Parliament, Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome

George Clinton’s most ambitious album marries funk, Afrofuturism and sharp philosophical critique to create a masterpiece.

Album of the Week, October 7, 2023

There are three albums to talk about in this review. In the first, Sir Nose D’Voidoffunk (“if you fake the funk, your nose will grow”) attempts to sway the citizens of Earth to abandon the cosmic secrets of funk for the placebo effect of the Pleasure Principle, but is foiled by the hero Star Child who renders him funky with the assistance of the Bop Gun. In the second, funk rhythms hide a sharp critique of materialist and medicated 20th century society and urge the listener to embrace the entelechic perfection of being through doing. And in the third, a veteran of the doo-wop and R&B scenes hones his concept of dance music to the highest degree in response to a challenge from the forward surge of disco music, creating a masterpiece that goes on to influence 80s pop and hip-hop. Welcome to the worlds of George Clinton, where low meets high and everything has multiple meanings.

Clinton was born in Kannapolis, North Carolina in 1941, moved with his family to Plainfield, New Jersey, and formed a doo-wop group which he dubbed the Parliaments while still in his teens. He became a staff songwriter for Motown and had a hit with “I Wanna Testify” in the 1960s. When he lost the right to use the Parliaments name following a dispute with his label, he renamed the group Funkadelic (or so it was named by the group’s original bassist, William “Billy Bass” Nelson) and signed to Westwood Records in 1968. The newly renamed group pursued an aggressive form of funk-rock, heavy on guitars but with the original Parliaments—Clinton, Ray Davis, Fuzzy Haskins, Calvin Simon, and Grady Thomas— on vocals. After regaining the rights to the name, he launched a second group, now called Parliament, featuring the same members as Funkadelic but with a more horn-forward funk flavor. The band went briefly dormant but relaunched in 1974, signing to Casablanca Records.

The history of the two bands is complicated, but briefly: Clinton’s early albums featured a mix of dance grooves and political consciousness, with “Chocolate City,” about the growing political power of African-Americans in Washington, DC, an early stand-out. Starting with Parliament’s third album Mothership Connection, Clinton swerved hard into Afrofuturism, introducing an entire mythology around the arrival of Parliament’s funk—P funk! Uncut funk! The bomb!—from outer space on the Mothership, thanks to the Star Child. The mythology got increasingly baroque; following albums introduced Dr. Funkenstein and his Afronauts, who laid upon Manchild the secrets of Clone Funk but later repossessed them, burying them in the pyramids until a more positive attitude toward funk could develop.

Which brings us to the current album. By this time, Parliament featured only Ray Davis of the original Parliaments, but had accrued a galaxy of talent, including composer and keyboard genius Bernie Worrell, bassist Bootsy Collins, guitarists Michael Hampton and Phelps Collins, guitarist/vocalists Glenn Goins and Garry Shider, drummer Jerome Brailey, and horn players Fred Wesley, Maceo Parker, and others. The Collins brothers and Wesley and Parker had formed the core of James Brown’s original J.B.s in 1970, playing on “Super Bad,” “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine,” “Soul Power,” and “Talking Loud and Sayin’ Nothin’,” among others, before leaving in a pay dispute. This band recorded the most unusual of Clinton’s records, marrying the cosmic funkography with slinky dance grooves. It also contributed to his cosmology, notably through a comic book that was included with the record.

The conflict between good and evil, or funk and placebo, is introduced on the opening track, “Bop Gun (Endangered Species).” The opening lines “Turn me loose/We shall overcome/Where did you get that funk from?/Turn them on/They’re spoiling the fun/Let’s shoot them with the Bop Gun” set up the album’s key themes of transcendence of struggle through music, and overcoming unfunky opponents with highly weaponized funk. The track features Clinton’s trademark repeated funk choruses (including a recurring admonition “don’t let your guard down”) over a repeated chromatic descending horn line, a slinky bass line that hangs around the seventh and the octave before ascending up from the depths in the bridge, and a tight drum line that keeps things solidly anchored to a 4/4 beat. Over it all is a superb vocal line from Glenn Goins, and the whole thing is shot through with bop gun effects courtesy Worrell’s Moog synthesizer and Bootsy’s bass. It’s a nine minute plus joyride.

