The Over/Under: Funkadelic

Funkadelic1

Earthlings, we’re long past due for a Funkadelic revival. So to mark the beginning of what’s shaping up to be a long, hot summer, MAGNET wants to give the P-Funk mob two Over/Under passes—beginning here with Funkadelic, with the better-known Parliament soon to follow. Despite a late-period surge in popularity, in the mass mind Funkadelic has always, and unfairly, been treated as the backup barrel on George Clinton’s funk-freak shotgun. When disco blew up, the flashier, club- and dance-friendly Parliament received hotter hype and wider airplay. But from its late-’60s inception to its early-’80s demise, Funkadelic provided a fertile ground for experimentally adept black musicians to push the boundaries of both psychedelic rock and R&B/soul. As the P-Funk collective’s guiding spirit, Clinton rotated and interchanged the rosters of both bands, but in long-term keyboardist Bernie Worrell and guitarist Eddie Hazel, Clinton found not only musicians of astonishing talent but creative forces that helped shape and augment his own vision, especially in the long-form rock workouts to which Funkadelic was best suited. You could argue that the separate band names represent a meaningless division, since most of the same crew played on Funkadelic and Parliament albums simultaneously, and that “Parliament” and “Funkadelic” more accurately describe divergent musical styles than independent entities. But while the Parliament brand continues to reap the rewards of the 1990s’ funk resurgence, Funkadelic remains unfairly overlooked by the masses. So it runs the risk of being a little “inside,” as the jazzbos say, but consider this Over/Under entry our humble attempt to light a spark and get the booty movin’. Like Clinton said, way back in 1970, free your mind, and your ass will follow.

:: The Five Most Overrated Funkadelic Songs
1. “One Nation Under A Groove” (1978)

… Only, only, only, he said, fending off a rain of blows, because it’s the one Funkadelic song that even marginally hip listeners know, and it doesn’t represent what made the band so unique in the P-Funk universe. By 1978, Clinton was putting the lion’s share of his time and creative energy into Parliament’s sprawling concept. One Nation Under A Groove, released in the same year as Parliament’s powerhouse Funkentelechy Vs. The Placebo Syndrome, sounds largely like a more organic version of that latter album, with the liquid bass and super-processed vocals exchanged for handclaps and live percussion. The permanent place of “One Nation” in the P-Funk canon is indisputable, but differently arranged, the song could have fit easily on any Parliament album from the late ’70s, and Funkadelic was always at its best when it went in directions that band—or, indeed, most any band—wouldn’t or couldn’t have gone. Great jam, no question. Funkadelic’s finest  moment? Oh, hell, naw.

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2. “Sexy Ways” (1974)
Following on that observation, the much more mainstream “Sexy Ways” always sounded a little derivative to me, a throwback to Parliament’s early history as a straight doo-wop and soul band, only sexed up with breathy lyrics and “I, oh, I” background vocals, which were themselves later copped by (shudder) Simply Red in 1987 for “The Right Thing.” (Good luck getting it out of your head; you’re welcome.) One of the two shortest cuts on Standing On The Verge Of Getting It On, “Sexy Ways” is a clear bid for radio play. But unlike “Red Hot Mama” from the same record, “Sexy Ways” never quite goes anywhere once it gets moving.

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3. “Cosmic Slop” (1973)
Cosmic Slop is one of Funkadelic’s strangest albums, an odd mish-mosh of druggy workouts and twisted tales of urban and national insanity. The album’s title track is widely admired for its unflinching picture of domestic heartbreak, recounting a son’s memory of a mother who hooked to provide for her family. It’s a wrenching track, but over the years “Cosmic Slop” has been made to bear more weight than it’s designed to, frequently praised as if it were the equal of Stevie Wonder’s full-length drama “Living For The City,” released interestingly enough in the same year. In truth, though it’s a harrowing cut, “Cosmic Slop” isn’t a full story but a character sketch, and a loose one at that. Most of its lyrics are repeated in the first and second verses, so although the song breaks five minutes, much of its second half consists of vocal vamping and styling over a two-chord progression. For a taste of the deeper, more intricate weirdness to be found on Cosmic Slop, check fall-of-Saigon fantasia “March To The Witch’s Castle,” complete with draggy spoken-word incantation.

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4. “Get Off Your Ass And Jam” (1975)
Ground zero for the infamous club chant, “Get Off Your Ass And Jam” should feel manageable, at a mere two minutes. And actually it does, in its original form. But here’s another case of a song—a riff, really—that’s made to carry a lot more water than it can hold.  In this version, found on Let’s Take It To The Stage, Hazel’s guitar blisters and Bootsy Collins’ bass spanks that ass, and then the band gets the hell out, having made the point. In performance, usually inserted into another, longer Parliament cut, “Get Off Your Ass” goes on forever. And everybody, I mean everybody, in the audience yells along with it. Look, I know it’s all about getting the crowd involved. But while this particular warhorse gets a 10-minute whuppin’, “Get Off Your Ass” is usually my cue for a bathroom break. More interesting things are going to happen later in the set.

