P-Funk: Parlentelechy v. the Placebo Syndrome
February 6, 1978
What if, at the end of Close Encounters, when the spaceship lands and Richard Dreyfuss and Francois Truffaut are smiling expectantly, what if, instead of the skinny, bald-headed, touchy-feely dwarfs that get out to blink and wave, what if what gets off the spaceship to greet all those white-coated technicians is . . . the James Brown Band!?
That's the more or less thematic question posed by Parliament, one of the three main album-issuing manifestations of George Clinton's P-Funk conglomerate.
To which the more or less thematic answer is a mix of Outer Space and Funk. Containing the usual Sci-Fi good-guy-bad-guy bullshit, recast on Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome, Parliament's current LP, as a sort of cosmic dance contest. Funk vs. Devoid o'Funk.
That Parliament imagines UFOs landing in the ghetto is intriguing (exactly why were all the main characters in Star Wars and Close Encounters white?). And that Parliament doesn't take these intriguing ideas too seriously is part of its charm. The bullshit is accepted as bullshit. Hope, fear, and bullshit, for instance, mix in the lyrics (or chants) to "Bop Gun--Endangered Species" on the current album. "On guard/Defend yourself/Endangered species/We shall overcome/Where'd you get that bop gun?" While other cultural debris floats through the "plot" and over the tasty riffs on the rest of the record. The sax break on "Wizard of Finance" sounds like the theme from Saturday Night Live. And "You Deserve a Break Today" and "Have It Your Way" of hamburger fame pop on "Funkentelechy."
But if Parliament avoids pretension by acknowledging bullshit, it also risks boredom. James Brown is a great--a giant--and a lot of the members of P-Funk are his alumni. He plays some archetypal riffs, and so does P-Funk. But he plays a lot of riffs that are basically the same, and plays some way too long for me. I mean, you've got to own some James Brown records, there's nothing like them. But is there anyone who owns, and plays, them all?
P-Funk solves this funky problem by spicing up the same type riffs with influences from other cultural sources, both lowbrow and high, strung together with ideas and themes. When these ideas get too thin, however, and when the other sources are too limited, P-Funk's music can sound as much like filler as the wrong side of a one-hit James Brown album.
That happened on the Parliament album that preceded this one. The Clones of Dr.Funkenstein. The great title and album cover concealed a lot of music that was just okay, and not very interesting. And it happened again when I saw P-Funk at Madison Square Garden in the summer. The riffs went on too long, and were less varied than on their better records. And the ideas were simplified to fit the necessities of arena-sized rock drama. That is, they were less astonishing and charming and about as interesting as the "ideas" expressed by Kiss, Aerosmith, or Queen. They were just Outrageous, and that was all.
So the relative inventiveness of Funkentelechy and last year's Ahh . . . The Name is Bootsy, Baby! is reassuring. Funkenstein may have been a momentary slip, one of the hazards of dealing with bullshit on its own terms. And perhaps the MSG concert was at the end of a long tour, or sabotaged by personal mutinies. Maybe, after all, P-Funk wasn't wearing out and getting boring, just when white people had a chance to discover it.
In particular, this latest Parliament and Bootsy showing is reassuring because a Funkadelic album should be coming soon. For my money (and I've bought about 10 P-Funk albums so far, some duds, some classics) Funkadelic is P-Funk's weirdest and most enjoyable manifestation. It's lighter on the sci-fi, dirtier, and more eclectic in its musical styles.
Like Parliament, however, they're a UFO landing in the ghetto. Symbolically and literally. Their themes are black and so is almost 100 per cent of their audience. Which is a sign of the times, I suppose, but a shame for us white people, because they're interesting and accessible to white ears. I know. I like the stuff white people like--the Beach Boys, the Carpenters, and the Ramones. And I liked Funkadelic right away.
Imagine a record that recalls both James Brown and 1967 San Francisco trippy rock, yet also makes my wife say, "That sounds Jewish." A record that sounds good (that's white talk for "bad") and makes you chuckle, move your ass, and wonder if you really heard what you thought you heard. That's Funkadelic.
But why wait? Buy Funkentelechy. Or look for old P-Funk stuff being discounted. I recommend the Parliament with George Clinton jumping out of the flying saucer, anything with Bootsy in the title, or the Funkadelics with the speed-freak psychedelic covers.
But I know. You're white and open-minded and don't think you've heard this P-Funk stuff on the radio. You bet if you went out and bought one you'd be bored. And you're suspicious of the way these white rock critics are raving. Maybe this is a collective guilt trip, or some weird aesthetic influenza. You don't see how it fits in with anything else you've heard or read about. It's not disco, it's not punk, and it doesn't seem like it's like Jackson Browne.
But think. Think. Who got to go on the spaceship? The people who thought he was crazy and stayed back in Muncie, Indiana? Or Richard Dreyfuss?
Tom Smucker, Village Voice
I wrote at least one dumb sentence in this review, at the end of paragraph five, and got a letter, of course, from someone who owned every James Brown record and played all of them all of the time. Discographically inclined P-Funk historians might also wonder why I do not mention "Flashlight" which is the final cut on the album under review.