Parliament/Funkadelic: Apocalypse Now!

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Below is an excerpt of an article that originally appeared in RS 262 from April 7, 1978. This issue and the rest of the Rolling Stone archives are available via Rolling Stone Plus, Rolling Stone's premium subscription plan. If you are already a subscriber, you can click here to see the full story. Not a member? Click here to learn more about Rolling Stone Plus.

This almost sounds like a hit!" George Clinton exclaims in mock horror. In the recording room beyond the control booth, the Brides of Funkenstein do indeed seem like victims of the "placebo syndrome" — a term invented by Clinton to describe the massive substitution of false images for reality throughout American culture — in this AM-style love song ("When You're Gone") about how life was a tragedy until you came along, baby.

"Might even get some radio play," laughs Ron Dunbar, a former Motown Parliament/Funkadelic producer who stayed in Detroit as an independent when Motown moved to L.A. At United Sound Systems Recording Studio, he and Clinton are producing Funk or Walk, the first album by the Brides, who are the latest in a long line of artists to spring from the fertile womb of Clinton's Parliament/Funkadelic (Bootsy's Rubber Band, Eddie Hazel, the Horny Horns, Parlet and Bernie Worrell are the others).

"This song has too much class for us," Clinton continues. "But I'll be embarrassed all the way to the bank. This year, we're going to show 'em how to do business. We're singin' rhythm & business."

He and Dunbar laugh and slap each other's hands. Clinton will probably be embarrassed a lot this year, with Parliament's Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome climbing the pop and R&B charts, the single "Flashlight" high on the singles charts, and Clinton's protégé Bootsy Collins doing equally well with Bootsy? and its single, "Bootzilla." In the next couple of months, Funkadelic, the Horny Horns, the Brides, Parlet and Worrell also will be releasing records — all with much of the writing, production and singing by Clinton.

Dunbar switches the tape to a much hotter and raunchier track that noticeably perks up the Brides (Dawn Silva and Lynn Mabry). The beat is almost disco, but it's maddening to clap along with because it skips half a beat every other bar — or something like that, anyway, which would give anyone trying to dance a mechanical one-two-three-four hustle a hernia, "That's the funk," explains Clinton. "Kids dance the way they want to it. The basic track is two years old. We were just waitin' for the right place to put it. I have 200 more tracks in the can."

So his already-prodigious output is just the beginning? He has enough material for about twenty-five more new groups?

"You catch on fast," Clinton says.

To this day I don't understand George," says Mike Hampton, an excellent rock guitarist, in his Savannah hotel room before a performance. Five years ago, at the age of seventeen, Hampton had learned the solo on Funkadelic's "Maggot Brain" note for note. Clinton heard and hired him for Hampton's first professional gig in Washington D.C. before 20,000 people. He's played with Parliament/Funkadelic ever since. "We don't see him [Clinton] that much anymore. He wanted to get involved with the business end of things after all these years. If I can see bullshit where I'm at, it's got to be raining bullshit where he's at."

One of eighteen stage performers in the current Parliament/Funkadelic lineup, Hampton is relatively unknown. Black audiences are not attuned to the rumble and snarl of rock guitar, so he can show his licks for only a few minutes each night on the Funkadelic number "Cosmic Slop." (Parliament and the harder-sounding Funkadelic have identical personnel, but are signed to different record companies. Although the other aforementioned groups are not the same, many musicians overlap. So do their record companies, which include Casablanca, Warner Bros., Atlantic and Arista. God knows how this works contractually.)

"A lot of cats just come to see the spaceship," Hampton says, referring to the show's climax, when the giant mother ship, belching smoke and fire, drops out of a blue-denim cap suspended forty feet over the stage. "It's hard to think you're doing something musically when you're competing with that. I wish I could play at the power of Ted Nugent, but rock solos just go over their heads."

"The show is more structured now," says Bernie Worrell, keyboardist and one of the musical mainstays of the band. "But the wildness is still there. We can turn it on and off as we want. George has to control it because he's the one up front reading the audience."

Worrell, 33, has known Clinton since he was a boy in Plain-field, New Jersey. Classically trained at home, Worrell used to sneak off to sing doo-wop with Clinton at a barbershop where Clinton — still a teenager — had developed an illegal thousand-dollar-a-week business straightening hair with lye and selling dope. Worrell went on to two years of private lessons at Julliard and three semesters at the New England Conservatory. When his father died, finances forced him on the road with Chubby and the Turnpikes (later to become Tavares). He rejoined Clinton just after the first Funkadelic album, Funkadelic, in 1968.

Clinton meanwhile had moved to Detroit with his group, the Parliaments, received a songwriting contract from Motown in 1964 and fallen under the influence of white, acid-plus-politics bands like the MC5 and the Stooges. When he temporarily lost control of the name "Parliaments" because of record-company politics, he founded Funkadelic and earned a reputation for derangement by shaving stars on his head and performing in nothing but a Holiday Inn bed sheet colored with Crayolas. Such albums as America Eats Its Young and Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow were largely ignored by the public. Clinton then opted for a more commercial sound (meaning less guitar) with the revived Parliament (now singular). The band had some of the best musicians anywhere but became known for Clinton's ludicrous-on-the-outside, serious-on-the-inside cosmology.

Roughly summarized, the Parliament albums tell the story of Dr. Funkenstein, who revived the secret of funk, placed in the pyramids 5000 years ago. He and his followers (the clones) were to spread the life force, funkentelechy, through the universe. Despite the magic of super-groovalisticprosifunkstacation, Funkenstein was unable to halt Sir Nose d'Voidoffunk from blasting the galaxy with placebo syndrome from his Snooze Gun. So StarChild, a protégé of Funkenstein, shot Sir Nose with the Bop Gun, thus forcing Sir Nose to "give up the funk" and dance. The story line isn't particularly consistent, and the definitions of Clinton's many coined words seem to change in different contexts, but that's part of the point: consistency is the hobgoblin of placebo minds (the funkalogical is not a logical mind).

"George is a genius, the creative center," says Worrell. "He takes the ideas of thirty musicians and they are molded into the One. Yeah, now he is more business-minded — we all are — and it's taken away some of the energy. I miss the old days, but you get tired of getting beat. That's just the structure of the game, from the government on down."

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From The Archives Issue 262: April 6, 1978