The story of Funkadelic begins with their sister band, Parliament, who started life as doo-wop group the Parliaments, in bandleader George Clinton’s hometown of Plainfield, New Jersey. “I loved doo-wop music,” Clinton told me in 2007, “because it’s all about begging for pussy.” After scoring a hit with (I Wanna) Testify in 1967, contractual issues saw the group put on ice while Clinton signed their backing group to Westbound Records, as Funkadelic. As the name suggested, this new incarnation fused funk with psychedelic rock, taking the wild guitar noise of Hendrix and the acid-tinged groove of Norman Whitfield’s Motown productions in an altogether freakier direction. Their 1970 eponymous debut finds that sound in an embryonic state, a murky head-screw of an album that sets Clinton’s crazed, cosmic and carnal philosophising to lumbering heavy-funk jams doused liberally with echo and effects – a sound as wild as their stage show, with Clinton and his cohort dressed like hippies from Saturn. The result is purposefully disorientating – and initially impenetrable – though the clouds of dope smoke thin-out briefly for I Bet You, where the Parliaments’ five-part vocals make like psychedelic-era Temptations against a track that takes the turn-of-the-decade Motown sound on a lysergic trip. The song itself was strong enough for the Jackson 5 to cover on their ABC album that spring, though their take lacked the inspired noise-guitar excursions Eddie Hazel lent the original. Later that same year, a reactivated Parliament released their debut album, Osmium, a glorious set that proved Clinton and crew possessed able pop chops alongside their love for psychedelic noise, a sensibility that would filter through on later Funkadelic releases.
“Unusual, camp, today and now… A new concept,” was how contemporary radio ads described Funkadelic’s second album, Free Your Mind & Your Ass Will Follow, which Clinton says was recorded while the whole band were tripping on acid. Certainly that goes some way to explaining the freeform title track, which pitted wails of feedback against guttural guitar riffs and snippets of inspirational psychobabble, for 10 minutes or so, proving occasionally electrifying, but ultimately more baffling than funky. Better was this five-minute sprawl of Eddie Hazel guitar pyrotechnics, orgasmic backing vocals, and stabbing keyboards from new addition Bernie Worrell (whose gifts as composer and arranger would enable the group’s later ambitious steps). The track reaches its peak on the outro, as Hazel drops some meditative scree before raising the tempo and engaging in a duel with Worrell, while Tiki Fulwood’s drums take centre stage. That final minute or so – Fulwood hammering at his kit from deep within a cavern of dub, as singer/bassist Billy Nelson chases scales – still sounds futuristic, and if it didn’t quite invent drum’n’bass decades ahead of schedule, it certainly anticipates the avant-funk Miles Davis would explore five years later.
Funkadelic’s third album, 1971’s Maggot Brain, is today best-remembered for its opening title track, an aching and wracked ten-minute guitar solo recorded after Clinton told Hazel to play like his mother had just died. The album’s closing jam is its true masterpiece, however: 10 minutes of frantic, apocalyptic funk, howling guitar and vamping organ, with Fulwood’s restless and ever-shifting rhythms providing the bed for a riot of noise and pre-hip-hop sampling. Clinton glues together Looney Tunes sound effects, snippets of news broadcasts, screams, laughter, explosions, cuckoo clocks and flatulence to evoke the madness of modern life and its imminent demise. His vision of the apocalypse is very much Robert Crumb-meets-Lee Perry, gonzo and scatological and driven by black humour, the only “lyrics” being disembodied drawls of “right on, brother” and “more power to the people”, “more pussy to the power”, “more pussy to the people” and “more power to the pussy”, suggesting Clinton took a cynical view of then-current protest culture. It should be an unlistenable mess, but Hazel’s never-less-than-genius guitar and Fulwood’s brilliantly pulverising breakbeats ensure that Wars of Armageddon is electrifying until its final mass extinction event.
