whoah-whoah around the first one and the guitars go sliding ding-ding and ping-ping and the organs go screeching whoosh-whoosh and swish-swish, that's as psychedelic as it gets, baby. It's also unforgettable, which is why it gets my vote for best song on the album. I betcha nothing like that song had ever appeared in black music before that album.

It's also pretty funny how the album begins with a song called 'Underdog' and ends with a song called 'Dog'. If I'm the first one to have noticed that, I want a cookie, but if I'm not, I'll just say that I love the chorus of 'Dog' where Sly goes 'you treat me like a fool, trying to make me blow my cool' and the gal (trumpeteer Cynthia Robinson, I presume, since Rosie Stone only joins the band on the next album) replies 'you think you know it all, but you've got a lot to learn!'. That's funny, inventive, and... uh... true, I guess? Oh, and the CD re-issue of the album adds a decent previously unissued outtake, called 'What Would I Do', giving you the hardcore Sly fanatic a stimulus to upgrade your collection. (Same with the two following LPs, by the way).

In short, not a mind-blowing, but a thoroughly satisfying listen, and hey, if you got a short attention span or something, it's an even better treat for you than those jam-infested late period classics. Imagine that - a trend-setting, ground-breaking R&B album where the longest track is 4:26! Heaven on Earth!



Year Of Release: 1968
Overall rating = 12

Well now THAT's a whole new thing! Tasty funky dance music for the psychedelic soul! Woohoo!

Best song: MUSIC LOVER

Track listing: 1) Dance To The Music; 2) Higher; 3) I Ain't Got Nobody (For Real); 4) Dance To The Medley; 5) Ride The Rhythm; 6) Color Me True; 7) Are You Ready; 8) Don't Burn Baby; 9) I'll Never Fall In Love Again; 10) Soul Clappin'.

Bring it on, baby! Sly & The Family Stone arrive here in earnest. It might not be as groovaliciously heavenly as Stand!, but it's close. I liked the debut well enough, but the trademark sound only emerges here. Everything falls together: Sly's sister Rosie is added to the mix with super-strong vocals and an occasional electric piano part; the great Larry Graham is totally unleashed on bass; and Freddie Stone masters that "chicken-scratching" funk guitar style that's so ubiquitous today but was so much of a totally new thing back in 1968 - I think nobody except for James Brown really did it back then, right?

Also, the title of the record really speaks volumes: this is much more of a pure groove-based dance album than Whole New Thing. This explains why the songs are slightly less memorable, and why so many of the rhythms sound alike, but you can easily overlook these pseudo-defects, because where the band lacks in hooks, it easily makes up for with sheer enthusiasm and those hot frenzied grooves. Gee, can you imagine how this sounded back in 1968? Nowadays overdriven dance music, though far less shiny and tasty than that one, is the word of the day; back then, Sly's formula was a fury, total spiritual murder never heard before. Listen to them guys going on here, with the bass chuggin' and the electric guitar squishin' along and the drums and the horns going in all directions and Sly belting out his "love your neighbour" style lyrics and sister Rosie and everybody else adding call-and-response vocals and whoa-whoahs and yeh-yehs.

And Sly himself is perfectly willing to unveil all of his chemistry - not only does he himself pen the liner notes, extolling each and every band member's virtues, but he also uses the "crescendo" trick on several of the songs, stopping the groove and "building it up" once again from the bottom up, first drums, then adding bass, then adding organ, then adding horns, and then letting it rip altogether! And all this with little one-liners like 'Music for the human race/I wanna hear some funky bass!' and so on. It's a whole lot of fun even if he manages to repeat this thrice in the "big medley" which forms the centerpiece of the album. But who cares? When the climax in the middle of 'Music Lover' comes along and you get the 'I wanna take you higher, higher, higher!' and then the horns kick in with that overpowering, ecstatic riff, there's no escape from R&B heaven.

Note that this mid-section was later incorporated by Sly in his live performances of 'I Wanna Take You Higher', and that the phrase itself also appears on the album's second track, simply called 'Higher' - yeah, so Sly is well-known for self-recycling in multiple ways. After all, he didn't have that much of a diverse agenda: he did want to take you higher, and he actually took you higher, so let's not blame him too harshly. So the title track is repeated in the medley, and then again in the bonus track to the album, the previously unissued "Soul Clappin'". So I don't care. This is such a tremendously good groove it'd be a shame not to have it repeated twice or thrice, I say. 'I'm gonna add a little guit-tar, and make it easy to move your feet!' Yeah!

