A private thought cannot be bought But you know what you have to do Sock it unto others, As you would have them sock it unto you
Know what? I genuinely cannot decide if ‘Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again)’ is one of the very best titled songs in the 1537, or the absolute very worst. This is the sort of thing I kick around in my head endlessly, all day every day.
What I can tell you though is twofold, that I have owned Sly & The Family Stone Greatest Hits for 19 years now and that opening track, ‘I Want To Take You Higher’ is possibly the greatest piece of music I own*; bar none.
Sly, tassle-freakin’ Woodstock arouser, happy popper, psychonaut freakerooni and minimalist political miserabilist … was a man for all seasons. Hell, just check out the dudes duds on the gatefold of the Sly & The Family Stone Greatest Hits . There ain’t many men, or women, who could carry off those furry buffalo booties this side of Jim ‘Dandy’ Mangrum. Flip it over to the back cover and you get to see Sly sporting a groovy patriotic outfit crowned by a truly amazing red knitted cloche hat**. The man was visibly on drugs; all of them.
In fact we have our little pharmaceutical friends to thank for the very existence of Sly & The Family Stone Greatest Hits in November 1970. The good time family funk pop psychedelic wagon was trundling to a bit of a halt, Sly was behaving erratically^ although I do think carrying a violin case full of chemicals everywhere he went was a classy touch and was under political pressure to junk the white members of the Family Stone. After only being able to coax a single out of them in 1969 the record company did what all good, responsible companies do, they circled the wagons, stopped pressurising the artist as it was provong detrimental to his mental health and generally looked after him … only joking, they chucked out a cheap compilation and kept badgering him for new material!
Whatever the purity of the origins, Sly & The Family Stone Greatest Hits shows up and out as a fine legacy, capturing some real flashes of inspiration, some fun times and a couple of vapid nothings^^, before the technicolour fun crashed to a halt.
I may have let slip earlier that I quite like ‘I want To Take You Higher’. It is such a wonderfully odd sounding tune too, all manner of bluesy guitar, pleading vocals and doughty harmonica slip-sliding in all over the place; fittingly everything is subservient to that amazing beat. What an incredible band they were! I am guilty, like everyone else of being blinded by the light of Sly but Rose and Freddie Stone really were no slouches and the rhythm section of Larry Graham and Greg Errico were like nothing else, tight and wild. But I digress, ‘I Want To Take You Higher’ is just pure sex, except at 5:23 about three minutes longer. True story.
I find elements of the first side of Sly & The Family Stone Greatest Hits less galvanising. Take the, undoubtedly classy, Burt Baccharach-tastic, ‘Everybody Is A Star’; melodically it is lovely and well done but I don’t need to hear it more than twice a year. The positive ‘Stand!’ fares a little better, apart from the line about midgets and giants, saved by the considerable funky freaking out towards the end.
As for ‘Life’, there’s something irritatingly simplistic about the whole affair – the song, not the irritatingly transient condition it was named after. I will take ‘Fun’ over it every time, as well as socking it unto others Sly tells us that ‘When I party, I party hearty’ – which is a sentiment I am thinking of incorporating into the 1537 coat of arms. ‘You Can make It If You Try’ is fine, the closest that the Family Stone got to the JBs.
Side 2 is stronger, although piano pulse aside I don’t have much love for ‘Hot Fun In The Summertime’ the little pop symphony that Brian Wilson never could quite write.
But I digress, we get startlingly inventive funky throbbers such as ‘Dance To The Music’ and the strikingly similar ‘M’Lady’, if they don’t make your heels twitch a little then book yourself into the morgue. ‘Sing A Simple Song’ rises massively out from underneath its unpromising title to loom over and above us all, courtesy of some stunning dynamics, a groove that just doesn’t quit and astonishing vocal and keys performances. More people should know this tune.
Which just leaves us two last funky cucumbers to slice and dice on Sly & The Family Stone Greatest Hits. The first being non LP single ‘Thank You (Fahlettinme Be Mice Elf Again)’, which has simply the best, heaviest bass on show here, or anywhere else for that matter. It is just brilliant, every last element fusing into a belligerent snake-hipped shimmy, the horns are just way out there!
Which leaves a final parting shot of genius, ‘Everyday People’. Words fail me, this is just a perfectly crafted, perfectly judged tune of a perfect length (2:21). Great vocals swooping down on a gentle trucking rhythm, nice pianoing yet again. In other circumstances I would find the lyrics a bit nursery-rhymey simplistic but here they just work and I find the plea for unity and understanding quite moving.
Sly & The Family Stone Greatest Hits was a perfectly timed LP, drawing a line under the back catalogue before the introspection of There’s A Riot Goin’ On, the fracturing of the band and Sly’s ‘issues’ that were growing in direct proportion to his intake. Sly’s talent only flickered intermittently after ’71, which is a shame on a par with Peter Green’s absence.
It is good to be reminded of the sheer bloody genius of Sly & The Family Stone in all their ludicrously funky pop pomp, to be reminded of what an all around great bunch of musicians and vocalists they were and finally to be reminded of how great the main man was able to be back when he really was hymns elf.
*I am fully aware that I have bestowed that self-same honour on at least 6 other tracks since I began this insane enterprise. In my defence I will say that I meant it every time I said it.
**only the Undertones at their very gauchest would ever rival this in the LP knitwear stakes.
^angel dust can do that to a fella. It used to play havoc with my daily commute back in the early 90’s. Word up.
^^Sly got his revenge a year later releasing the seminal and utterly downbeat There’s A Riot Goin’ On^*, which was the first major label LP to feature a drum machine.
^*named in answer to Marvin Gaye What’s Going On? a fact I only found out this week.