Tiggerlion on Sly And The Family Stone – Fresh (30th June 1973)
Sylvester Stewart, ‘Sly Stone’, only ever wanted to make the world a better, happier place. He tried to bring people together from different backgrounds, regardless of gender, religion and colour, to dance and enjoy life. His ‘Family’ practised exactly as he preached, comprising mixed sex, mixed race and some actual relatives. His early songs are energetic testaments to the euphoric power of music. Records like Dance To The Music, Everyday People, Sing A Simple Song and Hot Fun In The Summer Time are joyful nursery rhymes in their simplicity, optimism and utopian vision. They were hugely popular, especially in America. At the same time, almost unnoticed, Sly was busy inventing Funk, along with James Brown and George Clinton, blending in Gospel, Pop, Rock, Psychedelia and Soul. It was a heady brew. Success followed success. Number one singles and a platinum selling album, Stand!, were followed by a triumphant appearance at Woodstock.
Then, the sixties dream was over, flower power mutated into armed struggle and the movement for integration fell apart. Sly found that once he left the stage, he still had to face racial bigotry. He couldn’t drink in a bar in Alabama without having to fight. He turned to cocaine and PCP, fell into a deep spiral of depression and paranoia and relations in the band became strained. Recording slowed. From a band who played together ‘as live’ in the studio to make albums and singles, they became one person tinkering in an attic studio when the mood took him and overdubbing repeatedly. The delay in new material forced the record company to fill the gap with a hugely successful Greatest Hits. When it finally arrived, There’s A Riot Goin’ On turned out to be an unflinching look at the dark underbelly of America, a cynical, narcotic-funk response to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On, the band relegated to bit players. The lyrics were murky and barely decipherable. It was quite a shock. The handbrake turn from crowd pleasing party music to foggy, introverted withdrawal suited the hangover from the sixties well and what seemed to be commercial suicide instead continued The Family Stone’s successful run.
Sly’s drug-addled behaviour became more erratic. He spent most days stoned. Gig bookings dried up completely because Sly was too unreliable. Studio visits from the likes of Bobby Womack, Billy Preston, Ike Turner, Jim Ford, Buddy Miles, Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson and even Miles Davis came to an end. Greg Errico, the drummer, left, feeling that he had been replaced by a primitive drum machine, the Maestro Rhythm King MRK-2. Bassist Larry Graham parted on foul terms. Sly still had Jerry Martini on sax and Cynthia Robinson on trumpet. His brother Freddie and sister Rose remained loyal, plus the Three Sisters backing vocal group, consisting of Vet Stone, Mary McCreary and Elva Mouton. Nevertheless, Sly spent most of the time alone obsessively dubbing and overdubbing.
Fresh, as its title claims, is an attempt to reboot with more of the old energy and enthusiasm. The cover features Sly in a mid air Kung Fu kick, looking very lean and mean, displaying a very impressive set of abs, and sporting a huge cheesy grin. In Time introduces us to an apologetic and cleaned up Sly Stone. Already, the arrangements are tighter and the vocals less slurred. “Two years, too long to wait.” “I switched from coke to pep and I’m a connoisseur.” But the sound is defiant, opening with a basic drum machine beat. Andy Newmark understood what he had been recruited for, to duet with the machine. A couple of kicks on the bass drum, a double rap on the snare and the song is thrust into the most intricate, latticework rhythm The Family ever played. Freddie threads a little guitar motif and Sly adds church organ chords. The Three Sisters nag like parents trying to get their recalcitrant teenager out of bed. The horns provide percussive, propulsive textures, so much so that when Martini takes a solo, the song almost comes to a halt. As the tune starts to fade, the impression is of a confident Sly whose multiracial, multi-genre alchemy is functioning well. Be patient, he is saying, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. It might be difficult to dance to but its syncopated funk is infectious. Miles Davis was so excited that he interrupted recording Get Up With It to galvanise his band by making them listen to In Time six times straight.
Rusty Allen, the new bass player, steps forward into the lead role for the next tune, a top ten single, If You Want Me To Stay. His waves of lyrical bass bathe the entire track with warmth. It’s the kind of bass playing that bewitched and moved Prince. Alone at the mike, Sly growls his terms of engagement to his audience as much as to the lover in the song. He looks us straight in the eye. If we want him, we have to accept him as he is. He almost barks that he wishes he could “get this message over to you now!” Then, he and the organ squeal in pain. The next song completes the sentence. Let Me Have It All is a glorification of success. Either that, or a paean to good quality cocaine. Or a proposal of marriage. The girls are back with Vet taking a turn at singing lead. Still no chorus, though.