Also, this time around there's no generic soul balladeering - every track cooks in an upbeat way, featuring the entire band at what they do best. 'I Ain't Got Nobody (For Real)' could be a ballad, but they speed it up and turn it into a fiery rant instead of a soulful pleading. 'Ride The Rhythm' is fantastically upbeat, with Graham going all over the fretboard and Freddie adding the wah-wah touch - not a moment too soon, Freddie! 'Color Me True' adds a pinch of snappy aggressiveness to the general love-in, with a great duet between Sly and Rosie that features elements of "proto-rapping", too. The only thing that bothers me a bit is that they don't give neither Freddie nor Cynthia any real time to solo; I wouldn't want a lengthy solo by any means, but at least a little would be nice. But the emphasis is obviously on band interplay all the time, and I can understand that and live with that. Oh, and what's that weird style of bass playing Larry uses on 'Are You Ready'? That sounds like disco bass to me - you know, that little ascending 'chooka-chooka-chooka-chooka' bassline which you always have on your disco songs. Could this be the first apparition of a disco bassline on record? You R&B connoisseur people should answer that question for me.

Anyway, it's dang hard to describe individual songs on the album unless you really wanna go into it seriously. It all sounds the same, but it sounds great. It's truly music that "comes in colours". Easily the most joyful record of the epoch - and by "joyful" I don't mean "commercially sappy, overloaded with fake sentimentalism", I mean truly emotional, sincere, open-minded joy coming from some of counterculture's best representatives. Heck, I don't even feel like I need to be there in order to "get" this stuff - it's absolutely timeless. And goddammit, when I say the Sixties were the century's best musical decade (for pop music, at least), this is what I mean: you can't get stuff like Dance To The Music in any other decade. It's just brimming with optimism, idealism, sincere romanticism, and perspectives of innovation and musical/social revolution. This is great music that helped change the world - or at least, some people thought that at the time. And I insist that every good-minded, idealistic person have this in his/her collection. So what are you waiting for? Run! Good people put this on CD for you!



Year Of Release: 1968
Overall rating = 13

Creativity + intelligence + fun + groove = Heaven on earth.

Best song: INTO MY OWN THING. Or was that DYNAMITE!? Or FUN?

Track listing: 1) Dynamite!; 2) Chicken; 3) Plastic Jim; 4) Fun; 5) Into My Own Thing; 6) Harmony; 7) Life; 8) Love City; 9) I'm An Animal; 10) M'Lady; 11) Jane Is A Groupee; [BONUS TRACK:] 12) Only One Way Out Of This Mess.

This is the weird "sleeper" in Sly's catalog. Released a few months after Dance To The Music, it kinda slipped through that groundbreaking release and next year's genre classic Stand! - slipped through completely. No major (or minor) hits from Life, and it didn't chart too high itself either. No acknowledged classics that every devoted funk fan would know by heart. Only a few minor, and usually neglected, spotlights on hit collections and anthologies. And even when they did that CD remastering thing, they, like, put Life out the last (although, to be fair, some later period albums aren't available as of yet altogether).

Whassup with you guys? Life is one of Sly's absolute best. It gets a reputation of being filled with filler and re-writes of older tunes; I see no filler at all, and if there are a couple re-writes, well, that shouldn't be much of a surprise; that's the way Sly regularly does his job. What I do see here is actually a very untypical album for the Family Stone. All the eleven songs are short; not a single one goes over three and a half minutes. All the eleven songs are up to the point, making it quickly and efficiently - establish the groove, develop the groove, and fizzle out. Many of the songs are goddamn innovative as hell, and many are experimental; in fact, this is Sly at his most ambitious and "crossover-like".

First of all, who can resist the wild Freddie licks that open 'Dynamite' (so simple, yet so tasty! just a two note rock'n'roll chord, but so effective!) and then merge with the fuzzy bass riff carrying the song's main hook? Nobody can, and nobody will. It's one of those classic funky Sly numbers that'll rock your socks off. But then track two comes along, and you find yourself listening to a song called 'Chicken' which is all built upon the idea of "clucking" - where the vocals, guitars, and brass all join together in this bizarre polyphony of repetitive notes. It doesn't sound too promising when I'm describing it with my thick tongue, but it's un-frickin-believable cool each time when they get to that chorus.

When 'Plastic Jim' comes along with the 'all the plastic people, what do they all come for?' introduction, I, of course, can't help but be reminded of Zappa: it surely can't be a coincidence that ol' Frank had that 'Plastic People' song out on last year's record, and, indeed, if you look closely at this song, as well as several others, you'll see that Sly has developed a knack for social satire. Granted, it's not as biting as the Zappa one, but it's definitely not uninteresting in its own way, besides, that's not the point: the point is that no black R'n'B band in 1968 would be so much out of its mind as to be influenced by Frank Zappa of all people. It just goes to show how unbelievably open-minded Mr Sylvester Stuart was compared to others.

