Sly & The Family Stone, Family Affair (1971)

Sly-family-affair

Artist: Sly & The Family Stone
Title: Family Affair
Description: single; album track, There’s A Riot Goin’ On
Label: Epic
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 fuck 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 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 voodoo; though hooky, singalongable and populist in construct, it’s sodden with 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 piss-taking 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 test, 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 a sex, politics, social change and happy hour in one hit. Nobody wants to blow. Nobody wants to be left out.

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The Beach Boys, Good Vibrations (1966)

Good_Vibrations_single

Artist: The Beach Boys
Title: Good Vibrations
Description: single; album track, Smiley Smile
Label: Capitol
Release date: 1966; 1967
First heard: circa 1970

Ooh, bop, bop

I cannot tell a lie. I saw the split-level Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy and it inspired me to reinvest. In the film, directed by Bill Polhad, Wilson is deftly and affectionately dramatised in studio-tanned situ amid all the oneupmanship, invention, pretention, fastidiousness, excitation, pep and beauty of the making of Pet Sounds, on which this stellar “pocket symphony” isn’t found. Good Vibrations is, in that respect, like the subsequent Strawberry Fields by that other band: a standalone single that exists in permanent danger of eclipsing the standalone LP constructed around it, but upon which it does not appear. It’s so good, you always forget and assume it’s on Pet Sounds. But it isn’t. (Where would it go? ) It came out as a single six months after the album, and wasn’t rehomed until September the following year, on Smiley Smile. It’s essentially a stray.

It’s tempting to attempt to describe the way this piece unfolds. (To call it a “song” seems impertinent.) But there’s too much going on at so many levels – including molecular – it would be a fruitless exercise without a degree in musicology. Indeed, musicologists seem to lay down their textbooks and gawp in non-academic awe at Good Vibrations, vouchsafing that the usual rules don’t apply. But it’s fine, I think, to pick out its greatest bits. The luminescent Hammond line that bounces the song into life. Those spare, almost counterintuitive slaps on the snare, delivered by Hal Blaine of the Wrecking Crew, a platoon of “first call” sessioneers every bit as legendary as the Funk Brothers or the MGs to my ears. The spooky theremin, which jellies in during the chorus, over the boot-deep tones of Mike Love, subsequently pedestalled by Carl and Brian Wilson’s harmonies. These ascending Filo layers turn even the first chorus into a crescendo and we haven’t hit the minute mark yet.

The verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge structure is a decoy. It genuflects to R&B convention with its repetitions and toe-tapping potential, but then, at approximately 01.42, the clanky pub piano signals a twist. Biographer Jon Stebbins wrote that the section which follows the second chorus “might be called a bridge under normal circumstances, but the song’s structure takes such an abstract route that traditional labels don’t really apply.”

I don’t know where but she sends me there ...

Suspicions from the squares at Capital that Good Vibrations might in some way nod to psychedelic drug use are clearly unfounded. These elations and sensations are self-evidently rooted in good, clean, honest fun. “She goes with me to a blossom world”? It’s a walk in the park. (Brian said he’d written it on dope and not acid anyway, so not to worry.)

You can read elsewhere about how “radical disjunctions in key, texture, instrumentation and mood” make the track what it is. But let us not forget the way it makes you want to sing along and nod your head and, in my case, attempt to air-drum along with Blaine. (Good luck with that.) This is feelgood music with enough content to launch a thousand essays. You can think along with it. The sleigh bells ought to have been a kitchen sink too many (less sleigh bell!), especially for a song recorded between February and September 1966 in the Golden State, but if Brian Wilson wants to borrow Christmas, he can. And everybody loves the bit where it almost runs silent, just the harmonica and hi-hat, then:

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa

And we’re back in the room. With locomotive cello this time, perhaps the song’s greatest contribution to popular music, rewarded with a key role in the fadeout.

I’m not the world’s most qualified Beach Boys professor – I didn’t even own Pet Sounds until the early 90s – but subsequent immersions tells me that when they were good, they were very, very good, and there’s little to touch the period between Brian’s panic attack in December 1964 and when Dennis met Manson in spring 1968. Although on certain wistful occasions I prefer the instrumental Let’s Go Away For A While or the harpsichord-assisted autobiography I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times, in a pointless throwdown between Good Vibrations and God Only Knows, the former edges it for sheer operational bravado.

 

 

The Eagles, Hotel California (1976)

EaglesHotelC

Artist: The Eagles
Title: Hotel California
Description: single; album track, Hotel California
Label: Asylum
Release date: 1977; 1976
First heard: 1994

Such a lovely place …

I’d been aware of the Eagles and their importance to drivers of imaginary open-topped cars, having long ago absorbed Hotel California by osmosis without ever sitting down and giving it much thought, but it wasn’t until 1994 when, as features editor, I was tasked at Q magazine with “tidying up” some raw copy by the legendary Tom Hibbert, that they truly entered my life like God might. In Tom’s turn, this elusive sprite of a man had been tasked with writing a brief history of America’s once-biggest rock band and he’d done so in a style we’ll kindly call “inimitable”. It was a barrel of fun, but it was not a history of the Eagles. I reached for the office copy of what must have been the Omnibus book of the Eagles and digested it.

