Sly and the Family Stone – 10 of the best

From the birth of a funk superhero team to claustrophobic social comment, here are the high points in an occasionally terrifying career

1. Underdog

By the time they made their debut album in 1967, Sly and the Family Stone were already way out ahead of the pack in terms of the way they approached and played music. The group benefited immeasurably from the extensive experience of their leader: Sylvester Stewart, still in his early 20s, had been making records since his teens and had pulled significant stints as band leader, songwriter, producer and radio DJ. Nevertheless, that first LP – A Whole New Thing – sold poorly. Perhaps Sly was overthinking things. The opening track and first single, Underdog, cast him and his group as outsiders who had “got to be twice as good” to “get a fair shake”, and the album seemed to take that as its starting point. It’s a record that bristles with invention, time signatures changing as complicated melody lines crash against one another. Underdog is a barnstorming beginning to a terrific LP, a record that links genres and styles into a compelling whole. That determination to prove that anyone and everyone was welcome and considered an equal in the presence of the gods of music would fuel the group’s career, but at this earliest stage, it still needed a bit more honing and refining.

2. Only One Way Out of This Mess

Almost all the songs selected for the debut LP stuck to a basic love-song template. It would soon become clear that Sly and the Family Stone – multi-ethnic, men and women, comprising either members of Stewart’s biological family or their closest friends – were at their strongest when writing with disarming clarity and simplicity about US social politics. Only One Way Out of This Mess was recorded a few weeks too late to include on the debut, and despite having been worked up extensively as part of the band’s live shows, it wouldn’t have fitted alongside the rest of the tracks. Nevertheless, it is remarkable that such a dazzling and prescient track remained unreleased until a 1995 reissue of their their third album, Life. Across a trampolining backbeat, insinuated between wobbly, drunken guitar and brass squiggles, amid exhortations from backing singers and brass, Sly lays out a manifesto for dark days: “Stop everything you’re doing and look around,” he chants. “How can one look down when one is down? … There’s only one way out of this mess / Knock the corners off the squares / We hate nothing, and love the rest.” Ringing with euphoric empowerment, it’s the kind of rare record that celebrates future victories as it seeks to inspire those fighting to achieve them.

3. Dance to the Music

Stung by the lukewarm reception to the group’s debut, Sly took his manager’s advice and wrote something simple. It worked: Dance to the Music gave the group their first hit and turned them into major-league pop stars. Straightforward it may have been, but the song is daring, too. The track breaks down the Family Stone method into its constituent elements, allowing rivals and competitors sight of the group’s moving parts. The song effectively introduces the band members, turning them into characters that fans could begin to know and identify with. This is the moment that the band who were to exert a towering influence stand revealed for the first time: here’s where Sly and the Family Stone surely begin to speak to George Clinton, Prince and, later on, Janet Jackson, OutKast and D’Angelo. It’s the birth of a funk superhero team. Over the years their ubiquity has led, perhaps, to over-familiarity, and these days we may not realise quite how bold a move it was to lay bare the mechanics of the sound and the style. It’s as if Sly was saying: “This is easy – there’s not a lot to it. Go ahead, have at it.” Before too long he’d be writing a song called You Can Make It If You Try, and here he had written the textbook for others to study.

4. Are You Ready

The second Family Stone LP, also called Dance to the Music, tends to be overlooked these days, in part because of how closely it followed the title track’s blueprint. It can feel as though you’re listening to variations on the one theme. Yet this lends its strongest moments an additional, ferocious power – it has a sense of focus and determination rare in pop. Are You Ready distils the essence of the group and their era into 2min 48sec of strident, direct, raw musical intensity, and foreshadows the sound and style they would make their own at the close of the 1960s. Drummer Greg Errico is driving the train, his performance brilliantly combining uncompromising physicality with what ought to be an incompatible embrace of funk bounce and sophisticated jazz-tinged swing. Throughout, Cynthia Robinson’s trumpet and Jerry Martini’s sax – “wrong” notes emphasising a sense of immediacy and urgency over any pretence at studio perfection (it’s perhaps only when listening to the four versions of the song included in the 2015 box set Live at the Fillmore East that it becomes clear they’re not mistakes at all) – engage in a baroque duel with Larry Graham’s intuitive, deceptively complicated bass part. It’s impossible not to be swept along. Over and through it all, Sly’s lyric leaves no room for ambiguity. “Don’t hate the black, don’t hate the white / If you get bitten, just hate the bite.” Put together, the song absorbs, enhances and transcends even the considerable effect of its constituent parts.

5. Life

From the fairground calliope opening to its end-of-the-pier, full-stop conclusion, the title track of the third album is both ebullient delight and stylistic tour de force. The sound is still in transition, one foot in the anything-goes psychedelia of the debut and another in the funk-rock-soul-pop signature sound that would follow. But those key themes – grab hold of whatever opportunities come your way; don’t let anyone put limits on what you think you can achieve or how you’re supposed to live – are all present in the midst of a song that, while still cut from Dance to the Music’s cloth, takes all the band’s manifold influences and manages to lead each one down new and unexpected paths.

