Sly & the Family Stone: “Family Affair”
When I first heard Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On, their classic 1971 album of cynicism and emerging despair, it was on a cassette that I had purchased, found in the cutout bin of a department store music section in the early ’80s. When I got home to play it, I thought something was wrong with the cassette. It sounded muddy and kind of slowed down, and although of course cassettes weren’t the best medium for appreciating music with clarity, the more I listened the more I realized that it wasn’t the cassette, but simply the way the album had been recorded. I now have the album on CD, and it really doesn’t sound a whole lot different. This was Sly Stone’s desire, the way he wanted people to hear this album. It’s murky, sometimes sounding as though parts of it had been recorded underwater — the effect is somewhat claustrophobic, like the music is closing in around you. Sometimes an instrument will be mixed so far forward it sounds as though it’s right outside your ear, even if you don’t have headphones on. On one song, “Spaced Cowboy,” the bass is recorded this way, complete with the very audible buzz from the amplifier throughout the song, as though Stone simply felt too lethargic to bother getting rid of the buzz.
Knowing that this album was recorded at the beginning of Stone’s descent into drug addiction, it’s not hard to imagine him creating this album in a very stoned state of mind — the molasses-like grooves would certainly suggest that. But that’s not to say that he was truly out of it — there’s obvious cogent thought behind the songs that makes the album so intense, despite its jaded subject matter, and the funk factor running throughout the album is so thick that it seems to be coursing through the very blood of the songs. However, Stone had obviously lost faith in the life-affirming mantras from his earlier albums — no “Dance to the Music” or “You Can Make It If You Try” here. This batch of songs is about drug addiction, feeling let down by the people around you and society itself, and, in the most musically upbeat song on the album, “Family Affair,” feeling trapped by your circumstances and unable to do anything about it without breaking the bonds of family:
You can’t leave, ’cause your heart is there
But you can’t stay, ’cause you been somewhere else.
You can’t cry, ’cause you’ll look broke down
But you’re cryin’ anyway ’cause you’re all broke down.
It’s a family affair.
It’s a downbeat song, but oddly, somewhat encouraging, since when you’ve got to accept certain things about your life, the decisions about what to do next with it are simplified, and if there’s any ray of hope at all, that’s what you have to cling to. And despite the depressing nature of the album on the whole, it simultaneously feels strangely uplifting — as when you’ve bottomed out, there’s nowhere to go but up. There’s a Riot Goin’ On isn’t an easy listen, but after a few spins, it starts to seep in and take hold. It’s probably the best album for listening to on a hot, humid day in the peak of summer, preferably in an apartment without air conditioning in the middle of the city. Easy for me to say, I know, since I’m no longer in the city, don’t experience much humidity anymore now that I live in the Northwest, and have AC available anyway if I really needed it — but still, the album gives me that feeling. As soon as I put it on, the temperature seems to go up 10 degrees and the haze outside thickens. “Family Affair” is the album’s moment of then suddenly having a moment in front of a fan — it grooves along at a slightly faster pace and gives hope that the end of summer is in sight. It’s the tightest song on the album, and one of the great social commentary songs of the ’70s.