Rock Flashback: “There’s a Riot Goin’ On”
By 1971, [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Sly and the Family Stone[/lastfm] — multi-racial, multi-gender, and multi-format, blending rock, soul, and funk — appealed to both people on the dance floor and stoners in the throng at Woodstock. The band had a social conscience tempered by the pure joy of their sound. On November 20, 1971, all that changed with the release of There’s a Riot Goin’ On.
The review of the album by Stephen Thomas Erlewine at Allmusic.com sums it up extremely well: “This is idealism soured, as hope is slowly replaced by cynicism, joy by skepticism, enthusiasm by weariness, sex by pornography, thrills by narcotics.”
Like many young people at the turn of the ’70s, Sly seemed to have given up on hoping for change (as on the track “Thank You for Talkin’ to Me Africa”) and decided instead to turn into himself and hide from the world.
It’s not entirely that simple, of course. The band’s lineup was changing, and Sly’s behavior was becoming more erratic for reasons more chemical and psychological than philosophical. As a result, the music that grew out of this period couldn’t have been more different in spirit than “Everyday People” and “Dance to the Music,” hits of only a couple of years before. The sound of the album was different, too — dark and murky, largely a product of layers of overdubbing. As Erlewine notes in his review, joy does creep through the cracks every now and then, as on “Runnin’ Away,” which is a relative light in the darkness.
All of this is not to suggest that the public rejected the album. There’s a Riot Goin’ On topped the Billboard album chart in late December 1971. The lead single, “Family Affair,” hit #1 also. Years later, Rolling Stone would place the album at #99 on its list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, quoting the observation of über-critic Greil Marcus, who called it “Muzak with its finger on the trigger.”