Wow. Over a year since I last posted anything... Writing books will do that to you.
Here's a piece I wrote for the awesome Buddyhead.com a couple of years ago; am reposting it here, inspired in part by the tragic death of journalist and screenwriter David Mills, who passed away unexpectedly at the end of last month, and whose excellent blog, http://undercoverblackman.blogspot.com/, contained copious evidence of his love for the whole Parliafunkadelicment thang.
“How you doin’? I’m pretty good… I’m ready for ya…”
The voice on the other end of the line sounds madd gravelly, and that’s not just several tonnes of transatlantic static coating his words in crackly fudge sludge, but several decades on the business end of a life spent as circus-master of a never-ending party, ever-engulfed in rubbery low-end, supine and snapping groove, and fuelled by more contraband substances than a piker like Scott Weiland could even name. George Clinton probably shouldn’t even be around right now – certainly, a number of his stellar sidemen, guest-stars in that Parliafunkadelicment thang, took it to the bridge one last time some years back – but he’s still alive. Very much so, in fact.
A few months back, I had the privilege of interviewing James Brown saxophonist Maceo Parker, the man whose hard-bop bleat burst out from between the whipcrack licks of Brown’s classic groups, and was later manipulated by the Bomb Squad into the blood-curdling siren-scream that wailed throughout Public Enemy’s ‘Rebel Without A Pause’. Following a number of combative tours of duty with Brown, in the late 1970s Parker took up with the only other artist who could reasonably challenge the Godfather for the Funk throne, signing on as musical director for Clinton’s Parliament. It was, he said, something of a culture shock.
“Where James preached uniformity, punctuality and discipline, George didn’t have any of that,” Maceo laughed. “And that was shocking, it really was. If some guy was into Tarzan, and wanted to dress onstage like Tarzan, or like a baseball referee, or a pilot, that was okay with George. I mean really, really okay. And if someone wanted to wear the same outfit for four years and not wash it, that was okay with George. I was used to tuxedos, bow ties, patent leather shoes… Uniforms. George said, life’s just a party, so you shouldn’t be uptight about how people dress. And that was his concept; they’re from outer space, and they’ve come down from their galaxy to show the people of Earth what funky music is really about.”
When I tell Clinton about Maceo’s reminiscences, he unleashes a deep, easy chuckle and adds, in the same booming baritone that preached of a forthcoming Armageddon over the opening bars of Funkadelic’s ‘Maggot Brain’, that “Funk is about the party. And funk is also whatever it takes. Do the best you can, and that’s funky.”
George’s muse wasn’t always such a kinky, freaky, polymorphously perverse thang. Born in Kannapolis, North Carolina in 1941, Clinton later moved North with his family to New Jersey, starting up his own barbershop, straightening nappy duds with pressing irons (as was the fashion at the time). Like many a young barber in the 1950s, Clinton also pursued a hobby in harmonising, forming his own doo-wop quintet, The Parliaments, in the image of his heroes Frankie Limon and The Teenagers. It’s a style he’s recently returned to, reuniting the members of the Parliaments – Ray ‘Stingray’ Davis, Clarence ‘Fuzzy’ Haskins, Calvin Simon and Grady Thomas, all of whom later served in Parliafunkadelicment – to cover ‘Goodnight Sweetheart, Goodnight’ for his 2005 album How Late Do U Have 2 B B 4 U R Absent?, and entering the studio earlier this year to record an entire set of doo-wop classics.
“I love doo-wop,” he begins. “It’s always fun… Whenever I made albums with Bootsy [Collins, gleefully flamboyant bassist who worked with Clinton and Brown, and also fronts his own Rubber Band], we always included a couple of ballads in there. When we got inducted into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame, I bumped into the Young Rascals [soulful New Jersey rock’n’rollers from the 1960s], and we spent all day sitting backstage, singing doo-wop. I love doo-wop, because it’s all about begging for pussy! [laughs]”
I’m struggling to believe George Clinton has ever had to beg for pussy…
“Nowadays I have to beg myself to go get some!”
