Fifteen-year-old George Clinton was straightening hair in a local barbershop when he formed the doo-wop group The Parliaments in 1956 (The name was inspired by Parliament cigarettes).
By the early 1960s, the group had solidified into the five-man line-up of Clinton, Ray “Stingray” Davis, Clarence “Fuzzy” Haskins, Calvin Simon and Grady Thomas.
Renamed Parliament, the group released their debut album, Osmium, in 1970 – the same year as Funkadelic’s synapse-shredding album, Free Your Mind . . . And Your Ass Will Follow.
Producer Ruth Copeland (a native of County Durham in the UK) embellished the funk tomfoolery with – of all things – pedal steel guitar and yodelling (Little Ole Country Boy) and pipes (the distinctly creepy The Silent Boatman).
Clinton’s Funkadelic project liberated rock music from the psychedelic bad trip taken by American West Coast bands at the turn of the 1960s and played a major part in transferring black sounds and rhythms to white rock music.
The absurd sense of humour of Clinton, manifested itself not only in his colourful eccentric costumes and circus-like performances but also in the lyrics, track titles, and coherent artistic concept of the band’s records.
The presence of several ex-members of James Brown‘s backing band, The JBs – including ace bassist and showman extraordinaire Bootsy Collins (pictured at left) – was also a vital ingredient in the heady Funkadelic brew.
Their third outing, Maggot Brain (1971), captured the group at the height of their creative and imaginative powers.
First came the packaging; a shrieking woman’s head erupts from the soil on the cover, while the sleeve notes quote the Process Church of The Final Judgement.
Then the music – brave and bold, it meshes spine-tingling lyrics (“I have tasted the maggots in the mind of the universe”) with an eerie, demented, transcendental score.
Recorded at Universal Studios in Detroit in the latter part of 1970 and the beginning of 1971, Maggot Brain excelled at gospel-infused, call-and-response ebullience (Can You Get To That) and pulsating funk rock stomps (Super Stupid). It also hit hard with penetrating social commentary – You And Your Folks, Me And My Folks overtly attacks racism, while War of Armageddon tackles the tragic fallout of the Vietnam War.
But the real power lies with the title track. Myth has it that Clinton discovered his brother’s rotting body and cracked skull, sprawled in a Chicago apartment – hence the ‘maggot brain’. Locking guitarist Eddie Hazel in the studio, Clinton demanded “play like your mother just died”. Hazel did just that providing a spectral, plaintive nine-minute Hendrix-style guitar solo that eclipsed everything he and the group did, before or after.
“Back then people said ‘You just can’t do that sorta thing on a record’,” explained George Clinton. “And I was sayin’ right back ‘you bet yo’ ass I can’.”
One Nation Under A Groove (1978) was released at the time when the two projects led by Clinton – Parliament and Funkadelic, which included an almost identical lineup of musicians – merged into one coherent concept band named P-Funk. Members claimed that fans would enjoy transcendental experiences through listening to their music.
One Nation… became a platinum seller and the title track was a US R&B #1, and became one of Funkadelic’s biggest anthems.