Who says a funk band can’t play rock? /and who says a rock band can’t play funk?
First, let me qualify that title. I take Funkadelic here to mean specifically what might be termed ‘Funkadelic Mk 1’; that is, the band put together in the late 60s by that wizard of funk George Clinton, centring around the core line-up of Eddie Hazel on lead Guitar, Tawl Ross providing rhythm, Tiki Fulwood on drums/percussion, and Billy ‘Bass’ Nelson on, err, bass. This particular combo recorded a trio of albums – Funkadelic (1970), Free your Mind…and Your Ass Will Follow (1970), and Maggot Brain (1971), which represent the absolute zenith of black rock; albums which still stand alongside the work of Sun Ra, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, and Miles Davis’ electric period as amongst a handful of the most outré records in black musical history. ‘Funkadelic Mk 2’, the Funkadelic most people think of when they hear the name – they of the colourfully costumed stage shows and absurdist Pedro Bell comic-strip album covers – begins with the recruitment of Bootsy and Catfish Collins (both outgoing member of James Brown’s band); the departures of both Eddie Hazel (to a prison sentence for drug offences) and Tawl Ross (who, I kid you not, came out the wrong end of an acid eating competition); and the 1972 release of America Eats its Young – a sprawling double album meisterwerk which took over two years to record, and employed the talents of well over thirty musicians. That though, is another story.
I take the term ‘black rock’ to mean the idiom instigated in the late 60s by The Jimi Hendrix Experience; namely, the ramped-up, heavily amplified take on black musical styles that is typified by this band and its interstellar modal traveller of a front man. As the sixties drew to an anti-climactic close the high-energy, amphetamine driven sounds of the early 60s gave way to a music influenced by marijuana and LSD; drugs which slow the mind and amplify sense impressions. This enabled pop to expand and loosen its sense of time; the compressed three-minute pop single format quickly being overtaken and temporarily replaced with the open-ended album format containing longer and longer songs driven by slower rates of harmonic change, increased room for soloists, and an ever-increasing emphasis upon the sensuality of the rhythm. This ‘groove’ based music substituted the tight structures, harmonic and melodic subtleties of pop by placing the stress upon sensation, power, and expressionistic ‘feel’. This new music, subsequently christened ‘rock’ was perfect for both the sense-enhancing drugs, and the newly emerging festival/large concert hall venues of the late 60s/early 70s.
Considering the fact that Hendrix was one of the main architects of this new music; a man whose practically incalculable impact upon the landscape of popular music was as instantaneous as it was far-reaching; there is, ultimately, surprisingly little music that we can comfortably label as ‘black rock’. While there is almost no white rock act who hasn’t been touched by the hand of Hendrix, the lineage of black musicians willing to pick up the mantle laid down by his untimely death is spare indeed. Although Hendrix’s achievements were absorbed by some of the most important black musicians of the 70s and 80s (Miles again, Prince), ‘rock’ remains a place where black musicians are historically unwelcome – especially so in the post-Hip-Hop era, where the term ‘black rock’ has, to all intents and purposes, become practically meaningless.
The reasons for this are myriad; issues of race and representation far too complicated to fully extrapolate here. Put simply though, rock – ironically, considering its roots lay directly in two black musical styles (ramped-up blues and the rhythmic accent of black dance idioms respectively) – is an almost exclusively white, male playground. This leaves any black act that dares to ‘rock’ out (Bad Brains, Living Colour, Fishbone, 24/7 Spies) in danger of appearing as glaring aberrations in the musical landscape, to be viewed with at least suspicion, if not outright derision. And it is Hendrix – a black artist transported to England, backed by white musicians, playing ‘white’ pop, to white audiences – who embodies this paradox more acutely than any other, allowing him to be used as a rugby ball in the cultural scrum of race; seized upon by the white rock audience as ‘one of ours’, whilst simultaneously being rejected by certain portions of the black community (and certain white critics) as a ‘psychedelic Uncle Tom’. However, as already stated, a significant minority of black musicians fully accepted his music for what it was (the cross roads at which many historically disparate strands of music – both black and white – came together to meet their fullest fruition), and nowhere did the ghost of Hendrix loom larger than in the newly-minted worlds of Funk and psychedelic Soul.