The opposing team is introduced in “Sir Nose D’Voidoffunk (Pay Attention).” Sir Nose D’, as he’s referred to by the Star Child, doesn’t have many lines, but he is set up as the “subliminal seducer” who refuses to dance, and other lines suggest that he distracts the funky faithful with drugs. Star Child arrives and announces that he will protect the Pleasure Principle, the name under which the Clone Funk secrets appear on this album. The song itself leverages the “Three Blind Mice” and “Baa Baa Black Sheep” nursery rhymes and melodies, transformed into a minor key. The call for vigilance repeats, this time with the Star Child calling upon the listener to “Pay Attention!”

Wizard of Finance” is the one song on the album in which Clinton mostly dispenses with the P-Funk cosmology for a doo-wop inspired, sax-forward romance song. It’s the shortest song on the album and the most straightforward, but still connects to the album through its rejection of money for the sake of money. Clinton’s narrator says “If I had plenty of money/I’d probably spend it all in one year/I’d be busy buying you flowers, girl/Just to show you I appreciate your being here.” The harmonies on the chorus are joyous and gospel inflected. On a lesser album it would be a standout track, but here it’s a respite before the second side of the album.

The title track “Funkentelechy” opens the second side with one of Clinton’s greatest admonishments, “Yo! This is Mood Control saying you might as well pay attention if you can’t afford free speech.” The Star Child urges the listener to be aware of attempts to supply fake alternatives to funk in the form of commercialism (“You deserve a break today! Have it your way!”) and self-medication (“When you’re taking every kind of pill/Nothing will ever cure your ill”). Instead, he offers funkentelechy, the condition of achieving complete self-actualization by staying in constant pursuit of funk. More or less. He never defines the word, but entelechy is a recognized philosophical concept dating back to Aristotle, and the invented word takes prime place in the bridge. The track sets up the battle between Mood Control, who seeks to pervert the Pleasure Principle with help from the self-indulgent Urge Overkill, and Mood De-Control, the home of the Funk. The track itself is an incredible layered jam, with at least six different chants and themes passing over each other to create a dizzying treatise on free will and self-indulgence.

The opposing force, the “Placebo Syndrome,” sounds pleasant enough, but pay attention—“You’re in the Syndrome/And the intensity of their sadness/Is equal to the intensity they enjoy.” Another song that leverages the vocal harmonies of the original Parliaments, this one goes in circles, ultimately fading out in an echo of the weakness induced by the Placebo Syndrome.

The spell is broken by Bernie Worrell’s mighty keyboards, opening “Flash Light.” Parliament’s biggest hit, it went to Number One on the R&B charts and rose to #16 on the Hot 100, largely on the strength of Worrell’s mighty synthesized bass line, played on multiple Minimoog synthesizers that were wired together. The song plays out the final confrontation between Sir Nose and the Star Child; the former is hit with the Flash Light from the Bop Gun, shouting, “Oh, funk me!” as the chorus sings, “Most of all he need the funk/help him find the funk.” But the power to spread the funk is universal, as the second chorus confirms: “Everybody’s got a little light under the sun.” Musically there’s a lot going on with the track, with Clinton’s pitch shifted voice doing double duty as Sir Nose and Star Child, a rhythmic backdrop of guitars and handclaps, Bootsy Collins playing drums, a fierce Maceo sax line, and multiple layers of synth keyboards, all pulled together with that chromatic swaggering bass line on the Minimoog. There’s even a chant, “da da da dee da da da da da da da,” that Clinton borrowed from something he heard at a bar mitzvah.

