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Between the Cracks: Sly and the Family Stone’s “A Whole New Thing”

Hello, Ickies!

I know that my posts here have been minimal for some time. I’m busy looking for a job, wrapping up the dissertation, and playing Rock Band 2. But I promised Pete that my New Year’s resolution would be to post here with more frequency. This is a way to (potentially) force more regular posts out of me. I’ll just say that these will be “regular” or “occasional,” though I’d like to shoot for “monthly.” I make no promises.
I present the first of a new “column” so to speak, Between the Cracks. The series will focus on forgotten, underrated and misunderstood albums that are worthy of reexamination.

This edition takes a look/listen to the 1967 debut from Sly and the Family Stone, A Whole New Thing.

Truth be told, this post has been stewing in my mind for over a year. Last Christmas (2007), my girlfriend gave me the Sly and the Family Stone boxed set – all seven albums, remastered with bonus tracks. I’d coveted this set since it’s release, and was eager to devour it thoroughly. I’m pretty familiar with Sly’s catalog already, but put A Whole New Thing on my stereo with some hesitancy. The common problem with these comprehensive collections is that the artist’s best work is often sandwiched between generally uninteresting developmental early material, and bland, mediocre final albums.

Within 30 seconds of hearing the album’s opener, “Underdog” however, I felt like Sly had slapped me across the face with a fistful of funk for having doubted him. Playing the song a few days later for a fellow music geek and drinking buddy, he was similarly floored. And that’s kind of the way A Whole New Thing works as a whole – it’s a solid, sophisticated dose of soul and funk that shows surprisingly no weaknesses for a debut album.

But then the question remains – why is this disc largely forgotten?

My ponderings on this point were reignited recently while reading Nelson George’s Death of the Rhythm & Blues, where George briefly mentions Sly’s “debut” album, Dance to the Music. I was a bit flabergasted as to how or why a well-versed music journalist (and arguably, a music historian) would brush right over A Whole New Thing.

Perhaps it’s because the album did nothing commercially. Upon release, A Whole New Thing failed to chart at all. Indeed, it wasn’t until the aforementioned followup, Dance to the Music, that Sly and the Family Stone gained any substantial notoriety.

Nevertheless – hindsight is always 20/20, and it is this blogger/geek’s opinion that A Whole New Thing can stand strong with the rest of Sly’s classic catalog.

The album is admittedly more focused on the soul side of things, likely indicative of the time. In 1967, Motown and Stax were still going strong, maintaining their hold on the youth record buying public. Yet A Whole New Thing isn’t merely a Motown ripoff. In fact, it’s one of the more interesting soul records that I’ve ever heard.

“The Underdog” is undoubtedly the album’s strongest track, and its opener. Beginning with a minor key version of “Frere Jacques,” the song quickly jumps into a punchy, uptempo romp with strategically placed one-measure breaks where we can all catch a breather. I admit it’s become one of my ass-kicking anthems.

Sly & the Family StoneThe Underdog (mp3)

The rest of the album generally stays within the soul genre, but does so in a refreshing way. Yet even within the soul genre, A Whole New Thing is all over the place – cut time barn burners (“Turn Me Loose”), soulful downtempo ballads (“Let Me Hear it From You,” “This Kind of Person”), driving bass grooves cut with syncopated horn lines (“Bad Risk,” “If This Room Could Talk”), and tracks that would be sampled in classic hip hop cuts decades later (Public Enemy sampled “Turn Me Loose” for “Power to the People,” while “Trip to Your Heart” provides the groove for LL Cool J’s 1990 hit “Mama Said Knock You Out”).

One of the real treats of this release is the bonus track “What Would I Do.” I’m just going to let this one speak for itself, and leave you to ponder how in the world it was passed on as a single or album track.

Sly & the Family StoneWhat Would I Do (mp3)

It’s all here. A Whole New Thing has all the makings of a classic soul album, yet the world slept on it upon its release, and it remained forgotten even as Sly and the Family Stone rocketed to legendary status with their blend of soul, funk and pop music that laid the groundwork for so much of the music that followed (Funkadelic and Prince, to name but two). I highly recommend it. I’ll say that the Sly boxed set is one of the better multi-disc investments I’ve made (or received), although all of the albums are also available separately.

Until next time, I go back into the cracks.

-Gonzo

Buy A Whole New Thing

Buy Sly and the Family Stone: The Collection

Published inFunkRockSoul

2 Comments

  1. BB-

    Glad you found A Whole New Thing and appreciate its greatness! I’ll say that all of the albums from A Whole New Thing through Small Talk are great, which is what makes the boxed set such a great investment (although it looks as if it may be out of print). “Life” is a great one too – I’m sure you’ll dig it (one of my faves on there is “Chicken” – be sure to check it out!).

    And of course, RIOT is a classic. I recently read the book on RIOT from the 33 1/3 serious – pretty interesting, quick read that made me appreciate it more fully.

    I almost bought tickets to see Sly in Minneapolis last year. But I came to the same conclusion as you. I’ve seen some of the clips on You Tube from recent shows, and they aren’t BAD, but they aren’t stellar either. It would have been one of those “Well, I’m going because it’s Sly, I know it won’t be jaw dropping.” Good thing I decided against it anyway, because he canceled (go figure!).

    Lastly, your point re: Outkast and Gnarls Barkley in relation to A Whole New Thing is very interesting – I’ll have to keep them in mind next time I spin the album.

    Peace!

    -Gonzo

  2. Belgian Blue Belgian Blue

    As so many of my generation (I’m in my mid-thirties), I discovered Sly and the Family Stone through their amazing Woodstock performance and movie appearance. Funnily the album I subsequently went for (in the early nineties) was 1971 There’s A Riot Goin’ On, which I’ve never tired of listening to (in fact, over the past year, it’s definitely developed into the main album for me). In retrospect it must have been an subconscious link between Riot’s cover image and Hendrix ripping apart the Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock. Or maybe, just maybe, it was the only available album at the time.
    When the July 2008 gig of Sly at Ghent Blue Note Festival was announced, I was in doubt, but decided against going. It seemed like to much of a nostalgia trip and could only go wrong.
    I did however end up buying Stand! and although it’s tantalizing and has its refreshingly quirky moments, I always seem to go back to the dark, brooding intensity of Riot.
    Only last Friday, I picked up a secondhand copy of A Whole New Thing. My expectations were low as none of the song titles were familiar, and there was fear of the Early Material Syndrome you mentioned. But just as you were, I was completely blown away. Now I just can’t seem to stop listening to it (and the whole new thing keeps ringing, buzzing and swinging in my head anyway).
    While Riot remains a category on its own, this one at first seems more classifiable, what with all its obvious 60s era soul elements.
    But in fact, it’s jaw-dropping how varied this album is, and how it hasn’t dated at all. In my opinion, Stand! hasn’t dated as well, and my guess is that Life probably hasn’t either (I still haven’t listened to that one, but I obviously know the two singles).
    This stuff is so incredibly fresh! Outkast and Gnarls Barkley come to mind immediately (I won’t say in which songs, that’s for you to find out). Amazing…

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