1969 – Everyday People, Sly And The Family Stone

Epic indeed

“Everyday People” spent three weeks at Number 2 in February of 1969 before finally ascending to the hallowed Number 1 position in the U.S. And the message of “Everyday People” really couldn’t be simpler. We’re all the same, let’s get on. Race, society and people need peace between them, and since we’re all the same – we’re all everyday people – there should be no reason we can’t do that. It’s a nice idea, though 1969 would go out of its way to try and prove otherwise, what with Reagan sending state troopers into the People’s Park a few months before while declaring a state of emergency. Over a park. And the violence at the Isle Of White festival. And there’s Vietnam, of course. Altamont. 1969 is littered with examples of exactly why a song like “Everyday People” was so necessary.

No naïve blissed-out white people vaguely hoping for the best, this was a real message that coming together was not just desirable but vital. And this wasn’t simply an abstract point of principal, Sly And The Family Stone walked the walk as well as talking the talk – they were one of the very first of what used to be called “integrated” bands, which is to say they had a line-up which was not all from one race but included two white members alongside the African-American core of the group. It is a sad commentary on the slow process of race relations that a decade later bands like The Specials in England would still be controversial for having “mixed” line-ups, but the start of that process is here, in 1969. The idea that peace and equality could be achieved through music was, obviously, a key hippy philosophy – as much as hippies had any key philosophy – but there’s a vast gulf between stoned hippies in Haight-Ashbury making glib V-signs for peace while drenching themselves in flowers and the urgent necessity for that to become reality when you’re part of a persecuted minority. There’s a reason Stand! has a song on it called “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey”.

Still, “Everyday People”, at least musically, isn’t quite representative of Sly And The Family Stone. It’s calm and mid-tempo rather than funky and up-tempo, and much of the familiar bright funk and psychedelic elements that make up their earlier songs are more muted here. It’s a bit dopey in places (“and Scooby-dooby-doo”) though it comes across as rather charming rather than misplaced. The brass is positively restrained. Effective, but pretty low in the mix. “Everyday People” was a big hit alongside the album Stand! but even then it’s pretty stripped down compared to much of the material on the album itself. In some ways the song is following the advice of James Brown when he appeared on television to call for calm after the killing of Martin Luther King – “Everyday People” is a profoundly political song, but it is not the politics of anger or fury or retribution, it’s the politics of moving beyond that to a world where those things are no longer necessary.

Right from the opening few lines of the song we’re told just how irrelevant the artificial boundaries are between “tribes” – “the butcher, the banker, the drummer and then / makes no different what group I’m in”, Sly sings (and the line is quietly underscored with additional backing vocals which aren’t on the opening two lines of the song). For all that this is a song not based in anger or fury it wastes absolutely no time at all in establishing exactly what it’s going to be about. It’s also the song that introduced “different strokes for different folks” as a common expression which, if you have to sum up the philosophy of “Everyday People”, pretty much does it in one single line. And given that message it’s also remarkably non-judgemental. “I’m no better and neither are you / we are the same whatever we do”.

This is not a song interested in pointing the finger of blame and that point of view remains consistent – imagining a world where the need to blame is removed because we’re the same. The song also goes out of its way to include all parts of society including class, the wider community (talk of long hairs and short hairs) and – crucially – race with “there is a yellow one that won’t accept the black one / that won’t accept the red one that won’t accept the white one”. The lack of anger in the song is in itself a political state – aligning with the peace and integration message of the mainstream civil rights movement rather than the more radical politics of Malcom X – but the plea for unity is no less powerful for all that. It’s a simple lyric but its power lies in its directness, not in its volume.

Protest music was basically inescapable in 1969. This was the year that John Lee Hooker sang “I Don’t Wanna Go To Vietnam”. The Plasic Ono Band released the anthemic (if rather facile) “Give Peace A Chance”, though Pete Seeger singing it in front of the White House backed by half a million people would become one of the enduring images of the year. Lennon and Ono themselves embarked on a series of “bed-ins” for peace. Hendrix played “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock, an ironic, contemptuous take on the national anthem of the country currently engaged in napalming villages in East Asia. 1969 is the year James Brown released Say It Loud, I’m Black And I’m Proud, and even Elvis has “In The Ghetto”. There are many other examples, of course, but it is in this context Sly And The Family Stone emerged. Something as simple as Desmond Dekker having a huge hit with “Israelites” became a political statement, less for the content of the lyric and more because a reggae song doing that well stood in marked contrast to so much of what was in the charts – indeed “Israelites” was a breakthrough song, becoming the first reggae Number 1 in the UK and the first to break the top ten in the U.S. When acts like Desmond Dekker could break through it indicated a fundamental shift in the way music was being consumed and accepted.

