Like many UK teenagers during the late sixties, I grew up listening to a broad spectrum of music that included pop, blues, rock and roll, folk, soul, Blue Beat, jazz and psychedelic rock, yet nothing prepared us for Funkadelic. Sam Szczepanski commissioned this series of P-Funk liner notes for Charly Records, for which I remain truly grateful.
One Nation Under A Groove is regarded as one of the greatest funk albums of all time. Released in September 1978, it was Funkadelic’s most accessible outing to date, and became the band’s first platinum disc. This was largely down to the success of the title track, which charted on both sides of the Atlantic and can still be heard at club and party sessions the world over.
Funkadelic weren’t exactly noted for making commercial dance anthems. It had been their fusion of progressive rock, soul and rhythm and blues – and not least Eddie Hazel’s emotive guitar pyrotechnics – that had gained them a cult following among rock fans back in the early Seventies. Listening to Maggot Brain whilst tripping on acid was a life-changing rite of passage for more than a few intrepid mind travellers, but attitudes had changed by 1978. There was less rebellion in the air but whilst a lot of disco music could be vacuous, some of it at least promoted a sense of togetherness.
One Nation Under A Groove embodied this spirit of community to perfection, which is why it remains Funkadelic’s best-known track. After breaking into the US Top 30, it stayed on the British charts for three months, peaking at No. 9 in December and selling over a million copies. It also topped the US Soul charts for six weeks. No wonder then, that One Nation Under A Groove has come to define producer George Clinton’s very raison d’être.
With his multi-coloured dreadlocks, cheerful expression and offbeat personality, George Clinton has assumed the role of everyone’s favourite uncle. Feted by the hip-hop fraternity as well as rock acts like the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, he took the funk into areas beyond the reach of his immediate predecessor, James Brown. The Godfather of Soul’s primal energy had wrested funk from the gospel realms and set it loose on the streets. He became a hero to African-Americans at a time when Black Power wasn’t just rhetoric, but a rallying call for change. The messages in Brown’s music were only too clear, but Clinton’s approach was radically different. He was more daring and playful, irreverent and carefree, and with a sense of humour that veered between lewd, sly and preposterous... The music still made you want to dance – sometimes even uncontrollably – but it was somehow more inclusive, even when dealing with racial issues. The joke was on someone, but deciding who was never easy.
It’s hard to think of any other musical legend who’s developed his own cosmology to anything like the same extent as George Clinton. His universe is peopled with mythic characters, pantomime villains and super heroes, inspired by science fiction and comic books. Examples of this abound in his classic recordings of the mid-to-late Seventies, which challenged many people’s perceptions about black music and not least within industry circles. P-Funk made history when touring in 1977 and putting on shows worthy of any stadium rock act, only even more jaw dropping in terms of scale and imagination. That took daring, but then George is a classic trickster figure. He’s the Joker who conjures up miracles when everything seems lost, like when his musicians walked out on him that July, swearing never to return. Six months later and his “Parliafunkadelicment Thang” would enter the most successful year in its history, despite those internal conflicts. Clinton was the Svengali of Funk – a master wheeler-dealer who’d divided his musical entourage into separate acts and signed them to different labels. At one stage, he’d presided over a P-Funk empire starring Bootsy’s Rubber Band, Parlet, Brides Of Funkenstein and Fred Wesley and the Horny Horns, in addition to Funkadelic and Parliament. Eventually the strain would tell, but not until his band of musical pranksters had left an indelible mark on popular culture.
Early in 1978, Parliament hit the charts with Flash Light, taken from the album Funkentelechy vs the Placebo Syndrome. It was P-Funk’s first Soul No. 1, and a musical landmark. Bernie Worrell had played the bass-line on a Mini-Moog synthesiser, and it dominated FM radio for months. Clinton took P-Funk back out on the road that spring, and Funkadelic were on fire. The live version of Maggot Brain included here was recorded on April 15th at the Monroe Civic Centre in Louisiana, and then issued on a 7” single around the same time as One Nation Under A Groove, presumably to appease the band’s rock following. It worked, and Michael Hampton’s lead guitar dominates from the start. The emotional intensity of his playing burns, but then he’d taken over from Eddie Hazel as a seventeen-year-old and auditioned by making this track his own – no easy feat.
Funkadelic’s live shows were already legendary. The previous year’s P-Funk Earth tour had been called “a musical, visual and sensory spectacle.” At its centre was the Mothership – a custom-built spaceship that would descend from the roof of the venue amidst a riot of lights, smoke and chanting. George would then make his grand entrance, cast in the role of Funk Liberator. US audiences hadn’t seen so many people onstage since Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs And Englishmen. It was a big operation involving fifty or so people, and a feast of rock and roll style theatrics.
In the centre of the dressing room was a large trunk full of clothes and accessories that smelled so bad, it was called “the Funk Trunk.” Each band member would sift through the capes, feathered headdresses, knee length silver boots, fencing helmets, tie-dyed long johns and other fashion detritus, looking for something to wear. Everyone wore make-up, and most went to extremes in creating alter egos. George was renowned for wearing nothing but a sheet and pair of cowboy boots, whilst singer/guitarist Garry Shider wore a baby’s nappy (and would be known as “Diaper Man” for the rest of his life.) Nothing was planned other than they’d all dress wild as they dare and members of the audiences would join them. P-Funk’s hippy-like aesthetic had caught on, and even the rock press took note.
“It was scary how fast the P-Funk movement was spreading,” says Fred Wesley. “It was like a religion.”