Classic Music Review: Stand! by Sly and the Family Stone

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Curiously neutral on this one, but click to buy anyway.

Soul music went through its psychedelic period, too, thanks in large part to Sly Stone. The transformation wasn’t quite as drastic as in rock: the songs became longer and there was more effect-coated guitar work, but The Temptations still sounded like The Temptations. Sly’s influence is more obvious in the development of funk, where his guitar stylings merged with James Brown’s strong emphasis on the downbeat to create the sound you hear in George Clinton’s bands. Sly also spurred Motown to move beyond the limitations of boy-girl romance tunes and into songs with socio-political messages.

I’ll give him all that, but music critics have consistently overrated Sly Stone’s influence, as well as the overall quality of his work. Joel Selvin wrote in his oral history of the group that “There are two types of black music: black music before Sly Stone, and black music after Sly Stone.” My goodness! Lumping Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry and Little Richard into a homogenous group of primitives is an astonishingly stupid claim. Having grown up in the same town as Mr. Selvin, all I can say is dumb shit like this is what reinforces the stereotype of San Francisco as hopelessly provincial. Mr. Selvin is a San-Francisco based critic who used to write for the San Francisco Chronicle, and Sly and the Family Stone were a San Francisco-based band. Think there’s a bit of hometown bias operating there? I found that this trend is embedded in the DNA of San Francisco music critics; my dad says that Ralph Gleason pulled the same shit with John Fogerty, anointing him the Mark Twain of rock music.

As for the quality of Sly’s work, it was wildly inconsistent, but he did manage to produce some pretty good songs before he became a slave to drugs in the period after Stand! became a runaway success. To his credit, Sly was colorblind when it came to music, and his openness to the work of white artists gave him more territory to explore in his own music ventures. When he was a DJ with KSOL, he stunned his listeners by mixing songs by The Beatles and The Stones in his playlists. He produced white bands like The Beau Brummels, The Mojo Men and The Great Society. When he formed Sly and the Family Stone with his two siblings, he hired two white guys to play sax and drums, an act that seriously pissed off The Black Panthers. While I love the message and the meaning of his work, I have to say that Stand!, like nearly all psychedelic albums, is a mix of good stuff and bad stuff, of solid lyrics and mish-mash, of creative highs and undisciplined indulgence.

The title track opens the album, and once you get beyond the rather annoying self-help lyrics and the underpowered bass guitar, you find a well-arranged piece with definite enthusiasm and energy. Many people have commented that the best part is the “gospel” section following the self-help pamphlet. Well, I agree and disagree. It’s a solid, less-than-a-minute sample of good hard funk music, but the cut from the song proper to this segment is so abrupt that it feels tacked-on at the last minute. The contrast is also heightened by the sudden emergence of the bass that had been missing in the song, which is explained once you realize that half of The Family Stone weren’t around to record this section and Sly and the remaining members worked with studio pros to get the job done. A better approach would have been to let “Stand!” fade into nothingness and extend this promising piece of funk music into a track of its own.

Instead, the next track is “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey,” a title that I’m sure was very provocative at a time of Black Power and White Backlash. As for a message to back up the promise of that title, fugheddaboudit. Here are all of the lyrics:

Don’t call me nigger, whitey
Don’t call whitey, nigger

Well, I went down across the country
Ana I heard the voices ring
People talkin’ softly to each other
And not a word could change a thing

That’s it? Perhaps calling the song “Wimp Out” might have given the listener fairer warning. The song clocks in at six minutes, though, and Sly chose to the fill the time playing with his new toys: a vocoder and a wah-wah pedal. The result defines the word “tiresome.”

