George Clinton again, and with "the heaviest black rock band since Jimi Hendrix’s Band Of Gypsys." It was the comparisons to Hendrix's all-black line-up that had alerted me to Funkadelic in the first place, but there's far more to Hardcore Jollies than a gut-bucket rhythm section and rock style lead guitar.
George Clinton’s adventures are unparalleled in the annals of popular music but 1976 would be an extraordinary year, even by his standards. He’d be partying with Sly Stone by its end as the P-Funk Earth Tour, complete with Mothership, blazed a trail through the South – its audiences drawn from every demographic, and taking on the form of tribal gatherings.
A movement was in full swing, and its momentum was quickening. There were at least four P-Funk albums released that year – Parliament’s Clones Of Dr. Funkenstein, Stretching Out by Bootsy’s Rubber Band, and two sets by Funkadelic, Tales Of Kidd Funkadelic and Hardcore Jollies. George Clinton produced all of them, and was the visionary behind P-Funk’s success in redefining black music for the seventies, even as disco threatened to strip it of cultural relevance. He dared to dream the impossible, and knew the music business inside out. He was also a great showman, and could rival P T Barnum in attracting a crowd.
Whilst the music would always take precedence, the “Parliafunkadelicment Thang” was a riot, visually. Imagine dozens of naked mad people raiding a fancy dress shop (in the dark) and then rushing on the stage. They looked like the denizens of an acid trip, or as if they belonged in a cartoon about black people from outer space. George was ringmaster to the bacchanal and looked to be having a ball, striding about in his white sheet and big boots. Parliament was signed to Casablanca, which meant that he didn’t have to worry about attracting controversy – not with Kiss and Donna Summer on the same label. Her Love To Love You Baby took the female orgasm to unprecedented heights – all seventeen minutes of it. P-Funk songs could get raunchy too, but were lifted out of the ordinary by their gloriously twisted sense of humour. Some took the form of soap operas, and had storylines that cried out for videos long before the advent of MTV. Mostly, P-Funk made music to dance and get high to. That’s what they were best known for. When they did touch upon political issues (on Chocolate City or America Eats Its Young for example), they did so with acerbic wit – their comic brilliance tempered by a keenly developed social conscience, and anchored by monstrously funky rhythms.
When Hardcore Jollies was recorded, Funkadelic was the heaviest black rock band since Jimi Hendrix’s Band Of Gypsys, irrespective of whether Eddie Hazel or Michael Hampton played lead guitar. Both ventured way out on the edge, and no one other group from that era fused rock and funk with such certainty. I guess that’s what happens when musicians hang out on both sides of the tracks, which in the Detroit of the late sixties meant checking out the MC5 and Iggy Pop & the Stooges, as well as Aretha Franklin and Motown. Gospel, doo-wop and soul influences permeate the P-Funk sound, but Funkadelic’s guitar heroics definitely belong to rock. Like Frank Zappa, they could dazzle you with technique whilst messing with your mind but it was the gut-wrenching, hanging-it-all-out-on-the-line approach of their guitarists that set Funkadelic apart. Parliament was always more of an R & B group, based on harmony singing and horn arrangements. Funkadelic went instead for the jugular and aimed for the rock market, which afforded more leeway for mavericks wanting to try something different, and with a liking for lengthy, improvised soloing. In the wake of David Bowie, the big rock shows had become full-blown theatrical productions. When P-Funk tours turned into travelling carnivals, fronted by musicians who looked like aliens from some far-off galaxy, Alice Cooper was decapitating dolls on stage and Kiss bringing comic books to life for suburban teenagers. Funkadelic tapped into the same fan base – no mean feat considering that black audiences loved them too, and both sets of fans were normally so polarised.
The band had hit another gear on Cosmic Slop and Standing On The Verge Of Getting It On – albums that drew a line between the stoned, far out craziness of the original line-up, and what happened next. The second incarnation – launched with America Eats Its Young– was tighter and even funkier than the first. They’ll achieve their commercial breakthrough with One Nation Under A Groove in 1978 but Funkadelic were already a force to be reckoned with two years earlier, when recording Hardcore Jollies. They had a settled line-up by then, and were well oiled after spending time on the road. They were also at a creative peak, and had no shortage of songwriters within their ranks.
George booked them in Detroit Sound Studios, where they were joined by several other P-Funk alumni, including Bootsy Collins. He was the Clown Prince Of Funk with his goofy persona and Star Trek inspired wardrobe, but his bass playing was sensational. This was the guy who’d played on James Brown’s Sex Machine and Soul Power. He was funk personified and leader of Bootsy’s Rubber Band, featuring the JBs’ horn section no less.
