I was early for an appointment so I thought I'd drop into one of those shrinking CD stores that you can find in shopping malls and department stores. Sometimes you can find a gem or two hidden away in the racks.
As a trawled through the jazz section, I noticed a bank of CDs from Universal's Gold compilation series, which in Bangkok means lots of Pat Boone, Frank Sinatra and the odd Motown compilation. And in among these was Parliament Gold, a double CD of one of the most influential funk bands of all time, along with sister outfit Funkadelic.
There is something delightful about finding the subversive, groove-laden funk of Parliament in the company of a "smooth rocker" (something like "smooth jazz") like Pat Boone and the vapid bossa nova that often passes as jazz in these parts.
The double-CD compilation features 24 tracks, most of which appeared on a 1993 compilation Tear The Roof Off 1974-1980 and very entertaining liner notes by Greg Tate, plus a glossary which teaches a few basic P-Funk terms, like "The One", which is defined as "The First Beat, whiteness, perfection, as in Everything is on The One".
The man behind it all was, of course, George Clinton, perhaps one of the most sampled musicians of the past few decades, and one of the key funk pioneers along with James Brown and Sly Stone. Clinton grew up in Plainfield, New Jersey, and fans have long speculated that his P-Funk style got its name from his home town. It could also have come from the two bands he led during the 70s, Parliament and Funkadelic.
Clinton started in doo wop groups during his teenage years, one of which was called The Parliaments. He spent time as a songwriter with Motown and developed a connection with Detroit, the home of Motown and its legendary house band, The Funk Brothers.
The Parliaments had one hit, (I Wanna) Testify, in 1967 but success really eluded him until the following decade.
Funkadelic came from Clinton's desire to blend rhythm'n'blues songwriting with hard rock and blues. He added edgy satirical lyrics, vocal harmonies and a fat bass. When he was asked why he developed his funk music, Clinton said that he was too old for The Temptations, so he had to do something new. And asked where he got his bass sound from (Bootsy Collins would have been a good answer), he answered that it didn't come from James Brown but rather The Funk Brothers' late bass player James Jameson.
By this time, he was touring with Parliafunkadelicment Thang and was keen to develop a more radio-friendly sound. At the same time, The Parliaments' name, unavailable due to legal wrangles, once again came into the picture. Clinton took the same basic ensemble, added gifted bass player Bootsy Collins and lots of horns and set about creating grooves that hip hoppers are still mining today. The imagery changed, too. Out went the Maggot Brain images of Funkadelic and in came gleaming astronauts ("The Mothership") and even more outrageous stage shows, sprinkled with whimsical humour.
He gathered around him an all-star cast of top-class musicians, led by keyboard wizard Bernie Worrell, Collins (who also shared a lot of the songwriting) and horn maestro Fred Wesley. They helped create a multi-layered, polyphonic sound that pre-dated the densely textured music of Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash and early hip hop in the early 1980s. The compilation kicks off with the classic Up For The Down Stroke, from the 1974 album of the same name, and then works chronologically through Parliament's releases in the 70s, taking three or four songs from Up For The Down Stroke, Chocolate City, Mothership Connection, The Clones Of Dr Funkenstein and Parliament Live: P-Funk Earth Tour albums on CD 1 and Funkentelechy vs. The Placebo Syndrome, Motor-Booty Affair, Gloryhallastoopid (Or Pin The Tail On The Funky) and Trombipulation albums on CD 2.
My own preference is for the killer grooves of the early albums like P. Funk (Wants To Get Funked Up) and Give Up The Funk (Tear The Roof Off The Sucker) but there are some classics from the later albums like Flashlight and Bop Gun (Endangered Species) that move the groove.
What is apparent though is that Clinton, despite being such a sampled musician, has never really got his dues as a pioneering musician. The arrangements on the songs on the compilation are sumptuous and complex, harking back to both Duke Ellington and Sun Ra, and the vocal harmonies, Clinton's speciality, sparkle throughout. It should all sound chaotic but it doesn't. And I found myself smiling at another undervalued Clinton talent, his witty lyrics, which often feature tongue-in-cheek social criticism.
And all this history, this great music for just under 400 baht. It made my day. Not convinced? Just let the band do the talking. Here's part of the intro to P. Funk (Wants To Get Funked Up): "Coming to you directly from the Mothership 500,000 kilowatts of P-Funk power, so kick back, dig, while we do it to your eardrums." Recommended and essential.
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