Sly Stone’s dark soul opus There’s a Riot Goin’ On and J.J. Cale’s debut album, Naturally, are linked by the nascent drum machine
Though they’re different, and attracted different audiences, it’s not hard to imagine these records meeting up on the jukebox in some dark roadside stop.
by Sam Sweet
Lost twins, There’s a Riot Goin’ On, Sly Stone’s dark soul opus, and Naturally, J.J. Cale’s debut album, came into the world together, in the last weeks of 1971. They were adopted by different families—Riot became a beloved template of eccentric, innovative Black music, while Eric Clapton and Lynyrd Skynyrd thrust Naturally into the spotlight by turning two of its songs into classic rock staples—but on the rare occasion that they’re reunited, you’ll hear them hum in a shared midnight motorik pulse.
When these albums were recorded, Sly was living a lapse of luxury in the Hollywood Hills. There were drugs, the mansion was dark, and Sly would record under a giant American flag over the fireplace, as players and pals chimed in from the fringe. Cale, a native of Oklahoma, recorded his album two thousand miles away, among session players and close friends, in Nashville and Mt. Juliet, Tennessee. Naturally is more of a back-porch affair, but through all its country dust, you can tell it was recorded in the same late hours as Riot.
Sly and Cale used live drums on their debuts, but that was beside the point. On Riot and Naturally, the drum machine was more oracle than instrument: even when it wasn’t being used, its influence hung in the air above each song. The electronic drums sound spare and primitive on both records, but Cale and Sly warm their robotic ticks. Riot’s pulsations are provided by the Maestro Rhythm King, while Naturally used the King’s main competitor, the Ace Tone Rhythm Ace. The King offered multiple presets that could be played at different speeds, while the Ace allowed for some programming. They were competing brands, but they arrived at the same time, were available on the same aisles, and, like Naturally and Riot, they spoke the same whispered language.
On Naturally, the drum machine is the ticking of the Oklahoma highway line, steadily coaxing your brain into a open-eyed narcosis. Sly used his drum machine more like a stripper pole—a solid, stable median around which he could allow his woozy music to writhe and gyrate. Though they’re different, and attracted different audiences, it’s not hard to imagine these records meeting up on the jukebox in some dark roadside stop. Songs from each album alternate in a mix—Cale’s “Call Me the Breeze,” a tumbleweed skeletal swing, into Sly’s “Family Affair,” a late night’s poignant shadow of a club song—as the pimp and the trucker trade stories at a counter.
On some sleepless nights, after I’ve played out my copies of these albums, I imagine the pair on a double bill in 1972, in front of an audience that’s part Soul Train, part coal train. Sly comes out first, Cale in the second half. Throughout the show, the drum machine sits on a stool at center stage. Its tappings hang in the air at the set change, the last notes of Sly’s eight-bar blues “Just Like a Baby” fading into the first shuffling notes of Cale’s “Crazy Mama,” as band members emerge on the stage. They end the show together, on a long version of “River Runs Deep.” Sly sings from his tar throat: “River runs deep and the water is cold as ice.” You forget whose song it is. The drum machine tsst-tsst-taps in the center, code between kin.
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