By Sam Bleazard
Street urchin, barber shop proprietor and hair-stylist, doo-wopper, song-writer, arranger, anarchist, entrepreneur, record label owner, surrealist comedian and leader of the ParliamentFunkadelicmentthang empire…phew-ee! When people tell you they wear many hats, don’t believe them, at least not until you’ve read this story.
Were you ever ‘partyin’ on the mothership’ with George Clinton and his P-Funk empire? If you were, you’d remember, but actually there’s also a strong possibility that it’s a total blur. Luckily before it was lost in the ether forever or swallowed by the mists of time, the whole crazy period has been captured in this book. If you want to know more about recorded music’s golden age, or just have the chance to breathe Clinton’s rarefied air by reading his first-hand account of the entire silly, cerebral and funky journey…then this is the book for you.
“Swing down sweet chariot stop, and, let me ride…”
George Clinton was born in North Carolina in 1941 (allegedly in an outhouse), his father worked at the U.S. Mint and then later on shipyards (the former perhaps providing inspiration for hits such as ‘Funky Dollar Bill’) while his mother worked as a cleaner. It was his mother’s influence which provided him with a love of music, playing B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Louis Jordan and Wynonie Harris records as he was growing up. The family lived in Richmond Virginia until George was 9 before moving to north – ‘going in style’ to New Jersey, with his formative years spent in the town of Plainfield.
He describes New Jersey in the 1950s as “a breeding ground for the next generation of American music – or, more specifically, African-American music, though it wasn’t called that then.”
Clinton is a fantastic story-teller, so you hear of him bumping into all manner of soul and RnB royalty, whether it’s living next door to Dionne Warwick’s father, or playing with Whitney Houston’s mother Cissy in the local neighbourhood. Formative experiences also include going to Harlem’s famous Apollo theatre to see the Shirelles and the Drifters, he even styles Patti Labelle’s hair at one point.
Having been inspired by the early vocal groups – which spawned the likes of Frankie Lymon, Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye – he auditions unsuccessfully, but then eventually goes on to write music for Motown. Unsurprisingly he is ear-marked early on as far too unconventional for their stable but learns a lot about building musical empires in the process. Along the way he absorbs the music of English rock groups like the Beatles and Eric Clapton’s Cream, ‘borrows’ James Brown’s rhythm and horn section, gets high with Sly Stone on a farm (for a year!), scores drugs with one of the Temptations, records albums and hangs out with Prince – before finally being revered by the entire rap community as a rock and roll hall of famer. He even finds time to record the early Red Hot Chilli Peppers albums and goes on to work with UK indie group Primal Scream and many others.
It’s the life story of someone, who without any obvious musical talent of their own, spans the rock n roll era (another early inspiration is fire and brimstone hell-raiser Jerry Lee Lewis), the doo-wop era and the counter-culture decade of the 1960s – he tunes in, turns on and drops out with the best of them. It’s also the story of the hedonistic 1970s and someone who somehow manages to survive extensive drug use, struggling on through the commoditised 1980s to re-emerge as a totemic figure in the 90s and beyond.
“Free Yo’ Mind…”
Following a period working in New York’s famous Brill Building as a songwriter in the 60s, Clinton’s work ethic is tested as he tries to get a record deal for his vocal group the Parliaments. We hear about several years of trying and failing, while holding down the running of a barber shop, a focal point for many of his seminal experiences and most inspired lyrics in future years. He is honest about his infidelities as a musician constantly on the road, but also his failings, without ever wallowing in pity or developing a victim mentality when things go wrong. The book covers a period of relative naivety in terms of song publishing rights and ownership also, and Clinton’s musical journey sees him courting a number of labels, initially to his favour. However as big corporations move in to swallow up the entire industry his royalties (and those of all his many associates) become fragmented and land-locked – not helped by long periods of drug fuelled dazes – ultimately complicating his business dealings right up until the present day. The memoir also gives a very frank, and non-judgemental view of drug use, as we find out from the communities Clinton frequented throughout his peak years, that drugs were always readily available, and all age groups seemed to be taking them. From heroin in the 1950s, through acid and LSD in the hippy period of the late 60s, to cocaine in the 70s and it’s highly addictive form of crack and freebase in the 1980s and beyond.
