They have the grace to stop just on the point of tragedy, and they are staggering.
Paul Bennun 2007
Epic finally re-release all the good Sly records: records which see them emerging as more than just another gospel / R&B crew achieving transcendence, and finally showing signs of impending collapse. They have the grace to stop just on the point of tragedy, and they are staggering. This career arc encompasses early tunes which stink of R&B and bibles - to unique music that had to live in a world that it had partly created; not just musically, but politically and socially too.
Every little click and buzz is here, such as the zealous application of analogue reverb on "Underdog", but even more interesting is actually hearing what the song was supposed to be about. For example, do you recognise this lyric?: ‘Flaming eyes of people’s fear, burning into you / Many men are missing much, hating what they do.’? No, it's not Nirvana. It's from that top pop track "Thank You (Falletinme Be Mice Elf Agin)." And while we’re on the subject of memories versus truth, that track wasn't even on the original release of There's A Riot Goin' On, although the slinky down-tempo version "Thank You Talking to Me Africa" is, featuring the same lyric. Yes, memory is a funny thing; and what you remember about 'high period' Sly and the Family Stone may well not be you hear on these records.
To tackle them chronologically, we start with A Whole New Thing, which tanked in 1967 but can still drop jaws at 50 paces 30 years later. The standout here is "Trip to Your Heart," a mystically perfect love song dressed up as a sweaty foot-stomper. The albums Dance To The Music and Life show Sly and co. focussing all and every innovation they can on the groove; the classics are the title track of the former and "M'Lady" from the latter. Both sound more Hendrix-y and trippier then you probably remember; for example, "Plastic Jim"'s merry appropriation of The Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby."
One could argue about it all day, but Stand! could well be the apotheosis of this series. Lyrically it's a call to arms, a statement of intent backed up with an explicit political message - all of it buried in lightning-powered funk. The band's staggering intake of whatever was going hadn't yet ruined them.
It's all gone a bit dark by the time we get to There's A Riot Goin' On, which is never a bad thing. By this time of course, the gaps were showing. It's also obvious that someone's had just a touch too many party-starters over the previous five years. It's actually a fairly fragmented, downtempo album; the self-confidence of early albums replaced with lyrics that try too hard to convince you the band is "Brave and Strong", and if someone's "Running Away" there's a good, moral, political reason. It’s amazing, compelling, tragic music with bottomless innovation and surprise.
The final albums, Fresh and Small Talk are more fixed-grin grooveathons in comparison, yet even Fresh is laden with classics such as "In Time," "If You Want Me to Stay" and "Let Me Have It All". Those three songs alone have inspired innumerable careers. From skittery funk which out syncopates Timbaland, to a six-pack of differently-flavoured seduction songs, Fresh came only six years after A Whole New Thing. Sly may be just about the best advert for not-doing-cocaine the world ever saw but the music has dated well; it's just Sly himself that didn't.