Excuse me if I gush here, but this is a subject very close to my heart. In these days of political defeatism, sexual paranoia and heads-to-the-grindstone order, I find more than just solace in the double-humping vinyl mind travelogues of George Clinton, a man who made politics fun and set it to music with a sense of order that makes Led Zeppelin sound like Bananarama.
Yup, we're talking P-Funk, the musical phenomenon that began as a fusion of barbershop harmonies, rock guitar and classical piano which by the mid '70s, had developed into a marauding spacefunk roadshow so awesome that musicians from acts as prestigious as The JBs, Sly & The Family Stone, Earth Wind & Fire and The Ohio Players deserted their posts to join its revolutionary ranks.
Apart from developing (within black music) the precedent-shattering principles of Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix, Clinton's Funk Mob presented themselves through a subversive alternative reality, infiltrating '70s cartoon mythology to replace white patriots with black anarchists. Funkadelia was the fusion of dancing and thinking, sex and drugs, and the Mothership was its chariot of fire, ferrying Clinton's Army through half a helter skelter decade of hit records and sell-out stadium shows.
Our story begins in Kannapulis, North Carolina on July 22nd 1941, with the birth of George Edward Clinton "out in the sticks behind the pig-pen". As World War II drew to a close, George's family moved to Washington DC, then on to Virginia, finally coming to rest in Newark, New Jersey in 1952. It was here in 1955 that the teenage George Clinton formed a vocal quintet, the Parliaments, who played local hops for two years before recording a single, 'Poor Willy', for ABC records. The single did nothing, a feat repeated by their follow-up, 'Lonely Island' on New Records.
At this time the Parliaments were all working in a barber's shop in neighbouring Plainfield, where a group of young patrons – some seven or eight years their junior – began to turn up with instruments and jam in the shop. These youngbloods – amongst them Bernie Worrell, a keyboard graduate from the Boston Conservatory of Music, and guitarist Eddie Hazell – were later to become the core of Funkadelic.
In 1960 the Parliaments signed a five year contract with Motown's New York office but, due to friction between the New York and Detroit companies, never had a record released on the label. Clinton joked that they'd had trouble turning up in matching socks, but he did get to work with Holland/Dozier/Holland ('Baby That's A Groove' by Roy Handy is credited to Clinton/Dozier/Holland), and a couple of the Parliaments' unreleased tracks were later covered by The Jackson 5 and The Supremes ('I Bet You' and 'I'm Into Something, I Can't Shake It Loose').
The Parliaments moved to Detroit to improve the situation with Motown, but by the time their contract had expired they knew they'd be better off elsewhere. Signing to Golden World, they had a minor hit with 'My Girl', but then the company was bought out by Motown, forcing the group to look for another label. LeBaron Taylor, a top executive at Golden World, had just formed a new Detroit label, Revilot, and when the label's first release ('Our Love Is In The Pocket' by Darrell Banks, co-written by Clinton) was a massive hit, Taylor signed the Parliaments. 'I Wanna Testify', the group's first Revilot release (1967), galvanized some long-awaited chart action but, though the follow-ups ('The Goose', 'All Your Goodies Are Gone' and 'Time') all sold fairly well, the label's financial status was unstable.
Revilot went out of business, selling their masters to Atco, who released the Parliament singles without recording anything new. Faced with another year of enforced inactivity (until their contract expired), the concept of Funkadelic was born. Putting the Parliaments' musicians in the foreground, they recorded a session as Funkadelic (paid for by themselves), and got a deal with Westbound, yet another new Detroit label, who put out 'Music For My Mother' as a single.
Meanwhile, Holland/Dozier/Holland had left Motown to start their own label, Invictus, to which they signed the Parliaments (whose Revilot contract had now expired), thus creating a bizarre situation which has formed the basis of P-Funk's business dealings ever since. The same ten people were now recording for two different companies in the same city but using different names – and it was all legal! "Sure, neither company liked it much," George explained at the time, "but we had been caught before in the business, so we felt it safer if we had an escape clause. Funkadelic stays with Westbound and Parliament stays with Invictus and, though they don't really like it, it keeps both companies working hard trying to do better than the other."
