Sly & The Family Stone - Sly & The Family Stone Higher!

Riotous collection of The Family’s stone-cold classics

 Don’t be fooled by the picture on the box: that
crouching, grinning, mischievous Sylvester Stewart
is but one aspect of The Family Stone. There was
always a darker, murkier group beneath the
colourful clothes and zeitgeist slogans. You want
to look at one of the most influential funk groups
of all time? Sure, go ahead. But note: while
George Clinton was indebted to Sly for his music
– P-Funk’s genesis is there in the 1967 and ’68
Family Stone album cuts Trip To Your Heart and
Into My Own Thing – he also picked up his hero’s
freebasing addiction.

Oh, and that lo-fi masterpiece, There’s A Riot
Goin’ On? It might have seen early drum machines
replace the slap-bass, laying down a whole new
blueprint for future funkateers – not least Prince;
but its cocaine and PCP-fuelled recording sessions
(legend has it Miles Davis is somewhere in the mix
– on piano) proved so ruinous, and their
ringmaster ever-more erratic, re-recording his own
versions of everyone else’s parts, that the Family
never survived the fall-out. Bassist Larry Graham
went on the run and would turn to the Jehovah’s
Witnesses for salvation (another, later, influence
on Prince, as Graham introduced him to the Good
Book in the late 90s).

If you want a more detailed account of each
album, you’ll have to check our Reissue Of The
Month review in RC 335. Limited, expanded
editions of Sly & The Family Stone’s first seven
long-players, from 1967’s A Whole New Thing to
1974’s Small Talk, were reissued in 2007 and are
now out of print. This box set sort of plugs that
gap. Really, though, you need 1968’s Stand!,
’71’s Riot and ’73’s Fresh in their entirety:
evidence of the group at their tightest, their most
euphoric and inclusive; and of Sly at his most
elusive, introspective and mercurial. (It’s a brave
man that yodels on an R&B cut, as Sly does on
Riot’s Spaced Cowboy; it took another four
decades for someone to do it as convincingly.
Don’t be surprised to read that that man was
R Kelly – and that he did it with more gusto.)

Discs One and Two here also reveal the boxlid
photo’s other bit of misdirection: Sly & The
Family Stone were, first and foremost, a group.
While they struggled to create a solid full-length
until their third album, 1968’s Life, they were
brimming with ideas: surf licks, Latin-and-R&B
mix-ups, their now-iconic vocal interplay, all
melded into a psych-rock-soul-funk stew. With its
Frère Jacques quote leading into some propulsive
funk-power, debut single Underdog was the first
evidence that something big would come from
their all-inclusive ethos; the standalone 1969
double-A-sided single, Thank You (Falettinme Be
Mice Elf Again)/Everybody Is A Star, would
arguably be its apogee.

That, for a while, seemed to be The Family
Stone to a T: mixed-race, mixed-sex, whooping it up
for the everyday people. Their first four albums flew
out in less than two years, but while these records
presented a unified front, a colourful aesthetic that
appealed to the hippie and the soul brother alike,
the previously unreleased outtakes included here
suggest that Sly’s darker side was always
a nascent threat. The presciently titled Silent
Communications sticks right out: a laidback, jazzy
ballad at odd with everything that was going on in
public. “I didn’t know I was ill until I got well,” Sly
sings – again, more than aptly, given the path he
would take – while keeping these private concerns
hidden beneath the party-hearty façade. Fortune
And Fame and What Would I Do further suggest
that Sly’s demons were waiting to take him down
from the start.

Disc Three is, unsurprisingly, largely
devoted to Stand!, as presented through single,
album and period live cuts, with the 1970 Isle
Of Wight Festival performance proving what a
unifying live experience The Family Stone could
be, both for band and audience. But the
no-shows weren’t far behind, and then Sly left
the building for good.

It’s perhaps no surprise that the perfunctory
post-Fresh cuts here include Loose Booty and
Crossword Puzzle, both arguably better-known for
being sampled in the 80s for superior tracks by
Beastie Boys (Shadrach) and De La Soul (Say No
Go). But by the time Sly recorded them for High
On You and Heard Ya Missed Me, Well, I’m Back
(1975 and ’76 respectively), the baton had been
passed and George Clinton’s P-Funk Mothership
was in full effect. Sly, already well into his
descent, would never really recover. The man
who once led the whole of Woodstock in his
iconic I Want To Take You Higher chant had
taken to phoning-in his vocals – such as they’d
become – from a remote headset while he laid in
his red race-car bed.

So, the picture on the front of the box?
Remember him that way.

4 stars 4 stars 4 stars 4 stars

Sony | cat no tbc (4CD)

Reviewed by Jason Draper
<< Back to Issue 419