Mommy, what's a Funkadelic?
A George Clinton primer for the fledgling funkaphile
By Matthew Singer 03/15/2012
GEORGE CLINTON is an ecosystem. As a songwriter, mogul and pseudo-monologist (the most accurate classification of his vocal style), he’s responsible for producing, supporting or influencing some of the most dynamic, colorful and — need it be said? — funkiest music of the last 40 years. James Brown might be the Godfather of Soul, but when it comes to funk, Clinton fills the role in the Vito Corleone sense of the word. He’s the patriarch of a musical family whose branches intersect with a wide swath of artists, from the Red Hot Chili Peppers (Clinton produced their second album) to Talking Heads (they borrowed Parliament-Funkadelic synth-wizard Bernie Worrell in the ’80s) and the entirety of ’90s West Coast gangsta rap, a genre built from samples of his elastic bounce.
For the uninitiated, navigating the sprawling P-Funk discography can be daunting. Here’s a beginner’s manual.
Funkadelic: Attempting to distinguish between Parliament and Funkadelic, on a technical level, would lead us down a rabbit hole that’d consume the rest of my word count. It’s probably best to just think of the two entities as a conjoined twin with split personalities. Although they shared the same musicians and existed more or less side-by-side throughout the ’70s, each outfit had its own distinct sound. In the case of Funkadelic, that sound was defined by the innovative, proto-metal guitar of the late Eddie Hazel. His scorching, mind-melting riffs powered the group’s acid-washed explorations into psychedelic soul, at once smoky, spacey and brick-heavy.
Key tracks: “I’ll Bet You,” “Maggot Brain,” “Standing on the Verge of Getting It On”
Parliament: To put it simply, Parliament is the one with all the hits. After a couple of years traveling the stratosphere with Funkadelic, in 1974 Clinton came back down to earth — relatively speaking — reactivating the name of his primordial ’60s vocal group and making buoyant, horn-propelled party jams showcasing, among other things, the keyboard genius of Bernie Worrell. It was during this peak that the collective established its famous iconography: the bombastic live show, the Mothership, tearing the roof off the sucka, etc.
Key tracks: “Up for the Down Stroke,” “P-Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up),” “Flash Light”
Bootsy’s Rubber Band: Cutting his teeth backing James Brown, William “Bootsy” Collins joined Parliament in 1972. In contrast to Brown’s regimented system, Clinton encouraged experimentation. Collins has been known as “the Jimi Hendrix of bass” ever since. After spinning off with his Rubber Band, he’s become known for his mastery of something else, too: the funk ballad. His trio of late ’70s albums — Stretchin’ Out in Bootsy’s Rubber Band, Ahh. . . The Name is Bootsy, Baby! and Bootsy? Player of the Year — is nearly as essential as his work in P-Funk proper; it also represents perhaps the greatest run of album titles in history.
Key tracks: “I’d Rather Be With You,” “Munchies for Your Love
The Brides of Funkenstein: Clinton’s attempt at playing Phil Spector to a trio of post-apocalyptic Ronettes, the short-lived Brides were essentially girl-group Parliament, but their two albums did produce at least one must-hear standout: the strutting 15-minute title track to 1979’s Never Buy Texas From a Cowboy, proof that Clinton could do champagne disco almost as well as Chic.
Key tracks: “Never Buy Texas From a Cowboy”
P-Funk All-Stars: In the early 1980s, Clinton dissolved both Parliament and Funkadelic and went solo. Other than recording 1982’s immortal “Atomic Dog”— which pretty much justified the invention of the synthesizer in fell whomp — and releasing so-so records here and there, he’s mostly spent the last three decades touring with a revolving cast of players dubbed the P-Funk All-Stars. Who knows who’s in the band these days, and Clinton is often a cameo performer at his own gigs (the dude is 70, give him a break), but it hardly matters. His massive songbook lives on its own. If you want to get funked up, there’s still only one man for the job, and he’s got rainbow dreads.
George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic will perform at the Ventura Theater on Tuesday, March. 20. Tickets are $35 - $50. www.venturatheater.net.