Tag Archives: John Phillips

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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People Like Us – The Mamas & the Papas

In 1971, maybe running out of money, maybe growing bored by the excesses of their Laurel Canyon lifestyles (drugs and ill-considered romantic entanglements) and still owing an album to their label to complete their contract, the Mamas & the Papas reconvened for a comeback album. It’s been rubbished by most of the band members since, it was slammed in the press at the time, and it is seriously patchy – but for this song at least, the effort was a worthwhile.

Bodies of work don’t come much whiter than the Mamas’, but People Like Us is surprisingly soulful and black-sounding. For this, credit has to go to John Phillips, who produced the album in place of their producer and mentor from the sixties, Lou Adler, and assembled an unlikely team including drummers Earl Palmer and Ed Green, bassist Tony Newton and an electric sitar player. (It seems somehow to typify early-seventies soul, the electric sitar. I don’t know where it got used first in that context – Band of Gold, maybe, from 1970? – but I associate it most with the Chi-Lites’ Have You Seen Her, from June 1971, to which this might have been a very quick response.) But beyond the touches contributed by the rhythm section, the album’s whole cast of players is seriously impressive: as well as Palmer and Green, present on the record are Bobbye Hall, Louis Shelton, Clarence McDonald – stellar, enormously talented musicians who (with the exception of Jim Horn on saxophone, who has a real off-day and plays nothing but clichés on Pacific Coast Highway) are sympathetic and tasteful throughout.

It might seem a strange thing to say but the thing that often worked least well for me about the Mamas was the enormous voice of Cass Elliot – it was great on its own, but it was simply too big to be contained by a four-piece singing group. Some voices are like that – they need to be heard on their own so they can become what they really are. Michelle Phillips once said that while she was no great singer herself, her big contribution to the band was to keep Cass from over-singing and drowning her out entirely. That was probably true. But Cass Elliot hardly appears on this whole album – possibly due to illness, possibly to drug problems, possibly due to illness due to drug problems – forcing Michelle Phillips to up her game. And her soft-voiced cooing sits very well with Denny Doherty’s lead tenor, giving the music a more sensual feeling than it had in their mid-sixties heyday.

I’m no contrarian. California Dreaming is a masterpiece, and of course I recognise that the Mamas made several other great pop singles in the sixties. But People Like Us is my favourite Mamas song, however uncharacteristic it might be.

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People like them – The Mamas & the Papas, 1971. Clockwise from top left: John Phillips, Michelle Phillips, Denny Doherty and Cass Elliot