Album: There’s A Riot Goin’ On
. . .
You know how, with big budget films, there’s always some critic that says, “sure it cost a lot, but it’s all up there on the screen.” Well, it’s kinda like that with Sly & The Family Stone’s 1971 classic, There’s A Riot Goin’ On, only instead of money, it’s drugs. And nowhere are the drugs more prevalent that the glorified second side jam, “Spaced Cowboy,” which serves much the same purpose on There’s A Riot Goin’ On as “I Just Want to See His Face” does on Exile on Main Street.
Exile On Main Street often gets compared to There’s a Riot Goin’ On because they’re both examples of albums with deep murky mixes that were recorded in home studios where the main musician was often out of his head on drugs. But of course, the difference was that while the Rolling Stones were a diarchy, Sly & The Family Stone was a dictatorship. Which was fine in the early days, when it was a benevolent, but in 1970, Sly Stone was anything but that: he was blowing deadlines and missing shows, obsessively holing himself up in his home studio in L.A. or in the Record Plant in Sausalito.
Which might have been part of the problem: the rhythm section of bassist Larry Graham and drummer Gregg Errico were still up in the Bay Area, meaning that Sly had to come up there or they had to go down to LA to do any recording. And both of them often found their contributions were erased and overdubbed by Sly, to the point were Errico left the band. In any event, I’m not sure any of the Family Stone is on “Spaced Cowboy,” which combines jittery drum machine beats with avant-garde organ — there’s a reason that Miles Davis drew Sly Stone on the album cover of 1972’s On The Corner — and is probably one of the more polarizing songs on the record.
The lyrics, such as they are, are mostly muttered by Sly, buried deep deep in the mix, except for the parts where Sly yodels. Yes, I said, yodels — like Morrissey did on future Certain Song “The Headmaster Ritual” — maxing out his vocal mic like he’s recording White Light / White Heat.
Yodel-ayde-lay-da-day, yodel-ayde-lay-da-day, yodel-ayde-lay-da-day
But during the yoldeling, he does a cool thing with the drum machine, switching it from jittery mode to a more straightforward beat, adding a weird momentum to a track that otherwise is doing a junkie lurch. Sly’s bassline also takes off here and there, rolling and tumbling around the rest of the song.
Oh, and near the end, there’s a pretty great blues harmonica solo, because at this point, why the fuck not?
What I love about all of this is that because of the momentum they’d built up right up through 1970s Greatest Hits album and because “Family Affair” was such a compelling bit of weirdness, people went out and bought There’s A Riot Goin’ On in droves, causing it to top the U.S. charts, and in the U.K. it was their only album to chart, albeit at #31, but still. Also, what the fuck, U.K.? Usually, you’re better than us.
There’s a Riot Goin’ On was feted by critics at the time, and remains one of the most influential records ever recorded — even if it doesn’t have quite the cultural cachet as the album its title was answering, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On. That said, it’s an early example of the jarring, difficult follow-up to a stone cold classic.
Oh, and because we can’t have nice things in the digital era, the title track, which was famously listed as 0:00 in the vinyl era, now gets listed as 0:04, which totally sucks.
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