There's A Riot Goin' On

Sly & The Family Stone

Epic/Legacy, 1971

REVIEW BY: Sean McCarthy


Woodstock was the sixties’ last grand statement of the “Summer Of Love” movement that started two years prior. Thanks to the 40th anniversary celebrations and the upcoming Taking Woodstock movie, people are once again looking back at this concert with warmth and nostalgia. However, just as we celebrate Woodstock, we know its dark cousin Altamont, which pretty much brought the decade to a thunderous end.

Just like The Rolling Stones ended the ‘60s with a murky, dark masterpiece (Let It Bleed), Sly & The Family Stone released an album that reflected the weariness of too much heartbreak, too much war, and way, way, way too many drugs. There’s A Riot Goin' On was a recording nightmare for CBS executive Clive Davis. The release was plagued with delays, Sly Stone’s relationship with the band had disintegrated, and Sly was in a drug-induced haze for almost three years (he famously toted around a violin case full of illegal drugs during this time). my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Drugs may have reduced Sly & The Family Stone’s output, but Sly still managed to be prolific. The album was delayed, but Sly meticulously crafted There’s A Riot Goin' On, experimenting with jazz structures and laying down the foundations of funk, thanks to bassist Larry Graham. The disc also took on a social conscious by making the music feel downright oppressive with its deep overdubs and Stone’s resigned vocals. Coming just months after Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, this album served as a continuation of the honest reflection of what was happening socially in America in the early ‘70s as the idealism of the ‘60s was changing into stoned resignation (before cocaine and disco turned that decade into the “Me” decade).

Though There’s A Riot Goin' On took a far darker turn than many fans expected, there was still plenty to celebrate in the music. There’s a reason why “Family Affair” has lived on in countless hip-hop samples – its simple chorus manages to convey strength and resolve despite the turmoil that’s going on within the lyrics. The same can be said for “Runnin’ Away;” the carefree “Ha ha ha ha!”s that sprinkle the track sounds airy and light, but the lyrics reveal a menacing mocking tone: “Another day / You’re farther away / Ha ha ha ha / Another trip back home.”

The final track, “Thank You For Talkin’ To Me Africa,” is a sprawling eight-minute epic, with a repeated chant of “Thank you falettinme be mice elf” offering a bit of solace as Sly sings “Flamin’ eyes of people fear / Burin’ into you / Many men are missin’ much / Hatin’ what they do.” The hazy, slow-burning groove of the song enables these lines to sink into the listener’s ears and linger long after the album ends.

Not surprisingly, critics were split over There’s A Riot Goin' On. Realizing he may have went off the deep end, Sly recorded the much more upbeat album Fresh two years later. And while Fresh is a great album, it’s the complexity of There’s a Riot Goin' On that eventually won over critics and earned its rightful place as being called one of the defining albums of the ‘70s. Few mainstream albums have the audacity to take its audience on a trip this dark.

Rating: A

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© 2009 Sean McCarthy and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Epic/Legacy, and is used for informational purposes only.