George Clinton … Keeping the freak flag flying in the 1970s. Photograph: Richard E. Aaron/Redferns
If Maggot Brain marked the peak of Funkadelic MK 1 – their first brilliant full-length statement – their fourth album, 1972’s America Eats Its Young, proved a grander project still: a double-set that was, by turns, fiercely political, blackly hilarious and unexpectedly heartfelt. Encased within a lurid gatefold sleeve, the first by Funkadelic’s visionary in-house artist Pedro Bell, and containing sleevenotes penned by Scientology-exiled cultists The Process Church of the Final Judgement, America Eats Its Young caught a group in transition, striding proudly out of the primordial wah-drenched ooze of their earlier albums, towards a more accessible, considered, but no less twisted sound. “That was the album where I was trying to see if I had any brain cells left,” Clinton told me. “I’d been under the influence of psychedelics for so long, I thought, Damn, I wonder if I can be ‘logical’ at all?” Beyond a newly coherent lyrical sensibility lay a further musical mutation on the part of the Funkadelic arkestra, and this bold opening track gave full rein to their newfound ambition, an almost-proggy suite that shifts from frenetic, full-on jazz-funk (with a time-signature Stephen Hawking would struggle to decode) to sassy soul vamping, to double-time bluegrass-funk, with supernatural grace, as a soulful choir dispense wisdom over that marvellously manic wah-wah guitar. This grand overture set the tone for the eclectic spree that would follow, both across the double-album set (which encompassed lush string-led muzak, dreamy bedroom funk, sweet southern soul and swooning, sad gospel) and the rest of Funkadelic’s subsequent discography.
A ridiculously slippery, rubbery slab of funk, so loose it’s barely hanging together, this track marked the arrival of the Collins brothers, Bootsy and Catfish, to Clinton’s motley crew. In 1970, the Collins’ band the Pacemakers stepped in to replace James Brown’s classic backing group following their exit over a wage-based dispute. The Pacemakers were duly renamed the JBs, helping the Godfather’s funk evolve into the 1970s, but the duo chafed under Brown’s infamously tight discipline and exited the following spring, again over wages, and also Booty’s predilection for LSD. Clinton, who had no problem whatsoever with acid, picked up the Collins brothers (after his own bassist and guitarist, Billy Nelson and Eddie Hazel, split Funkadelic over, yes, wages), and Loose Booty captures the duo on inspired form, Bootsy’s bassline an exercise in lazy brilliance, Catfish’s sleepy-eyed chicken-scratch guitar never not in the pocket. Loose Booty’s other chief attractions include some funky jaw harp in the left channel, Worrell’s baroque organ improvisations, and Clinton’s streetwise tales of various junkie misadventures, editorialising at one point “Why do you think they call it dope, dope?”
Clinton revived Parliament in 1974 as a more pop-oriented funk ensemble (albeit containing mostly the same musicians as his other group), maintaining Funkadelic as his outlet for freaky, guitar-heavy funk. However, as Parliament started racking up chart hits and Clinton began leading both bands on legendary joint-tours (wherein the P-Funk massive made the “Mothership Connection” under a gargantuan lighting rig that resembled a UFO), Funkadelic’s own brand of funk gained a newfound focus, paring back some of the layers of guitar excess and developing a fresh interest in the dancefloor. 1975’s Let’s Take It To The Stage – one of three remarkable P-Funk albums released that year, along with Parliament smashes Chocolate City and Mothership Connection – was the strongest of Funkadelic’s albums during this era, its second track, Better by the Pound, an irresistible funk riding an impossibly elastic, laser-guided bassline that was the work of Billy Nelson, briefly returning to the band four years after he quit. Alumnus Eddie Hazel also reconnected with Funkadelic for the track, joining with guitarist Gary Shider and a choir of soulful backing vocals to deliver a lyric caught between asceticism and bodily pleasure, ultimately plumping for the latter (“The preacher keeps promisin’ satisfaction / The ladies keep giving up the gratifaction”). The focus, though, is always that bassline, powered along by rasping high-hat and some seriously funky cowbell.
From the same album, this track passed a jaundiced eye over backstage bacchanals, unspooling the woes of “a girl named Jan” who, despite her many connections to the band, won’t be allowed into the dressing room until she goes down on the doorman (hence the title). While the lyric recounts its tale with all the tastefulness of a late-60s underground comic (there’s little sympathy for Jan, and not a little leering at the hoops she’s expected to jump through to join the party), the track triumphs thanks to the lumbering, gonzoid middle-eastern riff (which suggests heavy metal if it were born from the Bedouin, or Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir retooled for the disco era), the spiralling guitar scree of Shider and Michael Hampton, and the wild scatting backing vocals (“Aroo! Aroo! A-chaka-chaka-chaka-chaka!”). Its tornado of weirdfunk was sampled to great effect on Rakim’s lacerating Lyrics of Fury.
