George Clinton, the maverick freak who fused funk with acid rock, turns 70 this month. He was at the height of his one-nation-under-a-groove empire-building when Cliff White interviewed him for New Musical Express in the fall of 1978--Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages
Warner Brothers' New York Office on East 54th Street is only two blocks across and three up from the Taft Hotel on West 51st; close enough for most Britons to consider it just around the corner, yet far enough away that most Americans would probably cab the distance.
But George Clinton enjoys a walk. Which is how I came to be taking a 10-minute stroll through the Manhattan evening rush-hour crowds with a character in pink, stack-soled, calf-length boots covered in white stars, pink satinette pants, a pink quilted jacket, a multi-coloured, sparkling, Funkadelic-flag shirt and a bright red beret sporting various badges and medallions.
George Clinton is not a shy individual.
Neither is he dumb. In fact there's good reason to suspect that he may even be the sharpest dude currently operating within (and yet, simultaneously, outside) the all-embracing, claustrophobic, single-minded, terrifying business machine that is the modern-day American phenomenon laughingly referred to as the Music Industry.
George Clinton is a freak. He has conceived, given birth to, raised and now controls an ever-expanding and magnificent family of multi-talented clones ... No, not clones, that implies mindless copycatism, many similar humanoids out of one mold or seed, whereas he attracts and works with diverse personalities who nevertheless respond to the same stimuli, who fit in the same groove ... who are all rebels in the sense that they have rejected the accepted norm and yet as a unit, a crew aboard a Mothership commanded by Clinton, are using the system to their own advantage rather than be used, abused or rejected as is almost everyone from, say, the sublime to the ridiculous - from Marvin Gaye to Sid Vicious.
We have previously mentioned the Funkadelic Force in the pages of NME on several occasions but in case you're still not clear what's going down, here's the current state of play.
After 13 years as a regular singing/writing leader and ultimately producer of a not-especially extraordinary black vocal group, the Parliaments - a trip that led from New York/New Jersey doo-wop days via five abortive years with Motown to a series of increasingly strange recordings in Detroit - in 1969 George Clinton founded a brand new thang.
Untypically for a black American musician in his late twenties, especially one then operating out of the Motor City center of so-called soul music, Clinton had his head turned around by the 1966/68 drug/rock changes (hence the increasing strangeness of the Parliaments' last few singles) and he'd already started to think about a revolutionary musical concept a couple of years before the actual event. He was finally provoked into making the jump in order to survive when he temporarily lost the right to the name of his group.
Since about 1965 Clinton had been employing a small band behind the singers (five ostensibly anonymous musicians who were by then in fact an integral part of the Parliaments in everything but contractual detail), so in 1969 he deftly switched emphasis, making the band the featured part of the group and temporarily relegating the singers to the anonymous back-up role. The band he called Funkadelic and the whole crew then began recording under that name for a different record company. Naturally, only the five musicians were credited on the first album sleeve, and the two following releases bore no personnel credits at all.
Meanwhile, circa 1970, the original debacle was settled (temporarily again, as it turned out, but that's too complex a story to go into here) and so an album supposedly just featuring the singers was released on yet another record label, only now they were simply called Parliament.
It wasn't until 1974, when a proper new recording deal was arranged for the Parliament persona with Casablanca, that Clinton's masterplan really began to bear fruit, but, just to recap - coz I've probably lost you by now - by 1970 George Clinton had arrived at the situation where he was juggling five singers including himself (known as Parliament) and five musicians (Funkadelic). A small circus of ten black freaks operating under two different names on two different record labels.
A Parliafunkadelicment Thang.
Today that circus is probably about 55 persons wide and deep as you want it to be. I say probably 55 because although that was the figure quoted by Funkcat Vickers, GC's press liaison officer (Funkaganda Agent), by the time you read this nearly two weeks will have elapsed since that estimation. The way things are going, half a dozen more new recruits may be aboard the Mothership by now.
