Funkadelic - One Nation Under A Groove
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 Grooveis 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.”
It was this familial embrace that inspired One Nation Under A Groove which on first hearing, could be mistaken for just another happy, hedonistic groove, urging us all to get loose. In reality it was a tribal anthem on a par with Bob Marley’s Exodus– one that talks about spiritual and personal growth, as well as nationhood. Even as the lyrics sweep us in their embrace, the rhythm is relentless. This reissue includes an extended 12” mix that lasts eleven and a half minutes – nearly half as long again as the original album version.
George Clinton was already in his late-thirties when producing One Nation Under A Groove. He’d learnt about the music business the hard way, by taking knocks and bouncing back best as he could, without ever losing his love for the music. He was barely in his teens when joining a group of harmony singers in the mid-Fifties, during the doo-wop era. By 1962 his quintet was called the Parliaments, and they’d rehearse at the barbershop where George worked on West 3rd Street in Plainfield, New Jersey. Berry Gordy passed on them when they auditioned for Motown although he hired George, who produced a few regional hits. The Parliaments then recorded a handful of sides for small, independent labels such as Solid Hit and Groovesville, without any real success.
In 1967 Clinton struck a deal with Le Baron Taylor’s Revolt Records and recorded I Wanna Testify, which became a Top 5 R & B hit. His stay with Revilot ended two years later when the label folded, taking the band’s name went with it. After a while he’ll shorten it to Parliament and then coin the name “Funkadelic” for their backing musicians who like George, were busy immersing themselves in the Sixties’ counter-culture and experimenting with acid. Jimi Hendrix, James Brown and Sly and the Family Stone headed a list of musical influences as Funkadelic attempted to forge their own identity. George signed them to Westbound in 1969 and then produced their debut album Funkadelic which one reviewer said, “sounded like the Temptations and Grand Funk Railroad emerging together from the rubble left by Detroit’s race riots.”
1971’s Maggot Brain proved their breakthrough. The title track was guitarist Eddie Hazel’s tour-de-force; George having instructed him to “play like your mother’s just died.” After Maggot Brain the original line-up began to disintegrate, yet P-Funk releases went from strength to strength. Cosmic Slop included the overtly political March To The Witch’s Castle, whilst Parliament’s Chocolate City referred to Washington DC’s majority black population. That album and 1974’s Mothership Connection were first in a series of “funk operas.” George Clinton’s conceptual genius was now much in evidence, and so too his entrepreneurial skills.
In 1976 Funkadelic signed to Warners and released Hardcore Jollies, which confirmed their status as the heaviest black rock band since Jimi Hendrix’s Band Of Gypsys. Eighteen months later and One Nation Under A Groove would surprise a lot of people by highlighting the band’s funk credentials, rather than allowing rock influences to dominate. The majority of those sessions took place in Detroit at United Sound Systems on Second Avenue and Antoinette. Past clients included John Lee Hooker, Aretha Franklin, Isaac Hayes and Berry Gordy, who’d recorded the first-ever Motown tracks there. By the time One Nation Under A Groove was taped in early 1978, United Sound had upgraded to twenty-four tracks. Improved recording techniques allowed Clinton and his P-Funk cohorts to go beyond anything they’d done before, and the music would become more complex as a result. It was still funky as hell though.
Fred Wesley has described working with Funkadelic “as nothing but a party.
“George was not only the boss, but the party master as well. He was always laughing and joking, trying to keep everybody relaxed. It was clear that he was in charge, but he ruled with a soft, friendly, respectful approach that made everyone feel comfortable. Creativity was the order of the day. All day. Every day. Nothing that popped into anyone’s mind was dismissed. Everything, no matter how crazy or unconventional was considered. You had to be careful about what you said or played for fear that it would wind up on the record as a song or part of a song.”
It had taken George some time to tempt Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker away from James Brown. Fred was Brown’s bandleader, but had grown weary of the Godfather’s constant demands. One night there was a knock at his hotel room door. He looked through the peephole and was amazed by what he saw.