In Cincinnati in 1968 William 'Bootsy' Collins formed his first band, the Pacesetters – with his brother Phelps 'Catfish' Collins, Frankie 'Kash' Waddy and Phillipe Wynne – who were employed by King Records to back artists like Arthur Prysock and Hank Ballard. In 1969 King signed James Brown, who immediately sacked his backing band, and made the Pacesetters the new JBs.
For three years Bootsy, Catfish, Kash and Wynne lived and toured as the JBs, playing on classic hits like 'Sex Machine' (Bootsy was only 16 at the time), but in '71, tired of "The Godfather"'s dictatorial style, they quit and returned to Cincinnati to form the sartorially garish House Guests. The Spinners approached the House Guests, wanting Wynne to become their lead singer, and the others to be their backing band, but only Wynne accepted, and so the House Guests continued along parallel lines to Clinton's Funkadelic.
Funkadelic had released three albums on Westbound – Funkadelic, Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow and Maggot Brain – when the inevitable collaboration with the House Guests took place. The results appeared on Funkadelic's 1972 double album America Eats Its Young, with the single 'Philmore' credited to W Collins. P-Funk was born, and from then onwards it was up, up and away.
Though it often appeared excessive to the point of overkill, and spawned countless satellite projects, the P-Funk concept was brilliantly simple. Clinton gathered around him an unlimited pool of the best musicians he could find, and signed none of them to a record label. Instead what the labels signed were group names, which meant that P-Funk could pursue as many musical projects as they could think up names for, release as many albums as they could record, and no player would be contractually bound if something went wrong. To top it all, the labels involved (each secretly convinced that Clinton favoured the others) were competing against each other to sell fundamentally the same act.
Although at one point Bootsy's Rubber Band became the most commercial wing of Uncle Jam's Army, the main strands of P-Funk were always Parliament and Funkadelic, two distinctly different outfits whose live performances demanded a kind of musical schizophrenia from the players involved. Parliament were the more disciplined, traditionally soulful party, with a blazing horn section, razor sharp gospel harmonizing and an arsenal of spaced-out comic heroes and villains. Funkadelic were the rockier, weirder, more political outlet, with a pair of social X-ray glasses and a raw, intuitive musical feel that Clinton likened to gospel.
Old-fashioned as this may sound, the magic of P-Funk – behind all the anarchic business scams, the fantastic linguistic swordsmanship and the spaceships – lay in its musicianship. The concepts and spectacular visual antics of P-Funk took priority over individual egos or rockstar personality-building, but the Mothership contained some of the finest musicians ever to grace a stage. Just look at the core players!
Bernie Worrell and Junie Morrison were left-field keyboard wizards, and Eddie Hazell, Mike Hampton and Blackbyrd McKnight were hyper-expressive guitarists who could effortlessly hold their own against the likes of Jimmy Page or Angus Young. Fred Wesley, Maceo Parker and Rick Gardner were the horn section to have (Maceo is the only musician James Brown has ever had the humility to ask back), and no bassist has ever touched what Bootsy was capable of.
As for the singers, what a goldmine! From the mike-wrecking superbass of Ray Davis to the female Sly Stone/EW&F defectors, via soaring midrangers like the late Glen Goins and Gary Shider, these were major talents. The Rubber Band sprung to the bass/nasal harmonies of Mudbone and P-Nut, and Clinton himself was no vocal slouch, alternating between radio jockular rap and a weirdly emotional falsetto ('We're All Gonna Make It This Time' from America Eats... still gets my tearducts going).
Clinton enjoyed the services of these and many other musical giants – spanning every black musical style from church to Jimi Hendrix – cementing the whole conglomeration with a psychedelic sense of freedom and adventure. Whilst James Brown fined musicians for playing a note wrong, Clinton didn't rehearse them at all. After witnessing a P-Funk All Stars show in Germany in 1985, a stunned German TV presenter asked George how he could possibly organize a 27-piece band: "The secret is to get cats who can really play. Then you just have to offer them the possibility of chaos and order on the same plate, and they'll go for it every time."
