Sly and the Family Stone may have burned out far too soon, but while they were around, they were the funkiest, coolest band on the scene. They were progressive, idealistic, and never anything but exuberant. In short, they were the sixties, and if you want to know anything at all about that decade, you’re going to have to get to grips with their musical legacy. To help you do just that, here are the 10 best Sly and the Family Stone songs of all time.
10. Only One Way Out of This Mess
As The Guardian says, Sly and the Family Stone were always at their best when they were writing about US social politics with disarming clarity and simplicity. Only One Way Out of This Mess was written just a few weeks after the release of the band’s debut, but its inspirational lyrics (“Stop everything you’re doing and look around/ How can one look down when one is down? … There’s only one way out of this mess / Knock the corners off the squares / We hate nothing, and love the rest.”) are a world away from the basic love songs of their inaugural album. Fizzing with funky guitars and brass squeals, it’s dazzling.
9. Family Affair
The band’s fifth album, There’s a Riot Goin’ On, was a vastly different beast to the ones that had come before. Most of it was recorded by Sly on his own, with the rest of the band adding their parts on later. The result is a slightly dislocated collection of songs that replaces the hopeful jubilance of the band’s previous efforts with a somewhat jaundiced weariness. Family Affair is a terse, short song with a grinding drum machine, a clash of keys and the soulful vocals of Rose Stone overlaid on top. Despite the bleakness of its lyrics, it managed to land the band the biggest chart success of their career.
8. Dance to the Music
In 1968, Sly and the Family Stone netted the first Top 10 hit of their career with this exuberant Dance to the Music. Lyrically, it was mindless, with each band member simply describing the instrument they were about to introduce. But mindless can sometimes be fun, and here, it definitely was. The infectious exuberance is impossible to resist – for listeners, if not the band themselves, who apparently described it as ‘unhip’ and ‘glorified Motown.’
7. Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)
According to Guitar World, Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin) is blessed with one of the best basslines of all time – listening to the funky lines delivered by Larry Graham in this delicious slice of funk heaven, it’s hard to disagree. Simple but with an insanely catchy hook that worms its way into your head and stays there, it was one of the last parting shots from Sly before his descend into drug-fuelled madness. As parting shots go, it was magic.
Coming in between the commercial success of Dance to the Music and the critical glory of Stand!, Life could have gone down in flames. It didn’t. Rolling Stone’s Barret Hansen even went so far as to describe it as “the most radical soul album ever issued.” A big part of the reason for its success was the freedom allowed to the band, who were given full license by Sly to adlib just as much as they wanted. Dynamite is exactly as the title suggests- from Larry Graham’s funky fingerpicking to the Motown-inspired horns, its pure, unrelenting dynamite, from start to finish.
5. Sing a Simple Song
The B-side to Everyday People was Sing a Simple Song. In comparison to the simple, sugary pop charms of the A-side, this was an aggressive slice of pure funk, with an exuberant melody and a pared-back sound that was as close to the bone as it’s possible to get. One of the funkiest, grooviest songs ever recorded, period.
The first single of Sly and the Family Stones’ first album didn’t leave a lot to be desired. Named by Rolling Stone as one of the band’s finest moments, the song opens with a sleepy saxophone rendition of the kid’s song “Frère Jacques” before cutting into a rollicking, rip-roaring social justice commentary about underdogs having to show themselves to be “twice as good” as everyone else to “get a fair shake”, The song (and indeed, the album) wasn’t a massive commercial success, but if nothing else, it showed how far ahead of the game the band were compared to their contemporaries.
3. Everyday People
Everyday People isn’t just a song. It’s a sign of the times. At a point where revolution was in the air, Sly and the Family Stone captured the moment and laid it bare across 2min 23 sec of pure funk genius. Taken from the creatively wonderful Stand!, it represents the group at the pinnacle of their prowess. Plus, there’s a whole load of “Scooby Dooby Doos” to enjoy… and who can say no to that?
From start to finish, Life is an ebullient, joyful, life enforcing gem of a song that manages to capture the band during their transition from the psychedelic chaos of their earliest days to the focused funk of their later ones. With its pure message of hope and its amalgamation of every influence that had ever come the band’s way, it’s a moment of blissful, sunny delight.
1. Are You Ready
If you’re looking for a track that tells you everything you need to know about the Family Stone in less than three minutes, Are You Ready is it. Ferocious, raw, and packed with enough strident potency to make even James Brown look a little underwhelming, it’s got enough bounce and funk to get you through even the bleakest Monday morning. Cynthia Robinson’s trumpet, Greg Errico’s drums, and Jerry Martini’s sax leave nothing to be desired, and neither does Larry Graham’s inspired bass. But it’s Sly’s delivery of lines like “Don’t hate the black, don’t hate the white / If you get bitten, just hate the bite” that really let you know what the band is about.