Soul, mirroring the morphing of pop into rock, went through its own gargantuan changes during the 60s. The black futurist James Brown was busy ruthlessly stripping back the harmonic components of his bag, and paring everything (including his vocals) down to their barest rhythmic component, galvanising in the process the polyrhythmic backbone of funk. Sly Stone (and his Family) pioneered an explosive, up-tempo, multi-racial pop/rock/soul/funk hybrid that epitomised the ‘come together’ dreams and aspirations of what Otis Redding (at the Monterey Pop Festival) would term “The Love Crowd”. Former Impressions leader Curtis Mayfield led the way in bringing a black socio-political consciousness to soul music, one that reflected directly the concerns of the civil rights movement.
By the second half of the decade, even the formally apolitical, urbane, sophisticates of Motown had to concede that things were indeed changing; allowing Norman Whitfield to re-invent the previously clean-cut, sharp-suited Temptations by dressing them in psychedelic clothing and releasing with them a string of epic ghetto-realist singles informed by the funk of James Brown, the fuzz-tones and wah-wah of Hendrix, and the manic post-doo wop vocalising and psych-rock effects of both Sly Stone and The Parliaments (more of whom later). At the dawn of the 70s, soul music had begun to diverge into two distinct (but not mutually exclusive) forms: that of the slick, lush sounds of acts like The Delphonics, Archie Bell and the Drells, and Barry White, a creamy smooch known as ‘Philly Soul’ (“Funk in a tuxedo,” according to James Brown horn man Fred Wesley); and that of the black power infused, civil rights savvy, street-level hard funk of the groups who picked up upon the Sly Stone/James Brown/Curtis Mayfield end of things. Into this turbulent context wandered cosmic funk figurehead George Clinton, who had a new band, comprised of members of his old band. They had a new sound: P-Funk, a Parliafunkadelicament Thang.
We just couldn’t get it right: all the other groups had matching suits – we couldn’t even get our socks to match. Probably we were Funkadelic in our minds before we even knew it.
George Clinton, 1996
George Clinton is, to put it mildly, one of popular music’s great characters: a man who’s legendary barmyness ranks second only to the likes of the afore mentioned Mr Sun Ra and Lee ‘scratch’ Perry in terms of wilfully singular eccentricity. Part cosmic joker, part social critic, part funk visionary, part shaman, and part tribal leader; as a bandleader his only true rivals are Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Sun Ra, James Brown, and Prince; a man who knew how to nurture and mould raw young talent in order to shape them to his own idiosyncratic vision of the funk.
Clinton had put together his post-doo wop, close-harmony vocal group The Parliaments in the late 50s, comprising the singers Ray Davis (no, not that one), Calvin Simon, Fuzzy Haskins, Grady Thomas, and George himself. In 1962 they signed to Motown, but like many young and eager hopefuls, were left languishing on the back burner waiting for a break that never came. After leaving Motown, the newly psychedelicasized Clinton and his charges signed to small Detroit label Revilot. In 1967 they released the psychedelic soul classic (I Wanna) Testify, which was an instant R&B smash. Clinton then recruited a backing band consisting of the musicians listed in the opening paragraph, and set about touring. However, contractual difficulties arose between Clinton and his financially shaky label; when Revilot went bust it meant he was no longer able to record under the name ‘The Parliaments’. In a stroke of brilliant lateral thinking, Clinton decided to make the backing band his group, and make his group the backing singers for the band. Christening this new formation Funkadelic, he signed to another local label Westbound label in 1968.
“Mommy, What’s a Funkadelic?”
Question posed by the title of the opening track of Funkadelic’s debut album, 1970
Recording sessions for the eponymous debut soon ran into trouble however, with several of the band taking turns to walk out on Clinton (only to return later with their instruments very much between their legs). This forced him to rely on several (unaccredited) session musicians to finish the album; musicians employed by Motown, like Ray Monette (of Rare Earth) and keyboard player Bernie Worrel (who would become integral to the band’s sound). As a result, Funkadelic is a less the work of a single cohesive band than either Free your mind…or Maggot Brain, and more of a patchwork. Nevertheless, despite its traumatic origins, it is still a landmark work: one that successfully fused the dynamics of hard-funk and psychedelic rock with wilful genre-trashing abandon.
Really though, the change was about the music. Back then, white people were going totally black – Spoonful, with Cream and all that – they were doing the blues in a way black people weren’t. We wanted some of it back, so we got some mid-tempo music, our version of the blues, and cut out a niche in that direction. We’d got Bernie Worrel by now, a classically trained pianist who could bring a real extra dimension to the guitar sound.