Frisky could have been recorded in Sly’s bedroom with his drum machine, keyboard and slap bass. Newmark deploys his double snare rap again. Cynthia’s trumpet acts like a drone. The Sisters say ‘yea’. The only real colour is provided by splashes of saxophone. The lead vocal must be the weirdest to ever grace a single. Don’t be fooled by the title. There is a complete absence of lust. Sly just about manages to summon the energy to make music, let alone love. Thankful ‘n’ Thoughtful is the closest to a funk jam on the album. Sly counts his blessings and ruminates on his place in God’s great scheme. The horns are bright but the incessant Sisters and the weight of the bass drag him down. He concludes that it’s good to be alive in such a wretched voice, it sounds as though he’s at a wake.
If side one of the vinyl begins with an apology, side two’s Skin I’m In is totally unrepentant. Sly’s own rumbling bass and Newmark’s sinuous cymbal work set the scene before elated horns bring the joy. Sly’s vocals are largely wordless but the words he does sing say if he could do it all again, he wouldn’t change a thing. On an album that is hugely influential for jazz players, Skin I’m In is the track closest to Jazz. I Don’t Know (Satisfaction) twists Jagger’s brazen demand for sex to comment on the racial divide. The beat is relaxed to a dirty funk, The Three Sisters make most of the demands and Sly sings it straight to avoid any element of doubt. Keep On Dancin’ updates his own hit into a laidback groove, a note to self to stay positive when things are bleak, but there’s a drawl in The Sisters’ voices and an undertow in the bass that beg to differ.
Que Sera, Sera had become Doris Day’s signature tune. She first performed it in Hitchcock’s 1956 movie, The Man Who Knew Too Much, when it won an Oscar for best original song. It became the theme tune to her sitcom that ran from 1968 to 1973, which was probably where Sly Stone heard it. When Doris Day sings it, a well off white woman with a sparkling smile, it’s a song of cheerful fatalism, a song of optimism and confidence. The fate of a young black woman in America is far less positive. Sly slows Que Sera, Sera to a hymn with Rose as the broken angel. In the choruses, Sly breaks his heart for the loss of innocence and the suffering she’s yet to endure. For all of the Family Stone’s political songs, it’s their one cover that best depicts the disparity between black and white. It should have been an anthem for the civil rights movement. Without changing a single word of the lyric or a single note of the arrangement, Sly Stone completely inverted the song, finding a pitch of darkness that Hitchcock had only hinted at. It’s an astonishing cover. The Black Panthers had demanded more militancy from Sly. It’s difficult to imagine a record being more subversive.
If It Were Left Up To Me dates back to Stand! with Larry Graham on bass. Sly steps into the background shadows but allows a streak of sunshine to light up the girls. The horns are almost happy. As the album draws to a close, Sly reminds us that at least he’s making an effort. Placed after Que Sera, Sera, it seems to ask us to look at what else we can do to help. The finale is a funk workout. Sly is frank about his plans. Baby’s making babies, which leads him to wonder if others doing the same, especially inter-racially, could save the world. Sylvester Jr. was on the way, born in late 1973.
Fresh is an album made by a supremely talented human being, a child prodigy and multi-instrumentalist, who was proficient on keyboard by the age of seven and by eleven had mastered guitar, bass and drums. The man had music oozing from his pores. The songs are not as immediate as his sixties singles. There are no choruses and very few hooks. They are built from basic drum machine rhythms into a groove and Sly sings whatever is on his mind in almost a stream of consciousness. There is a true album consistency to Fresh, absent gruelling tracks like the emotionally dead Thank You For Talking To Me Africa or the joyless Sex Machine, both of which grind on for far too long simply to fill vinyl time. Riot’s long, black, ugly shadow almost consumes it, but Fresh is open and free, honestly exposing the man’s character with all its weaknesses and peculiarities. He admits his problems and rages against prejudice and inequity but he still believes in unity and integration and, most of all, the power of love and the joy of the dance. He does his best, desperately clinging onto his sanity under extreme circumstances, on the verge of losing control of his life. Beset by drug addiction, legal problems, threats from gangsters, pressure from the record company and a Family falling apart, Fresh is exhausted, confused and disorientated. Sly Stone was almost defeated, but not quite. There is a crack in the ceiling where the light comes in. Fresh is also exhilarating, heartening and food for the soul. As a result, these songs endure.
For Sly himself, it was pretty much his last hurrah. Fresh wasn’t the bright, new start he hoped it would be, rather a lucid episode in a long, terminal decline. If You Want Me To Stay was his last hit. His addiction worsened, his marriage collapsed, Rose and Freddie left the band. His solo albums failed and his dwindling public appearances became increasingly bizarre. If Riot was a dance with the devil, Fresh turned out to capture Sly at his zenith, staring defiantly into an abyss. Nevertheless, his legacy is secure. Fifty years later, you can still hear Fresh in Funk, Jazz, Hip-Hop, R&B and most of popular music on the radio. The genius of Fresh and its glimmer of hope is all around us.