Fifty years later, ‘There’s A Riot Going On’…still
today at 6:00 am
It was the spring of 1971. The band Sly and the Family Stone was scheduled to play a concert on the campus of Northwestern University. The show was scheduled to start at 7 pm. Sly had a reputation for being late, so when the clock turned eight, no one was too worried. He also had a reputation for being a no-show, so an hour later the talk turned to if this would be another Grant Park episode.
It was less than a year earlier that the band had been scheduled to play a free concert in Chicago’s downtown area. It was a peace offering from the band to the city to make up for a few no-shows at previously scheduled concerts. It was also a gesture from Mayor Daley (the original) to the area’s young people that after two years of battling over the Vietnam War, police brutality and other political and racial differences, the two sides could peacefully coexist.
The Grant Park show was scheduled to begin at 4 pm, but the crowd starting filling the park in the early morning. It was a brutally hot summer day and the crowd grew restless. Rumors started that it was going to be another no-show. Even though the band’s instruments were set up on the stage, Sly & the Family Stone never did appear.
Objects were thrown onto the stage and one hour after the scheduled start time, the riot was on. It moved from the park into the downtown area. Stores had their windows broken and were being looted. Police arrested 160 people. Another 162 were injured.
Peace and coexistence between the band, the Mayor and the cities’ youth lasted only a few hours.
Nothing like what happened at Grant Park occurred in Evanston that spring evening. The band finally showed up at 10 pm. They played a short, uninspired set of music. Everyone left the arena disappointed and pissed off, but safe.
We didn’t know it at the time, but the two Chicago area events should have been a huge hint that big changes were occurring with the band that so many loved for their upbeat brand of funk, soul and rock music.
In November 1971, Sly & the Family Stone released “There’s A Riot Going on.” This was their fifth studio album and it had a much different sound and feel than any of their earlier records. This was no “Everyday People” or “Dance to the Music.” The music was more serious and somber. Listening to it didn’t put you in the same mood as their other records. It was kind of a downer.
It turned out that there was an upheaval going on within the group. There were personnel changes as well as drug problems. Cocaine had taken over the band, especially for Sly, in what has turned out to be a life-long issue for him. If you listened closely, you hear it in this album.
And yet the album received many rave reviews. This was a time when serious albums were being made that deal with the many issues of the country. Apparently, music critics felt that Sly had stepped up his game and “There’s A Riot Going On” was his entrance into becoming a serious musician. You could find the album near the top of many best albums list for 1971.
We’re closing in on the fiftieth anniversary for “There’s A Riot Going On.” It’s time to give it another listen. It’s time to see if the critics were right. It’s time to see if the album holds up fifty years after its release.
The 2021 listening experience of “There’s A Riot Going On” has a lot of the same qualities as the 1971 version. The recording of the record itself isn’t very clear. Plus, the lyrics sound garbled, so it’s best to google a lyric sheet and read along with the songs. Even knowing the words, they didn’t make much sense to me…then and now.
However, the actual music on the album is damn good! The guitars especially sound very crisp and distinct. Much of the music is played by Sly, himself. Make no mistake about it, this is almost a Sly solo production. Whatever credit or blame you want to give should go to him.
While listening to the record, I noticed that there were some definite foot tapping and head bobbing moments going on. Not quite like the earlier music, but there was definitely some sort of rhythm happening. That’s always a good thing, especially when it’s during a Sly and the Family Stone album.
If I had to give this album a rating, it would be a C. It’s not horrible, but if I’m spending time listening to Sly’s music, I’m going real old school and break out their earlier work. The only thing that actually holds up is the actual title because in 2021, the same as 1971, “There’s a Riot Going On.”
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