Tuesday, December 7, 2010

7. “There’s a Riot Goin’ On”

Sly & the Family Stone, There’s a Riot Goin’ On (Epic, 1971); composed by Sylvester Stewart and Sly Stone

This is the title track of the first album by Sly & the Family Stone in two years back in 1971 when such a gap was unusual for an act so popular. Nevertheless, the album went straight to No. 1. And its title song does not actually exist. On the LP label, the track’s time is clocked at “0:00.” It would seem more likely that Sly Stone’s massive cocaine intake was simply messing with his sense of humor, were it not, firstly, for the strange gripping quality of the music you could actually listen to. The group that played Woodstock was largely absent from these sessions. Sly sang and played most of it himself, with a few session musicians and spot vocals from Rose. Even on the hit singles (of which there were three), the songs are like being woken up by a threatening phone call. The title comes from “Riot in Cell Block #9,” a 1954 song by the Robins. Its joke is that the partying rioters depicted are as doomed as the ones at Attica were just a few months before Riot came out. Rather than tell you this directly, Sly rings you at midnight and hangs up.

Note: For Advent, 25 secular essays about 25 songs, one per day from Dec. 1 through Dec. 25. Each essay is exactly 200 words long.

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