Tag Archives: 1969

Luv n’ Haight – Sly & the Family Stone

In 1969, the outrageously talented multi-instrumentalist, singer, songwriter and bandleader Sylvester ‘Sly Stone’ Stewart, was one of the most celebrated figures in popular music. His band had triumphed at Woodstock, their seemingly warm-hearted, outward-looking psychedelic soul making even Motown seem old hat and forcing them to change their game and turn increasingly to the visionary producer Norman Whitfield. Their late-sixties hits, calling for love, peace, understanding and integration, were made all the more powerful by the mere sight of Stone and his band on stage: they were both multi-racial and multi-gender in an era where such things were extremely uncommon. 1969, remember, was the year of Kent State and just one year after the assassination of Martin Luther King.

But by 1971 Sly Stone had retreated to a very strange headspace. Holed up inside an LA mansion belonging to John Phillips from the Mamas and the Papas, Stone sacked half of his band (the white members, supposedly at the insistence of the Black Panthers, but also master bassist Larry Graham, upon whom Stone apparently took out a contract), surrounded himself with goons, dealers, pimps and hookers, and haphazardly set about making what would be his masterpiece, There’s a Riot Goin’ On.

Recording was undertaken at the Record Plant in Sausalito near San Francisco, in a room Stone had had installed there for his own use. Progress was glacial, with Stone playing much of the record himself, or inviting guests in at the expense of his bandmates (Bobby Womack, for example, is much in evidence on guitar), cutting tracks and recutting them, over and over. The protracted nature of the recording took its toll on the master tapes, and they completely lost their high end through wear and tear. The resulting murk – in a happy accident – suited his new material perfectly, the cracked and paranoid deep funk shocking those enamoured of his outward-looking pop hits.

Family Affair was the album’s most enduring hit (its only hit). But it’s not exactly representative. Riot is not an album of expansive, memorable melodies. Family Affair is one of the few songs to let a bit of light in. For the most part, it’s an intensely claustrophobic album; Christgau nailed it when he called it ‘Despairing, courageous, and very hard to take’. These days, Luv n’ Haight – the album opener – seems to me the most crucial track: all that Riot is, is contained in its churning groove and airless (literally – the mix is dry as a bone) swirl of vocals and wah-wah’d guitars.

 

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Sly, with Telecaster, 1969

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Tin Angel – Joni Mitchell

Joni Mitchell has expressed dissatisfaction with 1969’s Clouds, dismissing it as merely an attempt to emulate the style of Crosby, Stills and Nash. Clouds and the first CSN album both came out in May 1969, but that doesn’t invalidate her retrospective judgement – being so close to the major players in CSN, she’d have heard the songs from their debut from their very earliest stages. Indeed, some versions of the Crosby, Stills and Nash creation myth have them singing together for the first time at her house (others say it was at Mama Cass’s).

She’s overstating, I feel – Joni’s songs rarely have anything in common with Graham Nash’s, except they both take their personal relationships (and at times, of course, their relationship with each other) as subject matter, and her work has even less to do with Stills’s, musically or lyrically – but Clouds does find her at her most Crosby-like. Specifically, the modal-medieval Crosby of If I Could Only Remember my Name. It’s a style that is otherwise Crosby’s alone, so work that sounds similar stands out. If she did feel later on that she had been trying to copy CSN, then perhaps Tin Angel is the song that she was thinking about most.

Long-time readers of this blog may remember that I love David Crosby’s music: the mood, the voice, the harmonies, the chords, the whole bit. And similarly, I can find the good in almost any Joni Mitchell song, so Tin Angel is almost tailor-made for me.

It’s a gloriously stark piece of work, with an elegant, elongated melody that circles round upon itself, only resolving after ten lines with a glorious Picardy third. Her guitar playing (on one of those vanishingly rare occasions when she played in standard tuning) is, as always, top-drawer. The mood, though, is one of ambivalence – the singer knows that she loves someone ‘dark with darker moods… Not a golden prince who’s come’. ‘What will happen if I try to place another heart in him?’ the singer can only ask, pointedly not ending the song on the major chord that closes each of the song’s long verses, returning instead to the minor that begins them.

Elsewhere on the album she goes too far down the mystical-medieval path (Roses Blue and Songs to Aging Children Come are missteps – no getting away from that) and there’s some overbalancing tweeness (The Gallery, Chelsea Morning) I could live without, too. But any album that contains Tin Angel, I Don’t Know Where I Stand and Both Sides Now deserves better than it has received from its own creator, and it’s still probably the most satisfying of her pre-Blue albums. If you’re a casual fan interested in hearing something of her early music, Clouds – and not the more lauded Ladies of the Canyon – is where I’d direct you.

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Joni, circa Clouds, to judge by the fringe

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Can I trouble you to listen to my new EP, Last Swallow?