ANNIVERSARIES: George Clinton Born 70 Years Ago


Born July 22, 1941 in Kannapolis, North Carolina, the eventual founder of the Parliaments (later Parliament) and Funkadelic grew up in Plainfield, New Jersey. While in his teens, he legendarily formed his first group at a barber shop, singing doo-wop in the style of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers to entertain customers. Doggedly pursuing a career in music, he released some Parliaments singles starting in 1959 and finally had a little success in 1967 on the Revilot label with "(I Wanna) Testify" (not the same as the album version familiar from 1974's Up for the Down Stroke). He moved to Detroit and became a Motown songwriter; his song "I Bet You" was sung by the Jackson 5.

Meanwhile, Clinton had been listening to the new trends in music and updated the group's sound and image with funk, rock, and psychedelic elements. While embroiled in contractual problems, the group was renamed Funkadelic (theoretically, Funkadelic was the instrumentalists, with the Parliaments doing the singing) and signed to Westbound. Soon the group was also performing as Parliament; 1970 brought the first LPs from both, Funkadelic and Free Your Mind...and Your Ass Will Follow (both on Westbound) and Parliament's Osmium (Invictus). At this point, the music of each was wildly eclectic, but within a few years Clinton narrowed the focus (just a little) with funk as the defining element.

Interestingly, he was often not the focus of his groups; many people took lead vocals besides him, and doo-wop and soul were important parts of the stylistic mix even if often overshadowed by the guitars. But as the arranger/producer, even if he was aurally in the background, he was running the show, and as a talent scout he was unsurpassed. In his peak period of the '70s, he had his fingers in many musical pies. But however enjoyable Parlet, Brides of Funkenstein, Bootsy's Rubber Band, Horny Horns, etc. were, here I will stick to P-Funk/Clinton in choosing his 12 most crucial albums.

Free Your Mind...and Your Ass Will Follow (Westbound, 1970)

Yes, it’s inconsistent in quality. Yes, the production’s often murky (though perhaps deliberately so). Recording the whole album while tripping on LSD might have had something to do with both of those! But the creative imaginations of lead guitarist Eddie Hazel and, especially, keyboardist Bernie Worrell provide fascinating textures. The distorted, fuzzed-out, earthily philosophical title track is their first ten minutes of greatness, "Funky Dollar Bill" is as funky as anti-materialism gets, and "I Wanna Know If It's Good to You" and "Some More" are fine rock-funk. The resolutely unfunky "Eulogy and Light" returns to anti-materialism, this time with psychedelic studio trickery (lots of backwards tape and tape-speed manipulation), and features a viciously ironic Psalm parody that includes such witticisms as "My Cadillac and my pinky ring, they comfort me."

Funkadelic: Maggot Brain (Westbound, 1971)

Another album that kicks off with a masterful 10-minute title track. This time it's mostly instrumental, Hazel's most famous feature, fuzz and wah-wah adding colors to one of the supreme psychedelic guitar solos in the Hendrix tradition. As the solo ebbs and flows across nearly the entire track, a variety of moods are touched on, but always Hazel returns to soaring figures in an abrasive tone with quiet arpeggios underneath. Originally the arrangement was denser, with more instruments (this can be heard as a bonus track on a recent CD reissue), but Clinton rightly saw where the real interest lay and stripped a lot of clutter out to make the classic we now know. As for the rest, there is not a bad track on the album (though the lengthy closer "Wars of Armageddon" doesn't exactly ingratiate), and "Super Stupid" rocks hard and features more excellent Hazel guitar heroics.

Funkadelic: Cosmic Slop (Westbound, 1973)

Plagued by one cut that begs to be skipped -- the lugubrious "March to the Witch's Castle," a good bit of sympathy-for-returning-soldiers/anti-war musing prompted by the Vietnam War that’s too slow and too long -- and a couple that are merely mediocre in opposite ways ("No Compute" has amusing lyrics but rinky-dink music; "Nappy Dugout" has inconsequential lyrics but delivers deep funk). But the title track, with Garry Shider's greatest vocal, is a classic of ghetto realness, there are several good harmony-vocal songs, and this is the first album to feature the engrossing art and liner notes of Pedro Bell.