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5. “Wars Of Armageddon” (1971)
Oh, how “Wars Of Armageddon” should work. It’s the closing cut on the majestic Maggot Brain, and along with the opening title track, it bookends one of Funkadelic’s finest records. And it’s a complete aural freakout—sex raps, screams of terror, calls for freedom and power, cuckoo clocks, heartbeats, farts and atomic bombs are piled up and up in the mix, weaving in and out of the groove. The first time I heard “Wars Of Armageddon,” I’d never been so glad not to be on acid, which is, I have to think, exactly the opposite of what Clinton and Co. were going for. “Wars Of Armageddon” is the one moment of overlong self-indulgence on Maggot Brain—a series of short songs separate the first and last tracks—and upon repeated listening, it’s the only one that doesn’t, well, “grow,” if that makes sense. The rest of the record sort of crawls out of the speakers and creeps around the room, while “Wars” stays hidden inside, forcing you to tease out the flowers from its dense tangle of vines. Hmm. Now that I think about it, maybe I was on acid.

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:: The Five Most Underrated Funkadelic Songs
1. “Biological Speculation” (1972)

There are a few shaky moments on it, but as a whole I find America Eats Its Young to be Funkadelic’s most underrated record, displaying the band’s wide array of approaches in manageable chunks. Case in point: the easy, rubbery “Biological Speculation.” Where Parliament stretched its funk philosophy over entire albums, Funkadelic tended to wrap its social consciousness in tighter cloth. And “Biological Speculation,” short as it is, is all about the Big Questions: God, ecology, divine and human and natural law, and the ultimately futile but quintessentially human desire to cheat death. Plus, it grooves. That’s a win.

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2. “No Head, No Backstage Pass” (1975)
Unlike Parliament, Funkadelic usually hung out on the grimier end of the party, and the sinister, driving “No Head, No Backstage Pass” lays out one particularly seedy aspect of touring-band antics in direct language. But the musical arrangement, heavy on minor chords (rare in P-Funk’s brand of funk and R&B) and making excellent use of female vocals on the chorus, renders it impossible to hear as a high-five exchange between horny brahs. Like little else in the Clinton canon, “No Head” almost sounds like an indictment of the mannish-boy postures of the pop-music business. That’s the kind of complicated tension that made the smartest and best of Funkadelic’s music unclassifiable, and though it’s an anomaly on Let’s Take It To The Stage, it’s one of that album’s most arresting cuts.

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3. “Jimmy’s Got A Little Bit Of Bitch In Him” (1974)
Speaking of complicated, here’s a sympathetic portrayal of a sexually ambivalent man, set to a catchy sing-along tune. Recorded by an all-male funk/soul band. In 1974. Before Prince. While Gerald Ford was still president. “Reality can be, ah, stiff sometimes/But then again, it can be flexible … so why frown?/Yeah … even the sun go down.” Find me another song like “Jimmy” pre-1975, I’ll send you two dollars.

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4. “No Compute” (1973)
To describe this song in any detail would be to give away its hysterical wonders, if you’re hearing it for the first time. Suffice it to say, “No Compute” is one of the funniest songs ever written about trolling for sex. And like “Jimmy” above, it takes a laissez-faire attitude toward the amorphous and flexible nature of desire. By the time the band gets to the last verse, even the punch line comes off good-natured and nonjudgmental.

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5. “Red Hot Mama”/”Vital Juices” single (1974)
In the version that leads off Standing On The Verge Of Getting It On, “Red Hot Mama” announces a tighter, more soulful Funkadelic than captured on previous albums, fronted by an extended intro that fits nicely into Parliament’s tweaked-rap approach. What we have here, however, is the 1974 single version, both a- and b-sides, with “Vital Juices” serving as an instrumental extension of the album cut. The a-side is funky as hell, a short, sharp workout, and the flip, for my money, is Hazel and Bernie Worrell’s greatest dueling match, a full-on keyboard and guitar slugfest. (For completists, guitarist Ron Bykowski is also embedded in the mix.) It’s not the best work recorded by either member individually; “You Hit The Nail On The Head,” from America Eats Its Young, is likely Worrell’s shining moment, while Hazel’s was, is and ever shall be the towering “Maggot Brain.” But as a snapshot of Funkadelic’s handoff approach, “Vital Juices” knocks it out of the park. Stay tuned, kids. Next time we board the Mothership.

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—Eric Waggoner

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3 Comments

  1. pickle
    Posted June 22, 2010 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    why is Maggotbrain missing from the underrated list? It’s quite possibly the best acid trip song ever recorded.

  2. C
    Posted June 22, 2010 at 11:22 pm | Permalink

    Very nice. A lot of songs I had forgotten.

  3. Posted June 23, 2010 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

    “Maggot Brain” is probably not included because it’s (rightfully) acknowledged as a masterpiece. It’s not underrated at all. It’s appropriately rated as being awesome.

    Gotta disagree re: “Sexy Ways.” How can you not love that guitar part? I’m surprised Waggoner didn’t point out its obvious precedent, the Temptations’ fantastic “Can’t Get Next to You,” which featured the “I, oh, I” background vocals five years before “Sexy Ways.” But “Sexy Ways” is still great.

    And putting “Cosmic Slop” on there is obvious trolling. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that song. At all.