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.