Sly and the Family Stone‘s 1969 fourth album Stand! was a major pop success you could get down to, the peak of the Family Stone’s ability to bend minds and hips alike. 1971’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On was a challenging, divisive artistic statement, the first words of which were “feel so good inside myself, don’t want to move.” The general sense is that there’s almost nothing in the pop or R&B mainstream that bridged these two sides of Sly Stone for the wider public.
History states that Riot was an unexpected detour into pessimistic introspection to an audience that only knew the sunnier side of a band that looked and sounded like the best possible socially integrated future. And with three mid-late 1969 songs (“Hot Fun in the Summertime” and “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” b/w “Everbody Is a Star”) as the only new cuts to appear under the Sly and the Family Stone banner for nearly two years, it was easy to wonder exactly how that transition happened—and how it sounded.
Miles Marshall Lewis’s absolutely essential 33 1/3 on Riot tells a good part of the story—the disillusioned national mood after the Death of the Sixties, Sly’s post-Woodstock ambivalence towards the fame he once craved, and his sonic turn towards introversion and quietude that manifested in muffled vocals and a restrained drum machine in place of Greg Errico’s thunderous backbeat. Also hinted at, but by no means marginalized, is the story of Stone Flower, the vanity label Atlantic Records let Sly run as part of his production deal.
The biggest breakthrough from this imprint was Little Sister, the post-R&B girl group comprised of Mary McCreary, Elva Mouton, and Stone’s actual younger sister Vaetta “Vet Stone” Stewart. They’d already earned some measure of renown as backup singers on some of the Family’s biggest hits and found another place in history when their 1970 version of Stand! deep cut “Somebody’s Watching You” became the first major hit single to use a drum machine—a Maestro Rhythm King. It wouldn’t be the last to do so in Sly’s hands.
Stone Flower as a label produced four singles in all, one promo-only, all written by Sly and many of them stripped-down revamps of older Family Stone material. But thanks to alternate versions, outtakes, and prototypical versions of songs that would later form the backbone of Riot, I’m Just Like You: Sly’s Stone Flower 1969-70 fortuitously doubles as the clearest available sonic roadmap for one of the most radical transformations in pop history. The exhaustive liner notes, written by Alec Palao, lay out every detail from Stone’s preferred settings for the MRK-1 to the pitfalls of trying to balance outside production and personal work, benefiting from a decade-plus worth of archived and recent interviews. The talk with Sly is worth the price alone, from his admitted pioneering of the “all instruments are real” drum machine defense to his take on the less-is-more approach—or, in his terms, “more is less”—that informed his early 1970s releases.
The clearest route through this evolution runs through Little Sister’s music, five variations on three songs pointing to their unsung role in the Family and Sly’s efforts to use them as a conduit for some of his newer ideas. It wasn’t, however, an immediate shift. The first, full-band version of “Somebody’s Watching You”, included here, makes that later single version’s minimalism even more striking: with clearer voices, bright horns, and a guitar figure that’s more prominent than the final track’s ghostly presence, it’s hard to imagine it escaping the shadow of the Stand! original. Meanwhile, the debut Little Sister single “You’re the One” doesn’t have the historical import of “Somebody’s Watching You”, but it was a bigger hit; with its slippery, heavy-bottomed kick-cymbal pattern, its proto-disco bonafides are unimpeachable while it provides some of the last throes of “Thank You”-style twanging funk lingering in Sly’s system.
That big change came within the year. The final version of “Somebody’s Watching You”, released in November 1970, is mighty illuminating, the original Stand! version’s glib “shady as a lady with a mustache” silliness revealing a quiet intensity underneath. (The singers’ emphatic swings from hushed restraint to full belting on certain lines—”just when you think you’ve pulled a fast one” is a particularly sharp jolt—sounds even more surprising than that now-familiar mechanical drum pattern.) The B-side to the original 7″, a more uptempo cut titled “Stanga”, points even more clearly to the future; the juxtaposed MRK and shadowy wah-wah guitar fit the Riot blueprint almost as starkly as its dark, cynical-realist lyrics do. Imagine hearing “Everybody Is a Star” in December ’69 and learning less than a year later that the same man would write the line “Sometime or another, you’re gonna be stung/ Sometime or another, you might see a brother hung.”
Another piece of the puzzle is provided by Joe Hicks, an enigmatic singer whose output largely consists of a couple Stone-produced singles, a 1973 LP on Enterprise, and little else. Stone reveals little about the man (“[I knew him] back in Sacramento when he used to be a bully. He got real depressed, got strung out on heroin and died.”), and so does his single “Life & Death in G & A”—a song originally given to the New York A&M funk-rock band Abaco Dream in 1969 but rumored to have been played by the Family Stone themselves. Handled by Hicks, the two-key arrangement is a far cry instrumentally from the brass-blasting funk of the Abaco Dream original (or the ’74 Funkadelic-tinged Chairmen of the Board epic, for that matter), the see-saw dynamic at its most extreme through the stark downtempo accompaniment and Hicks’ almost pained-sounding wail of the refrain “if it feels good, it’s all right.” Like Little Sister’s metamorphosis, the change of scene for Joe Hicks is represented by a major jump in Sly’s approach; the horn-driven fuzzbomb of 1969’s first Stone Flower production, “I’m Goin’ Home” b/w “Home Sweet Home”, is a fine feint towards both rock and funk that’s the closest the Family Stone ever came to resembling the J.B.’s’ beating-heart machinery precision. Another what-could’ve-been.
There are four tracks on I’m Just Like You credited solely to Sly, demos and prototypes for what would eventually define the singular sound that ran through the lifeblood of Riot. (“Just Like a Baby” is a little too fast, “Spirit” and “Scared” are unremarkable sketches, and “Africa” is coldly desolate when it’s not talking to you.) But it’s the band behind this compilation’s titular song that proves to be the most compatible purveyor of Sly’s developing vision. 6IX were a done-too-soon one-off group built around the talents of New York harmonica player/CBS mail clerk Marvin Braxton, with “I’m Just Like You” b/w “Dynamite” their sole Stone Flower single. Initially, they were their own thing; early-stage circa-’69 recordings (“Trying to Make You Feel Good”, “You Can, We Can”, and an early full-band runthrough of “I’m Just Like You”) relied on the punchy live-band funk provided by the former members of a mixed-race nightclub-circuit group called the Soul Rascals.
By the time their sole single dropped in December 1970, however, the live band that warmed a Madison Square Garden crowd for Sly the previous month manifested on wax as Stone and Braxton alone with singer Charles Higgins. Life highlight “Dynamite”, originally slated as the headliner, was remolded into a skulking, hiccuping, skeletal B-side. “I’m Just Like You” became the A-side, and its first 15 seconds—dusty drum machine clicks prodded by human hands, heavy-shouldered bass murky with humidity, organ notes that dart like wary eyes—could fit somewhere on a spectrum between “Family Affair” and “Brave & Strong”. And then Higgins starts belting lurching cartoons of Sly-esque melody to knockout effect, the empathy of “Everyday People” upended into a mirror-staring reckoning: “Don’t’cha know that I can see/ You’re takin’ steaks away from me/ You forgot, I get hungry too/ I know how you feel, I’m just like you.” Few knew at the time that this kind of spirit would lead to the dominant sound of Riot. But in retrospect, hearing that development going on made one thing clear: everything was new.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1yPUBLS