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Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing email@example.com.
Geek obsession: P-Funk
Why it’s daunting: One man. Two bands, not counting various spin-offs and related acts. A golden age that saw the release of more than 20 albums, some of them instantly inviting, others forbiddingly edgy. It’s hard to know where to start digging into George Clinton’s P-Funk empire. In the ’70s, Clinton ruled the funk universe as the mastermind of Parliament and Funkadelic. Though their ever-shifting memberships overlapped, the two bands had distinctive sounds, at least in the early days.
The split was born of necessity. After losing the rights to the band name The Parliaments, an outfit he’d headed since the days of doo-wop, Clinton used the same singers and players to record as Funkadelic beginning in 1970. The name suited the sound: Expanding psychedelic rock and soul pioneered by Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix, and The Temptations under the guidance of producer Norman Whitfield, Funkadelic explored the darkly funky corners of Nixon’s America. When Clinton revived the Parliament name in earnest for 1974’s Up For The Down Stroke, he used the same elements to create a utopian contrast to Funkadelic’s apocalyptic leanings.
Eventually, a mythology involving transcendental UFOs and characters like Dr. Funkenstein and Sir Nose D’Voidoffunk took shape, wild concepts informed by Sun Ra’s origin story, Nation Of Islam teachings, and above all, Clinton’s warped sense of humor. Parliament and Funkadelic albums started to feature outrageous cover art topped only by the band’s even-more-outrageous stage costumes.
But while Clinton decidedly believed that humor belonged in music, Parliament-Funkadelic’s output was no joke. Clinton constantly sought to take funk in directions no one had considered before, and he had expert help in collaborators like guitarist Eddie Hazel, bassist Bootsy Collins, keyboardist Bernie Worrell, and many others. When Parliament-Funkadelic was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1997, it was as a 16-member act.
Possible gateway: Parliament’s 1976 album Mothership Connection
Why? This is Parliament-Funkadelic at its most irresistible. Using a science-fiction framework inspired by Star Trek and 2001: A Space Odyssey, Mothership Connection places Parliament in the middle of a struggle between good (everything funky) and evil (everything non-funky). Evil doesn’t have a chance. For Clinton, the unfunky—everything repressive, regressive, and selfish in society—will always lose out to funkiness, which isn’t just a type of groove, but a lifestyle that embraced joy and freedom. (“Interplanetary funksmanship” even has the power to heal listeners through the radio.) The album features three of Parliament’s best-known songs—“P-Funk (Wants To Get Funked Up),” “Give Up The Funk (Tear The Roof Off The Sucker),” and “Mothership Connection (Star Child)”—and every track finds Clinton, Collins, Worrell, and a lineup that also includes famed James Brown sidemen Maceo Parker and Fred Wesley operating at maximum power. (Worrell’s work on “Supergroovalisticprosifunkstication” alone serves as a master class in out-there keyboard notions.) It offers a vision of a better world—a better universe, really—through the inescapable notion of funk.
Next steps: Where much of Parliament’s albums capture the sound of a party in full swing, Funkadelic releases, especially in the first half of the ’70s, have an uneasy morning-after vibe. The title of 1970’s Free Your Mind… And Your Ass Will Follow has become a catchphrase, but the song that birthed it drenches it in 10 minutes of feedback, eerie vocals, and screams. And the title of 1972’s America Eats Its Young provided a pretty good tip-off that a bad trip awaited listeners. Released in 1971, Maggot Brain is the best and scariest of the band’s dark psychedelic period, a nightmare of an album that makes Sly Stone’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On, released the same year, sound sunny by comparison.
As the ’70s wore on, Parliament and Funkadelic started to lose their separate identities. Parliament stuck largely to celebratory themes, while Funkadelic kept a political edge. (Check out Clinton striking a Huey Newton pose on the cover of Uncle Jam Wants You.) Sonically, the bands started to merge, but even as rhythm took precedence over acid-inspired freakouts, Funkadelic kept its harder-edged guitar sound. On One Nation Under A Groove, the two notions collide happily.
If Mothership Connection has a rival as the most instantly accessible Parliament album, it’s 1977’s Funkentelechy Vs. The Placebo Syndrome, home to the hits “Flash Light” and “Bop Gun (Endangered Species),” plus some truly astounding instrumental interplay between Worrell’s keyboards and the rest of the band. Anyone looking for a one-stop survey of Parliament’s hits should seek out the out-of-print double disc Tear The Roof Off: 1974-1980, which offers a generous selection of highlights—and provides one-stop-shopping for anyone wanting to track down the sample sources for a lot of ’90s hip-hop hits.
Where not to start: Parliament and Funkadelic both disbanded in the early ’80s, undone by shifting lineups, clashing egos, label difficulties, and free-flowing drugs. Clinton’s solo career began well with the 1981 album Computer Games and its hit “Atomic Dog,” but the years since have mostly seen him revisiting old ideas and bandmates, both on solo albums and releases credited to P-Funk All-Stars. Nothing wrong with that, really, but it’s best to begin elsewhere.