George Clinton, 1996
First there is the heavily reverbed sound of licking. Then an equally reverbed voice says, “If you will suck my soul/Then I will lick your funky emotions.” So begins the first song on the album, though ‘song’ is perhaps putting it a bit strongly for what is essentially nine minutes of loose, meandering jamming enlivened by chants, spoken vocals, bluesy harmonica, keyboards and guitar. However, as nine-minute jams go, this one nails down many of Funkadelic Mk 1’s essential ingredients: the strange, twisted humour and warped world view revealed in spoken, semi-rapped lyrics; the loud, hard, raw, but undeniably funky rhythm section; the sci-fi keyboards; the whole funk drenched in spacey echo, reverb, feedback. It also hijacks the electric guitar – rocks central weapon – and places it centre stage, and as such unveils their secret weapon: Eddie Hazel, a guitar player of rare prowess, who came armed with a whole arsenal of post-Hendrix pyrotechnics – overdrive, fuzz tones, feedback, wah, and all kinds of string bending, trills and hammering on to enliven his riffs, runs and solos. Although this particular song has no solo, his slinky, penetrating wah-wah blues licks are a constant presence alongside the throb of the other players.
Elsewhere on the album we are treated to scorching redoes of two Parliaments’ singles: first I’ll Bet You (later covered, bizarrely, by The Jackson 5), complete with blisteringly frazzled string bending from Hazel, then the oddball psych blues of Music For My Mother, during which the band proceeds to rise and rise in attack as Motown session singer Herb Sparkman tells the bizarre story of a man from “Keep running Mississippi” and his salvation through the funk. Later on there’s Qualify and Satisfy, another blues driven wig-out which begins simply enough, before rapidly descending into seriously spaced-out territory; plus the furiously intense up-tempo I Got A Thing, You Got A Thing, Everybody’s Got A Thing with its whip-crack wah-wah riffing and epic heavy solo (courtesy of session man Ray Monette) proving one of the album’s highlights. Ending the album is another loose, psychedelic harmonica and guitar driven jam entitled What Is Soul? during which Clinton attempts to answer that tricky age old question with memorable contributions like, “soul is a joint wrapped in toilet paper,” and, “soul is rusty ankles and ashy kneecaps.”
“Behold: I am Funkadelic,” Clinton inform us, “I am not of your world/But fear me not,” he assures, “I will do you no harm/Lend me your funky mind/And I will play with it”. Clearly, some sort of wacky internal philosophy is being born here, one that could be about the funk as a means of transcending the harsh realities of black experience, though it’s hard to tell.
The most important thing though was for it to be philosophically cool. Because of the times, black people were angry so we had to be saying something, even if it sounded like a joke. I didn’t want to sound preachy. ‘Free your mind and your ass will follow.’ The time dictates what it needs.
George Clinton, 1996
Whatever the case, Funkadelic – despite its strangeness and unquestionably rockist leanings – sold well in America, reaching 30 on the R&B charts, and spawning two equally successful singles. In the wake of this success the band began touring in earnest. By the time of its rapidly recorded successor’s release, Clinton had driven his already outlandish outfit into much weirder, harder territory. In May 1971, they embarked upon a fifteen-date tour of the UK. The mind boggles at the thought of what the unsuspecting hippies and R&B boys of blighty, (who had probably gone along to hear (I Wanna) Testify, type soul), actually made of this weird and wonderful gang and their stage show comprised of anywhere up to a dozen members on the stage at any one time, standing in front of a wall of Marshal stacks, dressed in wild street clothes and playing blistering hard rock funk at face-melting volume. “They ignored their Parliaments R&B hits and played hardly anything from their first album – it was really loud, and it was definitely about the decibels. There was no soul and very little funk, in the traditional sense of those words, in what we could hear,” recalled a disappointed eyewitness to their gig at Camden’s Roundhouse. No one could’ve been prepared for the sound of the band that Free Your Mind…because there had never been a black band that sounded like this before. And in fairness to them: neither was I.
