In late 1969, Sly & the Family Stone released “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” on a single with “Everybody Is a Star”. The irresistible funk bottom, guided by Larry Graham’s bass, helped take the track to the top of the charts in 1970.
To this day, the song elicits comments like these, from the above YouTube video:
“I just love the triumphant positivity of sly's music”
“I play upbeat music in my morning Advisory class (high school) to help us all wake up and start the day with something positive. This one was a big hit.”
“When I first heard this song I thought it was the coolest song I'd ever heard :)”
Earlier in 1969, the band had released Stand!, an all-time great album. Then, in the summer of ‘69, they played Woodstock. In March of 1970, the film of the festival came out, showing the world what a dynamic live show Sly & the Family Stone put on.
But ... blame the drugs, blame whatever. After “Thank You”, they released no new material until late 1971. Their label filled up the space with a Greatest Hits album that is as good as anything anyone has ever put out.
Then, on November 20, 1971, a new album at last. It was called There’s a Riot Goin’ On, and the title seemed to promise more of the energetic funk they had served up in the past.
Nope. Perhaps the biggest clue was the title cut, which was listed as the last track on Side One. It ran for 0 minutes and 0 seconds.
Then there was the last track on the album, which had a familiar title: “Thank You for Talkin' to Me, Africa”. The lyrics were the same as the earlier “Thank You” hit. But the arrangement told the listener that something had happened since the hit. And with that, those triumphantly positive lyrics revealed themselves as something else:
Lookin' at the devil, grinnin' at his gun
Fingers start shakin', I begin to run
Bullets start chasin', I begin to stop
We begin to wrestle I was on the top ...
Flamin' eyes of people fear, burnin' into you
Many men are missin' much, hatin' what they do
Sly still had some good music in him, when he managed to make it. But the amazing run of Stand!, Greatest Hits, and Riot was over.
Some years later, I had a similar experience with a Lou Reed song. On Street Hassle, he included a Velvet Underground cover, “We’re Gonna Have a Real Good Time Together”. This song didn’t appear on a Velvets album until the fine, posthumous live set, 1969. If you saw Patti Smith in the early part of her career, she often sang that song. (A studio Velvets version made an outtakes album in 1986.) Anyway, that live version from 1969 was a favorite of mine:
Well, when Street Hassle came out, and I played that version of the song, I wanted to cry in sadness. The production made Lou sound like an emotionless machine. But then, with about a minute to go, he shifted into Velvets mode, lost the machine voice, and suddenly the joy was back. I can tell you, that first time I played it, I did indeed cry at that point, although it was tears of joy. I guess it wasn’t so much like “Thank You” after all ... or like “Thank You” with a happy ending.