“I saw sunglasses, funny hats, a lot of leather clothes, boots and strange jewellery on about four or five people. At least I hoped that they were people. They looked more like creatures from outer space!”
Finally he opened the door and in walked Bootsy Collins, George Clinton and other key P-Funk personnel. Boots and his brother Phelps (aka “Cat Fish”) were from Cincinnati, and had backed James Brown on Sex Machine before leaving in search of creative freedom and rather less discipline. George provided both in abundance. The brothers made their P-Funk debut on Funkadelic’s 1972 album America Eats Its Young. Bootsy would become an indispensable member of the collective, playing bass on a majority of releases by Parliament, Funkadelic and his own Rubber Band as the Seventies unfolded. His star quality was undeniable, even before donning those outrageous stage costumes.
Early in 1978, he had a No. 1 on the Soul charts with Bootzilla, taken from the album Bootsy? Player Of The Year. His solo career was assured but that’s his bass popping all over Cholly (Funk Getting Ready To Roll) – another celebration of the groove from the One Nation sessions. As well as Bootsy, America Eats Its Young had also been the first Funkadelic album to feature Garry Shider, Tyrone Lampkin (drums) and Cordell “Boogie” Mosson (bass). The other drummer on these sessions, Jerome Brailey had replaced Tiki Fullwood in 1975, although he’d been on the periphery for several years prior to that. George was both bandleader and mentor to these musicians, who were a good ten years younger than him and the singers from Parliament. Most used to hang around the barbershop in New Jersey before they joined P-Funk. Their input proved invaluable, but it was Bernie Worrell’s futuristic keyboards that helped defined Funkadelic’s sound. He’d joined back in 1970, when they were recording their second album Free Your Mind And Your Ass Will Follow. A former child prodigy, he began studying piano at the age of three and wrote his first concerto just five years later, shortly before performing with the Washington Symphony Orchestra. After attending Julliard he entered the New England Conservatory of Music,then served as Maxine Brown’s musical director before allowing his fertile imagination free reign as a member of P-Funk.
Bernie co-wrote Groovallegiance, which is a curious – some would say “mad” – hybrid of funk and reggae and also Lunchmeataphobia (Think! It Ain’t Illegal Yet!). This track initially surfaced on a bonus 12” EP alongside P.E Squad / Doodoo Chasers and an extended mix of One Nation Under A Groove. The rock influences normally associated with Funkadelic made their return on Lunchmeataphobia, allaying fears that the group’s identity had become blurred with that of Parliament, whose music tended to place the emphasis on vocals and horns, rather than searing lead guitar. There was plenty of the latter – and also a driving, insistent chorus – on Who Says A Funk Band Can’t Play Rock? which then flipped the question by asking “Who says a rock band can’t play funk?” P-Funk philosophy decreed that all boundaries must be challenged and torn down, and tracks like this are the embodiment of that.
“The band went through every genre of music from James Brown type funk to Jimi Hendrix type rock, with extremely musical vocals – R & B vocals, gospel vocals – and even some classically inspired keyboard renderings from Bernie,” says Fred Wesley. “They also made full use of the latest electronic effects. All were excellent musicians. All played with serious funk attitudes.”
Singer and keyboard player Walter “Junie” Morrison co-wrote all but one of the songs on One Nation Under A Groove. He was a founder member of the Ohio Players, who’d been signed to Westbound the same time as Funkadelic. Hits like Pain, Funky Worm and Ecstasy all bore his mark, but then so does Promentalshitbackwashpsychosis Enema Squad (The Doo Doo Chasers) – a scatological smorgasbord masquerading as a ballad, and shot through with wry, knowing humour. Some of the lyrics are worthy of Zappa or Captain Beefheart at their best, and there’s no concession to commercial radio whatsoever. Ringmaster George Clinton leads the jumbled, disembodied vocals emerging from the mix (“it’s music to clean your shit by”) whilst the ending is so drawn-out it’s like an over-played movie death. Has there ever been another band like Funkadelic? We doubt it but if you only buy one of their albums, then One Nation Under A Groove is well nigh definitive.