Pazz and Jop 1971 – #7

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

At last, a black artist, the only one (I believe) to make the 1971 list. It’s certainly a comment on music criticism in 1971, though not music itself: individual critics cited records from Bill Withers, Marvin Gaye (“What’s Going On”, ranked the greatest album ever by Rolling Stone voters in 2020), Smokey Robinson & the Miracles and others, but there wasn’t enough collective support for any of these. So, how did Sly & company break through to get noticed in big enough numbers? (Trivia note – the album title is a direct response to Gaye’s query.)

There is soooo much going on in some of these songs – instruments competing with voices, or each other. And some weird stuff – slowed down vocals, yodelling (or a stoned man’s version), an unhealthy attachment to overdubbing. The bass playing (Drake’s uncle!) stands out (I do love a solid bass line) and a lot of it has an improvised feel, but it can also be discordant. (Sly does not care about your comfort.) It’s not a record for distracted listening if you’re trying to figure out what’s going on. Initially, I felt distanced from it, but by the side two opener “Brave & Strong” I was getting caught up in the experience. “Spaced Cowboy” was the most fun (yodelling!), and “Runnin’ Away” is bouncy (don’t listen too closely to what she’s singing if you want to enjoy this feeling) and relatively simple. The closer, “Thank You for Talkin’ to Me, Africa”, reworks and (I think) improves on “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin) by slowing it down, uncluttering the instrumentation and softening the vocals. A great palate cleanser to end a messy and heavily-seasoned record.

UPDATE: As I replayed the album on my morning walk, the sounds no longer unusual to me, I had even greater appreciation for it, with “Just Like A Baby” and “Time” especially standing out. The yodelling remains my favourite bit – had fellow beachfront walkers looked my way as it played this morning, my lunatic grin would have likely terrified them. I think Sly would approve.

(Originally posted on Facebook, March 20, 2021)