Editor’s Note: Sly and the Family Stone released their fifth studio album on this day 50 years ago. Read Okla Jones’ retrospective essay below, and take a deeper dive into the album with our podcast The Opus: There’s a Riot Goin’ On.
When There’s a Riot Goin’ On was released in 1971 — exactly 50 years ago today, November 1st — America was a nation in transition, feeling the effects of the previous decade. The shadow of Dr. King’s assassination loomed over the black community; and the Vietnam War divided an entire country. What Sly and the Family Stone’s fifth album did was give a voice to a new generation yearning to be heard.
The revolution, as it was referred to by some, was when the hip, twenty-somethings of the world experienced an awakening, so to speak, and pushed the limits of sex, drugs, and entertainment. Sly Stone, who was then still a young adult, was the perfect embodiment of this era. During the infancy stages of There’s a Riot Goin’ On, Sly recorded most of the album alone, heavily under the influence of narcotics.
After Sly and the Family Stone’s legendary Woodstock performance in 1969, there was a change within the group. Differences between Sly and other members — especially Larry Graham — created a rift in the group, but it also laid the foundation for their most important body of work. Sly’s everyday life may have been clouded by drug use, but the Black Panther movement of the late ’60s and early ’70s gave him a new awareness of the social climate that existed.
Before the release of this landmark project, Sly and the Family Stone were known for their poppy, upbeat psychedelic soul anthems. Sly, Freddie and Rose Stone, alongside Cynthia Robinson, Jerry Martini, Larry Graham and Greg Errico made magic as a collective, but it was time for a change. There’s a Riot Goin’ On was a departure from the band’s original sound, and it contained much darker concepts than previous efforts. Sly’s hollowed out and heavily overdubbed vocals, and the ominous drum patterns over an experimental funk melody, created a body of work that would forever impact the craft of musicianship.
Recorded at Sly Stone’s home in Bel Air and at The Record Plant in Sausalito, There’s a Riot Goin’ On is a collection of thoughts and emotions from a man in self-imposed isolation. Often, the album’s eerie tones create a visual of Sly’s point of view. His affiliation with the Black Panthers made him disgusted at the current state of the world, and the battle within the group he worked so hard to build was taking its toll. At a point where drugs may have had a grip on Sly’s soul, he never sounded more creatively unrestricted.
The album opens with “Luv N’ Haight,” a song filled with distorted guitar riffs, symbolic of the drug induced bubble of Sly’s existence. The track includes lyrics such as, “Feel so good inside myself, don’t need to move/ As I grow up, I’m growing down/ And when I’m lost, I know I will be found.” His journey was one of uncertainty, both in life and in his career.
“Family Affair,” the album’s lead single, was anything but what the title implies. Sly’s addiction was breaking the group apart, and the song spoke to his experiences with the Family Stone, as well the environment around him. What is ironic about this song, then — which eventually reached No. 1 on the Billboard 100 — is that his family was barely involved at all. It was rumored that he played all the instruments on “Family Affair” by himself, and commissioned artists such as Bobby Womack, Bill Preston, and Ike Turner, rather than his bandmates, to lend a hand throughout the album.
Tracks such as “Time,” and “Spaced Cowboy,” were the true core of the LP. On “Time,” the lyrics speak about how much of it is wasted, and its fleeting nature. “Spaced Cowboy,” meanwhile, is just a day in the life of Sly, but it is also a representation of his creative genius.
It has been said that There’s a Riot Goin’ On was a direct response, even an addition, to Marvin Gaye’s magnum opus, What’s Goin’ On. The album mirrored the struggles of life, and it gave listeners a unique feeling that was much needed.