Sly and the Family Stone – Stand!

Sly and the Family Stone - Stand!

Sly and the Family Stone – Stand!
Released May, 1969

I love some dirty funk. It’s one of the reasons I’m looking forward to the 70s so much. But a few good listens to Sly And The Family Stone has sated my appetite until we get to someone like Parliament. Our story starts with young Sylvester Stewart, one of five children brought up in a musical home in Dallas, Texas. Sylvester and the other three youngest children formed a band and had released a single by the time he was eight years old. It started a pattern for him, and in his formative years he played in several high school bands. Sylvester created himself an alter ego, Sly Stone, in 1964, for his job as a DJ working for a San Franciscan R&B radio station. And because he wasn’t doing enough things, he decided he’d be a producer as well, working for Autumn Records, dealing with local bands.

We see the first incarnation of Sly and the Family Stone come about in 66, under the name Sly & the Stoners. At the same time, his brother Freddie had a band called Freddie and the Stone Souls. It was suggested that Freddie and Sly combine their bands, creating Sly and the Family Stone. Though both were guitarists, Sly relinquished the coveted role to his brother and taught himself to play the organ. As you do. They also did the best thing you could ever do – invite, and land, the amazing Larry Graham (the bloke who invented bass slapping) to play bass in your band. The brother’s sister Vaetta also wanted in and brought along two school friends to form the Family’s backing vocals. The band signed with CBS’ Epic Records label and released their debut album, “A Whole New Thing” in 1967, and it was well received. 68 saw the band tour England, but not for long, after Graham was arrested for marijuana possession.

Late ’68 came, and The Family released the single ‘Everyday People’, which gave them a lead into the reason we’re here: “Stand!” Released in May of ’69, with the title track peaking at number 22 on the US charts. And it’s surprising it didn’t go higher. Especially when it talks about midgets! It’s an inspirational song that basically says “You can make it if you try”, so it’s a good thing they reinforce that theme with a song called ‘You Can Make It If You Try’. I love the breakdown at the end of ‘Stand!’ with the high sax flailing. Though vocally simple, ‘Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey’ is one of the funkiest songs ever, featuring heavy use of a (what I assume…) is a talk box effect, and a heavy dirty fuzz on the bass. I can only assume this song was met with some hesitation, but you know it’d never get released today. And it goes on for ages in a sort of free jazz meets funk style.

Speaking of going on for ages, ‘Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey’ is followed by ‘Sex Machine’ that runs for over 14 minutes. Not to be confused with the James Brown song, this song is much more self indulgent, with it not really going anywhere. It’s heavily effects laden, with much distortion, delay, wah wah and the talk box again. It’s essentially a jam session, where everyone gets a crack at being a star. I really dig Freddie’s guitar solo; while it’s not the standard shredding that I usually love, it’s loaded with feeling and groove. The real fun starts at about 8:15, where Graham busts out of his grooves and starts his fingers really moving. We also get a rad sax solo, and as we all know, sax is the second coolest instrument that exists. ‘Everyday People’ is, for whatever reason, a song that lost people recognise. It features some questionable (so on and so on and scooby dooby dooby?) lyrics, but it was The Family’s first song to go to #1 on the Hot 100 Chart. It’s much less funky and psychedelic, but it caters mainly for the mainstream, with a real pop kinda sound.

Stand! is one of my favourites on the 60s list, and Sly and The Family Stone can come back anytime.

“Stand!” is a colourful and broadly-themed album which blurs the lines between Funk, Psychedelic music and Soul music. The band used everything from wah-wah pedals, to church organs, to distorted vocals, to fuzzy bass lines to achieve this combination of styles and the result is a collection of epic funk jams, pscychedelic improv sections and gospel-esque vocal parts. For me, there were a few (but not many) highlights. There are a couple of catchy and notable tracks; ‘I Want to Take You Higher’ gets a  mention for the use of vocals to create a rhythm section, a technique that continues to be used in more-contemporary pieces (’Boom lacka lacka lacka’). Also enjoyable was ‘Everyday People’, a feel-good protest song that I have always quite liked.  I continuously skipped ‘Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey’, because the lyrics rubbed me up the wrong way due to their controversial nature, but obviously that’s the whole point of the song. The lyrics are really simple, with only 4 lines of verses and the main chorus featuring the song name, and the song always gets stuck in your head. Hence why I avoided it! As a whole, the album is tight and is un-offensive on the ear, but it didn’t really do a lot for me. Despite quite a few listens, I failed to connect emotionally with this album, not because it was really bad, but because I just didn’t relate to the songs or their meanings. I actually fell asleep during the long-winded (13 minute) throes of ‘Sex Machine’ because it was so bloody boring! Points for innovation, but not a lot else.

This record has a wonderful vibe, even though some tracks deal with racial tension. It’s impossible not to groove to,  positively brimming with funk and rhythm. When I spun “Stand!” in the car stereo, it definitely lost some of its potency. This is an album to dance to, people! It simply must be played loudly in an area with room to move. Jiggling in the driver’s seat just doesn’t cut it. The album’s absolute highlight, “I Want To Take You Higher” dares you not to dance to it. A true party anthem, the lyrics are incendiary: “Feeling that should make you move/Sounds that should help you groove”. The way the lead vocals are shared between guitarist Freddie Stone, bassist Larry Graham, keyboardist Rose Stone and Sly himself adds to the track’s fun singalong atmosphere. This is true of most of the album, particularly the title track, ‘Sing a Simple Song’ and ‘Everyday People’ (although the verses in the latter sound like ‘It’s Raining, It’s Pouring’). The song ‘Stand!’ also has a great sense of optimism and almost comes off like an ‘All You Need Is Love’ for the individual, rather than the masses. This notion is echoed in album closer ‘You Can Make It If You Try’. The confronting ‘Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey’ looks at both sides of racism and hints at the rage Sly would deliver with the band’s 1971 album “There’s a Riot Goin’ On”. His use of vocoder is a little annoying, particularly on the overlong jam session ‘Sex Machine’ which manages to bore and excite as it nudges the fourteen minute mark. If this track was cut in favour of actual songs, I think the album would be stronger for it; although it was nice to hear the chops of the band members. All in all, I found this record to be endlessly listenable despite its few flaws.

With their fourth album “Stand!”, Sly and his cohorts had reached a point in their career where they knew how they wanted their music to sound. A mishmash of genders, race and musical styles, Sly and the Family Stone didn’t just push boundaries, they pretty much ignored them all together. This willingness to forgo what was considered the norm results in an album that is instantly likeable. Mashing together soul and rock they created a new thing, in the process laying the foundation for funk and soul. Granted, there are a couple of low-points here, particularly in the unnecessarily long ‘Sex Machine’, but the high-points well make up for that. The fact that “Stand!” has become one of the most sampled albums, particularly with the advent of hip hop, pays tribute to this. The beats here are universal, just like Sly’s message. At a time where there was a lot of hatred and fighting with the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War, Stone created an album full of positivity, but not in a contrived way. His message is clear but he puts it across in songs that have you dancing around your lounge room and make you feel good. Stone doesn’t want to tell you what to think, but he does want to make you think. I adored this album. It’s one of those rare afyccim albums I wanted to listen to again as soon as it was finished. It’s a joyous celebration that reminds us that life is what you make it. Sure, sometimes life is hard, but we get to choose whether to sing out loud with joy whilst pondering the hard questions. I’m everyday people indeed Mr Stone.

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