Anyone who has seen the James Brown Show on a good night knows that JB is the pressure-cooking heart of funk, but what he does has never strayed outside the relatively narrow parameters of his unique musical blueprint. Clinton declared that "nothing is good unless you play with it," and set about destroying the soulman superpimp stereotypes, taking funk over the hump to a place where fried ice cream was a reality. If JB was the arrogant King, George was the humanitarian, irreverent Jester, with more fantasy in his little finger than most of his contemporaries put together.
Part of the credit for P-Funk's development must go to two label bosses: Armen Boladian at Westbound, who – in stark contrast to Berry Gordy's vision of polished, production-line soul – gave Funkadelic carte blanche (and money) to record whatever they wanted, and Neil Bogart at Casablanca, who backed Parliament all the way (before his death he was planning a full-length feature film of 'The Motor Booty Affair'). With friends like these, Clinton forged a rock'n'soul mind-trip of orchestral proportions, and pumped it out with 30,000 watts of P-Funk power. Funk was never the same again.
The imaginative density of the images, slogans, puns and perceptions that flew from Clinton's freewheeling mind, combined with his prolific output – Parliament, Funkadelic, Bootsy and George Clinton alone released 32 action-packed studio albums-make it futile even to begin a serious study of P-Funk language and themes in this space. But if you're a P-Funk beginner, take it from me, every record's a lyrical treasure trove. I'll leave the joys of delving and discovering to you.
Songs like 'If You Don't Like The Effects, Don't Produce The Cause', 'Chocolate City', 'The Electric Spanking Of War Babies', 'You Shouldn't Nuf-Bit Fish' and 'R&B Skeletons (In The Closet)' display Clinton's ongoing sociopolitical analyses, but it was George's myriad fictitious alter-egos that really fired the public's imagination. With Dr Funkenstein, Starchild, Sir Nose D'Voidoffunk, Mr Wiggles, Lollipop Man and all the rest, George was putting the black man where white folks least expected to find him, in the White House, as an astronaut, a blond hippy, an army commander, a scientist and even as the Jacques Cousteau of funk.
George's image of Washington DC as "a chocolate city with vanilla suburbs" is the most poignant description I've ever heard of the American capital (after 6 pm). I knew, when I visited the city three years ago, that Trouble Funk's 'Drop The Bomb' was a reference to Clinton's uncut funk (as opposed to nuclear war), but still the imprint P-Funk mythology had left on the local music scene stunned me. The Long-haired Sucker's slogans were everywhere.
After interviewing a band whose drummer answered to the name of Sir Nose, I went to see EU at a club where the DJ booth was wallpapered from floor to ceiling with tiny, colourful scraps of P-Funk memorabilia. The group's frontman introduced himself with the words: "The bigger the headache, the bigger the pill. Sugarbear is the real deal," and the audience and group (who later played 'Cosmic Slop') launched into a communal chant of "If you ain't gonna get it on, take your dead ass home!" And that was par for the DC course.
P-Funk's current circle of influence stretches way beyond go go and mainstream funk, to include Philly rap, West Coast electro, Detroit house and white acts like Was (Not was) and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. If this seems surprising, remember that, along with its innovatory, wigged-out appeal, P-Funk was a massive commercial force in the '70s, and will be familiar to anyone who was into dance music at the time.
Though Funkadelic expected to make the bigtime with 'Cosmic Slop' and 'Standing On The Verge Of Getting It On', it wasn't until the internationally-distributed Parliament album Chocolate City (1975) that the Funk Mob's profile rose significantly. But after the release of Mothership Connection later that year, and the spectacular accompanying P-Funk Earth Tour, every Funkadelic, Parliament and Bootsy album went to number one in the international soul charts. Warner Brothers along netted a $30 million profit from Funkadelic, Bootsy and the Brides Of Funkenstein, and by the end of the decade Clinton had his own label Uncle Jam Records, distributed by CBS.
Whilst certain acts had pursued spacefunk themes in tandem with P-Funk – Masterfleet, War and, most notably, Norman Whitfield's Undisputed Truth – a generation of younger bands like Raydio, Rick James and the Gap Band, began to thieve their sound lock, stock and barrel. Captain Sky cloned Clinton so thoroughly he should've been paying him royalties and, though Larry Blackmon rarely mentions P-Funk these days, Cameo learnt the tricks of their trade (Lazzer's attention-grabbing codpiece is a direct descendant of Gary Shider's nappy) as first support band on the Flashlight Tour – which, due to the release of One Nation Under A Groove (Funkadelic's biggest hit ever) halfway through, went on for a year and a half.
