Today is the birthday of Sylvester Stone, otherwise known as Sly Stone, a truly sui generis talent, a bridge between rock and soul that left a mark on both forms of music. When I was a kid, my brother brought home the LP Sly and the Family Stone’s Greatest Hits (in the wake of their exciting performance at Woodstock), which had every great radio song the band had released up to then. And there were many: “Dance to the Music,” “Everyday People,” “Stand,” “Sing a Simple Song,” and “I Want to Take You Higher.” But all those predated my days of listening to, and keeping written records of, the American Top 40. Unlike today’s song, “Family Affair,” which I remember climbing the chart as Sly and the crew’s last #1 hit, from their celebrated album There’s a Riot Going On.
It’s another song dating from 1971, the top year so far in these posts (maybe because I actually cared about radio songs back then).
The song, Wikipedia tells me, is the first #1 hit to feature a programmed rhythm track. The shape of things to come, indeed. For its day, it was an oddly processed sound, but, for all that, rather funky in its percolating insistence, and if only because of Sly’s deep baritone on the vocals. It’s an interesting performance that leaps out at you, as Sly almost talks it, backed by his sister Rose’s drawing out the title over and over again. I’ve always felt that the vocal needed another take as Sly seems to slur more than is necessary and even seems to stumble over the lyric at one point (“you can’t cry 'cause you’ll look broke down”), but those factors became part of the overall effect. I guess what I’m saying is that, for a Top 40 hit, it sounded awfully DIY, like a home recording, unlike the full band productions for which Sly and company were so well-known. Though that bright guitar part is Bobby Womack and the stuttering keyboard part is Billy Preston, so this is top notch musically.
The song seems like it’s going to be a slice of life about two sons—one “who just loves to learn” and the other “someone you just love to burn.” Whatever the dichotomy is, it seems to center on one child being more conventional and the other less so, where “mom loves the both of them” because “blood’s thicker than the mud.” It seem a rather backhanded tribute to the family ties that bind, and yet that’s about as positive as the song gets. The repetitions that “it’s a family affair” suggest a wide range of interactions, perhaps, a way of shrugging and saying that whatever goes on amongst kin is, indeed, a family affair.
That’s the sentiment I get behind in the sense that “the family” is never quite as smoothly supportive as any of us might hope. The family is there as one’s own constant frame of reference (not only one’s own family but others around one), and, if one creates a family, then one gets to contemplate the sense of “handing on” that is also, in one way or another, a family affair. Some people, we can say, even have “affairs” with the family, as in some endless honeymoon of goo-goo-goo and kootchie-koo, but for most of us, I imagine, there’s some friction that comes into play and that’s what Sly’s getting at: “You can’t leave because your heart is there / And you can’t stay because you’ve been somewhere else.” That great double bind of belonging and not belonging simultaneously. That, we might say, is the very essence of family.
The high-pitched cries of Sly late in the song communicate the drama of it all in the midst of the endless repetition of the same. The album the song is from has come to be regarded as one of the best of its day in its creation of “deep funk.” It’s also an album that, like this song, is mainly Sly working alone with session players and major overdubbing, using the technique as an instrument. It was all part of the “where do we go from here” that was a generally endemic feeling after Woodstock and the end of the Sixties. This track is a part of that time’s soundscape. Like many, Sly suffered from the demands and pressures of fame, but he had a good run as an emblem of the era, with his interracial, inter-gendered band featuring some of his own family members. Riot was the end of that era as it was the end of so much else.