The contractual position seems to vary according to circumstance but generally speaking, as far as I can make out, individuals on board are signed to Clinton's own company Thang Incorporated, not to a record company. Clinton then negotiates deals with record companies under group names that do not stipulate any particular personnel (although presumably Bootsy's Rubber Band has always got to feature space-bassist Bootsy Collins, and keyboard players Bernie Worrell and Junie Morrison are also releasing albums under their own name).
This arrangement not only gives most of the Mothership personnel independence from record company politics, it allows immense freedom of movement within the circus, which is essential, as they all sing and play on one another's records. On top of which, it's not uncommon for a half-finished track that was originally intended for one act to be re-assigned and completed under another guise. For instance, Funkadelic's latest smash hit, "One Nation Under A Groove," was originally going to be a Parliament release and the Brides Of Funkenstein's "Disco To Go" was originally a Bootsy Collins track.
Since Funkadelic and Bootsy's Rubber Band are now placed with Warner Brothers, the Brides Of Funkenstein (and also the Horny Horns) with Atlantic, Parliament (and the Parlets) with Casablanca and Worrell's album will appear on Arista, you can imagine the chaos if all the interchanging individuals were contractually split among the different companies.
That's all very well, I hear you cry, but what's all this talk of method and structure and so forth got to do with the music? In this day and age, a lot. Especially in America. Especially when we're discussing this particular mob. George Clinton and clan are prime exponents of the new R&B - Rhythm & Business.
Within the general scheme of P-Funk, the Perfect Funk, are several stages of musical progression: apparently simple, though skilfully constructed, combinations of riffs and chants that are primarily designed to grab your attention, get you up off your butt and get you involved; a miscellany of bizarre variations on traditional black music forms, harmony group vocals, savage R & B, sanctified testifying and the like, that take the audience from familiar ground to alien territory before they've had time to worry about the journey; rock that drives and soars in the wake of Jimi Hendrix; and finally a wide-open expanse of barely explored possibilities in which anything can happen, and frequently does. Through it all runs a crazy line of lyrical inconsequence, poking and stroking, occasionally flirting with direct social comment but more often indirectly subverting normality with jive raps and comic-book concepts.
To get to the stage where Funkadelica could fly its true flag and yet stride through the "normals" to become one of the top three blacks acts in America took planning - method and structure - and a skin-tight sense of survival: Rhythm & Business. The message comes through; don't fake the funk but don't fight the system, you'll never win. Laugh at it, ignore it and step right around it. Create your own system.
Just short of the Taft, a block along Seventh Avenue, George invited me into Wolf's Deli, a favorite little snackerie from his years of sitting and planning. Over a large dish of fruit trifle and a celery soda he explained the Funkadelica philosophy.
"We make it satirical or funny, not point blank aggressive like maybe the punks. You know why? 'Cause we are the direct descendants of the 'You're f---ing up'; the end result of the 'You're f---ing up' society. This is us. But that's a dangerous one to play with because the fact still remains that you will get popular. And if you get popular you might believe it. And if you believe it then you'll live and you'll die being a pawn for real. So I have to play with it because when I come off stage I wanna tuck it away somewhere. It's too intense otherwise.
"Look at that cat Sid Vicious. That's serious programming right there. They directed him so once he got into it he could not stop himself from where he was going. It's happening throughout society but it's specially strong if you're in the theatre. Once you believe your part, once you can't step back from being what they want you to be, it's all over."
That makes sense. So far, so good. But is there anything behind what you're saying? I mean, I happen to think the whole Mothership trip is the most exciting musical force around right now, but then funky music turns me on and you're creating music that's about five years ahead of what anybody else is achieving. But by the same token I like a fair amount of modern American black music simply because it sounds good, even though I seldom take any notice of the lyrics, which are nearly always about get up and party or, worse, shallow philosophising.
A lot of PTF songs are funny or cutely hip but aside from an impression that comes across that you're all crazies who are bucking the system, you're not actually attacking anything specific.
