Earlier in 1971, Marvin Gaye asked all of us, “What’s Going On?” In response, speaking for many in the black community, Sly and the Family Stone answered with “There’s a Riot Goin’ On”. Highly praised by many, this album is rated as the #82 album on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. It also rated as the #2 funk album of all time by digitaldreamdoors.com.
During this exercise, two of my major comparatives have been the music of the time, as well as the evolution of each artist. As such, I’m naturally inclined to look back at 1969’s “Stand!”, which wasn’t quite as highly praised. In total, I think “Stand!” is an album I enjoy more, as I think the final product is a bit more polished and structured. Here is my overarching take on “There’s a Riot Goin’ On”. It is a great collection of funk grooves and beats, but it feels more like a collection of backing tracks to some nonexistent movie. The songs groove and roll on, but for me, there isn’t as much of a hook to most of these tracks. Don’t get me wrong, if this were the soundtrack to a movie, it would be one bad-ass movie, but on it’s own, I like it, but don’t love it.
The album opens with the super funky “Luv N’ Haight”, which is one of my preferred tracks on the album. Next comes “Just Like a Baby”, which like many songs, has a killer rhythm but never takes that next step forward to pull you all the way in. The exact same description applies to “Poet”. “A Family Affair” is the most successful single track from the album, but again, I think it is a good but not great lead track.
One other great example is the song “Spaced Cowboy”. The funk groove to open this song is deadly, but several minutes of melodic yodeling, I assume as a representation of this “Spaced Cowboy”, just doesn’t do it for me. The album ends with another bad-ass groove that drifts and looks for that elusive hook. “Thank You for Talkin’ to Me, Africa”, which was the working title for the album before they switched to “There’s a Riot Goin’ On”, hits hard with the collective groove of bass, guitar and drums, but never takes me as high as I was hoping Sly could deliver.
Even if it is a little too experimental and less focused than I would prefer, it serves as another outstanding timestamp of early 1970s funk, a high tide mark for the genre in many ways.