“The band stopped playing because I was in the middle of all these people naked…” So says George Clinton, who is talking to me during a Hollywood press junket. He stops mid-sentence and then lets out a husky chuckle. The image that he’s just conjured up is one you don’t forget in a hurry.
Clinton is recalling what he believes was the most outrageous gig that his legendary band, Parliament-Funkadelic, played back in the 1970s. “I used to wear just a sheet on stage and sometimes I’d take it off and streak through the audience with nothing on,” he explains. “The lights were always off when I did it but one time, somebody turned the lights on.” Clinton says that he was ‘under the influence’ at the time but admits that even in his altered state, he was not prepared for exposing himself in public. “You think you’re high enough to do that shit but when that happens you realise you’re not high enough,” he says, laughing uproariously at the recollection of an incident that might have ended some performers’ careers – but not his. He is, after all, the irrepressible P-Funk overlord, whose name is synonymous with far-out fun and zany frolics.
Though he’s edging ever-closer to 80 now, George Clinton is still determined to party hard (minus the streaking, of course) when he comes to the UK on July 7th fronting Parliament-Funkadelic to play at London’s revamped Roundhouse venue as part of a new music festival called Innervisions. He remembers playing there almost fifty years ago. “It’s weird because the first gig we played in England, probably in ’69, was the Roundhouse,” he says. “I liked the sound in that place. I remember we came on a plane with The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown, who used to sing ‘I am the Lord of hellfire.’ He and his band almost got us locked up. They got off the plane and ran down the runway.”
As the Roundhouse was the first venue to host Funkadelic in the UK, it’s fitting perhaps that the iconic circular concert hall will be the last place that you will be able to see Clinton and his cohorts performing on these shores. Sadly, the man also known as ‘Dr. Funkenstein,’ whose music helped to birth hip-hop as well as take R&B and funk in new directions, has announced that he’ll be retiring from touring next year. “I’ll be 77 this year,” he explains. “After the last tour, I had a pacemaker put in, so that gave me the incentive to have a holiday, but I’m retiring on my own terms. For the last two years, I’ve just been directing the band mainly and they’ve been practising doing it by themselves. They’ve been doing the shows mostly – I’ve just been sitting down and directing the band…but I’m still having fun.”
George Clinton has spent most of his life on the road, so what will he miss about that life? “I’ll miss the people going crazy and jamming up the funk,” he laughs. But don’t mourn his absence just yet – this isn’t the last we’ll hear of George Clinton. “I’m not finished yet,” he declares. “The new album has just come out and it’s really hot and I’ll still be in the studio overseeing the production of stuff, so I’m not going to be too far away.”
At his London show, George says he’ll be showcasing material from the new album, the first LP under the Parliament name since 1980. It’s called ‘Medicaid Fraud Dogg’ and exposes the nefarious corruption and shadowy practises that plague the pharmaceutical industry. Like all Parliament records, it’s insanely colourful, hilariously funny, and bitingly satirical but underneath all of that is a deeply serious message.
“You know how they give you one drug and that drug makes you sicker and you have to take another drug for that drug? That’s what it’s about,” says Clinton, whose current single is, appropriately enough, ‘I’m Gon Make U Sick!’
“The bottom line for the pharmaceutical industry is making money and not making people well…and it’s legal,” he continues. “You’re just a customer. The most important thing in the news today is about insurance companies and what they can do for you and what company’s going to pay for your insurance and who should have insurance. That’s a hell of a situation. It affects everybody.”
Given Parliament/Funkadelic’s penchant for making controversial statements in the past (remember ‘America Eats Its Young’ and ‘The Electric Spanking Of War Babies’?), it could be convincingly argued that George Clinton should be considered as one the world’s original conspiracy theorists. He agrees. “I really was and I guess I still am but I feel real bad the way they’ve made conspiracy theorists sound today.” What irks him – and it’s one of the themes of the new album – is the fact that money is still worshipped as a god. Perhaps even more so than ever before. “I’ve no doubt with money being the most important thing in the world, people are justifying everything to get it and using any means necessary,” he says. “A lot of things are just for money.”
