Sly and the Family Stone’s “There’s a Riot Goin’ On”

Album cover of There's a Riot Goin' On

This week, I’ve been listening to Sly and the Family Stone’s fifth album “There’s a Riot Goin’ On” from 1971. With this album, Sly Stone took the group in a different direction from their more pop and more optimistic music, like “Everyday People.” Drug use had become heavier, especially cocaine and PSP, which slowed down music production and certainly affected their moods. It also affected the mood of the increasingly impatient record company. He had also joined the Black Panthers and they pressured him to fire the white musicians in the band, when he had intentionally created the band with a mix of black-white and male-female. The Black Panthers put further pressure on him to make the songs as a black-power call to arms. It was in this space of being pulled in multiple directions amongst drugs, hopelessness, paranoia, conflicting ideologies, and the ongoing Vietnam War, that he wrote and recorded “There’s a Riot Goin’ On.

Sly Stone worked on the album mostly by himself, alone in the recording studio or at home in his bedroom. He used the Maestro Rhythm King drum machine for much of the percussion. He then overdubbed individual instruments that he played. Band members contributed additional instrumentation and vocals,one at a time alone in the studio with Stone. Apparently this process involved considerable bouncing down and overdubbing; Areas of the songs and groups of instruments are mixed poorly, there’s quite a bit of mud and tape hiss. There are times his vocals, presumably recorded while laying in bed, delivered half-hearted get buried in the mix. The vocals,usually the focal point of a recording, get lost. There’s a lot to enjoy and appreciate in this album, but it can be frustrating to listen to.

Luv N’ Haight

“Luv N’ Haight” opens the album with electric bass thumped like a drum, then delivering an urgent driving bassline. Joined by acoustic drums, somewhat lost in the groove and mix. A funky wah-wah guitar talks rhythmically on the upbeat. Backing vocals and the wah guitar bring up anticipation, then the fall back for the first verse.

Stone repeats the the line, “Feel so good inside myself, don’t want to move.” perhaps describing how he felt while high. He may also be playing with opposites the same way the title does, and referring simultaneously to the way one feels buried by depression. The title is a pun references the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood in San Francisco. The name “Haight-Ashbury” had become synonymous with the hippie ideals of peace, love, freedom, drugs, music, optimism, etc. By 1967, it became the center of the Summer of Love. That was the height of Haight, which could not sustain the crowd it ultimately attracted. The drugs got harder and the attitude got paranoid. The mood had changed from glad to sadness. People often identify the the Manson family Tate-LaBianca murders of 1969 as the nightmare that truly signaled the end of the Summer of Love. Stone recorded this song the following year. Despite a few other lines and backing vocals, he doesn’t stray beyond this single message.

The music picks up in rhythm intensity towards the end for the coda. Backing vocals ping-pong from left to right channel in call and response: “Feels so good,” “Feels so good.” “Wanna move,” “Wanna move.” They drop the “don’t” probably for rhythmic reasons, but it definitely changes the meaning of the line. Despite the apparent chaos, there’s instrumentation is fairly sparse. The drums are almost completely kick, snare, tom, and hi-hat. There is the clean electric bass that plays almost completely plays the root of each chord, acting more as an additional percussion instrument. The wah-guitar sounds more improvised than planned. There are some horns buried so deep in the mix that you more feel them than hear them. Layers of backing vocals fly about the stereo field. A piano plays off-kilter rhythmic chords, coming and going in the mix, appearing only in the second half of the song.

Family Affair

This track comes across much more mellow and intentional. It opens with electric piano played by famous session musician Billy Preston. Billy Preston played on many records in the 1960s; his contribution to Beatles recordings receives particular recognition. The electric piano in one channel is heavily modified by rhythmic sweeping of a volume pedal, which removes the attack swells on the upbeat. The electric piano in the other channel is left dry. At first, Preston plays a single strike of the chords on the first beat of each measure. After the first verse, he improves melodic arpeggios and chords during the third and fourth beat of the first each two bars. This addition to the groove continues into later verses.

The drum machine has been filtered, rolling off the high end giving it a more muted feel. This creates a pulsing throbbing feel to the percussion, allowing all of the other instruments to sit on top. The loose bass guitar is kept low in the mix, providing just enough underlying tonal groove to support the accompaniment. Except for a few wah-muted solos, the electric guitar is kept hidden. Stone’s vocals are up-close and tight, dry and in front. Again, he’s delivering them somewhere between a smooth singing and low-key talking. Here it totally works, it sounds cool. The tight recording and having them mixed to sit just above the accompaniment makes a big difference.

Runnin’ Away

Towards the end of the album “Runnin’ Away” provides a strange change in feeling. It’s more light-hearted in feel. Male and female double up in perfect unison. The female vocals are up-front with the male vocals adding additional texture lower-end texture. The male vocals are mixed so low, they’re near subliminal. Acoustic drums provide a simple beat, galloping bass guitar provides a throbbing low end, and filtered acoustic guitar strums rhythms between verses. The accompaniment pulls back during the verses, allowing them to take focus. The lyrics takes a sly dig at the disintegration of the hippie movement. Mid-60s Bacharach style trumpet lines enhance the optimistic feel of the song; The lyrics about failure contrast with this feel. This is a joke mocking the failure of the hippie dream.While there is not a consistent scheme for where rhymes happen, rhyming is seen throughout. And the first line of each line ends with a mocking laugh.

Running away to get away, ha-ha, ha-ha
You’re wearing out your shoes
Look at you fooling you
Making blues of night and day, hee-hee, hee-hee
You’re stretching out your dues
Look at you fooling you
Shorter cut is quicker but, Ha-ha, ha-ha
Time is here to stay
Look at you fooling you

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