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CRAM SESSION: An intro to the funky double helix Parliament/Funkadelic

July 19, 2016

Read a primer on two sides of the same funky coin.

Though they were separate entities, Parliament and Funkadelic were manifestations of the same ideal. They were a package, expressing what the other could not, and often influencing one another. Their mythologies intertwine, as did their band members, which makes for a very confusing if not overwhelming history, so we crammed 10 years and 20 albums into a list of 10 songs that even Sir Nose could shake a butt to.

Before there was Parliament, there was The Parliaments, a doo-wop group formed in George Clinton’s barber shop in the late 1950s with Ray Davis, Fuzzy Haskins, Calvin Simon, and Grady Thomas. They landed a hit with “(I Wanna) Testify” in 1967, a scorching soul song with rock aspirations, and recruited bassist Billy “Bass” Nelson, guitarist Eddie Hazel, and drummer Tiki Fulwood for a tour. The band re-located to Detroit in 1970, and the late Berklee-educated piano player Bernie Worrell joined the fold shortly thereafter.

Central to understanding both Parliament and Funkadelic is the idea of “race records,” and how music made by Black musicians from the 1920s onward was segregated from the worlds of pop and rock music into the separate category of “Rhythm and Blues” or R&B. More often than not, Black musicians were labelled R&B regardless of the style of music that they played. They had different management, different label execs, and even different charts to track the performance and sales of their records. Black music was its own genre as far as record execs were concerned.

Clinton was conscious of how this relegation affected bands, and early on, sought to subvert categorization. He worshiped Cream and Jimi Hendrix as much as he did Sly Stone and the Isley Brothers and resisted the idea of being shoehorned into one place. Hendrix was an exception to the “race record” rule, which was due to his relocation to the UK, where they were a bit more reverent toward blues players and Black musicians in general, with the scene being heavily indebted to American blues. By looking to the UK, Hendrix provided a model that both Parliament and Funkadelic gladly followed, expanding on the idea of American blues as loudly as possible.

To distinguish both bands Clinton kept things simple. In his memoir Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard On You?, Clinton described “Parliament was a group of singers backed by a band” while “Funkadelic was a band that backed a group of singers.” The period of 1970-1979 was their most fruitful, and though the band, their members, and offshoots would go on to have strong careers in the ’80s and onward, neither group had the same momentum.

Funkadelic – “Free Your Mind And Your Ass Will Follow” (Free Your Mind… and Your Ass Will Follow, 1970)

Funkadelic are maybe best known for the electric guitar freakout that would follow with Maggot Brain but Free Your Mind… is where their trilogy of these epics all started. It’s the title track to the second Funkadelic record released that year, following their debut. While Funkadelic asked questions like “Mommy What’s a Funkadelic?” and “What Is Soul,” Free Your Mind… is less concerned with what you think, and more with how you think it.

The song starts out simply enough, with Clinton repeating the song’s title and vocalist Ray Davis responding “the kingdom of heaven is within,” each time. Bernie Worrell’s keys are appropriately off in space, while Tiki Fulwood’s drums give the otherwise meandering song a driving, funky purpose. Guitarist Eddie Hazel, who must’ve found Hendrix’s acid-soaked headscarf, is the real star of this one. His heady, seemingly improvised part gives the song its building intensity, and its shape.

Parliament – “Funky Woman” (Osmium, 1970)

Osmium isn’t really a fan-favourite or critically acclaimed, as Parliament hadn’t really developed their sound at this point, but it is an important document of the tensions that were always present in Parliament and Funkadelic’s work between the worlds of R&B and rock. Named for the heaviest metal known to man, Osmium was a bold statement of psychedelic soul coming from a former doo-wop group, but it was a sure sign as any that they could live up to those claims.

“Funky Woman,” co-written by Clinton and Worrell, really demonstrates how indebted Parliament were to the British rock bands of the era, blending the muscular bluesy riffs of The Who with a playful carnivalesque interlude that could’ve been borrowed from Pink Floyd’s The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. They don’t abandon their R&B roots completely either, as Fulwood’s tight drumming keeps this song in funkier territory than any of their contemporaries could manage.

Funkadelic – “You And Your Folks, Me And My Folks” (Maggot Brain, 1971)

As the uninhibited, expansive foil to the poppy Parliament, Funkadelic has a reputation for being maximal, but “You And Your Folks” is a perfect distillation of how much the band could get out of so little. What starts with a simple, piano riff courtesy of Worrell, an even simpler drum beat punctuating it, and the vocal line “yeah, yeah, yeah,” builds into an intense, immense, funky call for peace right before your eyes.

It’s remarkable for its simplicity, but also its poignancy. Billy “Bass” Nelson’s pleading vocals are just wonderful here, borrowing from the way James Brown would direct his band in songs, goading more from the backing vocalists with his “let me hear you say”s.

Funkadelic – “A Joyful Process” (America Eats Its Young, 1972)

Clinton was never at a loss for ideas during this period, but trying to give each Parliament and Funkadelic record a central theme or idea, having already done five albums in less than three years, meant he was searching high and low for ones that resonated.

At this point in time, some of the writings that informed Maggot Brain and America Eats Its Young were from the Process Church, a kind of cultish organization that split from Scientology, apparently too weird even for L. Ron Hubbard. In 1974, Vincent Bugliosi, the prosecutor in the 1970 trial of Charles Manson, argued that the Process Church were also a major influence of Manson’s philosophy.

