How Sly & The Family Stone mirrored 1969-1971 America

In 1969, Sly & The Family Stone released their fourth studio album, Stand! In 1971, they released There’s a Riot Goin’ On. The period of time starting and ending with these two albums reveals not only a shifting dynamic of the band, but of the country as a whole.

Cover of Sly and The Family Stone’s Stand! (1969)

When you listen to Stand!, you’re uplifted. The title itself is a positive message, punctuated with an exclamation mark. The album’s overarching theme is one of optimism, communicated through several of the band’s most well-known tracks – “Sing a Simple Song,” “I Want to Take You Higher,” “Everyday People,” and “You Can Make It If You Try.” The band, and the country, was feeling good. The culmination of this attitude happened from August 15 to August 18, 1969 near Woodstock, New York, only three months after Stand! was put out. Not surprisingly, Sly & The Family Stone played Woodstock, and their performance is generally considered one of the most historic of the three days.

After Woodstock, a cultural shift began to occur. The transition from 1969 to 1970 was an ugly one. In 2002, University of Colorado’s Professor Chris H. Lewis wrote:

We can only understand the 1970s as a decade of disillusion, cynicism, bitterness, and anger by examining it in the context of the aftermath of the Vietnam War and Watergate and the Cold War. The American people were increasingly disillusioned with the government and their democratic institutions in the 1970s. The Cold War, the Vietnam War, and Watergate damaged Americans’ faith in their government and their leaders. Burdened with this political disillusionment, American society in the 1970s was also underseige by economic decline and declining standards of living. For many Americans, the 1970s became a decade of transition–marked by confusion, frustration, and an overwhelming feeling that America had lost its direction, as if the very future of the “American experiment” and the “American Dream” might be in question. In the 1970s, Americans were faced with unresolved conflict and problems that challenged the very heart of the post-war liberal consensus; they faced economic stagnation and recession, increasing poverty, decline in their standards of living, fears that the American Dream was becoming harder and harder to achieve, and bitter divisions over America’s fundamental cultural values.

Like many Americans, the members of Sly & The Family Stone started to lose their direction. In particular, Sly Stone’s life became consumed by drugs, and his behavior became more and more erratic. As for the band’s creative output, a collection of greatest hits was put out in 1970.

Though Greatest Hits is an amazing collection of songs and was listed on Rolling Stone‘s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, it still indicates an eighteen-month dry spell within which the band didn’t record any new tracks, even though their contract required an album released in 1970. Sly’s drug use caused him to miss recording sessions, Epic Records needed an album, and Greatest Hits was born.

Cover of Sly & The Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On (1971)

Then, in 1971, Sly & The Family Stone broke the eighteen month dry spell. There’s a Riot Goin’ On reflected the American decline that Lewis wrote about. The album is much different from Stand! Though no less funky, Riot is much more introspective. While Stand! was about celebration, Riot is about tension. In one of my favorite Riot tracks, “Africa Talks to You ‘The Asphalt Jungle,'” this line repeats:

Timber… all fall down!
Timber… who’s around!
Watch out, ’cause the summer gets cold…
When today gets too old!

Indeed, the summer of 1969 got cold, America was trying to mend its wounds, and Sly & The Family Stone put it into song. Rolling Stone (in the link above) wrote, “Stone discovered his utopia had a ghetto, and he brilliantly tore the whole thing down on 1971’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On.”

Though There’s a Riot Goin’ On was met with some hostility upon its release, it has increasingly become a landmark achievement not only for Sly & The Family Stone, but for all music. Both Riot and Stand! are, like most brilliant music, both of their time and ahead of it.


Further Reading:

Professor Lewis’ full explanation of America’s crisis in the 1970s

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