Funkadelic - The Electric Spanking Of War Babies
The Electric Spanking Of War Babies was one of three Funkadelic liner notes that I did for Charly Records. Writing about such classic funk releases allowed me freedom to delve into a genre that I'd loved since the early seventies, when Robert Christagau wrote how George Clinton had reached "into the disgusting depths of his drug-addled mind and comes up with the solidest, weirdest chunk of P-Funk since one nation gathered under a groove."
The Electric Spanking Of War Babies was jinxed from the start - not just because of record company indifference, but also poor timing. It was released on April 21st 1981, three weeks after a failed assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan. The title track’s mocking condemnation of US foreign policy was therefore never likely to generate much support in the circumstances. Mainstream America wasn’t in the mood to be reminded of Vietnam or racial unrest, and not least by a group associated with drugs, on-stage nudity and general depravity. Even the sleeve design was dogged by controversy and had to be censored. Meanwhile, disaffected former band members had formed a rival group and attempted to seize the name Funkadelic for themselves, which only added to the general confusion.
It had been three years since Funkadelic’s best-known hit ‘One Nation Under A Groove’ - a club anthem that had seen this merry band of pranksters graduate from being cult favourites to best-selling chart-toppers. Led by producer George Clinton they sang of a funky Promised Land, and a philosophy hewn from tribal unity and love of personal freedoms. Funkadelic had followed ‘One Nation Under A Groove’ with ‘(Not Just) Knee Deep’, a No. 1 R&B hit that roared into the US Billboard Top 100 during late 1979, defying the backlash against disco that had caught up a lot of that era’s most talented black bands in its wake. Happily, Funkadelic remained gloriously unapologetic. The group’s aim, as declared in the liner notes of Uncle Jam Wants You, was to “rescue dance music from the blahs.” George Clinton was Uncle Jam of course and he was already a famed eccentric, as well as a successful entrepreneur. His music was populated with colourful characters - representatives of a New Age mythology he’d constructed with elements borrowed from science fiction, comic books, ancient history, black street culture and a healthy dislike of consumerism. In pursuing this vision he’d built a P-Funk empire based on an irreverent, yet astute knowledge of the record industry, and the collective talents of up to fifty singers and musicians who between them staffed bands such as Funkadelic, Parliament, the Horny Horns and Bootsy’s Rubber Band.
By the late 70s, Clinton had eclipsed James Brown as funk music’s leading torchbearer and especially after recruiting some of the Godfather’s key sidemen, including Fred Wesley, Maceo Parker and bassist Bootsy Collins, whose maverick genius was perfectly suited to the P-Funk aesthetic. He was a regular during the Electric Spanking sessions, whilst also fronting the Sweat Band. Parliament had disbanded by then. Their last two albums, Gloryhallastoopid (Or Pin The Tale On The Funky) and Trombipulation both had their moments, but neither contained anything that got under the skin quite like 'Flash Light' or ‘Aqua Boogie’. A mutiny involving three key members then sealed the band’s demise, and left Funkadelic struggling to assert its true identity. Such developments must have saddened Clinton. Parliament had evolved from a doo-wop group he’d started back in the late 50s, from the back room of a barbershop in Plainfield, New Jersey. If he felt downcast however, you would never have guessed it. In 1980, even as his P-Funk empire began to disintegrate, Clinton launched the Uncle Jam label with albums by the Sweat Band and Spinners’ singer Philippe Wynne, who’d sang lead vocals on Funkadelic’s ‘(Not Just) Knee Deep’ a year earlier. Zapp front-man Roger Troutman’s album The Many Facets Of Roger was also intended for release on Uncle Jam but with George’s affairs in disarray, Warner Brothers took it over and issued it the following September, five months after The Electric Spanking Of War Babies. This caused a rift between the various parties, and undoubtedly harmed Clinton’s relationship with his record company.
He’d originally wanted to record a double album but Warner Brothers declined the invitation, despite Funkadelic’s last two outings each having sold over a million copies. Surplus tracks like ‘Atomic Dog’ would later surface on Clinton’s debut solo album, Computer Games. It’s a mystery why Warner Brothers would turn down material of that calibre, and it’s also surprising they didn’t make more of Sly Stone’s presence at the Electric Spanking sessions. He and George had become close friends since P-Funk’s celebrated Earth Tour with the Mothership back in 1977. Sly’s decline into coked-out weirdness has been well documented, yet his musical gifts - whilst flickering only intermittently compared to the heights of a decade earlier - remained all too evident.
