It goes almost without saying that Sly Stone’s early songs (from “Dance to the Music” through “Hot Fun in the Summertime”) were inspired and prophetic, a mixture of rock and soul that united white and black audiences as effectively as anything since Elvis Presley’s first recordings.
What happened later might be tragedy, or it might be farce. Though some of it (1971’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On, a more chilling and perceptive parable of stardom than anything that punk ideologues have yet managed) was even more awesome than the initial hits, most was at best uneven, at worst discomfiting and desperate. How this story will come out, given the renewed evidence of these two albums, is perhaps still undecided — though if you really believe that, you’re clearly as incurable an optimist as Sly himself.
Ten Years Too Soon is, of course, both embarrassing and a little degrading. Epic’s management perceived (quite correctly) that Sly’s best early tunes paved the way for all the present-day innovations in black pop, and assigned John Luongo to “remix” seven of these classics into disco style. But Luongo did much more than remix: he hasn’t just altered and extended the original tracks, he’s also bootlegged a completely new rhythm track in several places. While this can be remarkably listenable — there’s so much high-wire tension in the vocals and surface instrumentation that even trifling with the very bedrock of the Family Stone’s sound leaves music that’s exciting and way ahead of its time — it’s historically and artistically unconscionable.
“Everyday People” is robbed of its anthemic warmth, which was conveyed at least as powerfully by Gregg Errico’s drumming and Larry Graham’s bass playing as by Rose Banks’ electric singing. “Stand!” becomes a boogie march rather than a humanistic call to arms, while “You Can Make It if You Try” is simply distorted beyond recognition. Only the most minor songs here — “I Get High on You” and “This Is Love” — are in any way “improved” by Luongo’s illicit craftsmanship, and any sense of “improvement” probably has as much to do with hearing these relatively minor Sly compositions in a fresh context as it does with the new ornamentation.
Epic might argue that this is the only way to find a new audience for such indispensable music, but that argument is ultimately fraudulent and self-serving. If the label really had so much faith in Sly’s avant-gardism, it should have taken a shot on merely rereleasing the material in its original form. This way, commercial success or failure proves nothing. Worse, Sly’s now been treated to the kind of distortion that Hank Williams, Buddy Holly and Jimi Hendrix were subjected to by their recording corporations after their deaths, which means that the artistic evidence has been irreparably besmirched (since this LP is liable to linger in the CBS catalog long after the real thing is gone). The final insult is that Sly’s still alive. He has to sit back and watch while his finest accomplishments are treated like fast food, while his very name is treated as a historical relic.
Though many of us had almost completely given up on ever seeing Sly Stone make decent music again (indeed, his name is often uttered in the casualty lists), Back on the Right Track suggests there’s life in him yet. True, the new record — Sly’s umpteenth don’t-worry-about-a-thing-I’ll-be-okay album title — is skimpy: there are only eight tunes and about twenty-seven minutes of music here. And there certainly isn’t a single song that ranks with “Dance to the Music,” “Everyday People,” “Thank You Falenttinme Be Mice Elf Agin” or his other great hits.
What there is, though, is better music than this artist has made on any of his last two or three Epic LPs: music that concedes very little to current trends. Back on the Right Track is nowhere near as exciting as Ten Years Too Soon, but at least it sounds like Sly. While no wild, dancing epiphanies break through to rank with “Stand!” or “I Want to Take You Higher,” there’s an ample quantity of the languid philosophizing that was always the Family Stone’s alternate groove.
“Remember Who You Are,” which opens the record, is a reminder that Sly’s most effective moralizing was always self-directed. And “The Same Thing (Makes You Laugh, Makes You Cry)” might be just the cut to put a cap on all his recriminations about backsliding. Let’s face it, Sylvester Stewart is never going to go straight, and he’s never going to look back and make the kind of music he made in the days before There’s a Riot Goin’ On. Once you understand that the “riot” is permanent, forgetting about it is not one of the options. Neither is ignoring or denying it. All you can do is deal with it — and that hurts. On Back on the Right Track, as on all Sly’s post-There’s a Riot Goin’ On work, pain is the central theme. (That’s why the only song that doesn’t ring true on either album under discussion here is the forced and strident “Sheer Energy.”)
Mostly, Sly is still trying on poses: the shrug-it-off sensibility of “Who’s to Say?” versus the militance of “If It’s Not Addin’ Up….” Sure, it’s usually all too obvious that these are just poses, that Sly Stone isn’t really certain where he stands in relation to his own genius, blackness, catastrophic career errors or even his music. But there’s hope now also, if only because he avoids the most disastrous postures. Sly never whines — any California country-rock singer is more bitter, and with a lot less cause — and he never portrays himself as a victim, or as a survivor. In his own mind, he’s better than that: not merely a survivor but a winner and a star, a man who’s seen the top and the bottom and almost all the places in between. If he’s momentarily — or permanently — stranded somewhere in the middle, at least he’s honest about it.
I’ll continue to listen to whatever Sly Stone sings, hoping he’ll fight his way out, knowing he’ll never stop trying. Because that’s the lesson of his greatest music, and such a lesson must never be lost or forgotten. He hasn’t. Don’t you.