There was nothing like Sly and the Family Stone – not then, and not now. Perhaps when Prince had his last breath of life he was humming the lyrics to the song, “Stand”. At their late-’60s best, this expectation-confounding group boasted the rhythmic ferocity of R&B, but none of the quickly devolving formulaic Motown tics. At the same time, they had a distinctly rock ‘n’ roll attitude. That meant no small amount of screw-you attitude, an exhilarating focus on hooks, some seriously weird outfits and a tendency toward hedonism. Credit Sly’s wit and an outsider’s attitude, which were in keeping with his former life as a famous San Francisco disc jockey and local record producer. He never accepted the generally accepted rules. On S.F. radio KDIA, he’d play Dylan into Hendrix into James Brown. This cat would never get stuck in any one groove. Part of what brought the collective to that moment in time was Stand!, the group’s fourth album, released 50 years ago. The San Francisco-based assemblage of musical pioneers had been releasing albums since the mid-1960s. The gathering of musical minds became proprietors of psychedelic soul in 1966, led by overall genius multi-instrumentalist Sylvester Stewart a.k.a. Sly Stone.
Stand! crystallized the spirit of the late ’60s like few other albums have done. It’s a tribute to love, unity, optimism, and equality. Sly and The Family Stone express a deeply held belief that things could and would get better, that Black and white populations could love together in harmony. That you could stand up to the Goliaths in the government and make a difference. That people could make a difference in turning the world into a better place for everyone. This worldview is typified in the album’s title track, “STAND”. The song leans hard into its message of empowerment, evoking imagery of little people standing tall and giants about to fall, all while encouraging people to remember that they’re free if they want to be. “Stand” is often remembered for its frenzied final third, where Stone decides to shift that tone of the song, recording a thrilling gospel-inspiration coda, with chanting vocals, blaring horns, and pulsing organs.
Heading downhill as 1969 turned to 1970, as the goodwill of the 1960s quickly curdled into something very toxic. It hit a few artists but none harder than Stone. People are often obsessed with his fall from grace; for Stone it seemed to have ended so incredibly badly. Looking back at the legendary bandleader’s spiral down is an exceedingly depressing exercise. Everything that the album, “Stand” stood for would soon become marginalized. During the 50 years that have followed the release of Stand!, I’ll be generous and suggest that a little under 40 of them have been a complete and utter mess.
They’ve been marked by disillusionment, bitterness, anger, isolation, and seclusion. And drugs. Lots and lots of drug. There’s something poetically tragic about that man who spearheaded a kick-ass group known for embodying peace, love, and understanding becoming the living embodiment of every way that the ’60s went wrong. Personally, I see only sadness and ignominy of a man who contributed so much to music, ideology and heritage. Presently Sly is living in a van parked in North Hollywood,CA…