Clinton’s Parliaments later morphed into Parliament, scoring an early hit with ‘(I Wanna) Testify’, before shenanigans with their label Revilot (which declared bankruptcy, transferring their contract to Atlantic) saw Clinton can the Parliament name, forming Funkadelic with most of the same musicians. Indeed, Parliament’s debut album, 1970’s Osmium, was released the same year as Funkadelic’s eponymous debut, and shared that album’s slurring, carnal, mind-expanding sense of funk, along with a haunting, beautiful bagpipe-augmented ballad upon the subject of death, ‘The Silent Boatman’. Following a short period working as label Invictus’s in-house band (and cutting some killer tracks for The Chairmen Of The Board’s funkdafied final album, Skin I’m In), however, Clinton put the Parliament moniker to sleep for a while, and navigated Funkadelic towards the outer reaches.
The albums that group recorded throughout the early 1970s remain as crazed, as futuristic, as genius as they must have sounded upon release, a golden sprawl of loose booty breakbeats, thick wet wah-wah, ludicrous concepts and more than a little apocalyptic dread. The closing track off their 1971 album Maggot Brain, ‘Wars Of Armageddon’, was a case in point: its unhinged, echo-drenched ten minute hurtle through broken-glass grooves, screaming shape-shifting guitar, dubby FX, and pre-Hip-Hop ‘samples’ (of everything from shattering glass, to feline shrieks, to squabbling lovers, to gunshots, to that very Armageddon of which the title warns) warped the nascent genre of ‘funk’ as surely as Jimi Hendrix’s loving ax-abuse changed rock’n’roll forever.
“We changed up our style, right at the time when the European groups were coming over here,” Clinton explains. “We went ‘rock’n’roll’ as Funkadelic, we mixed Motown with rock’n’roll. That’s where the Temptations got it from; we were copying the Temptations at first, but once we got to ‘68, ‘69, they were copying us, with songs like ‘Cloud 9’ and ‘Psychedelic Shack’. They were imitating us by that time. We changed up, we never stopped changing, we stayed underground. By the time of Free Your Mind And Your Ass Will Follow [their 1971 sophomore LP] we had our own core of fans who dug what we were doing.”
Those fans weren’t just plugging into the noises Clinton and his gang of brilliantly twisted musicians were purveying [and the Parliafunkadelicment ranks would play host to a litany of dusted genii throughout their existence, including Bootsy, mercurial guitarist Eddie Hazel, and keyboardist and arranger Bernie Worrell, who would raise the group’s efforts to near-symphonic levels of lushness]. They were also buying into the Funkadelic mindset, Clinton’s lyrics and sleevenotes zipping across the whole crazy gamut of life, from birth to death, from love to war, encompassing multitudes. Maggot Brain, for example, may have opened with its mordant title track – a wrenching, epic guitar solo performed by an acid-dazed Eddie Hazel, and inspired by Clinton’s whispered instruction to “Play like your mother just died” – but its other six songs essayed love, drugs, cultural differences, drugs, Vietnam, drugs, and the aforementioned Armageddon. Indeed, the elliptical slogans that made up ‘Wars Of Armageddon’’s lyric sheet spoke eruditely of Clinton’s gladly-addled worldview: “What do we want? Freedom! Right-the-fuck-on, Brother! More power to the people! More pussy to the power! More pussy to the people! More power to the pussy! Right on, Right on…”
“Oh, you can’t take nothin’ serious,” laughs Clinton now, of such lyrics. “I try to tell people, I ain’t no guru, I’m just looking for some drugs and some pussy! I have my feet on the ground; if I pretended I was a guru, that would be bullshit. I didn’t know what I was doing really, they were just coming off the top of my head... Freestyling! That’s still how I write songs for the most part. Sometimes I’ll try and do something deliberate, pay attention and focus… But it takes so long! [laughs]”
1972’s epic double set, America Eats It’s Young, was perhaps Funkadelic’s most ambitious set yet, both musically and lyrically, reflecting an America torn apart by racial division, by the fallout from the Flower Power era and subsequent frustration and betrayals, by the Vietnam war (still raging on with no end in sight), and by the actions and pronouncements of President Richard M. Nixon, who would soon disgrace the country and leave office in shame.
“‘Wake up, live in the presence of your future’,” murmurs George down the phone-line, mouthing the chorus to the album’s closing track. “I remember writing those songs… That was the album where I really was trying to see if I had any brain cells left [laughs]. I’d been under the influence of psychedelics for so long, I thought, damn, I wonder if I can be ‘logical’ at all? On that album, there are so many songs and so many subject matters – unfortunately, the Vietnam war was on my mind...”
