Being in the Midst: Sly & the Family Stone, “Stand!” (1969)

Can I discuss the tremendous riff at the end of “Stand!” by Sly and the Family Stone without reaching for ecstatic climaxes on adjectives like “popping” and “ass-kicking”?  That is my challenge.

Some art compositions are exceptionally, imperiously strong:  the Pantheon in Rome, Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” the third movement of Mozart’s 40th symphony.  They cannot be brooked.  They have no soft edges or implicit extra space to play with.  They play with us, not vice versa.

“Stand!”, a good rock song with nice, uplifting lyrics about courage and finding yourself, shifts gears into greatness in its “Na na na na na na na na na na” coda.  It’s one of those commanding designs, and a great opportunity to ask how a work works that way.

What in general makes an artwork interesting, I think, is that it takes up  some problematic set of elements that are in play with and against each other.   What catches our fancy is a sort of puzzle-solving exercise, exploring how we might be able to fit these forms and feelings together, or admiring how a work handles its problem.   But a truly commanding work has glaringly, thunderously solved its problem, and you would insult it by calling it “interesting.”  Your role now is just to say Yeah!  Your privilege is to climb aboard and go for another ride.

I think we have a sense of the importance of these commanding works because even though they have definitely solved their problems, their problems are big ones.   For crying out loud, the Pantheon combines the rectangle and triangle of the classical temple front (already a formidable solution in its own right) with a sphere for its main space and roof!

The Pantheon, Rome

The problem in “Stand!”’s coda is not as visible as the problem of the Pantheon, but I know it’s in there, by hypothesis.   Let’s consider the elements that are assembled, starting with a two-measure cycle.   (One could argue that we feel just one dominant measure of four fairly slow beats, but for convenience I’ll treat this big measure as a pair of quicker measures.)

1.  The basic 4/4 beat.  Think of each beat with its “and,” that is, as two eighth notes; thus each measure consists of four pairs of eighth notes, a 2-2-2-2 pattern constantly underlined by tambourine and cowbell.

2.  Polyrhythm #1: superimposed on the 2-2-2-2, a syncopated bass figure in the pattern 3-2-2-1, doubled by the lead guitar:

“Stand” coda, first 2 measures

As a result of the squeezing down of rhythmic intervals from 3 to 2 to 1, that fifth note, the return to the C, comes splatting out of the end of the preceding measure like toothpaste out of a tube.[1]

(By the way, the three-tick interval between the first and second notes feints in the direction of a different kind of polyrhythm, a triplet—3 beats over 2 beats—which doesn’t actually happen, nor does a repetition of groups of 3.  But you kind of felt it might.)

3.  After an opening statement of Polyrhythm #1 twice through two measures, we sing “Stand!” right on beat 3 to reassert the 2-2-2-2 duple organization against the 3-2-2-1.

4.  Then comes the “Na na na,” which adds another level of rhythmic organization by extending its melodic arc over the middle part of an eight-measure unit:

“Stand!” coda, next 9 measures

The “Na Na Na” brings three new rhythmic effects:

(a) We now have a major alternation between the busier measures 3 through 5 and the emptier measures around them.  The 3 through 5 unit, meanwhile, has a rhythm of its own in the relative straightness of measure 4 compared with 3 and 5.  Thus the thick-thin-thick of the smaller unit reflects, inverted, the thin-thick-thin of the larger.

(b) We have a surprising feeling that every single “Na” is on an upbeat, simply because we start the whole “Na” sequence one beat late and this shift throws the normal boom-pah emphasis pattern for a loop.  If you’re conducting this part with your hand, your hand keeps jerking upward now throughout Measures 3 and 4, never down.  As a result, this section is stomping, juking, and levitating all at the same time.

(c) Finally, we now have Polyrhythm #3, a gentle settling-down triplet feeling as the last three “Nas” impose a 3-3-2 division on Measure 5.  Note how complex Measures 3 and 5 have gotten, while still remaining marvelously clear.

4.  Starting the next time through, the voicelike organ screams C and A on beats 2 and 4 in every second measure to reassert the 2-2-2-2 structure in the other way than singing “Stand!” on beat 3 in the first measure has been doing; thus we are pitting against each other these two ways of pitting 2-2-2-2 back against 3-2-2-1.  Counting from the boomp at the beginning of Measure 1, these two moves together make a 4-6-4-2 pattern in Measures 1 and 2 of the larger 8-measure unit—a simple syncopation, delaying the second beat two ticks (6 instead of 4) and paying them back at the end of the cycle (2 instead of 4).

Enough of the diagramming already.   Obviously “Stand!” is intricate.   What makes it so cogent?

Formally, one more important thing to note about the design is that the music has a powerful foreground-background structure, the foreground ingredients being the juking bass line and the levitating “Na na na.”  All the other complexity supports this featured drama of two bold figures.

But there remains the question of why these figures seem especially meaningful.  The Pantheon seems meaningful because the sphere adds a cosmic, geometrically eerie dimension to a familiar temple form.  I think the counterpart over-the-top element of “Stand!” is the “Na na nas.”  Their rhythmic displacement creates an unexpectedly rewarding position for whoever sings along (and with the wide-open nah-nah-nah “lyric,” no one has any reason not to sing along).  It’s a position of being elsewhere than where the constraints of the song’s structure are being enforced.  Earlier I called it a levitation, thinking of its upward force, but it also has a sideways force that puts us out to one side of the song like a nose-thumbing critic (the taunting meaning of nah-nah-nah).  Melodically, it has an up-and-down, sinuously playful shape, expressing a freedom like that of a kid under the grown-ups’ table or even a baby kicking in the womb (the primal burbling of na-na-na).  With so much else going on all around us, we get to make our own move in the middle of it all.  That freedom is the solved problem of the work.

Sly and the Family Stone are one of the best bands ever to embody a “family” ideal of uniting different yet complementary personalities in one collective.  Their classic identity statement along these lines is “Dance to the Music,” where each voice gets an introduction.  To listen to them is to join them, to be drawn into their fold.  Singing “na na na” at the end of “Stand!” is a supremely intense yet effortless way to experience that.  The Family Stone is the kind of cosmos in which one can kick up and be free.


[1] One can hear a squeezing out of the first note in this bass figure, too, as the bass player goes up to the C from a B grace note.  So I could have written the notes as B-C-C-C-Bb-C and measured the ticks as 1-2-2-2-1.  But the rhythm guitar plays the first C straight and on 1, reinforcing the 3-2-2-1 structure, and the alternative 1-2-2-2-1 structure remains subliminal.

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About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
This entry was posted in Arrangements and Sounds, Rock Aesthetics and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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