Saturday, May 15, 2010

"Thank You for Talking to Me, Africa" by Sly and the Family Stone (1971)

What is funk? I think it's one of those things that aren't really easily defined, but when you encounter it, you know it. Obviously, James Brown holds the patent. Even if funk wasn't entirely a one-man creation, certainly he's the touchstone from which all funk derives. His journey from soul man to funk viruoso in the late sixties and early seventies is an inspiring and awesome one.

But I think you could argue that it's not actually the most illustrative journey into funk. For that, one needs to turn to Sylvester Stewart. Stewart, who rechristened himself Sly Stone, was a music insider in San Francisco, working behind the scenes, before launching his own career. It's interesting to think that such a charismatic frontman originally kept himself out of the limelight. It's seen as revelatory that his band, the Family Stone, was mixed-race. I'm not so sure that it is, really. After all, you can't hear skin colour on a CD, and I don't even know – or care to know – whether it was the drummer or the keyboardist who was white. You know, whatever. What does matter, at least for the early years of the Family Stone, was the way their music arguably fused what was popular in 'white music' and what was popular in 'black music' – in the 60s, they weren't very distinct things either, with all kinds of cross-pollination, but Sly and the Family Stone played just as readily on 'R&B' stations as on 'rock' stations.

More importantly, they were jubilant. Ecstatic. Happy, carefree music: righteous, yes, but righteous in an idealistic way. Positivity, in music and in message.

Things got a bit different with 'Thank You (Falletinme be Mice Elf Agin)', the unfortunately retardedly-titled song that forms the linchpin between 'early' Sly and 'late' Sly. It's somehow upbeat and downbeat at the same time. It's somewhere between the sunny-optimism of the hippie-era sixties and the more strident realism of the more radical early seventies. And, just as importantly, it's still sixties pop, but it's becomeing a deeper and deeper funk: just listen to that bass. That's funk. That's where James Brown lives.


After that single, Sly and the Family Stone apparently fell intol a drug-induced haze that made it tough as nails to actually get an album released. It took a few years – which was a few lifetimes back then – for them to produce There's a Riot Goin' On, with its iconic, red-white-and-black American flag cover. The fifty stars have been replaced by suns, but there's nothing sunny here. This is deep, dark stuff. To say it's drug-induced is missing the point: of course it's drug-induced. So was everything they did in the sixties. Just different drugs. Or, perhaps, different reactions.

This album takes funk into, arguably, a deeper and darker place than James Brown ever went. And the highlight, the centrepiece, is a rerecorded version of that very single. This time, it's seven minutes long, slow, narcotic, messy, but undeniably funky as hell. Whatever Sly and the Family Stone were on, it wasn't peace-and-love pills. But that doesn't make this music depressing: it's not. What it is is intoxicating, addictive... the bass played by Larry Graham is so effortlessly funky that it's stunning. He's not doing much here, but whatever 'funk' is, he's exuding it with every slap of a bass string. Everything else is merely wrapped around that amazing bass, and it's all as sloppy as possible: it's still a communal sing-along, but no one is listening to each other really. The guitars are not exactly chicken-sctratch, but they are abrasive: not musical at all, really. And all over the place...

How does this song work? With its messy and depressing constituent parts that barely cohere, how can the result be so affirming, so exciting and so thrilling? Well, whatever funk is, I suppose it is at its core truly a mystery. Or a form of magic, maybe.

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