"Well, that's the new way of looking at it - because the other way is a trap. The wrong way is to go out and riot and make yourself mad when you ain't really doing nothing but diverting your energy with a little blowing up. The new way of looking at it is 'Screw it, we won't pay it no attention one way or the other.' It's always alright 'cause we ain't gonna deal with 'it's all wrong'. We won't even look at that no more. Yes, there's still the ghettos but we're looking at it different now and we're feeling more positive about what's happening. That way we can do more about it.
"As for the 'Get up and party' stuff, that's just black America's way of expressing that we got a raise and that we're being more like what white success looks like. You know, violins, big productions, disco, the Teddy Pendergrasses, it all sounds like white pop music of the '50s. A lot of it is cool, but it's still just a rehash of what white America did. Give 'em time, it'll gradually change.
"James Brown, Jimi, Sly and ourselves took the whole other thing so far anyway that most of 'em ain't nowhere near catching up yet. I mean, Jimi - we'll be chasing him for years. And Sly and ourselves, I think we were doing about the same time. He got the breaks though, whereas we went too far too soon.
"It took me a while to realize that I wasn't getting played on no white stations because I was black and I didn't get played on black stations' cause to them it sounded like I was white. So then I had to go back and meet 'em halfway with the Parliament situation, the horns and things, and then hand-walk 'em up to where Funkadelic is at. Even from there we had to take Bootsy to get 'em real young to walk 'em to Parliament to walk 'em to Funkadelic. Now they're gonna pledge groovallegiance to the united funk of Funkadelica."
So Funkadelic is the ultimate P?
"Yeah, Funkadelic is a combination of everything. Funkadelic is anything that will subsequently be thrown in. Funkadelic is an attitude to whatever it takes. You can get away with so much when you haven't got to think about structures or constructions and can leave yourself to your instincts and know that it's cool and all the musicians know it that way. Then the possibilities are unlimited.
"Even now the music scares us sometimes, like 'Wow! Did you hear that?' So think what we might eventually achieve. At the same time we know it just ain't us; it's something coming through us. No deep thing. What I mean is we've learned how to relax and play and be inspired by one another, and by being crazy all along we don't have to go by no rules."
But even if it's a loose musical booty, presumably you run a disciplined ship when it comes to taking care of business?
"Oh yeah, oh yeah. You got to stay on the pocket now. And that's sometimes hard to explain to members of the group. Some of 'em might say, "Why don't we have the Cadillacs or Lamborghinis?" but you see that sort of trip will fake you out. You get all of that then you spend your first chance. 'Cause you rarely get but one good shot; you're lucky if you get two. By the time your third comes around you're gonna be so f---ed up by the record companies you're gonna be mad enough to wanna sue - and if you ain't saved no money you're in trouble. And if you was dumb enough to buy all them cars, you was dumb enough not to take care of business.
"Nobody encourages you to learn nothing about this business. Record companies would rather you stay dumb, not even think of it as a business, so they can either rip you off or get you out the way in five years to make way for the new groups.
"Where I figure that I might have done at least one thing that had a little intelligence in it was the fact that we tied all the groups together. One could support the other when necessary; it made us less vulnerable. Also I knew how the system likes to play one artist off against another, so we were able to get round that.
"Like when Bootsy came along it was obvious that they would eventually shoot for him as the star... that trip is laid down automatically, from family, friends, record company, everybody runs that one down every time. And sure enough, as he got more popular, people started telling me, "You're the one that made him and now he's using you," while at the same time they were telling him exactly the same thing about me.
"But before he'd even started doing his first album we spent a month on a boat in Miami, just fishing and tripping and talking about what was bound to happen and what we could do to plan our way around the system. So when it came time for them to pit him against me I said "I ain't gonna rap now, 'cause anything I say is incriminating now we're both big. Just remember what we talked about two years ago." And he went away, it took him a month, and he came back and said, "Yeah, just like we planned it."
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- George Clinton