ALBUM (1971)

Rewind album: There's a Riot goin' On

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 July, 2013, 5:05pm

There's a Riot Goin' On
Sly and the Family Stone

In the late 1960s, Sly and the Family Stone were the ultimate peace, love and harmony band. Multiracial and upbeat, their brand of funk, pop and soul was calculated to project a vision of a united world. It's no surprise they provided some of the most intoxicatingly inspirational moments at the Woodstock festival in 1969.

After a series of uplifting and joyous albums, they had conquered America at a time of growing racial and social unrest through their love-everyone ethos. But two years later, that had all changed.

Drug addiction and the rumoured influence of the Black Panther political movement rendered the utopian dream of Sylvester Stewart, alias Sly Stone, a thing of the past. Out went the fun and in came paranoia, introversion and, in the case of There's a Riot Goin' On, political anger.

As if the multi-instrumental Sly had woken from a dream in which he'd played the jester in a fantasy of equality and freedom, Riot is either the dawn of his political realisation or his sudden disenchantment with his earlier mission.

Either way, the emotionally darker direction that Sly would take was pretty much dictated by his escalating intake of cocaine and PCP - or angel dust - which, according to legend, he carried around with him in huge quantities locked in a violin case packed to the brim with illegal substances.

Riot sounds like the work of a band that were busy rejecting their antecedents. Sly pared the band down to himself and one or two other members, with his choices for the final line-up reputedly influenced by powerful members of the Black Panther movement, which was unhappy with such a high-profile, black music band containing white and Hispanic members.

Sly had barely ventured into a studio for two years before Riot's recording and had it not been for the success of the one-off single Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin) and the resultant pressure from the band's record company Epic, he would most likely have never made the album. Stories of the time tell of the once-master showman regressing into himself, shut away in his Los Angeles home amid a blizzard of white powder.

While the circumstances of Riot's creation imply the album was a failure, it should be noted that it is regarded as one of the most influential protest albums of the era.

Riot is a challenging listen: its title track is eight seconds of silence and the centrepiece epic Africa Talks to You 'The Asphalt Jungle' is a nine-minute funk-athon.

It's hard not to see Riot as an antidote to the naïve hippie dream and a rejection of the turgid summery west coast soft-rock sound that replaced it. If that sounds like a negative, consider this: the double hammer-blow of Marvin Gaye's What's Going On and Riot, released within six months of each other, provided the momentum for a slew of black acts to release some of their most electrifying music.

And from Sly and Marvin to Stevie Wonder and James Brown, the musical road they were travelling on eventually led to hip hop and rap.

Charlie Carter