And now it's time for 'Fun' - and what's that I hear? Did I mention shades of "proto-disco" on 'Are You Ready' off the last record? Well listen here people: 'Fun' doesn't have shades of proto-disco. 'Fun' isn't even proto-disco. 'Fun' is disco, pure and simple, the first disco song to ever have been recorded - okay, to put it correctly, the earliest disco song I've ever heard, but you go ahead and find me an earlier one. Or you go ahead and tell me that bassline ol' Larry is holding down is not disco. You can also tell me that the song doesn't feature one of the catchiest vocal melodies ever created. You can also tell me that it doesn't sound like a friggin' blueprint for all those Talking Heads songs like 'Burning Down The House' and stuff. Dammit I love this thing.

But the "fun" isn't over with this song, nosiree. 'Into My Own Thing' comes along, and this one sounds like the blueprint for all things early Funkadelic. Slow, druggy, rollickin', with a mantraic, totally stoned, tripped-out background chant ("into my own thing... into my own thing... each to his own thing..."), acid distorted guitar riffs... you can almost feel the intoxicating hallucinogenic steam ooze out from under the band members' feet. And when Larry steps forward and puts that bit of extra fuzz in his bass, it's like the ultimate climax to everything. Two minutes thirteen seconds? You're kidding me. I want more!

More disco bass and more unbeatable pop melodies on 'Harmony', the second (or first?) catchiest song on the album. The "you can be you, let me be me, that's harmony, sure as one two three, easy as ABC" chorus is something you're bound to never forget - and yet another perfect anthemic expression of the Sixties spirit. Boy, how did this guy manage to get away with these hook-laden two-three-minute ditties? 'Life' begins with circus rhythms (how often do R'n'B bands explore circus rhythms?), continues with another unstoppable monster pop hook and throws another bunch of joy in our existence. Larry seems to be dancing on his bass throughout the entire song. 'Life, life, life's a cloud, you don't have to come down! Life, life, tell it like it is, you don't have to die before you live!'

'Love City' - not as memorable, but sure is... swampy and sexy. Funky guitar licks. Hot vocal harmonies. Larry pumping up the fuzz. Cynthia shaking up the brass. Possibly a Dance To The Music outtake, relying on the groove more than the hook, but count me happy, it's one of those grooves I'd bop to all day if I had nothing else to do. 'I'm An Animal' - the title caused Eric Burdon to cover it on Love Is, but here you get the short, not over-worked version populated by wild animal noises and lyrics like 'let me be your bear friend, and I wanna monkey around with you'. If it's silly, it's gloriously silly: I wanna write silly tunes like this, too bad I don't have the talent. Ah well, I'd never write anything better than Sly anyway.

'M'Lady' seems to be one of those "re-writes" people are complaining about - a re-write of 'Dance To The Music', to be exact, but who on earth cares? It's a great rewrite. When you get the guitar chuggin' and the trumpet squeakin' out that rhythm in unison and Freddie wailing away on his psychedelic guitar, who can complain but the most obnoxious complainers? And finally, they bring the record to a close with 'Jane Is A Groupee'. Let me ask you again: who, by 1968, had already written a sarcastic song about groupies? Nobody - except, right, you guessed it, Frank Zappa, who'd already raised the subject, but not in such a harsh manner as Sly & The Family Stone do it on here. 'She's got a thing 'for guys in the band, every musician's biggest fan'. Eh?

I don't even mention the obligatory bonus track - naturally, it's the best bonus track of the three. I'm tempted to raise the rating even higher, so consider it a very weak 14 on particularly good days. Yeah, well, extraneous circumstances caused Life to be overlooked in favour of the two ensuing records, but take me advice here - just give it a good, good, good listen. It pays off. It may be Sly at his weirdest, but it's definitely not Sly at his least accessible. C'mon now, no track goes over 3:30! How can that be inaccessible?



Year Of Release: 1969
Overall rating = 13

The band's big anthemball of positive energy - The Family Stone at their most Standing!


Track listing: 1) Stand!; 2) Don't Call Me Nigger, Whitey; 3) I Want To Take You Higher; 4) Somebody's Watching You; 5) Sing A Simple Song; 6) Everyday People; 7) Sex Machine; 8) You Can Make It If You Try.

Supposedly the glorious culmination of all things Sly - praised to heaven in Sly-revering circles, and most of the praise is deserved, too. Here, Sly steers away from the "weird" direction in which he was pushing with Life, and tries to recapture his status as Great Socially Important Star, with pretty much every song an anthem - calling for political and social justice, protesting against discrimination, and simply appealing to the spark of optimism hidden within every one of us. Coincidentally, or not so coincidentally, Stand! was released in the year of Woodstock - where Sly's performance was hailed as one of the best, so that you could say 1969 simply belonged to The Family Stone. And rightly so, because once again, Sly and his croonies deliver the goods as only they can, but this time also demonstrating that they can be pompous and pretentious and universalist and get away with it.