The mere mention of Manson seems to have overwhelmed the significance of this record, which is too bad, because “A Joyful Process” is one of Worrell’s best. Here he’s hitting at the level of Curtis Mayfield or Isaac Hayes with lush, orchestral and brass arrangements that are underpinned by the funky riffing of the band proper. This album also marks the introduction of the Collins brothers, otherwise known as Bootsy and Catfish, after having come up through James Brown’s backing band, The J.B.’s.

Funkadelic – “Cosmic Slop” (Cosmic Slop, 1973)

Lead guitarist Eddie Hazel departed around the time of America Eats Its Young, leaving room for others to take the spotlight. The title track from Cosmic Slop, co-written by Clinton and Worrell, is one such example, highlighting the performance of lead guitarist and vocalist Garry Shider.

It’s a socially conscious song, sung from the perspective of a child whose mother is forced into prostitution to provide for her family. The child can hear his mother praying for forgiveness each night, and the combination of the lyric “I can hear my mother call” and Shider’s wailing guitar really does an excellent job of giving the song a strong emotional resonance.

Parliament – “Up For The Down Stroke” (Up For The Down Stroke, 1974)

Because of their doo-wop lineage, Clinton always envisioned Parliament would be the more refined and popular outlet for his songwriting. Yet when contractual obligations prevented Parliament from recording under the name, Funkadelic were positioned to be the popular favourites. This would be the first Parliament record the band made in four years, and the statement that would assert them as the R&B counterpoint to the guitar-centric Funkadelic.

The title track is like two songs rolled in one. The first half works in fits and starts, with the beat making the song seem like it’s lurching forward as it funks. With the guitars muted, the party atmosphere and studio banter come through, and the glorious horn arrangements are left to do a lot of the melodic heavy-lifting. The second half introduces the incredibly hooky lyric sung by the group, “I don’t care about the cold baby/cause when you’re hot, you’re too much,” before folding the chorus back in.

Funkadelic – “Standing On The Verge Of Getting It On” (Standing On The Verge Of Getting It On, 1974)

This is the only song on this list to not feature a Worrell – or “Spaced Viking” as he was called on the sleeve – writing credit. The record itself features very few Worrell credits in general as it is perhaps Funkadelic’s most guitar-centric, with Eddie Hazel announcing his return to the fold in the biggest, most infectious way.

“Standing On The Verge Of Getting It On” is perhaps one of the best of examples of how Funkadelic could make any combination of words catchy. “Hey lady won’t you be my dog and I will be your tree and you can pee on me.” Wait, what? Hazel’s guitar and Fulwood’s insistent drum beat keep the hook locked down, while the band have a ton of fun vocally.

Though Parliament were the vocal group, Funkadelic steals that approach here, with Clinton, Shider, and the whole band sharing vocal duties. There’s a great harmony part lifted from Jack Bruce and Cream, and elsewhere, the call of “People! What you doing?” and response of “standing on the verge of getting it on” is almost nonsensical but that makes it even more fun to sing along to.

Parliament – “P. Funk (Wants To Get Funked Up)” (Mothership Connection, 1975)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OG_fs-liOUs

The mothership has landed. This record was the breakthrough Parliament needed, both musically and live, as the band became known for the giant mothership that would descend onto the stage at the beginning of their performances.

As the first track on Mothership Connection, the song establishes that we’re hearing a transmission from funky pirate radio station WEFUNK “coming to you from the mothership.” Clinton takes the lead on this gem of a song co-written by Clinton, Bootsy and Worrell.

“Give Up The Funk” is maybe the most popular track from this record, but it’s also the most repetitive. “P. Funk” is also repetitive, but it plays loose, introducing new ideas and themes with each repeated hook. It’s also worth noting the band had graduated from acid to cocaine at this point, alluding to that switch when they ask for their “funk uncut.” They’re not wrong – this is funk in its purest form.

Parliament ‎- “Flash Light” (Funkentelechy Vs. The Placebo Syndrome, 1977)

Funkentelechy is built on the universe established in Mothership Connection, with a space opera that meditated on the illuminating power of funk with a cast of colourful characters. These characters all had backstories that were elaborated on in the accompanying comic book, illustrated by Overton Loyd, an artist who would continue working with the band for many years.

Taking that “illumination” metaphor to its logical extent is “Flash Light,” the last song on the record and the one that gets the record’s villain, Sir Nose D’Voidoffunk, to eventually relent and dance, sucker. It was the first song by any Parliament or Funkadelic related band to go to number one on the R&B charts.

“Flash Light”, easily one of the band’s best songs, is also a live staple and another Clinton/Bootsy/Worrell joint. Typically on the bass, Bootsy moves to the drums for this track, keeping the rhythm locked down with brother Catfish on guitar, as Worrell dishes out a bass synth and another wandering, complimentary synth part. Clinton, meanwhile, is freed up to be himself, working up to the delightfully fun chanted chorus.

Bernie Worrell – “Much Thrust” (All The Woo In The World, 1978)

As both Parliament and Funkadelic projects began taking off toward the latter point of the decade, its individual members started releasing their own solo records. This wasn’t representative of some dissatisfaction with the band, but rather, a strategy to maximize their output, and saturate the market with songs the whole of Parliament/Funkadelic could whip up live.

By this point, Bootsy’s Rubber Band already had three records under their belt, and Hazel had just released Game, Dames and Guitar Thangs a year prior.

This highlight from Worrell’s first solo outing plays like any other Parliament/Funkadelic party anthem, and has the same cast of players for support. Worrell co-wrote the song with Clinton, and the Collins brothers, Hazel, and Nelson all make appearances.

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