A User's Guide to Funkadelic
George Clinton may have coughed up the most byzantine, sprawling, deliberately confusing and bottomless mythology as exists in pop, but all of it shrivels in the face of the monster grooves and verbal outrage P-Funk's best has to offer. Even with three or four decades in which to assimilate them, Funkadelic's eight albums on Detroit's Westbound Records are almost too rich to swallow whole. It's not that you're either on the P-Funk bus or under it — it's that even if you climb aboard it does its level best to flatten you. But Clinton's vision is so far-ranging that even his mistakes seem like part of the grand design.
This isn't to say Funkadelic's albums are perfect — far from it, though at their best they'll make you not care all that much that some parts work better than others. Funkadelic and Free Your Mind . . . and Your Ass Will Follow (both 1970) are fiercely druggy and full of why-not approaches. From psychedelic rock (Free Your Mind's title cut) to blues (the debut's “Music for Your Mother”) to R&B balladry (the debut's “I'll Bet You”), everything on these albums — in fact, on every Funkadelic album through 1973 — sounds positively charred. Especially on Free Your Mind, infamously mixed in a single session by an acid-tripping Clinton, it can be the aural equivalent of a spin-art painting, with guitar solos, bizarre chants and an off-beat that crawls around as much as the stuff it allegedly anchors. Clinton was a great sloganeer from the word go: one of the answers to the first album's final cut, “What Is Soul?” is, “A ham hock in your corn flakes.” The music's off-kilter heave could be described the same way, as on “I'll Bet You,” a song Clinton originally wrote for the Jackson 5 while a staff writer at Motown. (Their version is on the ABC album.)
Apart from “Wars of Armageddon” (wars are messy things), Maggot Brain (1971) sharpens the first two albums'goggle-eyed vision into the sharpest overall Funkadelic album of this or any other era. (Funkadelic, that is; Parliament's strike rate was gratifyingly high.) Maggot Brain is obviously dominated by its title track, 11 minutes of lead guitarist Eddie Hazel bending his instrument to his will, framed by phased whispers from Clinton (and features another classic album-starter: “Mother Earth is pregnant for the third time, for y'all have knocked her up”). But this would be a great album even without “Maggot Brain”: the groove songs that fill the middle are the toughest and best written of the group's early years: the quasi-protest “You and Your Folks, Me and My Folks,” the gnashing metal meltdown “Super Stupid,” the lithe neo-doo-wop “Can You Get to That,” the swirling funk of “Hit It and Quit It.” Live: Meadowbrook, Rochester, Michigan, 12th September 1971, officially released 25 years after it was taped, captures the same unleashed fury the wilder studio material demonstrated, particularly on a searing “Alice in My Fantasies.”
Focus vs. sprawl was always Funkadelic's principal dichotomy (not funk vs. rock, since Clinton refused to choose sides), and sprawl wins out on the America Eats Its Young (1972), originally two vinyl LPs — about one too many. Cherry-pick “A Joyful Process,” on which keyboardist/arranger Bernie Worrell ladles overheated, absolutely apt blaxploitation strings, and “Loose Booty,” maybe the single funkiest song Clinton ever cut in any guise. (The most James Brown-like too, thanks to an unrelenting drone-and-chop rhythm guitar lick heavily reminiscent of axe man Hearlon “Cheese” Martin, who'd played on early-'70s J.B. hits like “Escape-ism” and “Hot Pants.”)
Cosmic Slop (1973) condenses the freaked-out élan of Funkadelic's early work into more immediately accessible form — think of it as a pop version of Maggot Brain, except only George Clinton could make a monologue about a Vietnam vet coming home to a degraded America (“March to the Witch's Castle”) signify as “pop.” Much the same goes for the bizarre lonely-hearts rave-up “You Can't Miss What You Can't Measure” and the title cut, about a single mother forced into prostitution. It wasn't the last time Clinton would tackle social ills in his lyrics, but starting with Standing on the Verge of Getting It On (1974), he'd aim more clearly at the dance floor, even with the rock-leaning Funkadelic, and the bottomed-out feel of the early albums began to give way to a more polished edge.
Also in 1974, Clinton was given back the Parliament name (previously tied up in paperwork), and issued Up for the Down Stroke, the album that marked the beginning of P-Funk's popular ascendance. While the idea was always that Parliament was the horn-focused soul band and Funkadelic the guitar-based rock one, the reality as the '70s progressed was that Funkadelic sounded more like Parliament than like its early self. The final Funkadelic album where the split remained basically intact was Let's Take It to the Stage (1975), Funkadelic's most consistent album on or off Westbound even if it doesn't reach the heights of Maggot Brain or Uncle Jam Wants You. The title cut challenges to a play-off everyone else in the funk pantheon at the time, like “Snoofus” (Rufus) and “Godmother” (James Brown). And the snarling guitar of Michael Hampton and the rumpus-room chants of the too brief, self-explanatory “Get Off Your Ass and Jam” would serve as a threat by themselves.
As usual with contract-fulfillment albums, Tales of Kidd Funkadelic isn't a classic, but it does feature some gems, particularly “Take Your Dead Ass Home!” — which is not about a mortuary. If all of this sounds daunting, well, it is — but if you want to see the sights, Finest is a well-chosen assembly. Once you get inside Clinton's universe, it's hard not to want to hear the rest. Someone has to make sense of it all; it's Clinton's unique achievement that he's inspired so many listeners to give it a shot.