Subtitled Say Som’n Nasty, this highlight from 1976’s Tales of Kidd Funkadelic – a raid-the-vaults compilation of unreleased material to mark their exit from Westbound Records and signing to Warner Bros. – did exactly that, as Clinton and “the Maggotusi vocal choir” tell ribald tales of “some freaks from LA / Who come to New York to play”, and share a filthy limerick about a man from Peru who, having fallen asleep in his canoe, “was dreaming of Venus / And took out his penis / And woke up with a handful of goo.” The giddy Frankenstein funk to which the group set these rude rhymes marries a woozy Bernie Worrell synth riff to a lazily lurching groove and, in its circular way, feels like it could go on forever, its seven minutes never threatening to drag.
As the 1970s wore on, Clinton’s two-headed beast swallowed up more and more funk talent from the ranks of his contemporaries and competitors. James Brown lost his feted horn players Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker, to the Parliafunkadelicment thang in 1975 (“Where James preached uniformity, punctuality and discipline, George didn’t have any of that,” Parker told me. “If some guy was into Tarzan, and wanted to dress onstage like Tarzan, or like a baseball referee, or a pilot, that was OK 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’”). The Ohio Players, meanwhile, saw singer/organist Walter “Junie” Morrison switch groove allegiance to Clinton towards the end of the decade, taking on the role of musical director and sharing keyboard duties with Bernie Worrell. Junie’s skills are played to the fore on this chart-topping title track to Funkadelic’s 1978 album – their only LP to achieve platinum sales in the US. There’s arguably a Rizla’s width of difference between the pop-orientated sound of Parliament and Funkadelic’s more wired output by this point, and One Nation would prove feel-good enough an anthem to unite disparate tribes and win back at least some of the dancefloor from disco’s hedonistic hegemony. Junie’s wild and inventive synths embroider a vivid groove, delivering a sound futuristic enough to suggest Clinton and cohorts would survive a second decade of funk primacy, no sweat. But Funkadelic were soon to run aground, and during the 80s and 90s, the Parliafunkadelic sound would more often be heard via samples woven into the beats of the hip-hop generation than from the group themselves.
Another unforgettable synth riff – later Iifted by De La Soul for their ineffable Me, Myself & I – drives this late-period epic, an ecstatic paean to lust, dancing and the joyous power of song, as our narrator recalls how a girl’s ability to do “the freak” drove him crazy, noting scientifically “Something about the music / Got into my pants”. The track lasts 15 minutes, but there’s not a second wasted, as guitarist Michael Hampton and former Spinners singer Philippe Wynne take turns in the spotlight, the former delivering enough wild fretplay to remind us this is Funkadelic and not Parliament, the latter adding enraptured scat to Funkadelic’s palette. Backing vocals from two-thirds of Parliament’s offshoot girl-group Parlet, and the restless itch of Larry Fratangelo’s cuíca are further treats hidden within its upbeat, irresistible groove. The track was Funkadelic’s second single to top the US R&B charts, and by 1979 Clinton’s restless franchise had spun off under numerous guises, Bootsy’s Rubber Band, the Brides of Funkenstein and the aforementioned Parlet just three of the more successful offshoots from the hedonistic hydra. But by the group’s next album, 1981’s The Electric Spanking of War Babies, Clinton was at odds with his label (who forced him to pare a proposed double-album down to a single disc and censor Pedro Bell’s phallocentric sleeve artwork), his bandmates (several of whom had already quit over wages, and a further number of whom were responsible for a renegade Funkadelic album, 1980’s Connections & Disconnections, released under their name but without Clinton’s permission or involvement, and featuring thinly veiled lyrical potshots at their former leader), and a debilitating drug problem. It would be the group’s final album-proper until last year’s triple-album, First You Gotta Shake The Gate.