So where did it all come unstuck? What was it that grounded the Mothership? Firstly there was the chaos induced by their phenomenal success. While George's attention had been tied up with his hyperactive recording and touring schedule since '75, certain legal and management associates had been writing themselves enormous cheques from his funds. $900,000 advances would dwindle to $30,000 cash, and sometimes the entourage would complete nationwide tours – during which they headlined at 60,000 capacity stadium shows – with just enough money to get home, leaving unpaid tax bills in umpteen states.
Secondly, just after Clinton had cleaned the rotten apples from his organization, he was disastrously stitched-up by Roger Troutman, leader of P-Funk protégés Zapp. After the success of the Bootsy-produced Zapp LP, Roger agreed to record a solo album for Uncle Jam, but when it was finished he took the masters and finished artwork (all paid for by CBS) to Warner Brothers, who signed him to a separate solo deal. The Many Facets Of Roger went on to sell over 800,000 copies and spawn the hit single 'I Heard It Through The Grapevine', and CBS were so furious with George (who they wrongly assumed to have been in on the scam) that they canceled Uncle Jam's distribution deal and refused to back his legal action against Warner Brothers.
Now, after just two album releases (The Sweat Band and Wynnejammer by Phillipe Wynne), George's long dreamt-of label was dead, and he had to take his own record company to court. Warner Bros lost the legal action, but it took two years, cost Clinton $2 million, and meant the end of Warner's contracts with Funkadelic, the Brides and Bootsy. Meanwhile, Capitol had delayed the signing of George's solo deal by a year, and Casablanca president Neil Bogard had died, leaving the 'Motor Booty Affair' film unmade and his label to be incorporated into Phonogram, effectively stiffing Parliament.
Computer Games, Clinton's debut LP for Capitol, found him in top form, and yielded the commercial hits 'Loopzilla' and 'Atomic Dog', but after a structural shakedown of the company, he found himself once again signed to an unsympathetic label. In 1984 CBS released a P-Funk All Stars compilation, Urban Dancefloor Guerillas, but by now the Mothership's momentum had fizzled out.
In 1985 Capitol released the superb Jimmy G & The Tackheads LP (Jimmy being Clinton's brother), failed to promote it and then dropped the group just before LA radio discovered the album. It seemed that no matter how good the records were, or how popular the live shows, P-Funk was doomed never to revive its former glory. The following year Clinton delivered a barnstorming single, 'Do Fries Go With That Shake?', accompanied by a video which illustrated the perfect compatibility of his cartoon sensibility with the promo-clip medium. Again Capitol failed utterly to capitalise on the record's potential, and the two parties parted company by mutual agreement.
Though the individual P-Funkateers have been making a passable living these past years, their collective output has wielded little influence and aroused little media fever. But, on the quiet, P-Funk has been bringing in fresh blood, and sprouting new fighting units like the Hardcore Jollies, the Electric War Babies and the P-Funk Jazz Quintet. Sneak previews of unreleased Bootsy tracks, the forthcoming Tackheads LP and snippets of about 20 albums' worth (I kid you not!) of George's work-in-progress prove that their artistic well is far from dry (since Nubian Nut George has become a murderous rapper). Now at last some of these recordings are to come to light, in a barrage of P-Funk vinyl action as intense as it was a decade ago.
Any day now we'll see the dynamite new albums from Bootsy (on CBS) and the Tackheads – now, minus Jimmy G, renamed the Incorporated Thang Band – (on WEA). MCA have signed Funkadelic, The P-Funk All Stars and the Brides (to be renamed), George's son Tracey is being signed to WEA (as Tray-Lewd) and, best of all, George himself has been signed to Paisley Park (who may later take up an option on Parliament). With Prince, one of the only heirs to the P-Funk spirit, at the helm, George may at last have found a label that understands and deserves him.
All that remains to be seen is how Joe Public will react to the returning Mothership. But, the new Funk Mob's commercial impact aside, one thing's for sure: the Good Doctor's back, proposing another toast to the boogie. I'll funk to that!