Next up is the studio version of the song made famous at Woodstock, “I Want to Take You Higher.” This is a pure groove song where the words don’t matter at all, but it’s pretty obvious that the word “higher” was used specifically to score points with stoners (a point conclusively proven by the call-and-response on the live version from the Woodstock album). Ignoring that shallow attempt at consumer manipulation, this is still a great dance floor piece with undeniable energy and a well-executed arrangement that blends a solid foundation with sonic variation. It also highlights the strength of the family approach, with the four vocalists each getting a line of verse before coming together in the chorus. “I Want to Take You Higher” is easily one of the best songs of psychedelic soul, synthesizing soul, rock and funk into a power-packed, get-down-and-dirty experience.

The idiot who wrote the Wikipedia article on Stand! described “Somebody’s Watching You” as a “somber song about paranoia,” defining himself as yet another male with his head stuck firmly up his ass. Any woman will tell you that this is a song about female cattiness. We broads (self included) have been programmed to check each other out: shoes, makeup, hairstyle, shape and scent. It’s a little different with me, since the reason I check out women is to see if I want to fuck them, but I fell into the habit of eyeing the competition during my formative years because all my girlfriends were doing it. The practice stems from centuries of cultural indoctrination that we need to compete for male attention; its main purpose is to find something wrong with the other woman you can pick at, giving yourself a little buzz of haughty superiority. When the woman is clearly superior, you’re left with, “She must think she’s pretty hot shit, the bitch,” which isn’t half as satisfying. Think of it as the female version of trash-talking, but unlike guys, women really fucking mean it. The effect of all this is to put additional pressure on women to think, look and act beautiful, and that’s really what “Somebody’s Watching You” is all about. It’s a message to women to relax, be themselves, explore the whole person inside and stop spending so much time in front of the mirror:

Pretty, pretty, pretty as a picture
Witty, witty, witty as you can be
Blind ’cause your eyes see only glitter
Closed to the things that make you free

Ever stop to think about a downfall
Happens at the end of every line
Just when you think you’ve pulled a fast one
Happens to the foolish all the time

The closing line “Jealous people like to see you bleed” is no fiction: there are women in the world who deeply resent those who are prettier, and would love to scratch the sheen off their lovely complexions in a cat fight. The music features nice movement, relaxed spot harmonies and some very tasty counterpoint guitar work. The processed vocals on the last verse are a bit irritating, as the processing lowers the volume and reduces the bottom, but all in all, this is a pretty good tune. I can’t say the same for “Sing a Simple Song,” no matter how many Motowners covered it. It’s like something that you might hear in the soul version of The Sound of Music: flaccid, superficial and sanitized. “I hate each Julie Andrews film they’ve made,” sang Vivian Stanshall, and I feel the same way about “Sing a Simple Song.”

As luck would have it, though, it’s followed by “Everyday People,” one of the great singles of all time. For once on this album, Sly strips the arrangement down to the absolute essentials, allowing the groove to carry the song without a lot of extraneous noise. The piano sticks to the vamp, Larry Graham’s slap-pop bass keeps the throb going, and the space is cleared nicely with the soft “ooh, sha-sha” for Sly to belt out the most important line, “We’ve got to live together.” I love the horn section’s supporting pattern of melody and counterpoint and would love to hear an instrumental-only version. The message is still relevant today, as we all struggle with the notion of “different strokes for different folks.” I have a hard time with gun owners, religious zealots and the greedy rich; people can’t accept me because I smoke, have sex with both genders and engage in various perversions. My solution was to leave the U. S. and live in a place where the people who make me uncomfortable are in shorter supply, but while the move has definitely improved my spirits, I have a weird, nagging guilt that I copped out instead of standing my ground. Maybe I don’t believe in “different strokes for different folks” if it means tolerating someone’s violent, dogmatic or selfish proclivities. Sigh. I’m another flawed human being, I guess.

Hmm. Lots to think about. Well, there’s that and then there’s the truth. I’m stalling because I loathe the next piece.

