Sly and The Family Stone
There's A Riot Goin' On



January 16th, 2005 | 66 replies

Release Date: 1971 | Tracklist

I'll be honest here - I know next to nothing about Sly & The Family Stone. I own this album, which I bought purely on the recommendation of Q's Top 100 Albums Ever (published December 2002). I clocked in to that list at #91. The now infamous Rolling Stone Top 500 Albums Ever has it at #99. All I know about it is what I read in Q, and what I hear when I listen to it. So, for cultural context, I'm afraid I can only repeat what Q has told me.

This album was released in 1971, in the wake of the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. This had a devastating effect on the band's unique selling point - their reputation as a celebration of inter-racial harmony through the power of soul music (as enormously pretentious as that sounds!).

The music within There's A Riot Goin' On reflects this. For such a unique album, this can be described in a way that - hopefully - everybody will understand. If Radiohead's Kid A was re-made by Andre 3000 (The Love Below half of OutKast), this would be the result. It's utterly bewildering, bleak, and possessed of an inspired murkiness not far removed from doom metal. It's still, however, unmistakeably 'soul'. There's a funkiness to it, but it's a lazy, unsettling one. You could conceivably dance to a few of these tracks, but that's doesn't stop them sounding like they were dragged from the recessess of a deeply troubled mind. It's as if the heart of soul music has been possessed. The amount of cocaine Sly Stone was taking at the time will tell you the culprit.

The choir on Africa Talks To You "The Asphalt Jungle" sings 'Timber! All falls down!', and it sounds like Satan's little helpers welcoming an unusually funky apocalypse. Even this album's 'happiest' track, Family Affair, is sung in a disturbingly bassy, bummed-out voice. Soul was never meant to be this way. Soul is music to be played in the bedroom, music to swing and dance to....not here, though. Sly completely ripped up the rulebook. It's a feat that has gone completely unmatched - Kid A is the only album that springs to mind for a comparison. They're borne of the same dark heart and the same spirit of shocking the audience, and both leave you with the same feeling. A feeling I'm not even going to attempt to put into words.

I wouldn't be able to tell you how good the lyrics to this album are. You can't hear them. You can hear a melody, you can hear what the voice is trying to convey, but you can only hear snippets of words, emerging from the swamp. Again, Kid A springs to mind. I'd bet my house on Thom Yorke owning and loving this record! The usual soul vocalist's trick of wailing like a preacher features here, but it suggests somebody trapped, desperate to escape a horrible prison. Every time it happens, and the music starts to peak (heard excellently on Time) you almost recoil, expecting something to happen. There are also several examples of double-tracked vocals singing out of time with each other, and at seperate pitches. If you've played System Shock and heard SHODAN, you'll know just how scary this can be!

The musicianship leaves you with a feeling of improvisation. Rather than each instrument having a definite melody, and role, you are confronted throughout with instruments seemingly appearing out of nowhere with little riffs. There's no instrument that you can focus on throughout a song to give it structure. That's not to say the songs do not have structure, because they do. It's organized chaos - often a meaningless phrase, but not so here. The drums are low in the mix, for this precise reason. Overall the effect of the musicianship comes more from the presentation and arrangement rather than the players themselves, but they are certainly a solid band. I'd single out the bassist as the best in the group - there's just something about the bass on this album that grabs me. The guitar is also very nice - it's always played clean, with a wah. Nothing especially taxing, but it does stand out and is perhaps the most disconcerting instrument, simply as it's the most normal!

The main fault with this album is it's more of a mood piece than a collection of songs. The album could easily be just one song, and it wouldn't change much. The quality is consistently high, and the mood doesn't diversify much (Runnin' Away is chirpier, but that's about it). As such, it's the feeling the music gives you, rather than the music itself, that stays with you. Some people, myself included, like impenetrable albums like this. Some don't, and if you're one of the latter, you probably won't like this. The production is also quite muddy, though this contributes to the music and is nowhere near as bad as St. Anger! Listening to it is certainly an experience though. It may not be one you'd like to repeat, but I'd certainly recommend it for that reason.


Recommended Download -
Luv N' Haight. A great opener, which sets the tone perfectly for the album. This track gives the best example of the devices I've talked about, and features some very nice guitar too.

PS - I should probably add that, in reading other reviews of this album, it's been made pretty clear by several people that if you want this album, you should buy the European edition. The American edition has poor liners, different artwork, and a worse sound. I don't know how true this is, but consider it a heads-up.

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Comments:Add a Comment 
Scott Herren
August 4th 2004


Good album. I would recommend "Family Affair" and "Spaced Cowboy" in addition to "Luv N' Haight".

Robert Crumb
August 3rd 2005


Album Rating: 4.5

I meant to respond to this a long time but now that it's got a spotlight (that it deserved) now seems like a good time. Nice review, of course. I really love this album so it's really depressing that the sound quality is as shitty as it is (at least on the american version.) And yeah, the album dressing ain't none too pleasing either.

The little steps Sly took with drum machines are also noteworthy here, he was a real pioneer in regards to that. On "Family Affair" you can hear it pretty well, the mix of real and programmed drums. It's primeval but on some level it works. Plus that's probably my favorite song on the album.

August 3rd 2005


I've never found anything about Sly & the Family Stone interesting, and I still don't.

So, mehhh.

September 6th 2007


Album Rating: 4.0 | Sound Off

There's A Riot Goin' On is one of those albums that has paled with the passage of time. Released during the height of The Vietnam War plus Kent State and protests and riots across the United States, it maintains an edge between love and hate. Rare at the time, expecially for an intergrated group. Today the historical lesson is just as important as the music.

January 8th 2009


Album Rating: 5.0

such an amazing album.

Wax Poetic's recent feature on sly got me into this. awesome magazine.

Staff Reviewer
November 9th 2010


first song is so good

September 18th 2011


Album Rating: 4.0


Staff Reviewer
September 18th 2011


yeah this is awesome

September 18th 2011


Album Rating: 4.0

predictable choice but family affair is my fav

followed by time

Staff Reviewer
September 18th 2011


luv n haight and you caught me smilin

January 31st 2012


Album Rating: 5.0

Runnin away deserves a mention as well, but really people should just get the entire album, it puts the sound and mood of the songs in better perspective

October 7th 2012


Album Rating: 4.0

" Kid A is the only album that springs to mind for a comparison"

… the only album I had in mind was Bowie’s Station to Station.

October 7th 2012


this takes me back to my days as an african american.

October 8th 2013


Album Rating: 4.5

like this more and more with each listen

October 25th 2013


amazing album

August 14th 2014


this record has grit

Staff Reviewer
August 14th 2014






August 15th 2014


Album Rating: 4.5

yess ^ that and the last track. great album

March 22nd 2015


Album Rating: 5.0

Running Away is the feels, love this album when I'm in the mood for it.

November 11th 2015


Album Rating: 5.0

Yeah this is best album ever made

a bottomless pit of funk

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