When I originally bought this and Maggot Brain in about ’97 from a HMV in Glasgow, the sales assistant said to me: “be careful of that one [Maggot Brain] it begins gently enough, but then proceeds to get all crazy. That one [pointing to Free Your Mind…] is just plain mental”. It turns out he wasn’t lying, and what’s more I needed the warning, because I soon realised I had no idea what I had purchased. I was expecting funk, something like James Brown, or The Meters. Instead, what I had ended up with was two of the wildest, strangest rock albums in existence. Take Free Your Mind…’s opening title track: ten minutes plus of feedback drenched, ludicrously overdriven hard-rock jamming; a track that is so loud, so distorted, and so disorientating, that the only thing one can compare it to is Sister Ray by the Velvet Underground. It is, quite simply, chaos; with shards of vocals and white noise criss-crossing the stereo spectrum seemingly at random (sample lyrics: “Freedom is free of the need to be free…I don’t know what to feel/I can’t feel me, I can’t live me, I can’t be me/My mind, it does not belong to me/I’m so confused/I can’t hear myself/I can’t hear myself calling for help/I can’t free my mind/So my ass can’t follow”). Clinton, as well as claiming that the entire album was recorded in a day, has also said the idea behind it was, “let’s see if we can cut a whole album while we are tripping on acid.” Listening to the album some thirty odd years later, particularly on headphones, one is hard pressed to refute either of those claims. It has one of the most unconventional productions ever recorded: nothing is stationary, or where it should be in the mix; all the instruments are distorted, almost beyond the point of recognition. The needles aren’t in the red: the needles have melted. This aural barrage, as befitting a band so marinated in LSD, readily captures the dislocating sensory overload of the acid experience.
The rest of the album is no less psychotic: the hard, crunching sheet-metal guitar riffing of Friday Night August 14th; the scorched, raging anti-materialist Funky Dollar Bill, with its feverish plink-plonk piano work from Worrel; the delirious doo-wop vocals and extended instrumental workout of I Wanna Know If It’s Good To You? Not to mention the utterly bonkers closer Eulogy And Light, which sees Clinton reciting a street patios version of The Lord’s Prayer/23rd Psalm over the backing tape of I’ll Bet You’s b-side Open Your Eyes run backwards, scarily intoning dark ghetto tales of Pimps and drugs along the way. The general reaction to all this lunacy was pretty much as to be expected: “It was too black for white folks and too white for black folks. It was even too black for some black folks. Frank Crocker on WBLS literally told us, ‘too black, too strong’. But I was kinda proud, as that was my intention,” Clinton later recalled.
With the release of the third act – and possible masterpiece – of this trilogy, Funkadelic took a trip into even darker, murkier waters. The album came housed in a lurid sleeve depicting the screaming head of a black women with a large afro emerging from earth, with a photo of a skull emerging from the same earth on the back cover. As an image it is both comical and disturbing: especially so when you learn that the concept was rumoured to be inspired by Clinton coming across the corpse of a friend who had died in a drug overdose and lay undiscovered for some time, hence: Maggot Brain. On the gatefold’s inner, a photo of the band from their UK tour standing outside some war-damaged buildings in Liverpool, sits opposite a lengthy, apocalyptic sleeve-note penned by a representative of ‘The Process Church of the Final Judgement’ which begins with the word ‘FEAR’ in inch-high lettering. Plainly, something has gone very, very wrong in the world of our jolly cosmic heroes.
That was originally a comment on the war in Vietnam, but it really took in the world at large. While I’m not trying to be a goody-goody, I’m saying we got to acknowledge the fact that we have a part in this shit just by the fact that we enjoy certain things without knowing the chain of events that leads to our comfort. Protest that and eat yourself fat, ain’t you deep in your semi-first class seat. You can’t take the bow without taking the blame. The whole point of Funkadelic was not to tell people what to think, just to tell them they could think.
George Clinton, 1996
By 1971, both the hippie movement and black power had been resounding failures as far as the black community was concerned: they were still firmly stuck in the ghetto, which had been decimated by riots, hard-drugs and conscription. Maggot Brain tapped into this feeling of despair in a way that was unique. If Norman Whitfield thought he was producing a socio-politically conscious funk over at Motown, he had nothing on Clinton, who had just put together the deepest, darkest slice of coded black polemic imaginable: What’s Goin’ On, via Mars.
Mother Earth is pregnant for the third time/For y’all have knocked her up/I have tasted the maggots in the mind of the universe/I was not offended/For I knew I had to rise above it all/Or drown in my own shit.