For the most part, apart from a number of uncomfortable hallucinatory experiences with his early group the Parliaments, this fuels much of the creativity and mind-bending adventures in the studio – particularly acid in the early 70s, where Eddie Hazel records the Hendrix-influenced 10 minute guitar opus ‘Maggot Brain’. We also hear about drug busts, contracts being signed away into the ether and chaotic circuses consisting of 4-5 bands (at their peak) out on the road on ground-breaking tours across the U.S. – such as the P-Funk Earth tour.
The peak years of the P-Funk movement are undoubtedly the 1970s, where Clinton finally absorbs the soulful harmonies and roots music of his youth, subversively flipping every convention on its head via acid-influenced concept albums and tours. He deliberately creates a sound for the underground that is ‘too black for the white folks, and too white for the black folks’ and just waits for the mainstream to catch up – following the blueprints of The Beatles and Sly and the Family Stone a few years earlier. Having spent several years being prolific in terms of recorded output (and endless touring) with black-rock group Funkadelic, vocal-funk outfit Parliament, Bootsy’s Rubber Band, the Brides of Funkenstein, Parlet, Fred Wesley’s Horny Horns, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Prince, Sly Stone and many others, it’s easy to forget the work ethic and intelligence that took him to the dual peaks of million selling albums and sell out shows. He was such a shape shifter during those years (deliberately so, for creative and business reasons) that it’s taken 20-30 years for the dust to settle on ‘the bomb’ to allow writers to pin down just how sizable his legacy is. That there is one is unquestionable, and it’s not quite as simple as his having a monumental influence on hip-hop as a founding father, it’s possibly more significant than that.
The man who coined the phrase “Free Yo’ Mind and Your Ass Will Follow”, is sometimes overlooked as one of the last genuinely free thinkers, an architect of free speech in the United States of America during a period where such thoughts carried a significant enough threat to have the Black Power movement monitored, and James Brown wooed to endorse the right wing views of President Nixon. The Empire wanted to strike back – having had enough of students putting flowers in gun barrels, a deeply conservative power base clearly felt under threat. In his narrative he makes it clear that he was always wary and suspicious of events occurring around him, but equally was unafraid to laugh at ‘The Man’.
In retrospect George Clinton is now seen as the leader of a cultural movement and an archetype of funk music, but he may leave an even greater imprint as someone who allowed African Americans (and indeed black people in the Western diaspora) to think more freely and express themselves differently, loosening their imaginations in unconventional ways. He did this with humour and with a playful sense of child-like mischief via his own inventive and fertile mind. What also emerges is his role as a mentor, stirring and tapping into the inspirations of others to create momentum and collective energy from individuals who could be more than the sum of their parts under his tutelage. He took the street-wise slang in Plainfield’s barber shop in New Jersey to outer space and back via mind bending visuals and theories of black people reclaiming funk from the pyramids.
While he may have freed the black imagination to some degree it didn’t make him immune from pressures within his own community. One of the most fascinating anecdotes in the book is his description of Nation of Islam supporters in the front row of his concerts, urging him to preach overt political messages during his biggest concerts. His response to both the establishment and the black power movement is to continually poke fun at the seriousness of authority, avoiding being pigeon-holed as a mouth-piece or the voice of a generation.
With the passing of time we now know that high profile members of the black-community in both entertainment and politics were being monitored by the U.S. Government. It’s also likely that it didn’t take them long to tune into what his (then) underground movement were broadcasting across the turntables and the airwaves in several US cities. On the Parliament track ‘Chocolate City’ you hear Clinton jive-talking and rapping to a sparse piano and bass, confident like James Brown was on ‘Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud’ (but in a different way) that his time had come. “We didn’t get our 40 acres and a mule, but we did get you C.C….and when they come to march on ya, tell em to make sure they got their James Brown pass…God bless Chocolate City, and its vanilla suburbs, can y’all get to that?”.