Clinton’s Parliament never quite again hit the same heights of joyful inclusivity, nor the depths of philosophical inquiry, that they achieved on Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome. Band members began to fall away after the follow-up, The Motor Booty Affair, due to disagreements over Clinton’s management of the band. But Clinton kept going, recording the solo album Computer Games and the hit single “Atomic Dog” in 1982, producing Freaky Styley for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, collaborating with Prince on Graffiti Bridge, and ultimately bringing back the P-Funk All Stars into the studio on 1996’s T.A.P.O.A.F.O.M. (The Awesome Power of a Fully Operational Mothership). He still tours; I saw him and the band on November 13, 1999 for a show in which the band came out two hours late and played til dawn. Glenn Goins died in 1978 of lymphoma; Ray Davis passed away in 2005; both Phelps “Catfish” Collins and Garry Shider died of cancer in 2010; Cordell Mosson died of liver failure in 2013; and Bernie Worrell died of lung cancer in 2016. Bootsy, Fred Wesley, Maceo Parker, Michael Hampton, Jerome Brailey, and George Clinton are still around, flash lights shining strong.

Next week we return to jazz, starting a series on two jazz singers who hailed from my home town. You can listen to today’s album here:

Sly and the Family Stone, Fresh

The #albumoftheweek visits a joyful looking album that has some ominous shadows around the edges, along with some of the greatest funk ever.

Album of the Week, September 30, 2023

I want to take a moment before I start this week’s Album of the Week to talk about Larry Graham, who is not on this album. But he was on the last Sly and the Family Stone album that I reviewed. I didn’t say a lot about him then, but as the first bass player for Sly and the Family Stone, the inventor of the slap bass technique, the founder of funk band Graham Central Station, a key collaborator with Prince in the 1990s (credited with introducing the Purple One to Jehovah’s Witnesses!)—his funk bona fides are without question. So when I say that somehow, this first album by Sly and the Family Stone to not feature Graham is even funkier than the ones that came before, it says something about the sheer amount of funk rolling around in Sly Stone’s being.

Sonically the record feels slightly more subdued than Stand!, perhaps because of the shift away from guitars to a more drum and bass driven sound. According to legend, Miles Davis made his band listen to the opening song, “In Time,” on repeat for over thirty minutes; it’s hard to know if this actually happened, but Stephen Davis’s contemporaneous review of the album in Rolling Stone talks about Miles’s admiration for Sly, and you can hear some of the influence in the best of the early 1970s fusion material that Miles cut (for instance, on the Champions compilation). “In Time” repays that kind of close listening; it’s got everything from a rocking opening (here driven by organ and brass rather than guitars) to an intricate interlocking rhythm line that has enough going on that it confused the Rolling Stone reviewer into thinking that it was in 3/5 time. But the song is solidly in funk territory; as George Clinton once proclaimed, “everything is on the one.”

If You Want Me To Stay” is probably my favorite of Sly’s songs (though “Loose Booty,” from the follow up album Small Talk, is a superior funk jam). The simmering melody stays in a minor mode throughout, powered by a slinky bass line from Rusty Allen (or possibly Sly himself; it’s thought that he played all the instruments on this track). The lyrics are classic Sly word salad, but in the middle of it there’s the couplet “I’ll be good, I wish I could/get the message over to you now,” and there might not be a finer encapsulation of the “please take me back” archetype anywhere on record. It’s over in three minutes, but what a jam.

Let Me Have It All” is an ominous groove on a similar theme, with Sly directly asking “You set up a barrier/Don’t you know I’d marry ya/Can’t explain how you make me feel/Don’t you know I’m feeling real.” The song never moves off its opening minor chord, and is in and out before you know it, again clocking in under three minutes. The mood lightens slightly for “Frisky,” but the lyrics, which celebrate his drug use, are bleak in retrospect, as his habit made him progressively more unreliable and ultimately cost him his band and career.

Thankful ’n’ Thoughtful” lends an emotional core to the album. While powered by the same funk power, the track finds him singing his gratitude for being alive over that continuous groove. In what might be his only mention of his family on record, he reports “People got to be reminded where it’s really at/
Make your daddy happy and mama, your mama like it like that.” By contrast, “Skin I’m In” is a defiant statement that “if I could do it all over again/I’d be in the same skin I’m in.” The brief interlude contains one of the most complex harmonic chord progressions on the album, including a short bridge with a pulsating horn section that might be one of the great riffs in funk.