It’s inconceivable that “Israelites” – or indeed “Everyday People” – could have been a hit even two years earlier in the swirling heyday of psychedelia. But come Woodstock Sly and The Family Stone would be one of the triumphs, and even before that they headlined the Harlem Cultural Festival, the “black Woodstock”, in front of tens of thousands of people. Things changed. Coming off the success of Stand! and “Hot Fun In The Summertime” (which peaked at Number 2) their place seemed secure, but it wouldn’t last. As the 60’s faded so Sly And The Family Stone went with them – firstly succumbing to politics, with the Black Panther Party demanding the removal of the white members of the band, then to heavy drug use which massively destabilised those who were left in the group. It wasn’t the end for them, and Sly And The Family Stone would go on to produce two more seminal albums – There’s a Riot Goin’ On and Fresh – but the bright, optimistic soul music of the early days was gone, replaced by brooding funk and blues and lyrics more interested in urban desolation and hopelessness than with everyone just trying to get along. It’s hard not to see the decline of the band as analogous to the decline of the 60’s, the optimism and hope for equality dashed by the reality of the 70’s.  “Everyday People” is a testament to the hopes that things might get better because we’re all the same. The fate of the band, sadly, is a testament to the opposite.

What Else Happened in 1969?

A lot. Three of the most important music festivals ever took place, with Woodstock at one end of the spectrum, The Rolling Stones’s disastrous Altamont at the other, and the Isle Of Wight festival somewhere in-between. It’s not a good year for the Stones – Brian Jones is sacked and dies under mysterious circumstances in his own swimming pool, so get ready for a wave of conspiracy theories. The Beatles give their actual-final concert on the roof of Apple, and release their actual-final album Abbey Road (though that won’t stop Let It Be trickling out in 1970). Paul marries Linda, John marries Yoko and that’s pretty much it for the Biggest Band On The Planet. Janice Joplin releases her first solo album, the none-more-Sixties titled I Got Dem Ol’ Kosmic Blues Again Mama! and David Bowie scores an indelible hit with “Space Oddity”, a song that will haunt him pretty much till the end of his career. The big news of 1969 is Elvis’s Vegas comeback, re-establishing him as more than a nostalgia act and propelling him to the top of the charts for the first time in seven years with “Suspicious Minds” – it’s the fifth biggest song of the year. Number four is “Sugar, Sugar” by The Archies though, so make of that what you will… Johnny Cash gives us one of his signature hits, “A Boy Named Sue”, and speaking of signature hits Credence Clearwater Revival see a “Bad Moon Rising”. The landmark King Crimson album In The Court Of The Crimson King is released, Dusty Springfield gives us her career-best Dusty In Memphis and The Who’s first rock opera arrives in the shape of Tommy. Eurovision news – it’s a four-way tie! No, I don’t really care either, though the UK’s tie is Lulu’s simply awful “Boom Bang-a-Bang” which even the Scottish songstress’s signature enthusiasm can’t save. Diana Ross and The Supremes release their final single before Ms Ross goes her own way, Kraftwerk – arguably the most important electronic band of all time – are founded, and Neil Young releases his first solo album. The Velvet Underground release the last of their straight-up classics, The Velvet Underground. Led Zeppelin release not one but two albums (including “Whole Lotta Love” on the second one) and right at the end of the year, The Rolling Stones release their best album Let It Bleed, and a little-known band called The Jackson 5 release their first album, Diana Ross Present The Jackson 5.

What Did We Nearly End Up Discussing?

Stateside, Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary” was definitely in contention, as well as “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” by the Supremes, both of which peaked at Number 2 in the U.S. charts. “A Boy Named Sue”, also peaking at Number 2, might have been fun. Peter, Paul and Mary could have been in contention with “Leaving On A Jet Plane” but let’s be real. That is not the definitive version of that song. UK-wards… erm, there’s Fleetwood Mac’s “Albatross” in case you were suffering from insomnia. And there’s Elvis’s other hit of the year, “In The Ghetto”, improbably held off the top spot by Thunderclap Newman’s “Something In The Air”. Definitely not featured? The sodding “Age Of Aquarius”, and I don’t care how often you “Let The Sunshine In”.

Rankings:

1.   The Beatles – “Strawberry Fields Forever” / “Penny Lane”
2.   The Animals – “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place”
3.   Sly And The Family Stone – “Everyday People”
4.   Petula Clark – “Downtown”
5.   Tom Jones – “Delilah”
6.   Eddie Cochrane – “Three Steps To Heaven”
7.   The Troggs – “Wild Thing”
8.   Jimmy Dean – “Big Bad John”
9.   Chubby Checker – “Let’s Twist Again”
10. Billy J Kramer And The Dakotas – “Do You Want To Know A Secret”

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