On ‘Funk Gets Stronger (Killer Millimeter Longer Version)’ he plays keyboards, rhythm guitar and drums, and also shares lead vocals and production credits. In 1981, this was tantamount to a funk summit meeting. ‘Funk Gets Stronger (Killer Millimeter Longer Version)’ sounds like vintage Sly & The Family Stone in places - an impression aided by Cynthia Robinson’s vocal interjections and trumpet playing. It’s radically different from ‘Funk Gets Stronger Part 1’, which opens with jungle noises before a slashing rhythm guitar (courtesy of Roger Troutman) and lurching backbeat kick in, topped by robotic vocals. Troutman also plays bass and Moog synthesiser on a track that’s as lascivious as anything by Prince, who’ll come to define funk in the decade ahead. For the time being, however, Bootsy Collins was heir to the throne. In between working on other projects, he’d produced Zapp’s ‘More Bounce To The Ounce’, which peaked at No. 2 on the US Soul charts in late 1980. Bootsy had passed the baton from James Brown to George Clinton, and adopted an outrageous persona that even threatened to leave Clinton looking dowdy. His brand of funk had a playful quality that Brown’s lacked. Both were theatrical but the Godfather’s cape routine was nothing compared to the excesses of a typical P-Funk performance, as Garry Shider strutted around in his nappy, Bootsy grinned from behind huge, customised glasses and the entourage filling the stage looked like extras from the bar scene in Star Wars. Asked to define funk, George referred William Leikam to “dark, damp places like the womb... It means hanging very loose and very sweaty. It’s anything you need it to be at any given time. It’s something that saves your life, or it’s an attitude that helps save your life when you feel like it’s not worth it anymore. You get to a place where you just want to jump out the window. Funk is that comical voice that come to you and says, ‘Why brother, ain’t nobody gonna miss you.’ But you can do anything with that beat. It starts off very simple but according to the person’s creativity, it always ends up as something brand new.”
‘Funk Gets Stronger Part 1’ offered proof of how P-Funk music had continued to evolve, despite the wealth of material issued in recent years. Funkadelic’s initial line-up, the one that played on the band’s first three albums, had pioneered a fusion of rock and rhythm and blues that earned them comparisons with Jimi Hendrix’s Band Of Gypsys. Unfortunately the days when FM radio would play tracks with ten-minute guitar solos were long gone. Stations had become more formatted, and artist and record labels now had programme directors and research consultants to deal with. The game had changed, and even James Brown struggled to get airplay.
One track destined not to receive too much airplay was ‘The Electric Spanking Of War Babies’ itself. As a solitary lead guitar plays a requiem, a baby starts to cry and a voice then booms out of the heavens like that of some ancient God. Manic cackling ensues when God claims to have been abducted by aliens. At that point Funkadelic lay down one of their trademark spacey jams, whilst indulging in a little social commentary. “Oh, it’s shocking to find that your mind and your behind will get a spanking in due time,” they croon. “You’ve seen them bomb Vietnam, LSD. You’ve seen the E. You’ve seen DNA. Watched them go to the moon, live on TV. The electric spanking of war babies...” The song was co-written and co-produced by Walter “Junie” Morrison, who plays bass, drums, guitar and keyboards. He’d joined P-Funk after a stint with the Ohio Players, and co-wrote all but one of the tracks on One Nation Under A Groove. The emphasis is solidly on the groove as you’d expect, and ‘Electro-Cuties’ is another floor-filler. In the lyrics electricity becomes synonymous with the life force, which leads Funkadelic to sing of being “all wired up” or having their fingers “in the socket.”
The words of ‘Oh, I’ are stranger still, although the rhythm’s so irresistible, it takes a while to realise that Garry Shider is singing about a photograph of his ex - not with sadness, but something entirely different. He prefers the photo to her because “everything remains the same down memory lane.” Shider’s other major contribution to this album is the closing ‘Icka Prick’ which promises, “You ain’t seen obscene yet” and then delivers accordingly. It’s littered with profanities, or what’s called “slackness” in Jamaica. “You’ll get knocked-up listening to this,” warn Funkadelic, their rap style vocals framed by cute female harmonies. After coupling the title with “iron pussy,” they tell their listeners how “there ain’t no decent dick in Detroit.” (And “if you think that’s nasty, follow me to the men’s room...”)