Side Two continues with “I Don’t Know (Satisfaction),” which might be a civil rights call to arms under the funk and Rolling Stones allusions. Sly’s lyrics feature a triple rhyme which lends punch to lines like “I see abuse, what’s the use/Time must let my people loose.” The song repeats the same groove over and over, building up to a crescendo before dropping to the fade out. “Keep on Dancin’” has a little more harmonic variety, opening with a downright threatening bass line before the backing vocalists sing the opening hook. The echo of the early Sly hit “Dance to the Music” lightens the track a bit, but there’s still the shadow of drug abuse lurking over the track with Sly saying “I’d get snowed in if I could.”

Perhaps the most unlikely track on the album is the band’s cover of “Qué Séra, Séra,” which begins as a more or less straight cover with Rose Stone singing the melody in a straight Doris Day voice. Then the chorus… the Family Stone take the tune to church, with Sly’s organ playing providing gospel notes under the family’s stacked harmonies.

If It Were Left Up to Me” is in a completely different vocal space from the rest of the album, featuring lead vocals from Rose Stone and harmonies from Little Sister. It was apparently recorded in 1970 for an intended Little Sister album, but was shelved until the song surfaced on Fresh. The melody is a breath of fresh air, carrying some of the optimism of the earlier Sly and the Family Stone albums.

Babies Makin’ Babies” is more in the pocket than the proceeding song, but still has some of the more ambitious harmonies and a great stacked-harmony chorus from Little Sister. Before I heard the track, I was convinced I was going to hear social commentary, but it turns out to be a funk chant with more word-salad lyrics. But what a funk chant! The groove is deep, folks.

Sly would record one more album, the aforementioned Small Talk, with the original Sly and the Family Stone, but his mental state had already begun deteriorating into paranoia and he started missing gigs. The band dissolved after booking Radio City Music Hall but only filling it to 1/8th capacity, having to scrape together money to make it back to Los Angeles. His subsequent career petered out by the mid-1980s. In 2010 he filed suit against his former manager, and was alleged to be homeless and living in a van in 2011. He is, apparently, still alive, and will release an autobiography this fall, but others have picked up the funk torch. We’ll hear from one of the most significant of those bands next week.

You can listen to today’s album here:

Gil Scott-Heron, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

Gil Scott-Heron’s poetry and songs intersect with jazz, funk and the blues to paint a rich portrait of black poverty and despair.

Album of the Week, September 23, 2023

In this short series about funk, Gil Scott-Heron would seem to be an unlikely choice. A poet, militant, novelist, spoken-word artist, Scott-Heron was not a musician by calling. Indeed, he called himself a “bluesologist,” a scientist concerned with the origin of the blues. But, thanks to two important collaborations, Scott-Heron has a place not only among the progenitors of funk but among the ancestors of hip-hop.

Gil Scott-Heron was born in Chicago in 1949, to an opera singer mother and a Jamaican soccer player. His parents separated when he was young, and he went to live with his grandmother Bobbie Scott, a civil rights activist who introduced him to the works of Langston Hughes and to the piano, in Jackson, Tennessee. On his grandmother’s death, he moved to live with his mother in The Bronx. He went to DeWitt Clinton High School but transferred to the Fieldston School on a full scholarship for writing. He was known as much for his acerbic wit and keen sense of social irony as his writing; when asked in an admissions interview how he would feel if he saw one of his classmates drive by in an limousine while he walked, he asked the interviewer, “Same way as you. Y’all can’t afford no limousine. How do you feel?” He attended Lincoln University, a historically black university in Pennsylvania, because Langston Hughes had done so.

It was at Lincoln University that he met one of his most important collaborators, the musician Brian Jackson, with whom he formed a band. Jackson was to collaborate with him throughout the 1970s. At Lincoln, he also attended a performance by the Last Poets, an incendiary spoken word ensemble who are today held to be among the forerunners of hip-hop, and asked them “Listen, can I start a group like you guys?” He left school to work on his debut novel, Vulture, and moved to New York City, where he met the other significant collaborator, jazz musician and producer Bob Thiele.