On the other hand, Stand! doesn't look like such a near-suave lovey-dovey people-get-together kind of album to me as you'd think it was from reading reviews of it. That would rather be Dance To The Music. Stand! is actually much darker in tone, nowhere near as angry and sneering as There's A Riot Going On, of course, but still there seems to be something unsettling about it. Maybe it's the drug use - as far as I know, Sly was already a total, or near-total, addict at the time, and some of the psychedelic elements on this record could reflect it. Maybe it's a tendency to politicize things: after all, no previous Sly tune was as venomous as the self-explanatory-titled 'Don't Call Me Nigger, Whitey'.

Or maybe it's the music itself, making great use of Larry's fuzz-drenched bass: every second song seems to get that treatment, sounding much more aggressive and at times even creepy than before. Or the jamming, which often gets carried away by angry wah-wah guitar solos and weird talkbox-encoded singing. Or Sly's gloomy organ tone. Whatever. Fact is, Stand! veers between exhilarating, scary, optimistic, and totally tripped out in a not necessarily nice way - but perhaps, if this is your first exposure to The Family Stone, you won't perceive it that way.

Either way, Stand! is a perfect model of the epoch it was recorded in, and nowhere more is it obvious than on the album's best known track, 'I Want To Take You Higher'. "Best known", because many people outside the standard funk/R&B fan mob have actually been exposed to the track through its inclusion in the Woodstock movie; it was my first exposure to Sly as well, and it still stands as my personal favourite by the guy. Holy shit, that's some great groove going on out there. The Mother of all Grooves To Be. Here, in the studio version, it may not be as immediately hitting as the Woodstock version (where it was greatly supported by being mixed together with the 'I wanna take you higher' part of 'Music Lover'), but it's just as hot, steamy, stinkin'-o'-acid, and able to send you into a frenzy. You can really tell these guys believe in what they're doing when they're singing how they wanna take you higher, boom boom boom. Larry's bass riff, those unbelievably powerful one- and two-note trumpet fills... ah man, no description will do justice to this tune. It should definitely be holding up along the greatest hippie moments of the late Sixties, right up there with 'All You Need Is Love' and a couple other anthems that don't sound dated and silly today because their creators were able to prop the message with great music to boot.

The absolute greatness of this song alone should make up for any inconsistencies; the usually quoted ones are the two long jams - the six-minute long 'Don't Call Me Nigger', and the thirteen-minute long 'Sex Machine', nothing to do with the James Brown song but you probably knew that already. I join that part of the population which says both could have been significantly shorter, but neither one does too much evil. Well, the "talkbox" bit in 'Sex Machine' occasionally gets on my nerves; and I think Freddie Stone doesn't display his full potential when he comes on with the funky wah-wah lead. Also, repeating the same riff over and over certainly doesn't help things much. Still, I've heard worse, and the lyrical message of 'Don't Call Me Nigger, Whitey' is fun when you pay attention to it - especially when you notice that the second line of the song goes 'don't call me whitey, nigger'. After all, Sly & The Family Stone weren't a black band: they were an integrated band, don't forget that. A band that truly despised racism in all of its forms. No "Black Power!" calls on these records.|

Regardless, though, there are numerous other instances of great songs on here. The title track is flowery and life-asserting, with a catchy pop melody to boot. But my favourite "pop" tune on here, actually, is 'Somebody's Watching You', with its almost intimate, sometimes almost "lulling" melody and those wonderful chiming sounds Sly makes in the chorus. 'Sing A Simple Song' is another powerful groove, and you'll never forget the 'bridge' section of 'Everyday People' which almost goes like a charming nursery rhyme. And then we summarize everything with the funky 'You Can Make It If You Try', with all the members of the band giving you friendly advice on how to avoid life's troubles and joining together on the assertive 'yeh yeh yeh yeh yeh' chorus.

If I don't go into major detail on these tunes, it's only because I keep returning to 'I Want To Take You Higher' over and over again - say what you will, that tune alone is worth an extra half-point or so, standing a few feet taller than everything else on here, and that's NOT to denigrate the other classics. Overall, I'd say that perhaps extolling the virtues of Stand! over the other Sly albums is a bit unjustified, but only in the respect that when you start to get interested in the band, don't make the mistake of overlooking Life and Dance To The Music - records that might have been less "powerful", but which were actually more innovative on their individual counts than the "career-summarizing" Stand!. An absolute classic anyway, what am I tellin' ya?


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