Casual readers who read my tagline and find my bare ass halfway down the page may assume that I would automatically like a piece of music entitled “Sex Machine.” I would tell those people, “Look, I may be horny most of the time but I still have a brain and a pair of ears connected to that brain and I don’t do all of my thinking through my clit!” Those ears tell me that “Sex Machine” is probably the worst instrumental in all of psychedelia, a rancid piece of garbage more foul than any pointless jam recorded by the Grateful Dead. Sly’s obsession with his vocoder is taken to bizarre extremes, as this structurally boring jam pretty much covers the entire vocabulary of that regrettable piece of technology in thirteen excruciating minutes. The piece engenders a feeling that combines simmering irritation with the creeps, and I hope I never have to hear it again as long as I live.

And that’s me trying to be nice.

Stand! ends with “You Can Make It If You Try,” bookending the album with another set of self-help and self-affirmation messages. The song has a good strong groove but the lyrics are a string of Successory-like clichés designed to buck up those who need more confidence. My prescription would be a few shots of single malt scotch or whatever your favorite likker happens to be. I also think the message “you can make it if you try” is silly, as it ignores the institutional racism, sexism and elitism that can’t be conquered by putting your nose to the grindstone. This is Sly channeling the naive optimism of the hippies, and while it probably helped sell records to white people, he was capable of more nuanced and intelligent thought.

All in all, I found Stand! an album of highs and lows. What I noticed most is that it didn’t generate anywhere near the excitement I felt listening to the records in my Motown series or to the live performance of the band on the Woodstock album. Despite a track called “Sex Machine,” Stand! isn’t a particularly sexy album. While Martha Reeves, The Temptations and Smokey Robinson consistently stimulated both my hip muscles and libido, Stand! leaves me stuck in neutral. Even the social commentary seems milquetoast in comparison to later songs like Edwin Starr’s knock-you-on-your-ass-take-no-prisoners classic, “War.” My hypothesis is that there was something about the psychedelic music ethos that resulted in music that was more diffuse and less focused.

I wrote that, read that and said, “Well, duh!” Less focused? No shit! Everybody was higher than a frigging kite!

GO TO THE NEXT POST IN THE SERIES: IT’S A BEAUTIFUL DAY

3 responses

  1. Hmmm… many years since I last heard this album and I no longer have any Sly in my collection other than a handful of the hits which is pretty much all the Sly I really need.

    I could never quite put my finger on what it was about them that failed to satisfy me but I think you’ve come up with the simple answer – it doesn’t make me want to get up and dance my pants off save for one or two tracks here hence why one is better off with a basic greatest hits package since yes… sitting through sludgy rubbish like the dreaded “Sex Machine” is distinctly unrewarding.

    No denying they were a great band and had the potential to be incredible as their best moments prove but sadly, Sly was too busy pandering to commercialism and enjoying his party lifestyle far too much to the degree the music ceased to matter any more. If Sly couldn’t be bothered to turn up for gigs and sessions then why should the rest of us bother with him? A total waste of talent and as of a few years ago, nothing has changed, he’s still pulling his stupid prima-donna stunts which harmed his legacy even more.

    As for that Joel Selvin… what an asswipe. To dismiss all those legends you listed to which I’ll add the obvious one – Miles Davis as well as Berry Gordy – is pure arrogant blinkered ignorance. The damning thing is, he’ll have gotten PAID for writing that rubbish whereas here we have a superb writer who offers more insight in one sentence than Selvin could manage in his entire career. Jeez… people like that do infuriate me!

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    1. Ha! I’ve tried to get my head around Selvin’s comment, and the only thing I can come up with to give him the benefit of the doubt is that he was talking about the music business before and after Sly: Sly opened things up for funk, which led to rap and hip-hop. Stand! is one of the most sampled records of all-time, a despicable procedure where you simply play a patch over and over for your shitty, misogynistic poetry (and call it rap or hip-hop). If that’s what he was talking about, his articles should have appeared in the business section of the Chronicle, not the Arts section. Rap and hip-hop are artistic regressions, not progressions.

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