Like Frank Zappa’s Mothers, Sly Stone’s group is unique. And, in fact, a comparison of the two groups is not as far fetched as it first might seem. Both exude a superficial formlessness in their sounds. Both demand, on one level at least, to be taken seriously. But while the Mothers have taken pop music to previously unimaginable levels of complexity, Sly and the Family Stone Stone has gone in the other direction — to basics.
At first, Stand! seemed like soul music distorted, or soul music lacking its usual polish, but a couple of listenings showed this to be a superficial impression. John Mayall once called soul music “all showmanship,” which, while typically purist of him, is largely true. While the Stone Family puts on a show, it isn’t showmanship.
First of all, there is no attempt at sophistication. While all the Family Stones are competent musicians, their overall sound comes across more like a noisy clamoring street gang who just happen to have some musical instruments in their possession, than a polished blend of musicians. And, vocally, they’re much closer to the mid-Fifties black groups than present-day soul, even the Memphis variety.
But, if they’re a noisy young street gang they’re gang with a very evident sense of moral purpose (like the Mothers). Almost all their songs on Stand!, which includes their hit single, “Everyday People,” are openly idealistic, telling of things as they should be, dealing with vast social problems in abstract terms, which is not usually within the scope of soul music. Stand! is not, however, simply a polemic. It’s also extremely vital body music. It really can’t be listened to a low volume and communicate. Stand! depends on sheer energy more than anything else.
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The most powerful instrument in the sound is usually the bass, which is incessant and repetitive. And, in fact, the most bothersome thing about this album, at first, was its insistent, almost defiant, repetition. But, it was bother-some simply because I sat there trying to figure it out; once I stood up (like the title says) it was fine. It’s not a contemplative piece.
There’s one long instrumental cut included, called “Sex Machine,” that’s really different. Except for the number of instruments used, it’s pretty close to Jimi Hendrix’s stuff. They use a single heavy bass line and pile up a lot of slurpy, buzzy, electronic sounds including the strange sound of Sly scatting into a microphone that its hooked up to a wah-wah pedal, and for a unit that isn’t primarily an instrumental group, they come out with one of the most listenable hard rock instrumentals I’ve heard in quite a while.
One of the other cuts that really stood out is pointedly titled, “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey.” It’s just that phrase and the converse, “Don’t call me whitey, nigger,” repeated endlessly in voices that sound like a black David Seville and the Chipmunks. It’s done in a taunting, almost snotty tone of voice and irritated the hell out of me until I realized that it was intended to do just that. It works. You get the message.
And, that, perhaps, sums up Stand! It’s effective. You can criticize each or any particular point regarding the music or the content of the message, but in toto, it works. Stand! is not an album for someone who demands perfection or sophistication, although it’s by no means crude — just basic. It’s for anyone who can groove on a bunch of very raucous kids charging through a record, telling you exactly what they think whether you want to hear it that way or not. If you don’t mind being pushed a little, then Stand! will move you.