I've spent all morning listening to Sly Stone (and his Family). Have this huge playlist of pretty much everything he did up 'til 1975 or so. It reminded me to dig out an old issue of Wax Poetics i'd bought in a record shop which had Sly Stone on the front cover. The article inside deals particularly with the time around the making of 'There's a Riot Goin' On', quite comfortably one of my favourite albums EVER. A few myths were busted, let me tell you.
The thing that's particularly amazing about this album; it has a sense of atmosphere quite unlike any other suite of music i've ever heard. There are moments on João Donato's 'Quem é Quem" that have you weeping you're so sucked up in the vibe, in the room with these beautiful songs and musicians, but 'Riot' is sustained. Listening to it is like going on holiday.
Now i'd always had this image in my head of Sly in his home recording studio, happy, smoking a few doobies, peace and love, lying on the sofa singing etc (as 'Family Affair' was supposedly vocalled). My perception couldn't be further from the truth.
Sly was gripped in a horrific cocaine addiction, as well as imbibing pretty much anything else he could get his hands on. He had a valet who had to get him in and out of the bath, propping him up so he could take meetings, do promo etc. He was FUCKED. I mean, the whole vocalling on the sofa/bed thing was to do with the fact he literally couldn't stand up, ha!
The vibe in the studio was one of complete drug-fuelled paranoia, random security guards wandering around with guns, a menagerie of vicious snarling dogs prowling about. Sly thought people were out to get him, in a big way. How the hell he managed to make such a mellow, joyful album i'm not really sure. I mean, when I think of a cocaine album I think of some of the live Miles albums from the 70s, "Dark Magus" et al. I mean, those records ARE the sound of cocaine. But not 'Riot' surely?
There I was, thinking it was all good vibes. It goes to show, the mood an artist was in at the time of recording their music could bear no relation to the feelings put across in it. Also, your perception of the music could differ wildly from how the artist intended you to hear it.
I find myself using the term 'Smoke and Mirrors' a lot in my line of work;
"Smoke and mirrors is a metaphor for a deceptive, fraudulent or insubstantial explanation or description" (from Wikipedia)
It's regularly a relevant thing to say. Especially when trying to keep A&R people happy. As opposed to the above definition though, it's more a deceptive presentation (and therefore perception) that often goes down.
Ultimately, it doesn't matter how something is conceived, finished-off, tarted-up, whatever, what survives is how the listener interprets this sound. When you make and release a piece of music, and lots of people get to hear it, it becomes a LOT bigger than the pokey little studio it may have been cooked up in.