50 Years Ago: Funkadelic Free Their Minds, and R&B Music, on Debut LP
When Funkadelic's self-titled debut album came out in late February 1970, it sounded like bits and pieces of all the music that influenced the group. But it also sounded nothing at all like anything that came before it.
That was George Clinton's intention all along. It was also an accident. And it's indicative of the P-Funk mothership flight log: From its maiden voyage and the Funkadelic and Parliament split to the peak period at the end of the '70s and their eventual breakup and merging into a profitable touring entity, everything and nothing went as planned.
Funkadelic sounds like that.
The band, the album and the project all had their roots in the Parliaments, a New Jersey doo-wop group that included singers Clinton, Ray Davis, Fuzzy Haskins, Calvin Simon and Grady Thomas. They released a series of singles starting in the late '50s; "(I Wanna) Testify" reached No. 20 in 1967, their highest-charting song. But they were getting itchy for something new. Something different.
In his 2014 book, Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain't That Funkin' Kinda Hard on You?: A Memoir, Clinton outlined the plan. "What was our next record? What was our next sound?" he reflected. "We were still into Motown, still very much responding to their movements, either in imitation or in opposition. ... Somewhere along the way it became clear to me that we had a strong young group of players who were, to us, what the Funk Brothers were to Motown."
Listen to Funkadelic's 'I Bet You'
The five singers from the Parliaments were joined by a band of musicians that formed the core of the new ensemble, including guitarist Eddie Hazel, drummer Tiki Fulwood and bassist Billy "Bass" Nelson. Keyboardist Bernie Worrell, a key member in the later development of the P-Funk sound, played organ on "I Got a Thing, You Got a Thing, Everybody's Got a Thing."
By the time they recorded their first single in 1969, "Music for My Mother," something else began to take shape. "We were already Funkadelic, in a sense, during the last few months of the Parliaments ... but we formalized the evolution on our first official Funkadelic single," Clinton noted in his book.
Forging R&B, rock, pop, jazz and psychedelic music, this new band messed around on the same playground where Sly and the Family Stone hung out: It wasn't quite black music, but it sure wasn't white music either. By toeing the gray, both bands crossed lines, genres and expectations across the board. But Funakdelic brought something else to their mix: a thick, rich bottom indebted to James Brown's pioneering funk.
"I think I had the idea for the name first," Clinton wrote in Brothas Be, Yo Like George ... "Everyone knew that it felt right, though. White rock groups had done the blues, and we wanted to head back in the other direction, to be a black group playing the loudest, funkiest combination of psychedelic rock and thunderous R&B."
Listen to Funkadelic's 'I Got a Thing, You Got a Thing, Everybody's Got a Thing'
From the opening "Mommy, What's a Funkadelic?" to the closing "What Is Soul," Funkadelic set a template for the group's early days. Songs were stretched out to their breaking points (nine and nearly eight minutes, respectively, for those bookending numbers), reworked from the past ("I Bet You" and "Good Old Music" were Parliaments songs that now clocked in at more than six minutes each) and dosed with equal parts sludge, drugs and funk.
"The music scene was ready for us," Clinton recalled in his memoir. "I would go to the record store and see Iron Butterfly's 'In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida' or these Grateful Dead records that relaxed the limits of song length and went on for 20 minutes. Rock 'n' roll was becoming like jazz had been 20 years earlier, with solos and complex compositions."
By the time Funkadelic extended this sound on their third album, 1971's Maggot Brain, Clinton had resurrected the Parliaments name, shortened it to just Parliament and released an album in summer 1970 that included the same lineup found on Funkadelic. The two groups would exist concurrently for most of the '70s, with the understanding that Funkadelic were the "rock" side of the equation, Parliament the "soul" side. But by the end of the decade, nobody could tell them apart, not even Clinton, who later folded them into one, big P-Funk family.
Because it was released during the Vietnam War, Funkadelic couldn't help but to absorb some of the turmoil and tension of the era. It occasionally sounds like an apocalypse is looming overhead, especially on the jams, which go on long enough to shape their mind-bending guitar solos and bottom-of-the-swamp bass lines into something more menacing and terrifying. That's really what separates early Funkadelic from the later P-Funk records. There's something happening right around the corner, but you have no idea if it's going to free your mind, shake your soul or scare you shitless.