Thiele had gotten his start in the record business working for Creed Taylor, and served as the head of Impulse Records following Taylor’s departure for Verve. In his eight years at Impulse, he produced the most significant of John Coltrane’s late works, including Coltrane, John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, Duke Ellington & John Coltrane, Impressions, Crescent, A Love Supreme, Meditations, and Ascension. He also produced many other significant albums for Impulse, which was by this point a division of ABC Records, including Freddie Hubbard’s The Body and the Soul, and co-wrote the song “What a Wonderful World.”

The collaboration with Louis Armstrong on this (eventual) hit song led to a breakdown in relations between Thiele and ABC Records president Larry Newton. Apparently Newton was expecting a Dixieland style album from Armstrong, and when he learned that Thiele was recording him performing “Wonderful World,” a ballad, an argument began that escalated into a screaming match, with Newton ultimately being ejected from the recording studio and left yelling and banging on the door outside. Thiele left ABC shortly after and started his own label, Flying Dutchman. One of the first artists he convinced to record with him was Gil Scott-Heron.

The artist recorded three albums for Flying Dutchman, as well as today’s release, a 1974 compilation drawn from the first three releases after Scott-Heron departed for the Strata-East label. Gil’s debut album on Flying Dutchman, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, was a live session of poetry with accompaniment from Eddie Knowles and Charlie Saunders on conga and David Barnes on percussion and vocals, as well as Thiele himself on piano and guitar. The album did not chart, but it did feature the poems “Whitey on the Moon” and “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” performed as spoken word pieces with percussion accompaniment.

The two albums that followed were entirely different. For Pieces of a Man, Brian Jackson joined as musical director, and Thiele assembled an enviable cast of musicians to join them, including Ron Carter on electric bass, Hubert Laws on flute, Bernard Purdie on drums, and Burt Jones on electric guitar. Jackson’s musical perspective combined with Scott-Heron’s bluesy melodic writing is what connects this album to the funk of Sly and the Family Stone—along with a similar perspective on race relations. For the album, Scott-Heron re-recorded “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” with the new band, and the combination of Carter on bass, Purdie on drums, Hubert Laws’ anxious flute obbligato, and Scott-Heron’s intense spoken word work laid the blueprint for hip-hop. Carter’s bass in particular is tense and apocalyptic throughout the track, underscoring the fierce conflict in Scott-Heron’s poem between our commercial culture and the economic struggles of Black people:

The revolution will not be right back after a message about a white tornado, white lightning, or white people
You will not have to worry about a dove in your bedroom, the tiger in your tank, or the giant in your toilet bowl
The revolution will not go better with Coke
The revolution will not fight germs that may cause bad breath
The revolution will put you in the driver’s seat

The revolution will not be televised
Will not be televised
Will not be televised
Will not be televised
The revolution will be no re-run, brothers
The revolution will be live

Gil Scott-Heron, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”

As if to underscore the diversity of Scott-Heron’s lyrical agenda, “Sex Education: Ghetto Style”, from his third album Free Will, is another spoken word poem that slyly pokes fun at his own sexual coming of age. The performance style is closer to the music of Small Talk with the important addition of Jackson on flute. The rest of the Pieces of a Man band, except for Carter, returned for this album, and it featured a blend of spoken word and more traditional songs, including the next track, “The Get Out of the Ghetto Blues,” with Jackson’s bluesy piano complemented by David Spinozza’s guitar.

No Knock” comes from the same sessions, but is spiritually closer to “Revolution” in spirit and to “Sex Education” in conception, with Jackson on flute alongside percussionists and Scott-Heron’s rap. The original album features a spoken word intro to the performance from Scott-Heron that sets the context:

Um, we want to do a poem for one of our unfavorite people, um, who’s now the head of the, uh, Nixon campaign. He was formerly the Attorney General named John Mitchell. … no-knock, the law in particular, was allegedly, um, aheh, legislated for black people rather than, you know, for their destruction. And it means, simply, that authorities and members of the police force no longer have to knock on your door before entering. They can now knock your door down. This is No Knock. 