Funkadelic: Standing on the Verge (Westbound, 1974)

The greatest Funkadelic album. Hazel, who had been out of action for a year serving prison time on a drug rap, returned and topped even "Maggot Brain" with his long solo on "Good Thoughts, Bad Thoughts" (his solo continuing under Clinton's spoken philosophizing). Hazel co-wrote all the songs with Clinton (plus Worrell on "Red Hot Mama"; Worrell's clavinet on "Red Hot Mama" stands with the guitar as a crucial sonic element, and that alone would deserve a writing credit), which gives the album more of a coherent sound than most Funkadelic records. The title track is among the band's very best rockers.

Parliament: Up for the Down Stroke (Casablanca, 1974)

Much more dance oriented, and a lot less musically weird (aside from the early and atypical Osmium), Parliament has the rough edges smoothed off. There are a few too many mellow tracks here (if I'd ranked them instead of going with chronological order, this would be #12), but the title track is great funk and "Testify," if not as great as the '67 7" it was adapted from via funk modernizing, is still classic (and sadly the original's not on CD or legit digital as far as I know).

Parliament: Chocolate City (Casablanca, 1975)

Parliament had a little more Funkadelic in its sound here, making it a little tougher, which made for more compelling changes of pace from the slicker funk than its predecessor LP's slow stuff.

Funkadelic: Let's Take It to the Stage (Westbound, 1975)

The last gasp of Funkadelic as itself; on the two LPs after this, song quality was diluted, and on the two after that, Parliament-style dance dominated. There's still some Eddie Hazel here (guitar and three song co-writes), but his replacement, Michael Hampton, joins here; much of it is a leaner and meaner rock-funk fusion, compact rather than expansive. But we also get Clinton's best ballad, "The Song Is Familiar," perhaps especially heartfelt because it's more about music than relationships. The dirty nursery rhyme shtick that Andrew "Dice" Clay rode to fame is done more joyfully here on the title track. There's much sex and profanity throughout, but there's a gleeful giddiness to it that keeps it from being offensive. True, "No Head No Backstage Pass" has a more sinister tone, but it's more making fun of the folks asking for favors than insisting on the trade. And hearing Worrell's Bach impersonation underpinning ruminations on whether "pussy" or "clit" is the preferred term ("Atmosphere") is simultaneously hilarious and musically exhilarating; then it turns into a keyboard fantasia of more modern bent and becomes downright haunting.

Parliament: Mothership Connection (Casablanca, 1976)

This is where Parliament became awesome (and sold gold for the first time), not least because Worrell started adding his keyboard bass to the groove and alto saxophonist Maceo Parker and trombonist Fred Wesley left James Brown to go with Parliament and the Brecker Brothers (trumpeter Randy, tenor saxophonist Michael) chipped in. Granted, a lot of the lyrics are basically chants, but chants don't get any better than this, even when they go "gaga goo-ga, gaga goo-ga" or "tear the roof off the mother, tear the roof off the mothersucker." A little more thought-provoking is "give the people what they want when they want and they wants it all the time." "Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker)" was the group's first million-selling single. This is almost as funky as it gets.

Parliament: The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein(Casablanca, 1976)

Slightly less chant-oriented, though the single "Do That Stuff," one of the highlights, could easily fit in on  Mothership Connection.Nothing else stands out, but it's a solid Parliament album in the band's peak period.

Parliament: Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome (Casablanca, 1977)

THIS is as funky as it gets. Most specifically, "Flashlight" -- keyed by an awesome Worrell keyboard bass line -- is the funkiest track ever. But aside from one change of pace, the sweet soul track "Wizard of Finance," the whole album hits a nasty funk groove that never lets up. There's also a fairly amusing sort of concept tying many tracks together that basically says it's bad to repress your physical urges; it was reinforced with a parable Overton Lloyd comic book enclosed with the original LP.

Funkadelic: One Nation under a Groove (Warner Brothers, 1978)

After fighting disco for years, Clinton finally relented a little and streamlined his funk just enough to accommodate the newer dance-floor preferences, and the result was the title track -- still not disco, though. And to show old fans that things hadn't completely changed, there  was a 7" EP included with the LP that featured plenty old-style Funkadelic, complete with Hampton's take on "Maggot Brain."

George Clinton: Computer Games (Capitol, 1982)

The synthesizers and drum machines go with the early '80s date; this would be #11 on a ranked list, but there's no denying that "Atomic Dog" is a classic, and George can make even machines sound funky. - Steve Holtje

Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based poet and composer whose newest project is setting James Joyce's Pomes Penyeach for singer and cello.


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