Funkadelic, Maggot Brain, 1971
The album’s high critical standing rests upon the justly famous opening, title track: an extended, improvised ten-minute guitar solo from Hazel that effortlessly expresses the bummed-out times as eloquently as Hendrix’s deconstruction of The Star Spangle Banner had expressed an America tearing itself apart over Vietnam at Woodstock two years earlier. Over a plaintiff crystalline arpeggio from Tawl Ross, Hazel lays down an outstanding first take of breathtaking power, beauty, and pain. Famously, Clinton had ordered his young prodigy to, “Play like your mother just died” and he carried out this order with aplomb. His long, screaming lines, and exploding clusters of notes, which echo back upon themselves, provide the anonymous women on the cover with her missing voice. Originally, this transcendental track was a workout for the entire band, and you can still hear snatches of them in the mix, but Clinton, after hearing the white-hot magic emanating from Hazel’s fingertips, decided to place everyone else low in the mix and isolate what he must of realised was one of the greatest improvised guitar solos ever captured. “It really is a cosmic song,” said Clinton in 1992, “When we first did it, the whole band played on it, but I just didn’t use nothing but him and the other guitars. All I had to do was to tell him to think of something sad. He said, ‘oh man motherfuck this, why don’t you think of something sad.’ So I was just suggesting any stupid thing that was totally horrible…Well, he was feelin’ it, wow. His singing and playing was so emotional.”
As splendiferous as that opening track is, the rest of the album is equally as impressive. After the relatively normal R&B of Can You Get To That (well, relative by Funkadelic standards anyway: think Sly & The Family Stone on 11), comes Hit It And Quit It, and You And Your Folks, Me And My Folks, two barn-storming whacked-out grooves with sizzling guitar solos that, seemingly, address issues of peace, race and class in pure Funkadelic vernacular. Side two opens with Super Stupid – a kind of spiritual heir to Purple Haze – that is about a drug addict who accidentally buys the wrong drugs (echoing the album’s cover and deathly undercurrent). It is monumentally heavy: heavier than the blustering blues-rock from England; heavier, even, than the nascent heavy metal bands like Blue Cheer and Black Sabbath. Throughout the album the band play like maniacs, with the molten cocktail of the rhythm section just about managing to anchor Hazel and Worrel’s most extreme flights of frazzled fancy, as they play and intertwine with seething raw power and complete sensual abandonment. Like the preceding two albums, it closes with a long tuneless jam: the suitably apocalyptic Wars Of Armageddon, which, as the polar opposite of the opening track, is just about as ‘out there’ as funk can get. While the former starts slowly and works itself up, the later is a furious funk work-out with all manner of extraneous noise (baby wailing, women screaming, Clinton blowing raspberries, unidentifiable snatches of dialogue), thrown into the tumultuous mix, which eventually disappears into the sound of an explosion, then the eerie sound of a lone heart beating.
There was a lot of black groups getting mad, because we had Vietnam hitting the black communities hard, and life in the ghettoes was meaner than a muthafucka. I could get mad enough at the world and how it was treating people to wait in an alley with a brick and kill some muthafucka and, like anybody else in the ghetto, if somebody made me mad I was ready to fight. But there ain’t no winning in a situation like that, so once we got out of there I’d take acid to make sure I didn’t get that mad no more. I’d start looking at, you know, alternative realities.
George Clinton, 1996
Like its predecessor, Maggot Brain was both produced and mixed by Clinton while on acid. The resultant work, an album of burning resentment and aching sadness from a band at both the peak of their powers and on the point of disintegration is, like There’s A Riot Goin’ On, On The Beach, and The John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, one of the great ‘death of the 60s’ albums. Heavier than heavy metal, more psychedelic than Hendrix, more stoned than even Sly Stone – it is both completely compelling and utterly unhinged from start to finish. The dream is over indeed.
If the dominant culture of Detroit during this period was the counter-culture, it was not the ‘peace & love’, ‘flower power’ culture of London or San Francisco; rather, it was the seething racial tensions and revolutionary fervour that manifested itself in the disastrous race riots of ’67. If psychedelia Detroit style meant, not the communal ‘come together’ of The Grateful Dead, but the angry, bummed-out world of The MC5, The Stooges, and Ted Nugent, then the work of Funkadelic (MK 1), with their aggressive whacked-out grooves, and their frenzied acid soundscapes, stands its ground proudly next to your Funhouses and your Kick Out The Jams. Although George Clinton’s production methods are, perhaps, not to be recommended, the end result more than justified the means, producing, as it did, something extraordinary indeed: a precious and unrepeatable blast of brazen black pride. This particular incarnation of Funkadelic made some of the rawest, loudest, wildest, meanest, druggiest, most far-out music ever attempted, and there is, quite simply, no other black band whose music you can compare only to that of the most deafening, most uncompromising underground rock of the era. More than that: there is, ultimately, no other band quite like them, black, white, or alien.
There wasn’t no other black groups taking acid at that time. At the time I didn’t realise that we were doing what we were doing because we were doing so much acid, but I can see that now.
George Clinton, 1996