The most adventurous soul music of 1968 is being put out by two groups who really aren’t part of the mainstream R&B scene at all. Both the Chambers Brothers and Sly and the Family Stone are primarily black, but both have white members. And both spend more time on the white rock circuit than in the black clubs and theaters.
The Family Stone emerges as the real revolutionary force on this, its third album. Sly’s people have made a mighty progression since their first album just eight months ago. That album (A Whole New Thing) was a rather conventional program enlivened by two or three heavy flashes. Life is a flash from beginning to end. Easily the most radical soul album ever issued, it is an exhiliarating success in a time of disappointments.
Soul music, like blues, was born in an environment of noisy clubs and parties. R&B records are made for instant pleasure, not concentrated listening, and they have always thrived on simplicity. A single sonic texture usually suffices for a song, sometimes for a whole album. But not with Sly and the Family Stone. Rarely does Sly let any element sink in before he socks you with a change. The group has several capable lead singers in various voice ranges from bass to soprano, and they are forever trading off; some of the vocal arrangements almost sound like Lambert, Hendricks & Ross revisited. Same deal with the instruments — guitar, organ, bass, drums, horns appear in new combinations and voicings about every other bar. Like the Mothers, this group revels in the element of surprise. The contrast with the predictable fare you get on R&B stations is incredible.
Take for example the first cut, “Dynamite!” Opening with an unaccompanied blues guitar lick, turned up all the way, it goes into a heavy riff. With fuzz guitar out front, it’s more a San Francisco riff than a Motown one. Then comes the vocal. The melodic line and progressions are fairly standard soul, but the words move into a new realm. Even more radical is the way the vocal lead is split up between at least three different singers. Each new one is a flash, yet the continuity never gets lost. Next flash: the word “Dynamite” is repeated, three times, to the accompaniment of a building drum roll that amply suggests the impact of an explosion. Back to the top, and the verse is repeated in a slightly longer form, with heavier instrumentation. (Relatively standard soul procedure here.) The “Dynamite” climax is doubly strong. Then the opening blues guitar once again, but here it dissolves into some of the “bomp-bomp” vocalizing that has always been a Sly trademark, and we are suddenly in the presence of a very well-executed Beatle-style fade. Suddenly we think we hear one of the horns doing the familiar lick from “Dance to the Music.” Only after that are our suspicions confirmed, as someone actually sings the title line of that memorable song. More quotes from “Dance” and the music dissolves into happy talk and laughter. The whole sequence, the whole track, is ecstatic listening in any situation.
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So that’s one cut, time 2:43. All the cuts on this album are single length (range 2:12 to 3:28), but each one goes through flashes equal to those on “Dynamite!” Some of the flashes are cute — as on “Chicken” where voices dissolve into clucking, and on “Harmony” where the voices go into a fancy jazz chord everytime the title comes up. (I’ll let the rest of these be surprises — the good taste and naturalness holds throughout.) Other flashes are musically very strong, like the double-time jazz turn-around figure on “Into My Own Thing,” and the Staple Singers counterpoint on “Chicken.”
Still another flash technique is the use of quotes. “Dance to the Music,” not itself on this album, becomes a sort of leitmotif, a wonderful device to tie the album together and emphasize the group’s identity. It crops up in various guises on several different cuts. One whole cut, “Love City”, is generated from the tune of “Dance”; note how the soprano sax line is a very interesting development from the one in “Dance.” This may seem like self-plagiarism or lack of originality. I rather thank it’s intentional. In any case, it’s highly effective, just one more of the innumerable subtle things Sly thinks up to keep you glued to your stereo. “Eleanor Rigby” also comes in for a couple of masterful quotes.
Sly’s words are still another radical factor. R&B lyrics have generally had more sociological than intrinsic interest; Sly’s have plenty of both. He often deals with standard subjects, but his pithy, cliche-free language is quite a departure from the norm. Then again, Sly gets into some message and story things that are much closer to new rock than to soul, as in “Plastic Jim.” “Jane Is A Groupee” is the most incisive song ever written about rock’s camp-followers, not excluding Frank Zappa’s several comments on this theme. “I’m an Animal” is perhaps the best of all — and I’d quote it, except that those words really have to be heard to be enjoyed. Some rather sensual sounds which I could only write as “ugh ugh” are an integral part of the message. The music, the words and the meaning are all one great experience.
In a very curious way, this album reminds one of the big swing bands of the 1930’s in their prime. It’s because everything depends on the arrangements, and the arrangements are constructed to spotlight many different solo elements, each very briefly, with the interest heightened by a constantly changing background. The frequent use of riffs is another thing Sly has in common with old Count Basie records. Early rock and roll, with its absolute simplicity to the point of intentional monotony, was a great rebellion against this very approach. Now here we are with Sly and the Family Stone. Such things make rock history interesting. Soul music up to this point has continued to pursue the simplicity approach, its year-to-year progress coming mainly out of the advancement of vocal techniques, electric bass and drum playing, and improved recording quality. Sly’s vocalists and instrumentalists are all more than competent, but they are content to serve their purpose within the arrangements, which are the thing here.
Sly and the Family Stone are opening the door to a whole new era in soul music. With their emphasis on flash, on never-let-up entertainment of the senses rather than on the orderly telling of a story, they might well be the first McLuhanian soul group. But perhaps they haven’t got the door all the way open yet; there are still a few bugs in the machine.
The biggest bug is a real paradox, not at all easy to describe but evident nonetheless. Despite the uniform quality of all the cuts, and despite all the variety of texture and all the flashes, Life is not the best album to hear all the way through at one sitting. This is partly because certain changes pop up in similar form in many cuts, the trade-off vocal parts especially. But a much more important reason is that there is very little variety in the tempos — fast straight time all the way. There is even less variety in the dynamics, which are of course loud all the way “I’m an Animal” has a fleeting few bars that are gently scored, with some really sensual soft singing. They are incredibly beautiful in this context, and I’m sure Sly could do a lot more with dynamic variation if he cared to. A change into shuffle or 3/4 time could also have been very effective.
This album contains of course the group’s current single “Life.” Despite a fine flash in which a 1900 brass band becomes a soul horn section, and some brilliant effects on organ, it’s not quite the best cut. This itself signifies a welcome change from all those R&B albums that sink or swim with their hit singles.
The recording is superb technically. Incredibly enough, this group performs this material on stage in very much the form it appears here. But the record is really a greater experience, because the flashes and subtleties are much clearer and more dramatic in stereo. The only complaint one might have is that one can’t hear the bottom very well. But I suspect it was intended that way; It’s just one more element to set Life apart from ordinary soul albums. Also it helps the clarity. The drums, recorded up front and very percussive, preserve the motion unfailingly.