Clinton, as we find out in the book, was also a great lover of the conspiracy theory, but somehow always manages to absorb any philosophy he picks up along the way by re-transmitting those influences via his funny bone. So across various inspired rock-funk-vocal hybrids in the 70s he is able to put his philosophy across – “America Eats Its Young”, “Standing on the Verge of Getting It On”, “You Can’t Miss What You Can’t Measure”, “Cosmic Slop”- and a whole conceptual universe is spawned. Modern contemporary pop culture and also the western capitalist stupor of endless materialism are also continually being spoofed. On a number of Funkadelic and Parliament recordings Clinton the ring-master can often be heard in the background, via a number of cartoon aliases such as ‘Star Child’, spouting goofy, but always funny and well observed witticisms. “Would you trade your funk for what’s behind the 3rd door?”, “You can’t afford free speech”, and “Can You Imagine This?”
In the fields of language and art others were attracted towards him too, to further expand the universe that he was creating. The majority of Funkadelic’s album covers from the 1970s were created by Pedro Bell, who deserves considerable credit in the conceptual development of this new funky consciousness. As a teenager he got his break sending Clinton bizarre letters in the post with various bizarre doodles and puns on. He is now seen as a major contributor to the P-Funk mythology. According to his own biography on George Clinton’s official website, “Bell’s “stream-of-contagion text rewrote the whole game. He single-handedly defined the P-Funk collective as sci-fi superheroes fighting the ills of the heart, society, and the cosmos…As much as Clinton’s lyrics, Pedro Bell’s crazoid words created the mythos of the band and bonded the audience together.”
The sense of surrealism and fantasy was often developed further into a living breathing cartoon at the height of P-Funk in the late 1970s. Clinton’s Dr Funkenstein would emerge from a full size steel spaceship at the conclusion of their live shows, all pimped out in white fur, having been beckoned down from the roof by the raspy gospel vocals of Glenn Goins, a 30 strong band and a screaming crowd.
Other characters from that universe such as Sir Nose D’Void of Funk – the biggest threat to ‘the funk’ – would also appear on stage with a long Pinocchio style nose (it grew on account of him faking the funk), and would then in turn be shot with the Bop Gun by Dr Funkenstein, causing him to lose his inhibitions and dance. Later tours would see the appearance of Dr Wiggles the worm (again Clinton in bizarre and outlandish outfits) with his ladies Giggle and Squirm. It was part Broadway show, science fiction epic and more importantly, ritualistic sermon to a very left-field sense of belonging and community. This was illustrated by the many hypnotic sing-a-longs on tracks like Funkentelechy or P-Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up) where rhythm and vocal tracks could build for 15-20 minutes with shows routinely clocking four hours plus in length.
My first experience of their live show was during a revival tour in the early 90s at the Clapham Grand where, minus the spaceship, they did just that, exhausting a much younger crowd with a juggernaut of syncopated jams, mesmerising harmonies and hard rocking funk. We were also treated to guitarist Garry Shider in a baby’s nappy (and nothing else), George Clinton wearing a white-sheet poncho while blowing bubbles, and a man in a full wedding dress and veil.
I met Clinton briefly last year at London’s Metropolis studios in West London and I asked him during an audience Q&A how he developed his fantastic sense of humour. The answer was a surprisingly straight forward one – that he’d learned so much of what informed him, and created a lot of the characters in his universe, from those who passed through the barber shop in his early years.
As Pedro Bell’s Wikipedia entry describes, one of the greatest legacies of all is that the art, the music and the concepts of the P-Funk universe “produced alternative ways in which black people in the U.S. saw themselves, as well as spoke about themselves.”
In the world of contemporary RnB, it’s highly unlikely that without jazz musicians such as Sun Ra or George Clinton, that the whole concept of Afro-futurism embraced and added to by the likes of Janelle Monae, Erykah Badu, Outkast and others, would even exist or be talked about now.
It’s perhaps this sense of community, of belonging to something and of feeling inspired by unique circumstances, which so many have tried and failed to re-capture in popular culture over the years. Clinton’s story is unique and funny, other-worldly and surprising. It proves his axim once and for all that for him “the funk is its own reward”.