Artist: Sly & The Family Stone
Title: Family Affair
Description: single; album track, There’s A Riot Goin’ On
Release date: 1971
First heard: circa 1970s
How are you with hand-me-downs? Have you spent any considerable time in secondhand clothes? Were you an Oxfam hipster before the term “vintage” legitimised the wearing of a dead man’s shoes? Have you driven a used car that smelt of a sales rep’s nicotine habit? Would you eat off a dining companion’s plate? Did your chewing gum lose its flavour on the bedpost overnight? If your answer to any of these is yes, then you’re probably a fan of There’s A Riot Goin’ On, one of the down-and-dirtiest LPs ever made and all the more legendary and essential for that. Even the flag on the front is grubby.
The sixties are dead. It’s on America’s tortured brow that Mickey Mouse has grow up a cow. Sylvester Stone, the man who fused psychedelic rock to funk and soul, is behaving erratically. He’s in with the Black Panthers and gangsters. He’s been missing gigs. It’s two years since the Family Stone’s last hit, Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin). The violin case he carries with him? Full of coke and PCP, by all accounts. But Sly has a plan. He’s holed up, like a horny Brian Wilson, at The Plant in Sausolito, or at his home studio in Bel Air, and he’s recording like crazy while his pet monkey tries to make sweet love to his pet dog, by all accounts. He’s making his own Exile On Main Street, whether consciously, unconsciously or otherwise.
Though hailed, and rightly so, as a pop classic, There’s A Riot Goin’ On (its title an answer to the question posed by Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On?) is pure filth. The Funk courses through its every capillary. The sound is muddied and muffled, like there’s fluff permanently on the needle. And yet it sings! It zings! it brings! It soars! It punches through the fog of punished magnetic tape! For an ideas-clogged meisterwerk, it even concealed two three-minute chart hits to soothe the record company’s savage breast – not to mention shipping half a million in its first year of release after summiting Billboard in its own, flag-draped right. The most decisive of the pair was Family Affair, tucked away on side one, track four. (The featherlight follow-up Runnin’ Away, a blueprint for all of De La Soul, is side two, track five.)
Amid all the gung-ho experimentation, jazz freewheeling, freakouts and yodeling, Family Affair feels as honed and polished as a diamond. There’s nothing here to frighten the horses: a clicky beatbox beat, a steady rubber-band bass, some Rhodes swirls from Billy Preston, Rose Stone’s repeated, magic-hour refrain (“It’s a family affair/It’s a family affa-ai-ai-air“), overlaid by Sly’s oak-smoked tones, riffing. The cumulative effect is akin to actual black magic; though hooky, singsong and populist in construct, it’s suffused in black history and as liable to crack as Sly’s voice. What went into the making of this record is right there in the grooves: the insomnia, the introspection, the self-medication, the peek over the lip of insanity, the whole superfly soap opera with that revolving door for fragrant female auditionees whose tryouts were committed to tape and then recorded over by the next candidate, by all accounts. This is why the grooves overfloweth.
Out of all the drug-taking, love-making and forsaking arises a social conscience every bit as vivid as the one that beats beneath Bobby Womack’s Across 110th Street or Marvin’s Inner City Blues, and achieved in fewer words.
One child grows up to be
Somebody that just loves to learn
And another child grows up to be
Somebody you’d just love to burn
Mom loves the both of them
You see it’s in the blood
Both kids are good to Mom
“Blood’s thicker than the mud”
Quite the chronicler. For a man whose vision must have been permanently clouded by what the actor Steven Toast would later rhyme with Children In Need, Sly’s perception was keen. And was there ever a more hopeful vignette than this?
Newlywed a year ago
But you’re still checking each other out, yeeeeeeaaaaaahhh!
For a song whose instrumentation actually sounds as if it’s in the process of tripping over right the way through, Family Affair is in full control of its faculties. It might not pass a breathalyser, but you’d want it at your birthday party. Head in the clouds, brain in its pants, a fist raised to black power and the other hand up an available skirt – this is sex, politics, social change and happy hour in one hit. Nobody wants to blow. Nobody wants to be left out.