Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Masterpeices of Pop: "Family Affair"

In a survey of Masterpieces of Pop, there are several masterpieces to examine when one looks at the phenomenon of Sly and the Family Stone and their remarkable catalog. Headed by Sly Stone (née Sylvester Stewart), this important, groundbreaking group helped to create the genres of soul, funk and psychedelic music from the mid 60s to the mid 70s. Sly and the Family Stone were the first successful American musical group to feature a truly integrated [black and white], multi-gender line-up which included many of Sly’s actual family members and friends. The pioneering sound they created was magical and captured the zeitgeist of the nation, and indeed the world at that time. One can cite so many Sly and the Family Stone songs as potential masterpieces such as “Dance To The Music,” “Life,” “Fun,” “Sing A Simple Song,” “Everyday People,” “Stand!” and “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” but none of these quite match the brilliance of a deceptively simple tune called “Family Affair.”

Whereas the other potential masterpieces are bright, cheery, energetic songs pulsing with optimism and the noise of life, “Family Affair” is a somber, gritty moment. The band was known for a certain style of rock-soul-funk that was and is still is highly influential (legendary bass player Larry Graham actually invented the now-common slap method of playing the bass guitar), but due to many shifting factors in the band—drug use, personality clashes (most likely resulting from the aforementioned drug use)—and the changing landscape of American culture, the sound became darker, reflecting Sly's paranoid haze and the disillusionment many young people were feeling after they realized the 60s didn’t change much and things were not going to get a whole lot better. Race riots, the Black Panthers, the escalating Vietnam War, the massacre at Kent State…“Family Affair” was born out of this milieu.

A large part of what makes this song a Masterpiece of Pop is its brevity. Coming in at just over three short minutes, the song is composed of a sparse musical arrangement featuring Bobby Womack on guitar, Billy Preston on the Rhodes piano, and Sly Stone on bass. Vocals are shared between Sly (who sing-speaks the lyrics in an off-rhythm, deliberately off-key, strung out, blues-y way) and his sister Rose. Notice that there is no drummer. Greg Errico, the percussionist for Sly and the Family Stone, left the group in early 1971 because of Sly’s increasingly unpredictable behavior. So for “Family Affair,” Sly programmed a drum machine, making the song the very first number-one hit to feature a programmed rhythm track. There is also a wonderful and highly ambient, atmospheric filtered sound to the instruments and vocals. Apparently during recording, Sly became obsessed with re-recording and overdubbing the material which leaves one to wonder whether or not this low-fi tape hiss was an inadvertent side-effect of the process or a deliberate artistic statement.

The song may be short, but like any good poet, Sly managed to pack a lot of meaning into such a small space. There is some speculation about Sly’s inspiration for the song, with one theory positing his increasingly troubled relationships with his own family members in the band as the impetus. Lyrically, the song—in only two verses—deals with two different family situations, whether related by blood or by marriage. But true to this restless, deep new sound, the lyrics are not really about the solidity of family but about the difficulties, doubts, and confusion that can arise in family relationships, testing the strength of the bonds of love. This tight song has no upbeat message, no real resolution, no bright spot to look forward to. Like any good piece of art, no matter what form it may take, we are given information and it is up to us to make something of it. We are left with the situation to deal with, both in the song and, considering the meaning of the lyrics, in our own lives as well. We are left with uncertainty.

The song was released on the band’s fifth album, “There’s A Riot Goin’ On.” “Family Affair” peaked at number one for three weeks on Billboard’s Hot 100. It is ranked #138 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the "500 Greatest [Pop] Songs of All Time."

“It's a family affair, it's a family affair
It's a family affair, it's a family affair

One child grows up to be
Somebody that just loves to learn
And another child grows up to be
Somebody you'd just love to burn
Mom loves the both of them
You see it's in the blood
Both kids are good to Mom
Blood's thicker than mud
It's a family affair, it's a family affair
What of it?

Newlywed a year ago
But you're still checking each other out
Nobody wants to blow
Nobody wants to be left out
You can't leave, 'cause your heart is there
But sure you can't stay, 'cause you been somewhere else
You can't cry, 'cause you'll look broke down
But you're cryin' anyway 'cause you're all broke down

It's a family affair
It's a family affair”

Synchronistically, Sly Stone has released a brand new album just today, August 16, 2011. Visit his website for details.


This is the sixth installment of my original, ongoing "Masterpieces of Pop" series. You can read the other essays here:

Masterpieces of Pop: "Ode To Billie Joe"
Masterpieces of Pop: "Rikki Don't Lose That Number"
Masterpieces of Pop: "I Only Have Eyes For You"
Masterpieces of Pop: "I'm Not In Love"
Masterpieces of Pop: "Warm Leatherette" and "Cars"

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