Humour has always been an important part of Clinton’s psyche but behind the jokes and levity, there have always been serious statements about the world we live in. “I tried to mix the two of them,” he says, admitting to blending laughter with enlightenment. “I tried not to preach but at the same time, I tried to be interesting and say, ‘what if this was the case,’ and laughed about it. It was something to make you think about – not that I’d do any better because I found out I wanted to be like a lot of things I said. But I was just saying them because that was the era where you were saying things that kids were talking about.”
Rewinding right back, to when George Clinton was a kid growing up in New Jersey, he was drawn to music by the silky harmonies of doo-wop. “In the beginning, it was Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers,” he recalls. “I also liked The Spaniels – their lead singer was Pookie Hudson, he was so smooth – and The Velours. They ended up coming to London to live, where they changed their name to The Fantastics.” Clinton formed his own group, a vocal quintet called The Parliaments (pictured above, named after a brand of cigarettes) and they released their debut 45, ‘Poor Willie’ in 1959. Clinton was just 17. The group made several more indie label singles but without finding success.
In 1965, Clinton got a job at Motown as a producer and staff writer. He says it was a deeply educational experience more than anything, that exposed him to a variety of music. “That was my school and working with them I learned about the Brill Building in New York City and all the different styles of music. I got familiar with pretty much every kind of music that came through. And I learned that no matter what you like, you’ve got to be in tune with what’s going on. You’ve got to listen to music that gets on your nerves and if you do that you’re most likely be all right.” By music that gets on your nerves, Clinton’s referring to new music that irritates the older generation, who don’t understand it. “I’ve had it happen to me two or three times but I’ve learned to like it, so now I’m pretty good at it. I’m on new music as soon as it comes out. I pride myself on that.”
Perhaps that attitude combined with his curiosity for new sounds and styles has aided his longevity. After all, a lot of funk and soul acts felt threatened by the arrival of hip-hop in the 1980s but it didn’t faze George Clinton. “I saw what they were using to make it – funk music,” he says, “so I had to figure out a way to get with them so I could supply them with some new funk music.”
Many hip-hop acts were sampling portions of old Funkadelic and Parliament records to make fresh beats. “It took a long time to get paid for it, not from the artists, but from the people that run the industry,” says Clinton. “They didn’t want it to become a reality.” But inevitably, once the lawyers got involved, the income started coming in. He remembers vividly the first time he got paid for his work being sampled. “It was De La Soul on ‘Me, Myself, and I’ in 1987. They came to us and said we’ll pay you for it and gave us $100,000.”
For many years, Clinton has been battling with music publishers to have the ownership of his songs returned to him. He was alleged to have signed over the rights to many of his songs in 1982 but claims his signature was forged. The protracted court battle to reclaim his music – which he seems to be gradually winning – has been a powerful motivating factor in his twilight years. “Part of my inspiration for still being around is that I was fighting for the rights to my music and to get it back,” he says. “So that’s my inspiration for still being here. Hip-hop has helped us do that.”
He says that he recently got back the rights to ‘One Nation Under A Groove,’ Funkadelic’s classic 1979 cut that was the group’s biggest UK hit. Remembering how the song came to life, Clinton says it was written as a unifying anthem for all the artists in the P-Funk family: “We was on a roll in the ’70s. We had it going on with Parliament, Bootsy (Collins), Parlet, The Brides Of Funkenstein, and other records. But despite all the different groups and records, the song was saying, no matter how many people was in the group, no matter what styles of music we did, we were still one entity. Whoever had a hit record, all of us was together, we all was the funk. So we really were one nation under a groove and felt that there was no stopping us at that point.”
‘One Nation…’ was arguably Funkadelic’s most accessible record and was very different from what they had been doing at the start of the ’70s when their music was a wild mix of acid-rock, R&B, funk, and blues. The group had evolved from the vocal harmony group, The Parliaments, who scored their only hit in 1967 with ‘I Want To Testify.’ Three years later, the sharp-suited doo-woppers with their processed hair had changed their name to Funkadelic and morphed into an Afro-topped group that wore diapers and sheets on stage. Clinton says that this radical transformation was helped by seeing British groups like the Rolling Stones. “We saw them come over here wearing jeans with holes in them and patches on them,” he says. “They were the coolest band and called themselves hippies. We knew we had to change. Motown was getting to leave Detroit and go into the movies and we realised that music was changing too. We saw that they were playing Lightnin’ Hopkins and Muddy Waters only louder and we just did the same thing to the music from the ’50s and ’60s. We got bigger amps and turned them up loud and played Motown music for now and named it Funkadelic, which was also our version of psychedelic music. We were doing a lot of experimenting.”