It was the Eagles’ story that sold them to me. Although I was agnostic at best about classic 70s West-coast FM rock, since joining Q in 1993 I’d moved the parameters of cool to take in all sorts of modern adult-oriented music like Sheryl Crow, Croweded House and Aimee Mann, and willingly submitted to a slow-train-comin’ appreciation of Peter Frampton, The Carpenters, Jimmy Webb and other artists of yore interviewed on equal terms by the magazine. We had no interview with Glenn Frey or Don Henley to mark the Eagles’ Hell Freezes Over reunion, hence the Hibbert “think-piece”. By the time I’d edited it, it was only just recognisable as his, I’m ashamed to say, save for a few choice wisecracks, but it did read as a potted biography of the band, about whom I was now an overnight expert. I knew when Timothy B Schmit had joined (after they’d toured Hotel California and former Poco bandmate Randy Meisner had quit), and I knew how Bernie Leadon had handed in his notice (by pouring beer over Frey’s head).

Opening the gates to their music was only a matter of time. Come the end of the century, I’d invested in a greatest hits to tide me over and a number of individual albums, and it was Hotel California – and its archetypal title track, which is bigger than all of us – that hooked me in.

I never really thought of it as – tut! – “white reggae”, although there’s little mistaking the offbeat rhythm or the laid-back chukka-chukka guitar, and Henley certainly adopts a Jamaican twang when he almost sings, “de Hotel California” (Don Felder’s instrumental demo was working-titled Mexican Reggae). But we quibble over scattergories. What I’m hearing in these six-and-a-half minutes is drama, simple as that. It’s Felder’s tune, but it’s a workout without the words, and Henley and Frey’s lyrics could easily be the treatment to a short film.

If you’ve visited LA – and I clocked up most of my hours there as a music journalist, usually tailing some rock band or other and ordering jugs of frozen Margueritas on a record company tab – you’ll know how difficult it is not to hear it in your head, especially if you drive at night, or at the magic hour when the photo of the Beverly Hills Hotel on the sleeve was taken. That’s how these new kids in town apparently came up with their evocation of life in the fast lane.

Quite apart from the sheer theatre of the intro riff being played right through – by Felder, Frey and possibly Joe Walsh – and then, after a gap, played through again, Hotel California oozes confidence in so many other ways. We know the Eagles rehearsed hard and expected military precision from themselves onstage and in-studio, and although this made them seem supremely unfashionable and patrician come the end of the 70s, such professionalism and attention to detail can be enjoyed by the unselfconscious. This song is hand-tooled. The arrangement, under Bill Szymczyk – a former Navy sonar engineer, no less – is considered and panoramic. The whump-whump tom-tom beat that kicks it all off is typically prosaic. Fabled as the nadir of soft-rock noodlery, it’s not exactly a virtuosity exhibition; the beat is kept, guitars complement one another, the words coming out of Henley’s mouth are legible and po-faced, and sweetly harmonised by Frey and Meisner. But what words!

That “dark desert highway”, the “cool wind” in your hair, so far, so generic. Then the “warm smell of colitas, rising up through the air,” which is a weed reference I think I might taken a wild guess at, even before Wikipedia, and then, “up ahead in the distance,” that “shimmering light.” It’s evocative stuff, but there’s darkness on the edge of this town, too. “My head grew heavy and my sight grew dim, I had to stop for the night …” it’s a horror story! The mission bell, it could be Heaven or Hell, a lit candle, voices down the corridor …

Umpteen theories abound as to what exactly the Hotel California is a metaphor for. It can’t just be a hotel in California, right? We soon meet this sad woman, “Tiffany-twisted” with the “the Mercedes bends” – a pun, incidentally that Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine would have been proud of – and then those courtyard groovers, some dancing to remember, some dancing to forget. It’s Elysian stuff. This Captain bloke, the wine, some “spirit” they haven’t had since 1969. How did this intoxicating picaresque, this cinematic allegory, this nightmare vision of the American Dream, ever get filed away under “boring” or “middle of the road”?

There seems to be some kind of torture chamber under this particular establishment, either literal, or figurative, with prisoners and a master and mirrored ceilings, and a feast where “steely knives” are plunged into an unkillable “beast”, relayed over the most delicate reprise of the song’s intro. It may not be Throbbing Gristle. But neither is it REO Speedwagon or Racey.

And if there’s a denouement as blood-chilling as this elsewhere in the annals of AOR, I’d like to hear it.

Last thing I remember, I was
Running for the door
I had to find the passage back
To the place I was before
“Relax,” said the night man,
“We are programmed to receive.
You can check-out any time you like,
But you can never leave!”

And then the solo. Two minutes of it. But we need some time to mull over that last line, don’t we? The night man? A passage back? Programmed? To receive? You can never leave? Who were these high-lit, hairy men from Michigan, Texas, Kansas, Nebraska and Florida (ie places not California) and did they have steely knives in their cowboy boots?

For the first time in my hitherto musically bigoted life, I danced to remember.