“Funk ‘em just to see the look on their face.” – George Clinton.
George Clinton, the merrymaking maestro from outer space, has had a befittingly berserk life since he descended from “Another Planet” on his benevolent quest to conquer Earthly banality as the pioneering force behind the P-Funk party empire. He emerged from the “Mothership” with the gift of funk, and a heavy, wildly conceptual brand at that, and he hasn’t looked back since.
Now, on his 80th birthday, he still parades around sporting rainbow-coloured wigs and remains as sartorially flamboyant as ever, if you can pin him down. But naturally, he first rolled out from the mother cave into this world with a bit more of the everyday about his persona. His first foray into the world of music was as part of a doo-wop group when he was a teenager called The Parliaments. The band would perform while straightening hair in a Plainfield barbershop.
With that sort of service on the go, musicians began to flock to this loquacious lock-shop where Clinton held centre stage more so than scissors. Thus, in one fell swoop, he already had the makings of a Clinton-led coterie of musicians that would later become P-Funk. But the world wasn’t ready for that just yet, and neither was Clinton.
For a time, Clinton would become a staff songwriter at Motown in the 1960s, but his style was not really the hitmaking variety — it never has been, for that matter. With the best will in the world, you can’t ask a man like Clinton to write something for The Supreme’s and have it come out coherently; it simply wouldn’t work. His mind wasn’t focussed on tales of star-crossed lovers and odes to dearest darlings, it was orbiting the outskirts of Afro-futurism and riding high on rattling basslines.
This singing from a different hymn sheet ethos would be a curse for a while, seeing as though funk was not yet a thing. Thus, throughout the 1960s, Parliament enjoyed limited success on various independent Detroit labels. In retrospect, it would seem that simply their time had not yet arrived, but in the undercurrent to that reality is the notion that they were building up a crop of the central c’est la vie tenet of funk, one that they would later harvest like no other.
Throughout the latter part of the 1960s, funk was slowly being fished from the floating ether. Jimi Hendrix was peddling out wah-wah riffs and weaving in a profound love of sci-fi; Frank Zappa was bubbling up a brew of the utterly berserk; Sly and the Family Stone were making sure that the Civil Rights Movement didn’t have to be straightlaced to be meaningful, and James Brown was a riot on record. With all of these influences foregathering, Clinton and his coterie were ready to fuse them into something they had been quietly crafting for a while. A contractual dispute over the name The Parliaments would force them to give a name to it.
Funkadelic was formed, and in typical Clinton style, the seeming setback of the enforced name change actually created an artistic opportunity. With a new identity thrust upon the band by necessity, the celestial angle became the perfunctory one in the profoundly peculiar mind of their frontman.
This shift in mentality was fundamental for Clinton and his amassment of bandmates. Eventually, it would culminate in the masterpiece Maggot Brain, a record with undoubtedly one of the greatest covers in history and perhaps the best funk record ever made, for that matter. It is an album that begins with the opening lines: “Mother Earth is pregnant for the third time, for y’all have knocked her up. I have tasted the maggots in the mind of the universe; I was not offended, for I knew I had to rise above it all or drown in my own shit.”
Despite the absurdity of that opening stanza, there is an underlining satire to it all that the last sentiment delineates. With the world descending into dystopia, you had to seek exultation beyond the faeces-throwing carnage of racism, inequity, the Vietnam War, assassinations and every other element of the atrocity alumni that had circled around the brutalist concrete sprawl of the post-Woodstock prelapsarian death of the 1960s peaceful dream. For the next nine minutes, the opening title track delivers that exultation with the sort of guitar solo that could send a Sumo wrestler down a rabbit hole.
In short, the ethos of Clinton’s work was crystalised: he was going to provide a party, and it was going to be wildly different from last weekend. Parliament would later return to form a wider P-Funk narrative in a string a conceptual record that defined their 1970s funk dominance. Although the style would change from psychedelia to horns and then R&B, every outing centred around the mantra laid down in that opening ‘Maggot Brain’ salvo, and the awe-inspiring musicianship that followed.
All parties have to end, though, and P-Funk was no different. The dawn of the 1980s was a hangover that had been coming. Paperwork and galactic revelry don’t mix; thus, when stardom waned, the P-Funk empire disbanded amid the fiddly business of legalities. Following this fallout, in 1983, Clinton donned his first multicoloured wig. His wife tells GQ: “He said until he had a hit record, he had to have a hit hairdo, so people don’t forget about me.” She is still holding him true to that promise all these years later.
But in truth, he has never really gone away or faded from public consciousness. He has simply taken a backseat on his journey through time and space, allowing the hip hop, R&B and new wave funk that he helped to spawn to take the wheel. And when he does make his rare live appearances, he still blasts “cobwebs out of the minds” of anyone in solar radius.