One of Funkadelic’s key early tunes was ‘Maggot Brain’ (the title track of their second LP released via Armen Boladian’s Detroit-based Westbound label), which except for a spoken introduction, is a slow blues instrumental dominated by Eddie Hazel’s searing Jimi Hendrix-inspired guitar lines. It’s almost funereal in its solemn intensity and that’s not surprising, perhaps, given what Clinton said to Hazel as words of encouragement before his guitar take. “I told him, imagine your mother dying,” reveals Clinton. “With Eddie, once you said something as a concept to him, he started thinking about it to himself and what he did, he just got on with it.” The track is also dominated by a matrix of spacey echo effects. “There are so many echoplexes on there,” laughs Clinton. “Eddie’s playing through one and I was using two or three on the track in the studio. I didn’t know no better. I was just trying to do what Jimi Hendrix did.” He admits Hendrix was a huge influence on the band. “To see him go from being with King Curtis and the Isley Brothers, to where he went… I knew that was what we had to do,” he says.
George Clinton has been known throughout his career for his unique use of language and love of puns. Just a cursory perusal of the back cover of an old Parliament or Funkadelic LP will reveal the extent of his wordplay with song titles like ‘Supergroovalisticprosifunkstication,’ ‘Sir Nose d’Voidoffunk (Pay Attention – B3M),’ ‘Rumpofsteelskin,’ and ‘Agony of Defeet.’ He says that his wordplay came from Motown. “Smokey Robinson was the king of that shit. At Motown, I learned all those different wordplays and things. I thought I could be silly and I overdid what Smokey would do. Smokey would use puns and would have more than one hook. He would have three: one at the beginning, one in the middle, and then one to resolve it. I just did them any which way I could, with rhymes and words that have the same meaning. I would use all of that, the grammatical things, and play with the words. And then I added nonsensical things which became possible because people were on acid tripping. The words themselves didn’t have to have any meaning if they just sounded good. That’s the reason why there were beautiful, nonsensical things like (The Beatles’) ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds.’ It just became where everything was beautiful and you could say pretty much everything. It didn’t make any sense but if you were tripping you could feel see the colours of what we were talking about.”
Reflecting on his long career, George Clinton has experienced so many highlights that it’s for him hard to pick just one. But what he’s most proud of, he says, isn’t a piece of music he wrote, an album he recorded, or even a concert he played. It’s a shiny, saucer-shaped piece of metal that since 2011 has found a home in the hallowed halls of the Smithsonian museum in New York: the fabled alien spaceship that first appeared on the cover of the 1975 Casablanca/Chocolate City album, ‘Mothership Connection,’ and which was used as the centrepiece of an extravagant stage show by Clinton for many years afterwards. A record company today would probably strongly object to forking out $1,000,000 dollars for an ex-sci-fi movie prop but Casablanca’s boss, Neil Bogart, was an enthusiastic supporter of the idea. “He was into that because he was a promotion man. He didn’t want to give me the royalties, that’s the last thing that the record company wants to do, but it becomes easier to give it to you if they say you’re spending it on promotion. Of course, they charged it back to my royalties, but it was easy because he got the banks to loan the money and instead of paying me the royalties, he paid the bank. But he understood that once I got it, I could make the next five or six albums by touring with that. So I did that, not only with Parliament but also for albums by Parlet, Bootsy, and Funkadelic. We took Cameo out with us too, who were also on Chocolate City Records. He toured everybody off of that.”
On being asked how he would like to be remembered, Clinton says: “As an artist who fought for the rights to my music and got them back. I got ‘Atomic Dog’ back just recently and ‘One Nation…’ and ‘Knee Deep.’ So there are only a few left.”
Finally, what he has learned about life after being on the road and in the music business for over fifty years? “Do the best you can and just funk it,” he says matter-of-factly.
That sounds like a wise mantra to live your life by and you can guarantee, that even in retirement, George Clinton will still be adhering to those principles and “funking it.”
CATCH GEORGE CLINTON AND PARLIAMENT FUNKADELIC AT THE ROUNDHOUSE AS PART OF LONDON’S INNERVISIONS FESTIVAL ON SUNDAY JULY 9TH