6. Stand!

Fusing Life’s exuberance, Dance to the Music’s infectious sense of pop possibility, and Are You Ready’s agit-prop, Stand! became Sly and the Family Stone’s defining statement, and remains one of the most skyscraping high points in the history of music as protest. The song saw the group and their leader reaching into their bag of tricks and pulling out a little of everything that they had learned along the way – churchy harmonies and piano blend with the tender pleading of a balladeer; chords change at what are, on first hearing, unexpected intervals, mood and tone shifting as the lyric acts to encourage revolutionary political protest while honouring those engaged in more personal, private struggles with oppression. The coda turns the track from persuasive to didactic, and was added by Sly one night, just before the song was to be delivered to the label, straight after he got a DJ friend to play a test pressing in a San Francisco club. It was a moment of decisive action of the kind the song exists to encourage: the time for indecision has long since passed, it says, and everyone has to speak up for what they believe in.

7. Everyday People

He was Sly indeed. The last track on side one of the Stand! LP, Sing a Simple Song, was anything but: Errico rated it as one of the most technically demanding tracks he played on, its key changes, back-and-forth sharing-out of sung lines, and intricately layered instrumentation all anchored in a drum track he had no choice but to play with rock-solid precision and care that became a favourite among hip-hop producers (Public Enemy used Errico’s Simple Song beats in at least five different tracks, Ice Cube four). Yet Everyday People, built around a beguiling and at first oblique concept (“I am everyday people”), took away anything complicated or challenging and left only the barest essentials, any urge toward the experimental ditched in favour of music that would connect. Graham’s bass line, throughout, is comprised of one note; Errico’s back beat echoes Motown; the backing vocals are the oohs and sha-shas of pop’s golden age. Again, Sly delivers a lyric carefully crafted to withstand any attempt at misinterpretation: “I am no better, and neither are you / We are the same, whatever we do ... We got to live together.”

8. Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)

After Stand! and Everyday People, and particularly after a rapturous 3:30am set at Woodstock, nothing would ever be the same. The Family Stone had reached the level of cultural importance and resonance they’d been aiming for, but the view from those heights was dizzying. Desperately uncomfortable with his profile, Sly retreated from public life: he moved to Los Angeles, surrounded himself with a retinue described in various lurid and unflattering terms by his bandmates as dangerous, drug-fuelled and destabilising, and disappeared into a fug of narcotics and paranoia. The last three parting shots before the artist (and possibly the person) he had been disappeared for good were the gorgeous single Hot Fun in the Summertime, and a double-A side pairing Everybody Is a Star with the monstrous, unprecedented, indelible Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin).

It sounded like nothing that came before it, and would affect the sound of everything that followed. Graham began plucking and pulling the strings of his bass, a technique he’d developed as a teenager to add percussion to his sound that made up for not having a drummer Slap bass went on to become part of the complete bass player’s arsenal but had never been heard on record before. Slices of Sly and brother Freddie Stone’s wah-wah guitars relocate the chicken-strut style of the Meters or James Brown’s Jimmy Nolen from the deep south to an industrialised northern tundra. Broken shards of brass fizz by, as if played on the platform and heard from on board an express train as it flashes through. The four verses also mark a point of departure. How else to read these lines but literally – especially since they come from the man who, mere weeks before, had been saying: “My own beliefs are in my song”? At the close, you can feel the clouds and the fear closing in: “Dying young is hard to take,” he almost raps, the voice strained, the message desperate, “but selling out is harder.” In the end, and in the strictly accurate sense, he did neither: but the Sly who made those first four albums hasn’t been heard from since.

9. Family Affair

Western popular culture has come to place an unusually high value on the archetype of the tortured artist, and so the disturbed, dislocated, disorienting fifth album, There’s a Riot Goin’ On, is generally held up as the band’s masterpiece. It’s certainly a great record, but it’s far harder to love than what came before. Sometimes it’s difficult to remember this album is by the same artist (and, indeed, most of it was recorded by Sly on his own, with remaining band members – Errico had left and Graham would soon follow – overdubbing their parts later). Even the album’s hit single succeeds despite itself. Family Affair retains some of the old sense of hope, but it doesn’t make any attempt to dispel the doubts. A skeletal structure, two verses and choruses – more like a demo than a finished song – it contrasts the perfect blindness of a mother’s love with the convenient self-deceptions of a couple trapped in a marriage that their infidelities have rendered meaningless. All this over claustrophobic clutter of drum machine and electronic keys: of the band, only Sly’s sister, Rose Stone, appears on the song. It went on to become the biggest hit of their career, though surely few US chart-toppers can match its desperation or bleakness.

10. Skin I’m In

The band effectively ended after There’s a Riot Goin’ On, withGraham escaping through a dressing-room window after being accused of hiring a hitman to take out his increasingly paranoid bandleader. He and Errico had not only been one of the best two or three rhythm sections in funk history, they were also right up there among the greatest bass/drums pairings in any genre. The brand, though, was to survive for some years, as various incarnations of the Family Stone backed the increasingly erratic Sly through a number of albums, to inevitably diminishing returns. The last great album was Fresh. Among its highlights is this song, which ties together two threads that ran through Sly’s momentous, epochal and occasionally terrifying career. It is a pointed statement of racial-political reality, laced as always with plain speaking and common sense. It finds the man and his group ignoring the temptation to second-guess the instinctive creative decisions that made their music so special and so effective.


Angus Batey

The GuardianTramp

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