History seems to be repeating itself; the album’s messages and themes remain pretty key, thirty-five years later.
“History really does seem to be repeating itself,” he agrees, sadly. “We’re definitely living through 1968-69 all over again. I was planning on just chasing girls for the rest of my life, I didn’t know I’d have to be writing songs about war and everything again, you know what I’m saying? I never thought everything would be repeated so closely like it was before, I’d have thought we’d at least be up in space fucking everything up there by now. But we still here on this planet, making the same dumb mistakes, getting into wars we shouldn’t be in… I would much rather it was some Star Wars shit or somethin’, or making peace instead of war… Some kind of evolution…”
Funkadelic began to evolve themselves, in the mid-1970s, as George and his musicians ‘changed-up’ again, and the Parliament brand-name roared into life once more, with 1974’s Up For The Downstroke LP. With Funkadelic signed to the Detroit-based Westbound label, Clinton took the ground-breaking step of signing those same musicians, under the Parliament moniker, to Neil Bogart’s Casablanca Records; a couple of decades later, the Wu Tang would attempt a similar hijack of the label system, each rapper signing to a different label for their solo careers, though such shenanigans would cause George many headaches as the 1980s began.
While Parliament boasted similar musicians, their musical identity was pronouncedly different to Funkadelic’s; where that band’s ethos was best expressed by the rhetorical question “Who said a funk group couldn’t rock?”, Parliament played to a tighter, more soulful groove, with horns and synthesisers and hooks and an appreciation for the dancefloor which anticipated the coming of Disco.
“We started adding the horns with Parliament,” remembers Clinton. “A whole ‘nother sound incorporated within Parliafunkadelicment. A lot of people didn’t know we were the same group… We’ve snuck around behind ‘em two or three times [laughs]. They didn’t know it was us!”
You liked to keep people on their toes…
“Yeah, I love it. It keeps me young. And I love trying to keep up with music, like I said, to find the music parents hate. Whatever young musicians come up with, that the parents hate, that’s always the new thing, and that’s what I start making. Same with ‘Atomic Dog’ [from Clinton’s 1982 solo album, Computer Games, his first following the end of Parliafunkadelicment as recording entities]…”
As the 1970s wore on, Clinton’s two groups continued to record and tour apart from each other, building a brilliantly schizophrenic canon of billowing funk and graceful groove. The summit of their achievements, perhaps, was 1976’s P-Funk Earth Tour, an elaborate touring stage show featuring ‘both’ groups performing a set of Parliafunkadelic favourites. The most memorable moment of these shows, however, was non-musical. Bringing to life the sleeve artwork of Parliament’s 1975 smash album Mothership Connection, a huge prop star ship would slowly sink from the roof of the venue, landing upon the stage where Clinton, as his alter ego Dr Funkenstein, would clamber out and begin performing.
“That was phenomenal,” he remembers, still a little awed at the memory. “We’d rehearsed for a long time. Having watched Pink Floyd in the early days, and The Who doing Tommy, and the musical Hair – which also copied us – we ended up doing a semi-serious spoof of all this stuff. When we did the Mothership shows, I had the whole concept mapped out: Pimps In Space! [laughs]”
In some ways, the Mothership Connections Parliafunkadelicment achieved onstage during this era were their high-point; as the 70s gave way to the 80s, contractual problems with his labels and pay disputes with his musicians saw Clinton retire Parliament and Funkadelic, to pursue a solo career, along with occasional tussles with the law over substance-issues. Thanks to the samplicious ways of the Hip-Hop generation, however, the classic grooves of Parliament (and, to a lesser degree, those of Funkadelic) never fell from favour and, he says, Parliafunkadelicment were recently approached to perform one of their Mothership Connections in actual, proper Outer Space… “We were supposed to perform on the space station, in 2005,” he promises. “We were ready to go and everything… Zero-gravity funk… Anti-matter music…”
Instead, he’s remained earthbound, continuing to bring funk to the masses, keeping that party from ever ending. Though it might surprise you to learn that George Clinton is actually himself something of a wallflower…
“It’s all about the stage for me,” he chuckles. “I’m actually a bit of a fake when it comes to the after-show party. I like to take my ass home early. All the P-Funk fans, they mostly expect more than I can give… I know I can’t live up to the expectations they’ve built up about me over the years! And the ones who come along and want to have sex with me? I’m scared of them…”
(c) Stevie Chick, 2010
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