Listen to this track by first graduating class members of the funk-soul school of hit singles Sly & The Family Stone. It’s “Family Affair”, the last number one hit they’d enjoy, and one included on their seminal There’s A Riot Going On album released in 1971.
By this time, the soulful togetherness that their material exemplified so well by the end of the idealistic 1960s had given way to darker, more claustrophobic themes that were perhaps more appropriate to the cultural landscape of the early ’70s. The war in Vietnam was raging with no end in sight, Kent State students had been gunned down by the National Guard, and Altamont had made the hippy dream of Woodstock into something of a zero net gain.
This shift in tone on this record also had a lot to do perhaps with leader Sly Stone’s descent into hard drugs, and his tendency to isolate himself from his band members in all kinds of other ways, too. This track was created largely without them, with Sly and his sister Rose taking on vocal duties, and with Sly playing everything else himself but for the Fender Rhodes (Billy Preston), and electric guitar (Bobby Womack). As for the drums, this song was the result of the earliest use of a drum machine on a mainstream hit. Technically then, this isn’t really a band effort in the strictest sense. But, neither was the rest of the album.
Nevertheless, it was a hit even if it would also be their peak. Despite some notable material afterward (“If You Want Me To Stay”, “Que Sera Sera”), it was all downhill from here for Sly & The Family Stone as a band. Maybe it’s appropriate that this was their last number one single, seeing how relevant the subject matter is to who Sly Stone was as a writer, and as an individual as a part of a group at the time.
There had certainly been strained relationships in a group that had reached a new audience and new level of success after having played to the crowds at Woodstock two years earlier. But, this success almost exactly corresponded with their sojourn into heavy cocaine and PCP use. This interfered with their rate of output, and with their lines of communication. Things would only get worse, too.
All the while, Sly was shutting himself away on his own, recording, erasing, and re-recording tracks for a very anticipated record, awaited particularly by their record company who in an era when an album a year was standard, had to wait twenty months for it. Eventually, it appeared and proved to be a very successful follow-up record to their hit album Stand!, which had been so reminiscent of the times in which it was created. This new record would turn out to be very reminiscent of its times as well, and of the band whose name appears on it; There’s a Riot Going On. This song, “Family Affair”, was the lead single.
The story found in this song is simple enough on the surface. Two kids, loved by their Mom, and who also have very different temperaments. One grows up living for the straight and narrow. The other is attracted to trouble – someone you’d just love to burn. Another narrative unfolds about commitment, and about the impulse to stray.
Basically, this tune is a textbook binary code for being pulled in two directions at once, with construction and destruction as the result at the end of each respective path, for good or ill. It’s not unreasonable to think then about how Sly himself felt about the band he was in; a Family affair to be understood on another level. Maybe it’s about how he understood his life in general; driven to create, but also driven to destroy too.
The band would have success after this, albeit with diminishing returns, and with even less involvement from core members. Sly Stone’s career would be marked with erratic behaviour and limited success for decades afterwards, with his knack for not showing up when called upon being all too consistent. Yet, his position as a musical visionary is undisputed by fans, peers, critics, and even by his former bandmates.
The trajectory of soul music, and the evolution of funk and hip hop that would inform acts ranging from Prince, to Beastie Boys, to TLC, to the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, to the Roots, would not have been possible without his example, and his work. And There’s A Riot Going On is rightly lauded today as being one of the best records of the era, ultimately gaining in stature to the point where it’s lived well beyond the times out of which it was made.
Additionally, The Family Stone as a unit wrote the book on how to integrate band members of different genders and from different racial and cultural backgrounds, and to incorporate musical ingredients from all of those backgrounds and experiences together to make something new. This is no small thing, especially if you consider the era in which this band formed.
There is a current line-up of the Family Stone featuring original members Cynthia Robinson, Greg Errico, and Jerry Martini. You can learn more about them at thefamilystonemusic.com
Despite continually strange news and appearances, Sly Stone has his own site. Find out what he’s up to at slystonemusic.com. Germane to this discussion of recent news where this band is concerned is the release of the Sly & The Family Stone boxset Higher!. You can view it and buy it here.