Listening Session #5

Little Sister – Somebody’s Watching You

»The last three Stone Flower singles, released in November and December 1970, all featured the Rhythm King prominently and no doubt sounded completely alien on pop stations, let alone R&B radio. Yet the new version of ›Somebody’s Watching You‹ by Little Sister made the Top 40 and, as such, is often cited as the first hit record to feature a drum machine.« (Palao, Alec (2014): I’m Just Like You. Sly’s Stone Flower 1969-70. Linernotes. Seattle: Light In The Attic Records, p. 9).

The first futurhythmachinic hit records are by a girl group. Vet Stewart, Sly Stone’s younger sister, Mary McCreary and Elva Mouton are Little Sister. On Stone Flower, the label of the big brother, they release two singles in 1970, both of which make it into the top ten of the R’n’B charts. Sly Stone produced various artists on his label, besides Little Sister also the complementary boy group 6ix and the singer Joe Hicks. On almost all of these productions between 1969 and 1970, he used his funkbox, the Maestro Rhythm Kings .

»Pretty pretty pretty as a picture / Witty witty witty as you can be«, the track »Somebody’s Watching You« trots along a typical Rhythm King pattern. Wah-wah guitar and an organ pad, also run through a filter, gently undulate against the drums. A percussively played bass – is that Larry Graham or Sly Stone himself? – soon supports the plodding pace. The singers’ three voices stay close together, then suddenly veer off into polyphony, but always quickly reunite afterwards. The space in which this track plays remains strangely unreal. There is a clear reverb on the vocals and also on the guitar, but the impression of space remains openly audible as an effect. But unlike the lonely Sly Stone on »Just Like A Baby«, this recording lacks the depressing, claustrophobic confinement. This one feels more woozy, the organ pad wafting along under the filter, the bass bending around the drum pattern with a pleasant groovy elasticity, the guitar playing a soulful call and response with the vocals.

»Somebody’s Watching You!« Under headphones the drum pattern seems to be split into two layers. The rushing cymbal instruments and the clacking woods almost seem to diverge. I cannot clearly identify the pattern. It could be the mambo of the Rhythm King, but I can’t say for sure. The woods can only be heard indistinctly under all the wah-wah hubbub. Maybe a combination of two patterns? Or really a combination of two machines, each sent through a different amp, which is why the sound is so layered? Sly Stone claims in interviews that he often recorded with several machines, somehow trying to synchronise them to have more variation possibilities. In any case, this is no simple preset running along here. Sly Stone seems to be still familiarising himself with the machine on these early productions. On »Life And Death In G & A« by Joe Hicks, another Stone Flower release, you can clearly hear Sly Stone playing the snare drum of the Rhythm King ‘live’ into the pattern via the associated button. On »I’m Just Like You« by the group 6ix, the straight backbeat of the snare mixed prominently dry to the front, gives it the impression of being played manually, contrasting the funky bass that puts the eighth notes in between. On each of these records they seem to try something different with the machine.

It is still difficult to imagine today how strange, how alien such a production might have sounded in the pop radio of the early 70s, as Alec Palao suspects. The liner notes quoted at the beginning of this session come from a release by the Light In The Attic label, on which Sly Stone’s early rhythmachine productions of those years were collected and re-released. And on this record we find another track that at least gives an impression of that sonic strangeness that the machines bring to Sly Stone’s funk sound: The record also features the previously unreleased version of Little Sister’s »Somebody’s Watching You« with a full band line-up.

»Go ahead, go. … One, two« The machine didn’t need a count-in. Then the band kicks in. The brass section, the jiggling groove of the sixteenth-hats, the classic funk rhythm guitar turn the airy, slightly distant narrowness of the first version into a typical uptempo soul number. Is that Cynthia Robinson on trumpet? The organ is missing, the bass is stripped back and the vocals are much more clearly in focus. This production sounds much more ›finished‹, much more like a good-humoured radio hit. Nevertheless, it was the sketchy soul-psychedelia with rhythm machine that officially appeared on Stone Flower instead.

Around 1970, Little Sister and 6ix, Joe Hick and Sly Stone deliberately brought this alien sound of the Rhythm King not only into the aesthetic practice of funk but also into pop radio. The clicking and clacking of the machine – as the comparison of the two Little Sister versions makes immediately clear – completely reconstructs the classic band sound, breaks it down into a few individual parts that are rearranged around the machine groove. The bass plays a decisive role in this, because it is especially suited to play around the seemingly mechanical switching of the patterns and make them groove. The machine does not replace the band here. This is not the tragic machine-solipsism of Sly Stone alone. But rather: The machine rebuilds the band, pushes it to other forms, makes it another, a new collective.

This Listening Session is a translation from the book ›Futurhythmaschinen‹. Drum-Machines und die Zukünfte auditiver Kulturen by Malte Pelleter. The book (in german language) can be accessed here.

Citation: Pelleter, Malte (2020): ›Futurhythmaschinen‹. Drum-Machines und die Zukünfte auditiver Kulturen. Hildesheim: Olms & Universitätsverlag. 212-214.