Fred Wesley, a key player in James Brown’s mind-blowing 60’s and 70’s masterwerks, before heading to hyper-space with Parliament-Funkadelic, reckons that:
“If you have a syncopated bass line, a strong, strong heavy back beat from the drummer, a counter-line up from guitar or keys, and someone soul-singing on top of that, in a gospel style, then you have the funk”. (Funk:The Music,The People, and The Rhythm of The One”).
You heard the man, you have the manual - now go find the funk!
Music and not just the evolution of funk, reached a watershed moment with Stand, Sly & The Family Stone’s fourth album. To reach such dizzy heights, Greg Enrico had been tricked into joining Sly & The Family Stone on drums, aged 16. Sly also recruited Funk’s version of The Ox, Larry Graham, creator of the hugely influential ‘thump and pluck’ attack of the bass strings. A rhythm section that could set sail for the furthest regions of Funkalonia and wouldn’t miss a heartbeat.
Jerry Martini (great name for a jazz-man) joined on saxophone and the amazing Cynthia Robinson on trumpet. A horn section which drew heavily from RnB innovator Junior Walker to become the Motorhead of brass. Sly wrote, arranged and sang the songs, whilst he and brother Freddie took care of guitar and Sister Rose sang and played piano.
From the first rehearsal, everyone knew they were creating something completely different. The band’s earliest supporters were high-fiving a unique sound unlike anything else in soul or rock and roll, and when you consider the number of musical geniuses pushing the boundaries in 67, Sly’s music is even more incredible
Monster sized urgent funk that explodes in your hips; as if somewhere in the music is embedded the zeitgeist, and only dancing unlocks the code
A Whole New Thing, the often-overlooked debut LP opens with Underdog, soul’s version of a ram-raid. A tune that kicks harder than the Chemical Brothers, jumping out the speakers to grab your funk glands until they swell and groove. A prime candidate for breakbeat theft and reinvention. It’s one of those songs that make the rest of an album think,” ah sheet-we gotta follow that?”.
A dense complex innovative ambitious and playful first record which weaves between psychedelia and soul towards the birth of funk, three years before Norman Whitfield’s amazing Psychedelic Shack.
Before Sly formed the Stone, he started a band called ‘Sons of Ray’ with Billy Preston, inspired by the one and only Ray Charles. Sly was also a popular DJ, spinning platters that matter with no time for the transistor broadcast formula. In his supposed ‘soul only hour’, Sylvester would sprinkle the airwaves with The Stones and Dylan, early signs of an eclectic appreciation of music, one which would influence the sound and structure of his next project.
Sly put together one of the first male/female/ black/white bands in America and unlike the leadership style of James Brown, Sly gave his brothers and sisters free reign to go find the funk. Boy, did they find it!
Dance To The Music, the band’s second LP, did exactly what it said on the tin. Life, released 6 months later, began the ascent towards perfection. As the music grew ever more stellar, Sly’s observations became more sophisticated, sensitive to the subtleties of power and the manufacturing of consent to quash individuality. Colour Me True show-cased Sly’s ability to more fully define and articulate the individual’s struggle for integrity, equality, for inner-outer peace.
See America through Sly, Curtis or Chuck D eyes; gimme some truth and Uncle Sam aint looking so free
Life is superb, driving funk agile as a cheetah, the song’s arrangements allowing the band to effortlessly shift through the gears, always on the one. The Family shake their tambourines harder than Moonie hits a drum kit and the interplay between the band is astonishing.
The BIG BANG, the unified funk surge, arrived in May 1969 with the release of Stand, one of the most powerful and original records ever made. The album opens with the brilliant song of the same name, a tune containing one of the best breaks ever, allowing the band to lock into a seriously heavy recurring funk-out. One minute you’re below the mirror ball, then that change, and boom; your looking down on the club from the clouds, way beyond the spires.