Bootsy was George Clinton’s right-hand man in the studio, but he and the guitarists weren’t the only star instrumentalists at those sessions. Bernie Worrell’s keyboard wizardry was breathtaking. His unique blend of formal training, technological flair and sly humour formed a key ingredient of the P-Funk sound and after conjuring those haunting soundscapes for Hardcore Jollies – on the closing Adolescent Funk especially – his fellow band members started calling him “Da Vinci.”
“Bernie seemed to be somehow involved in every recording, as did Garry Shider” recalled Fred Wesley. “Anybody, including Mud Bone, might play drums on any track they had the best feel for. Many of the guitar parts were Bootsy’s, but anybody might overdub anything on any track if a particular part was needed. The rule was, whatever, wherever, by whomever – as long as it worked. The studio vibe was like a musical laboratory staffed by many, on call, funk scientists, each skilled in his particular field of endeavour.”
The P-Funk musicians had time to experiment, and took full advantage. George block-booked the studio, Warners paid the bills and the hits continued to roll. No way could Hardcore Jollies fail. Even the newer members had played together for years, and known George since they were schoolboys. It’s difficult to talk of George “grooming them” without smirking, knowing how Garry Shider wound up being called “Diaper Man” after wearing a nappy on stage with Funkadelic every night. He and Glenn Goins came from Plainfield, New Jersey where George also grew up, although his family were originally from North Carolina. The youngsters would hang round the barbershop on West 3rdStreet where he worked and watch fascinated as he and the Parliaments rehearsed in a back room. That same quintet, comprised of George, Clarence “Fuzzy” Haskins, Calvin Simon, Grady Thomas and Raymond “Sting Ray” Davis (who’ll later join the Temptations) would evolve into Parliament over time, and continue singing together right throughout the P-Funk era. At the time of Hardcore Jollies George Clinton was leading black music into uncharted territory but no one could accuse him of leaving his roots behind – not with the Parliaments there on harmonies, and younger bloods such as Garry and Glenn in the line-up. Both sang and played rhythm guitar, and had been impatient to get started. Whilst George was busy with Funkadelic, Shider and bass player Cordell “Boogie Mosson left New Jersey for Canada and formed a band called United Soul. George was living in Ontario at the time, liked what he heard and produced a couple of records with them for Westbound. This was in 1971. A year later and he’d recruit them for Funkadelic, whose America Eats Its Young was also the first P-Funk album to feature the House Guests, starring Bootsy and his brother Phelps, or “Cat Fish.” They’d recently moved from Cincinnati to Detroit after backing James Brown. It was Philippe Wynne, lead singer with the Spinners, who’d introduced them to George. The chemistry between them was instant although it would remain on hold for a while, until major label backing was assured.
Warners Brothers expected a lot from Funkadelic. Hardcore Jollies was that all-important debut release for the label but they hadn’t expected Westbound to steal their thunder by hurriedly issuing an album of leftover material called Tales Of Kidd Funkadelic, which then raced up the Soul charts. “Kidd Funkadelic” was guitarist Michael Hampton’s nickname, although it was Bernie Worrell who stole the limelight on the title track. All the regular P-Funk musicians played on this album, which is one of Funkadelic’s best.
Hardcore Jollies arrived a month later, on October 29th1976. The band performed at the Mississippi Coliseum in Jackson, Florida that night. The P-Funk Earth tour had started two days earlier, and the mothership, the music and the mayhem were already generating plenty of publicity. Jules Fischer was the set designer. He’d produced stage sets for Kiss and the Rolling Stones, but this was something new for black music.
It was a big operation, even by rock and roll standards, and designed for use in 20,000 capacity venues. Fred Wesley has likened the P-Funk entourage to “an army preparing for battle,” and says the stage “looked like an electronic warehouse,” with technicians scurrying in every direction. In the midst of all this, George Clinton served as Master of Ceremonies. Audiences cheered as he stepped from the mothership and urged his musicians to get loose like never before.
The version of Cosmic Slop included here was recorded at a sound-check before the tour started, and “Magic” Hampton’s in riveting form. He’d joined the band aged seventeen, after auditioning at an after-show party in Cleveland. Eddie Hazel was there, and looked on amazed as Hampton played the solo from Maggot Brain note for note. Garry Shider again sings lead vocals on Cosmic Slop, just as he did on the original 1973 cut. He’s another outstanding contributor to the P-Funk cause who rarely gets the credit he deserves due to the collective nature of the Parliament-Funkadelic modus operandi.