‘Brettino’s Bounce’ transports us back in time to a land of shamans, courtesy of percussionist Larry Fratangelo’s mesmerising rhythms. It’s an instrumental that provokes comparisons with the explorations of jazz-funk bands like Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters or Weather Report, and hints at what might have been had P-Funk not folded under the weight of George Clinton’s wayward ambition. The Electric Spanking Of War Babies may turn out to be Funkadelic’s swansong but the music’s never less than first-rate - even when the band plays reggae, as on ‘Shockwaves’. This track was recorded shortly before Bob Marley died. His one love philosophy and the premise that “when the music hits you feel no pain” made him the Third World’s first musical superstar. It’s a theme that writers Ron Dunbar and DeWayne McKnight tackle with relish. “Rock and roll will never die. Just a little bit,” they reassure us at the outset, with tongues firmly in cheek. According to their worldview, funk is the salve to take our troubles away. It’s the equivalent of Rastafarians’ word, sound and power, but subject to P-Funk’s typically twisted humour. “Look at my shoes, they’re full of holes,” they chant. “Nobody cares, nobody but my toes...”
New York critic Robert Christgau’s review of the album was typically forthright. “George Clinton reaches into the disgusting depths of his drug-addled mind and comes up with the solidest, weirdest chunk of P-Funk since one nation gathered under a groove,” he opined, little knowing that The Electric Spanking Of War Babies had brought to a close one of the greatest chapters in funk history. That it didn’t happen without incident won’t surprise fans of Funkadelic, who’d grown accustomed to controversy throughout the band’s twelve-year tenure. The final hullabaloo concerned the jacket design, after Warner Brothers objected to Pedro Bell’s painting of an overtly phallic shaped spaceship, piloted by a green alien and magically powered by a naked woman, strapped face down and with suckers attached to her buttocks. The record company insisted it be changed, and wouldn’t relent. Bell’s response was to crudely block out the offending image using lime-green paint and scrawl, “Oh Look! The Cover that ‘They’ were TOO-SCARED to print!” over it in a fit of inspired petulance. This was the final nail in the coffin. Warner Brothers reputedly only pressed 80,000 copies of The Electric Spanking of War Babies, which was highly unusual. That’s because Funkadelic was still a major act in the eyes of the public, but Warners clearly smelt blood in the water. Nothing had gone right for this album. It was a disappointment to its producer and record company alike, and would bring Funkadelic’s sustained run of commercial success shuddering to a halt.
P-Funk had toured the previous spring, supported by the Brides Of Funkenstein. That tour had begun with a residency at The Apollo Theatre in Harlem and featured a giant skull with flashing eyes. The band’s sense of theatre was very much intact but they would only play a handful of concerts over the next twelve months. Sly Stone joined them at a homecoming gig in Detroit, just a few weeks after The Electric Spanking of War Babies was released. Detroit also hosted the last-ever Parliament-Funkadelic show later that same year, although the city had more than enough problems of its own. Detroit was broke. Decades of mismanagement had resulted in a large-scale exodus of residents, plummeting tax revenues and abandoned buildings. Federal aid programmes had gone awry, and major institutions seemed powerless to act. That winter also witnessed the birth of Detroit techno, as championed by local disc jockey The Electrifying Mojo. A new era was about to begin, both in Detroit and further afield as hip-hop and electronic dance music rapidly grew in popularity.
In the meantime, Parliament and Funkadelic splintered amidst a flurry of lawsuits. When the rival Funkadelic, featuring three original Parliaments, attempted to steal the name Warner Brothers paid Pedro Bell to write an editorial about it entitled “Will the Real Flunkadelic Shut the Flunk Up?” Unfortunately Warners forgot to pay him and so Bell accepted an offer from LAX Records to write a rebuttal, using a pseudonym. You really couldn’t make it up...
Clinton would revive the Funkadelic name himself from time to time, most notably on By Way Of The Drum issued in 2007 but legal wrangles will continue to hamper his career, despite some initial success as a solo artist thanks to hits like ‘Atomic Dog’. With his rainbow-coloured dreadlocks, bizarre dress sense and goofy utterances, he’ll become a comical, yet revered figure in music circles. The likes of EPMD, Tupac Shakur, the Black Eyed Peas, L. L. Cool J and De La Soul will sample his productions, whilst George himself will star in movies such as The Night Before, PCU and House Party. It is Dr. Dre, however, who’ll become the main beneficiary of P-Funk’s legacy, both musically and conceptually. Even the humour in Dre’s G-Funk creations owes a lot to P-Funk’s influence.
The record industry’s debt to P-Funk was finally honoured in 1997, when fifteen members of Parliament-Funkadelic were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. More than a decade later, George Clinton received an Honorary Doctorate from Berkelee College of Music, thereby confirming his role as lynchpin for a whole new aesthetic of popular music.