If John Lennon had written Don’t Call Me Nigger Whitey it would be rightly considered the bravest song of all time. A snarling slab of truth, defiance and soul power, aimed right between the eyes of hatred and intolerance. Lean and mean with a kick like ten tons of dynamite, a song unrivalled in 60’s America. Dylan at his hypnotic causeless rebel best, or even the mighty MC5, didn’t aim the guns of the guitar army so accurately towards the dark heart of broken America. A monster track and safe bet as the last song on side A (no other song must follow it), but not so on a SATFS long player.
I Want To Take You Higher is a relentless pulverising high-energy soaked blast, which sounds like the last Northern Soul song ever to be played before rapture engulfs the dancefloor
Catch your breath as the song dissolves and the haunting glide of Somebody’s Watching You flashes past. Bitter sweet existential soul blues. The compartmentalised fragmented production accentuates the feeling of dissociation felt by the characters in the song. Everyday people trying to keep it real, battling the duality of life and wage slave compromise.
To fully appreciate Slymania, check out the live albums from Woodstock and the Fillmore East. Electrified non-step medicine strong enough to knock down Lourdes and replace it with a Sound System playing only Sly & The Family Stone. Watch as pilgrims, lost in the beat, throw away their crutches.
One can only wonder at what happened to some of the unfortunate souls who did ingest the ‘not necessarily good’ Brown acid at Woodstock. Seekers who may have peaked past as Sly’s cosmonauts swung into the acapella section of the all-out funk assault M’Lady. The band’s blistering Woodstock set is as good, heavy and fresh as The Who’s oomph wallop capow juggernaut performance a few hours later.
Legend tells of Sly being given joint-headline billing with Jimi Hendrix in New York that year. Sly went on first, played a blinder, then led the band and audience down the aisles, out into the street. Even guitar arson struggles to top that in front of an audience whose DNA has just been reconstructed by an hour and half of high voltage sub-bass funk.
It’s a measure of just how good the original Wailers must have been, to get booted from their support slot after playing only four of the seventeen dates booked on Sly & The Family Stone’s tour of 73. The Wailers were at the very height of their powers whilst Sly’s Family had imploded two years previously. Bob’s Rastaman’s vibrations were too powerful for the host as powders from Columbia burned bridges quicker than they could be built.
Sly was snow-blind exhausted as the sixties slipped from view and the band discovered a ghetto in their musical utopia. Left to drift, 1971 finally saw the release of their long awaited fifth album. There’s A Riot Going On is the dark master of funk, devoid of hope yet inspirational, warm but desperate, experimental yet reassuring; laying down the blueprint passed onto Miles, George Clinton and the birth of Hip Hop.
Unlike the previous four records, this last gathering of the original line-up saw the band record individually with Sly, who recorded his vocals lying down, deep inside the grip of free base addiction. A non-local approach which heightened the sense of isolation and claustrophobia within the songs. As America fragmented so did the band, one still able to deliver a modernist masterpiece, and certainly one of the most important records of the 20th Century.
A prophetic record which literally teeters it’s so heavy. An album that begins with Luv & Haight, a song which is groovy as hell but tired as a four-day bender, “I feel so good I don’t need to move”, sings an aching numb-buzzed Sly, suspended in a free base tunnel. The contradictions within the record are incredible, creating tensions which are never resolved. The record crawls on its belly through the highs and lows, towards the final track, “Thank You For Talking To Me Africa”, funk’s odyssey of pain, confusion, fear, hope and renewal.
Fingers start shakin', I begin to run.
Bullets start chasin' I begin to stop.
We begin to wrestle I was on the top.
Thank you f-lettinme be mice elf
Flamin' eyes of people fear, Burnin' into you.
Many men are missin' much, hatin' what they do.
Youth and truth are makin' love,
Dig it for a starter.
Dyin' young is hard to take,
Sellin' out is harder.
I -- want to
Thank you falettinme be mice elf
Despite the fall-out from the Riot, Sly somehow managed to keep it together to record new albums in '73, '74 and '75 before it all got too much for the world's first funk pioneer.
The riot’s still going on.
Sly & The Family Stone discovered the one within the one - go get them in your soul.
Catch you all next Friday when we get back on the blog and take a peek at the artists who have inspired Colour Is Sound.