As was often the case with new P-Funk albums, Hardcore Jollies was a visual, as well as musical feast. Three years earlier, George had commissioned an unknown local artist called Pedro Bell – soon to be renamed “Blastoid Blaster,” or “The Textographic Avatar Of Funk” – to paint the cover of Cosmic Slop. From then on, Bell’s vivid, untamed imagery would help create the mythology surrounding the band. According to his biography, he “single-handedly defined the P-Funk collective as sci-fi superheroes fighting the ills of the heart, society and the cosmos.” The cover art of Hardcore Jollies extends from front to back. In pole position is a giant, red woman with yellow lightning flashes for eyes, squatting naked as white liquid splashes around her. She’s either giving birth or in Bell’s own words, doing something “a lot more scandalous.” It’s comic book art meets Hieronymus Bosch and just as anarchic as the music, which is saying something.
Hardcore Jollies is dedicated “to the guitar players of the world.” Any fears that Funkadelic would become indistinct from Parliament were instantly swept aside by that statement. Funkadelic’s last album Let’s Take It To The Stage had been light on guitar pyrotechnics but then Eddie Hazel was in jail for assault and Michael Hampton had barely left school when he took over. Hardcore Jollies heralds a return to guitar-driven funk, and contains powerful performances by each of them. The title track is an instrumental, and it’s music to get the heart racing. The groove’s funky, but relentless in its intensity as Hampton’s guitar soars heavenwards. His predecessor Eddie Hazel plays on Comin’ Round The Mountain – a song concept they’ve cheerily plucked from country and western, and set to funk. Hearing Eddie wind up for one of his career-defining solos is like watching a rattlesnake slowly uncoil before readying itself to strike. In full flow, he’s magnificent – so full of fire and feeling. Alas, he only makes the odd cameo appearance on Hardcore Jollies, but his playing is impeccable. It hurts in the same way that Hendrix’s did but then both guitarists saw their instrument as an extension of the human voice, only with even greater possibilities.
Eddie also knew George from his time at the barbershop and had joined the Parliaments’ backing band aged seventeen. Inspired by Sly Stone and Hendrix, he’d introduced black rock sensibilities to the Parliaments’ set, and used reverb and effects pedals in creating his own sound. As the sixties came to an end, America was still caught up in the Vietnam War and having to confront some uncomfortable truths. Hope – or at the very least, playful distraction – came with the hippies, whose one love philosophy went hand-in-hand with a liking for marijuana and psychedelic drugs. George Clinton and his merry band were in full accord. He named the group Funkadelic and signed them to Westbound, who were relatively new to the Detroit label scene.
Eddie Hazel played on Funkadelic’s first three albums, including the classic Maggot Brain. It was his lengthy solo on the title track that put the band on the map. Legend has it that just as they were about to record, George told Eddie to imagine that his mother had just died. The guitarist took him seriously, and played as if his life depended on it. Forty years later and Maggot Brain regularly features in media lists of 100 Greatest Guitarists Of All Time and 100 Greatest Solos Of All Time. As Eddie’s profile continued to soar he began recording and touring with other acts including the Temptations, whose 1975 hit Shakey Ground bears his distinctive touch.
Everyone knew that he’d nailed it on Comin’ Round the Mountain. Westbound released it on a 7” single, with If You Got Funk, You Got Style on the reverse. This was Funkadelic’s retort to the world of Saturday Night Fever, delivered with extra sauce over skin-tight grooves, but it was Hazel’s soul-bearing on the A side that invoked the band’s essence. The other single plucked from Hardcore Jollies was Smokey – the best song about withdrawal since Lennon’s Cold Turkey, and with the unforgettable line, “I’m like a dog on your chain.” A synthesiser bass, slippery as the one on Stevie Wonder’s Living For The City, underpins the rhythm and whilst the singing’s emotive, it never once descends into parody. Smokey would have graced Sly Stone’s dark period, it’s that good. The 7” version had Soul Mate on the B-side – a gawky, tongue-in-cheek love song with Hendrix-like chord progressions but for a taste of real over-dramatics, try You Scared The Lovin’ Outa Me. This is a bedroom calamity writ large, and that predated Viagra by some distance. The lead voice almost fools us into thinking it’s a normal song, but he’s accompanied by another singer who’s on the brink of a nervous breakdown – his maniacal sobs and screams framed by a piercing falsetto, and a synthesiser that sounds like a crazed power saw.
Six years earlier, this band had asked, “Mommy, what’s a Funkadelic?” Hardcore Jollies didn’t necessarily provide any answers, despite having been recorded as George Clinton’s P-Funk experiment approached its creative zenith. Today, nearly thirty-five years later, it takes pride of place among Funkadelic’s best-ever albums, and remains a masterful example of their creative genius.