Sly and the Family Stone’s 1970 Greatest Hits collection was my introduction to the band, after hearing I Want To Take You Higher played on the radio by the singer in a current band I liked. I made a beeline for the record shop, and Greatest Hits was the only thing on offer; my inner teenage rockist almost certainly wanted a proper album, but beggars can’t be choosers. It wouldn’t be until much later that I’d realise the esteem this ‘mere’ compilation is held in – Christgau describes it as “amongst the greatest rock and roll LPs of all time”, and in 2003 Rolling Stone ranked it number 60 in their 500 greatest albums of all time.
This esteem is because Greatest Hits quite simply houses some of the best music ever made, even though it was devised as a stop-gap to fill time while Sly himself was going mad (more on that later). Sly and the Family Stone, a revolutionary multi-racial group at the time, surfed their way through so many different styles, grooves, melodies, and emotions from 1967 to 1969 that it boggles your brain – they’re ostensibly a rock / soul band, but they were keystones in developing funk and psychedelic music, and they traversed boundaries at will.
Greatest Hits combines all the band’s singles from the albums Dance To The Music, Life, and Stand!, plus a couple of charting b-sides that accompanied those singles, another album track from Stand!, plus three stand-alone singles that followed Stand! in 1969. (Sadly it misses the splendid Underdog from their debut album, 67’s A Whole New Thing). Rather than arranging songs chronologically, the sequencing starts with the epic, heavy funk of I Want To Take You Higher (from Stand!) and finishes with Thank You (Falettineme Be Mice Elf Agin) (one of the stand-alone singles), which function amazingly as bookends. The ten songs between range from the plaintive, heartening Everybody Is A Star to the deranged jerking groove of M’Lady, and the beatific sunshine piano-pop of Hot Fun In The Summertime. I own the albums most of these songs come from, and this order is still the way I prefer to hear them.
Even if you don’t recognize the songs themselves, Sly and the Family Stone have been sampled left, right, and centre, and not just by prime-sampling-era hip hop acts like Tribe Called Quest, Public Enemy, Beastie Boys, NWA, Queen Latifa, Arrested Development, Stetsasonic, Snoop Dogg, Redman, Common, Pharcyde, KRS-One, Mobb Deep, Jurassic Five, De La Soul, Missy Elliott… they’ve also been sampled by Primal Scream, Fatboy Slim, Janet Jackson, Beck, Alanis Morrissette, Four Tet, Skinnyman, DJ Shadow, Kid Rock, Pizzicato Five… The list, quite literally, goes on, and on, and on.
After Greatest Hits, Sly and the Family Stone were a transformed band, never the same again. Things started to hint at negativity a little on Stand! (for instance the racial unease of Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey – not included here), but 1971’s infamous, paranoid, cocaine-psychosis-blur There’s A Riot Goin’ On sounded like a different band because it was; Sly himself played almost every instrument, his band disintegrated by his erratic behavior and cavernous drug consumption, as he recorded on the same tapes over and over again until he’d obliterated song after song, hence the infamous muddy tape-hiss sound. There would still be good music after Riot, but nothing as free, as hopeful, as vibrant, as life-affirming, as the material the Family Stone recorded in those first three years together.
Edit: In quick response to Rob, below, Sly and The Family Stone simply don’t seem to have crossed the Atlantic very well – I get the idea from American contacts and friends that they’re held in massive esteem and regard, and hold a huge place in popular culture, that just isn’t reflected or understood over here.
Rob listened: This was a lot of fun while it was on and playing spot the sample is always enjoyable, even if it more often than not leaves me worrying about how quickly my memory is degenerating these days. Clearly hugely influential, Sly and co. have perhaps been denied their place in the pantheon of pop, presumably thanks to Mr Stone’s disintegration. There’s no obvious reason that we should know all the hits by Stevie Wonder or the Bee Gees or The Beach Boys or whoever and not by this bunch. But we don’t. For now they’ll go back on the ‘artists i’m ashamed to say I don’t really know but don’t really feel like i’ll have time to snuggle up to any time soon’ list. Enjoyed hearing them though.
Tom Listened: Worryingly for me, I pretty much agree with everything Rob has written! I enjoyed this, but imagine I would like the paranoid, darker tones of There’s a Riot (a record I have always kept an eye out for but never seen for sale on vinyl) more as I enjoy darkness and paranoia (see recent offerings: Babybird, Big Star, Anais Mitchell, Kate Bush). Sometimes a little cheesy, but always fun and energetic, this was a great collection of tunes and I think it fitted the wonderful bright evenings of April perfectly. Thanks Nick.
By the way: To extend our discussion on the night,other compilations that are possibly more well known than any individual album in an artist’s discography: Legend and Standing on the beach.
Graham listened: Clear and present danger of consensus breaking out over this choice. There were some stonking (not a word I use lightly) tunes on this album. Like Rob says, it almost criminal that some of these don’t have the status of ‘classics’ by the other artists we hear so frequently. If the sun was shining and I had a convertible car, I would be reaching for the 8 track of this and go cruising with the window down and elbow out. Its great that a quick hit of such music can evoke feelings like this. Not sure if the Afro wig would suit me though?