At this point, the myth of There’s A Riot Goin’ On has assumed a stature on par with the album itself. It’s a near-perfect narrative—the formerly optimistic musician, burnt out on the state of the world, holes up in the studio with nothing but his own creativity, and in a drug-fueled haze produces a masterpiece. Sly Stone would certainly fit the tortured artist archetype, and nothing makes the poppy, psychedelic soul of albums like Life stand out like seeing the Family Stone’s inner darkness poured out so thoroughly here. But reducing Riot to the role it played in Sly & The Family Stone’s artistic progression would be doing it a huge disservice. Stripped entirely of context, it’s still a great album, and one that could serve as a landmark in any band’s career.
For starters, it combines darkness and funkiness in ways few acts—then or now—could ever hope to. The sound is notoriously low-fi and murky (the tape hiss seems to be as much a player as any instrument) and it marks such a change from the clear-eyed sound of previous Family Stone albums, they barely feel like the work of the same band.
Overall, There’s A Riot Goin’ On functions less as a collection of songs and more as an extended mood piece: most songs follow traditional verse-chorus structures (with a few notable exceptions), but overall, musical elements fade in and out seemingly at random. It trades the pop and soul of previous albums for more prominent jazz and funk influences, with an improvisational feeling dominating for several of the longer tracks (“Africa Talks To You” in particular). Everything has a rough, visceral texture, from the slithering guitar lines to the bubbling drum machines, that helps to negate some of the album’s more chaotic qualities—when there are no obvious grooves to latch onto, one can simply lie back and appreciate the sound of the record.
If any aspect of Riot suffers from the poor sound quality, it’s undoubtedly the vocals. Sly sounds like he’s drowning in the instrumentation more often than not, and the album’s lead single, “Family Affair,” is one of the few in which any words can be clearly discerned. Not that the lyrics are any more cheerful than their backing music. “Time they say is the answer,” Sly croons mournfully at one point, “but I don’t believe it.”
Now, that’s not to say the album’s a slog, or not any fun. It’s perhaps the most jubilant descent into despair ever laid to tape: from the ode to drug-induced escape that kicks off the album, to the twisted “survival of the fittest” sentiments expressed in “Brave & Strong,” all the way to the cheerfully nihilistic verses of “Thank You For Talkin’ To Me, Africa,” the album remains incredibly funky, if not particularly uplifting. As far as albums made by people on drugs about being on drugs go, it’s by no means the most inaccessible out there.
In the end, Sly isn’t consigning you to the murk, merely inviting you in for a while to look around. The Family Stone’s follow-up album, Fresh, returned the group to some of their earlier, happier dynamics, but even then, it couldn’t help descending into some of the same despair as Riot. “Thank you for the party, but I could never stay,” Sly sings on the final track: back in his mind, once again.
Essential Listening: Luv N’ Haight, Africa Talks To You (The Asphalt Jungle), Spaced Cowboy