“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 of it at that, and he hasn’t looked back since.
Along with his perpetually partying band of brethren the rainbow-coloured leader has led a musical charge so free of f—ks that it is sometimes easy to forget that they were Promethean musicians at the top of their game and not just an unruly clan alchemically harnessing the sound of good times distilled in sonic form. Along the P-Funks journey songs have arrived with the regularity of Netflix cliff hangers, but unlike the latter, just about all of them have been worth a toe-tapping listen.
Those songs began when George Clinton was a teenager. His first foray into the world of music was as part of a doo-wop group 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 bandmembers that would later become P-Funk.
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—he is, after all, from another planet as he has often asserted. His mind isn’t really focussed on tales of star-crossed lovers and odes to dearest darlings, it is orbiting the outskirts of Afro-futurism and riding high on rattling basslines.
With the civil rights movement entering his thinking, the sci-fi-like brew of Frank Zappa bubbling up and Jimi Hendrix’s manic wah-wah wailing through basement bars and boudoirs, Clinton and his crew were thinking of going their own way. 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.
Since then, the P-Funk empire has never looked back. Below we have curated six tracks that best ease you onto their swirling dancefloor. One thing is guaranteed, from beginning to end, everything you encounter from the band will funk you up just to see the look on your face.
The six definitive songs of P-Funk:
‘Funky Dollar Bill’ (Funkadelic)
Part of the beauty of P-Funk’s back catalogue is that you can see that welter of their influences slowly work itself out and evolve. ‘Funk Dollar Bill’ starts out with a riff and raspy vocal that Hendrix would have happily housed on a record, then comes the jazz-inspired Zappa-like flourishes of discordant notes as though Captain Beefheart suddenly swooped by for a drink with an amplified Kalimba.
Somehow, however, the track still remains just about cohesive enough to fill a floor and if you get some alone time with it then you realise that it is actually extolling the whys and wherefores of capitalism. Manic but music, with a swaying head that remains in the right place, it’s not the easiest intro, but good things come to those who wait.
‘Maggot Brain’ (Funkadelic)
Eventually, the weird and wonderful beginnings of P-Funk would finally be honed and culminate in the masterpiece Maggot Brain, an album 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 and its pipedream of peace. For the next nine minutes, the opening title track delivers that exultation with the sort of guitar solo that could even squeeze a Sumo wrestler down the tightest of rabbit holes.
‘Can You Get to That’ (Funkadelic)
‘Can You Get to That’ is perhaps the most accessible moment in the whole P-Funk back catalogue and with good reason too. Not only is it more concise and coherent than some of their more free-form floor-fillers, but instrumentally everything seems to just fall into place as though the band simply found a song in the floating ether that was always destined to be transposed for the good of the continued human comedy.
It’s the sort of song that you think you’ve heard before from the first second its hits you and soon afterwards it becomes a track you’ll never forget. Eddie Hazel’s guitar work is as flawless as ever and the simple harmonics whisked up by the piano sets up the sonic jigsaw nicely as every element tessellates like a tango. 1971 was the greatest year in the history of music and ‘Can You Get to That’ was one of the finest hits it offered up.
‘Give Up The Funk (Tear The Roof Off The Sucker)’ (Parliament)
If there was another single millimetre on the platform heel of ‘Give Up The Funk’ then it would surely enter the realm of a mid-70s funk parody, but thankfully it remains just the right side of novelty. Subtlety is often overrated in art, and like musical carpenters on their Mothership Connection record, Parliament assert that the nail sits most flush when it has been smashed right on the head.
Everything that we have come to know as funk – from the fattest of basslines to a voice so low it almost operates on a frequency inaudible to humans thanks to the iconic mic commander Ray Davis – is in the mix of this mega song. It is never going to reinvent the wheel, but boy oh boy does it remain a New Year’s Eve party classic.
‘Do That Stuff’ (Parliament)
The weirdest funk visionaries in town know how to throw a party, both literally and sonically. ‘Do That Stuff’ rolls along on a bassline that could spread jam on your toast. Then it flies in with the usual ensemble chanted vocal that always gives their songs a sense of play and freedom as the atmosphere of a smoke-filled studio breathes out from under the stylus.
The summer of 1976 was a fun time indeed, and The Clones of Dr Frankenstein would’ve been on heavy repeat. Why it only charted at #22 is surely just down to the fact that one copy sufficed for an endless garden party of hundreds of happy comers and goers.
In 2018, Parliament made a surprise return with the album Medicaid Fraud Dogg. At over 100-minutes long, the album simply had to have a few slow-dance moments. However, as usual with Clinton’s repertoire, no matter how exultant the music may seem, it never loses sight of the society that it floats above. In this case, he takes aim at “one nation under sedation,” explaining in interviews at the time: “It’s about the real Medicaid fraud, which is the big pharmaceutical companies.”
With stunning sultry vocals and softly chiming guitar solos running throughout, this is Parliament in a meta diazepam haze. This is cashmere funk and it feels just at home on a Saturday morning as it does in a cocktail bar. Sweet and smooth, the track proves that even after half a century the P-Funk force is still evolving and forever fresh.