Sly and the Family Stone are one of the great live bands of all-time, which they more than proved when they performed at Woodstock, although I can remember them doing a couple of great gigs on "The Dick Cavett Show." So every time I hear anything by this group I cannot help but lament that I am not listening to them live, but that does not take away from the quality of their 1969 album "Stand!" What makes this the group's best work is that better than any other one of their albums it represents Sly Stone's vision of everything that music could be. That means covering a lot of music styles with the common denominator being an infectious enthusiasm that was always their defining element.
There were four hit singles off of this album, with "Everyday People" making it all the way to #1 on the Billboard charts, while "I Want to Take You Higher" made it to #60 in 1969 but #38 in 1970, "Sing a Simple Song" made it to #89, and the title tune topped out at #22. Musically I think "I Want to Take You Higher" is the best thing Sly and the Family Stone ever did. The opening groove with that awesome guitar riff, the driving beat and that blues harmonica, all combine to make this their definitive performance piece. Then there is the message of how music can bring everybody together, so it is not just all fun and games. "Stand!" made it to number 13 on the album charts, but the key thing is that it spent over 100 weeks on the charts, which is a testament to both its quality and its importance.
Behind the funky sound and the catchy melodies, Sly Stone was writing songs with a cohesive social consciousness. "Stand!' is an overt effort to bridge the gap between black and white audiences, not to mention a precursor for the coming disco movement. The second track, with its relatively shocking title for the late 1960s, also talks about the virtues of integration, which makes sense given that the Family Stone was one of the most integrated bands of that period. "Sing a Simple Song" presents this view of the world as well, but obviously "Everyday People" represents the epitome of Stone's perspective, as we learn that the key to the world is "different strokes, for different folks."
The only track that is really at odds with the tone and tenor of the rest of the album is "Somebody's Watching You," which takes on some added significance given the personal trouble Stone would be facing in the 1970s. This song has darker lyrics than any of the others. "Sex Machine" is an instrumental, with a rather innovative use of the wah-wah box and another infectious groove. The final track, "You Can Make It If You Try," is another reminder of how the band was always thinking about how songs would work live (in this case, as a set-up for the group to do jam like crazy at the end of their concert). Certainly you want to have the first "Woodstock" album for the group's live tracks and you need to have something with "Dance to the Music" on it, like a Sly and the Family Stone hits collection, but "Stand!" remains a must-have album from the late 1960s.