Is the legacy of Sly & the Family Stone joyous or heartbreaking? Is the group's message utopian or bleak? Maybe both things are true. Ask your average music fan about the group, after all, and she'll talk about songs like "Everyday People" - exuberantly egalitarian anthems whose power-to-all-the-people message was echoed in the band's famously mixed-race, mixed-gender membership. What's more, this irrepressibly happy music was made in the face of depressing social upheaval - confronting war, racism, and assassinations without retreating into flower-power addle-mindedness or humorless protest.
But ask those who know the band's career intimately, and you might instead hear praise for There's a Riot Goin' On, a record so dark it seems to have bubbled up from the subconscious of a man growing reluctant to leave the house. (Made in the attic studio of a Bel Air mansion, it seems a psychic ancestor to Prince's recording process.) And then you'll hear about how the band's leader, after getting famous with songs of hope and love, had his ass kicked by drugs; how he let his friends down; how his band disintegrated.
Both ends of the happy/scary spectrum, and points in between, are presented in a new batch of seven reissues (available individually or in a box set) celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Family's first album, A Whole New Thing. Though the package doesn't represent the group's entire recorded output (the reissues end at the point where Sly officially goes solo, and ignore "Family" discs after that), only the most compulsive fans would suggest it misses any albums worth owning. (To hear non-LP hits like "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)," which were released only as singles, you'll unfortunately still have to buy a Greatest Hits disc.)
It's hard now to appreciate how fresh the Stone clan's thing was, but listening to the albums outside the context of oldies comps helps (as it usually does). Tracks like "Higher," for instance, on Dance to the Music, or Life's "Chicken" still sound weird and uncategorizable; the latter album, the band's third, solidifies some of their signature elements, but is so free of over-played tunes (though the opening riff of "Into My Own Thing" has been ground into the pop consciousness by Fatboy Slim's "Weapon of Choice") that listening to it can feel like getting to know the Family from scratch.
Making old favorites new again - remastered, finally, to today's audiophile standards - will be the reissues' main attraction for most customers, but the series also lets us follow Sly's evolution through more obscure episodes like Small Talk - the last LP in the batch - where his optimistic streak has been redirected from social causes to more intimate domestic concerns like a new wife and child. Appropriately enough, the music is calmer and stripped down, suitable for sundappled, late-breakfast Sunday mornings.
Small Talk's on-the-mend vibe suggests a rebirth that never completely took hold. Sly went solo, then formed new versions of the Family, then slid so far from public life that new projects became as mythically elusive as Bigfoot sightings. The man is now in his sixties, and even hard-living artists have had revivals beyond that age, but for the time being this heavy slab of socially aware funk will have to do.
Incidentally, another pioneering popular-music career turns 40 in 2007 as well. Leonard Cohen, the poet/songwriter whose own bouts of intense introspection (retreating, most famously, to a monastery) have evidently had the opposite effect of Stone's, saw his first three albums reissued last month.