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What’s Going On? -There’s A Riot Goin’ On!

27 July 2019

The more things change in society, the more certain aspects remain the same. Reflected best in art, albums and music which were produced nearly five-decades ago, can still resonate with a message of hope, and even anger. Examples of how music still speaks to mankind, exists in a pair of albums which echo with the sound of the streets, with prayers for peace, and the fear of erupting violence. In reality making a Civil Rights statement under the same banner as Martin Luther King or Malcolm X. Two artistic works, What’s Going On? and There’s A Riot Goin’ On, groundbreaking sounds, linked by a common themed thread of ideals. Both albums are two sides of a coin, chapter one and two with the kickstarting all that came after. This cultural identity was recognized further in the music of Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield and Issac Hayes.

The albums may sound stylishly different, but they reflect how different their creators were. Marvin Gaye, the dark soulful prince, and Sly Stone the funk-rock messiah floating on a sea of excess. They were both very different individuals, however, both were at the very top of their creative game, and the theme of social change is the blood which runs through the heart of their creations.

”Father, father
We don’t need to escalate
You see, war is not the answer
For only love can conquer hate”
“What’s Going On”

These albums were released within six months of one another, first came What’s Going On by the late Marvin in May 1971. Often finishing top if not in the runner-up slot for the greatest album of the 20th Century. It is without doubt a song cycle which has touched people of all races and color regardless of their beliefs. The accomplishment of the album mirrored Marvin Gaye’s own dream of what he wanted from society, looking past your origins and an embracing of fellow humans. An acceptance of equal terms everyone should be treated with.

Looking back at the time and of course what affect the Vietnam war was having, dividing a country, pulling social conscious apart. And then of course the drugs which had found their way into the poorer communities of America. This was the story line injected into What’s Going On, a tale of a veteran coming back from a war to find the country he fought for unrecognizable, ripped apart by hatred and poverty. This was a release unlike anything expected from a Motown album of the day, soul music had progressed further and transformed into a new style.

Then again the album was not spurred by emotions of joy even though it has that uplifting quality. Marvin Gaye had sunk into a deep depression following the diagnosis and later death of his singing partner Tammi Terrell. Along with the implosion of his then marriage to Anna Gordy, ongoing troubles with the IRS all of which led to a dependency on drugs. At one point Gaye attempted suicide with a handgun, only to be saved by Berry Gordy’s father.

From this downward spiral he rebounded to embrace spirituality, his very moment of clarity in the fog of emotional pain opened with a floodgate to funnel his turmoil and frustration. The release of three singles in the US from What’s Going On was the catalyst for its success and reaching a wider audience. Each single charted comfortably, the title track hit the number two spot, followed by the environmentally conscious top-five hit “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)”.

The ghetto anthem “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holla)” breaking the top ten Billboard was in itself a revolutionary success. A fourth single received a UK release via the Tamla-Motown label. “Save the Children” was a continuation of the message, focusing in on the most vulnerable in society, hammering home the extent of Marvin Gaye’s pleas. This was a time of change, of embracing the sounds of a revolution, what followed five months later reinforced what had been laid out, music to strike realistic fear more so than peace.

“Lookin’ at the devil
Grinnin’ at his gun
Fingers start shakin’
I begin to run”.
“Thank You For Talkin’ To Me Africa”

When There’s A Riot Goin’ On hit the streets in November 1971 it was instantly praised and heralded as a funk-driven masterpiece. Injected with more ‘wah-wah’ guitar per square inch than most albums released in the same era. Though breaking new ground as one of the first examples of a prototype drum machine. At times the sound of the album is sloppy, perhaps weak, but it is a work of genius nonetheless.

From the very start this album was crucial, the single that preceded the album by two weeks, “Family Affair” was the first new music from Sly And The Family Stone for two years. It is of no surprise that the track immediately climbed the charts and settled in the number one slot. As a concept it takes a paranoid trip into the mindset of late sixties America, a darker detour than the one The Velvet Underground had taken. Regardless, this is a very likable record make no mistake, almost as addictive as the drugs which fueled its conception.

Sly Stone tore apart his new-found fame and hippy ‘flower-power’ vibe. He instead decided to stare into the black abyss, and pull from it a collage of psychedelic rock music. This sound was blended with funk and soul to bring forth the eleven tracks alongwith the four-second vow of silence which is the title track. Often criticized for the dull and sometimes flat sound, easily put down to the constant overdubbing by Stone, and his desire to play the unreleased album at parties direct from the mastertapes. This of course was met by displeasure on the part of the record company (Epic), when finally getting the tapes they had already been played to death. That very fact may have actually added to the impact, after all, this was not meant as an album of sparkling joy.

The opening track, an ode to the Family’s home of San Francisco and the deteriorating hippy dream “Luv ‘N Haight” sets the scene early. A display of opening credits if you will to what is at times, blissfully carefree but shoots directly into your social consciousness, whether you are aware or not. The album as a whole is not an easy listen and at times the murky sound becomes intense though in other places it works spectacularly well. Sly Stone had a tendency to get lost beneath the window shaking bass runs and crying guitar. Some of the heaviest bass comes in on the tracks “Poet” and “Just Like A Baby”.

The ultimate feeling as you listen becomes clear, the album is centered heavily on the racial aspect, the hatred and despair as the flower fields of Woodstock are now left nothing more than a desolate wasteland. The telling finale “Thank You” lets the band name-drop their previous hits, and focus on self realization, closing one chapter of the accomplishments. Now finding Sly And The Family Stone simply ‘being themselves’, embracing their cultural roots with new-found pride.