Graham Central Station – ‘Three Original Classic Funk Albums’ reviewed

❉ A thumping treat for fans of funk, picking up where Sly and the Family Stone left off.

Funk-rock visionary Sly Stone was always pretty much out there on his own. He may have had his influences, his peers, and his followers, but he only ever really had one rival. Larry Graham, Sly and the Family Stone’s powerful, charismatic bassist and co-vocalist was the only threat to Sly’s dominance of his own band, and was second-only to him in the Superfly-cool stakes. Tall and dapper, and a natural showman with a natty line in pimp hats to rival the boss’s – Graham was the bottom end of the Family Stone. He didn’t just supply the frantic fuzzed bass lines that drove the band, he also had a distinctive booming vocal tone that gave him a starring role on many of the Family Stone’s classic cuts. Larry even invented a new style of playing the bass, slapping, debuted on Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again). Everyone else calls it slapping, anyway. Larry called it ‘Thumping’.

Despite his hefty contributions and co-leading man role, Graham became increasingly marginalised within the band during the drawn-out sessions for There’s A Riot Goin’ On, as Sly retreated into the twilight of the studio and took to playing most of the parts himself. Relations between Larry and Sly were dicey at the best of times, but rapidly deteriorated during this period. When the party atmosphere surrounding the Family Stone descended well and truly into a mire of heavy drugs, gun-toting hangers-on, and lawyers in early 1972, Larry got his coat and got out for good.

Setting up on his own, Larry formed Graham Central Station – a multiracial unisex funk troupe in the mold of the Family Stone, with some of the parent band’s members drifting in and out of the line-up at various points. GCS essentially picked up where the Family Stone left off with Stand!

While Sly drifted further into frequently inspired but murky waters until the disintegration of his band, GCS focused on the good times, enjoying some success, notably with the 1975 single Your Love. Larry’s fortunes as an album act were mixed, but the original incarnation of GCS were prolific, releasing seven albums in five years.

The final three original GCS albums, Now Do U Wanta Dance, My Radio Sure Sounds Good To Me, and Star Walk have been reissued in a single package by SoulMusic Records. 1977’s Now Do U Wanta Dance is the strongest of the three – a punchy précis of Larry’s sound, made up mostly of tight, kinetic, discofied funk jams. The opening acapella Happ-E-2-C-U-A-Ginn revisits Sly’s unique phonetic style of spelling, and is a gospel sing-a-long augmented with squawking Talk Box.

It’s overall a more mainstream and macho take on the driving brass-laden Family Stone formula, with Graham cast as a grunting, growling alpha loverman, with his bass even more in the driving seat than ever before. The title track and Last Train are lyrically nothing to shout about, but they’re kicking examples of a band hitting a groove and running with it. His take on Love and Happiness lacks Al Green’s laid-back touch, but has more muscle behind it. The most surprising track is the startling Earthquake, an anomalous slab of noisy fuzz bass riff-driven hard rock, and there’s some spacey soul balladry going on as well. It closes with Have Faith In Me, which has Larry stealing Stevie Wonder’s sunshine soul moves to pleasant, but slightly cheesy effect. The subtext of Have Faith In Me is Larry’s late-70s adoption of the Jehovah’s Witness faith, which would become more prominent from here on. Graham’s faith is a significant event in his career (he would later recruit Prince to the Witnesses), it has a clear effect on his songwriting, but his music doesn’t get too preachy. That said, the overall air of positivity and good vibes starts to get a little nauseating during the course of My Radio Sure Sounds Good To Me, reaching a nadir on the awful closing double-bill of Mr Friend and Are You Happy. There are still some good funk tracks, but it’s a lesser effort.

Things rally on Star Walk, the final original GCS album, with its fantastically chintzy cover image of Mr and Mrs Graham, er, walking through the stars. The title track is a hypnotic bit of luded-sounding disco, while Sneaky Freak and Scream are effective funk workouts. Best of all is the martial groove of The Entertainer, which has more than a shade of Bowie’s Fame about it.

Graham Central Station are a fun counterpoint to Sly and the Family Stone. Larry Graham might lack Sly’s grit and edge, but these albums, uneven as they are, are a treat for fans of the funk, and show him off as a fine frontman, bandleader, and an absolute monster of a bass player. Larry Graham is still out there and playing. Long may he thump.

❉ Graham Central Station – ‘Now Do U Wanta Dance/My Radio Sure Sounds Good To Me/Star Walk’ (WSMCR5149D) is out now from SoulMusic Records, a division of Cherry Red Records, RRP £11.99

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