Gil Scott-Heron, “No Knock”

The compilation now transitions into one of Scott-Heron’s greatest collaborations with Jackson, the great “Lady Day and John Coltrane” from Pieces. Scott-Heron’s second album was the most introspective of his works, featuring multiple songs from the perspective of different sides of the Black experience, as well as this joyful, bluesy celebration of the power of jazz music. For me, the musical highlights are Carter’s bass line and Jackson’s Fender Rhodes solo after the second verse.

The compilation follows this track with the title track to “Pieces of a Man,” a ballad on acoustic piano and bass that tracks the disintegration of the narrator’s father, describing his violent outbursts and his despair at being fired from his job, leading to his arrest. The song might be Scott-Heron’s masterwork, fusing powerful metaphoric writing with an impassioned vocal. Scott-Heron’s narrator is only one of the examples of broken Black males to be found in his writing; “Home is Where the Hatred Is” (the following track) is written from the point of view of a heroin addict, who struggles to get clean while recognizing that returning “home” to his sobriety means having to confront the pain of his existence: “Home is where the needle marks/Tried to heal my broken heart/And it might not be such a bad idea if I never/Went home again.”

Brother” flips the perspective again, calling out hypocritical Black men who take on the outward trappings of Black liberation while not actually helping their brothers and sisters, in one of the earliest spoken recordings on this set. The compilation pairs the poem with another track from Pieces, but “Save the Children” is short on specifics on how exactly the children should be saved from the harsh reality of African-American life that will confront them when they grow up, though it’s another gorgeous collaboration with Jackson.

Whitey on the Moon” might be the most famous of Scott-Heron’s poems after “Revolution,” and for good reason, as he points out the uncomfortable gulf between the accomplishments of the Apollo program and the economic state of Black America. As I’ve written before, I’m a NASA kid, and proud of our accomplishments in space, but Scott-Heron’s poem points out that in our national choices on spending priorities in the 1960s between the space race, Vietnam, and Johnson’s War on Poverty, he could only see outcomes from two of the three.

The compilation closes with “Did You Hear What They Said?” from Free Will. The darkest of Scott-Heron’s early collaborations with Brian Jackson, the paean for a dead Black man—“They said another brother’s dead/They said he’s dead but he can’t be buried”—might be the most desolate lines he wrote. Accompanied by Hubert Laws’ flute, the closing thought, “This can’t be real,” reflects Scott-Heron’s loss of hope following the death, which evokes both Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination and the deaths of Black men from crime and police brutality.

The compilation as a whole is a powerful and complex representation of Scott-Heron’s legacy, and a good introduction to his work. But it deliberately ends in denial of the hope represented by some of his early songs, foreshadowing Scott-Heron’s own journey. His post-Flying Dutchman recordings with Brian Jackson and the Midnight Band were triumphant, but they acrimoniously split in 1980. Scott-Heron recorded sporadically after, and seemed to spiral slowly downward. Addicted to crack cocaine, he spent time in prison for drug possession, and recorded one last album in 2010, the harrowing I’m New Here, before his death in 2011, following reports of pneumonia and that he was HIV positive.

There are no easy answers in Gil Scott-Heron’s story, but I prefer to hold onto the gestures toward hope in his best songs. Next week we’ll visit another album from a performer struggling with addiction, who nevertheless continued to make vital, even joyous music.

There wasn’t an official playlist or full-album version of this compilation on YouTube, oddly, so I made my own. You can listen to it here:

Sly and the Family Stone, Stand!

The #albumoftheweek swerves into the funk lane, checking out Sly and the Family Stone’s first big hit.

Album of the Week, September 16, 2023

After spending the better part of six months exploring the intersection of jazz and funk music through the catalog of CTI Records, I thought it might be fun to dig into the other side of the equation and talk about funk for a bit. This is going to be a brief, non-encyclopedic peek, because I don’t have some of the records that should really be at the foundation of this discussion. No James Brown, no Funkadelic… But I do have a few that I’ve wanted to write about for a while, so let’s dig in.

Sylvester Stewart was born in Texas in 1943, but his family moved to California when he was young, and you can hear it in his music—a sense of sunny optimism that shines through many of the tracks on Stand!. After singing in doo-wop groups and spending time as a DJ, he formed the band Sly and the Family Stone with his brother Freddie and his sister Rose, both of whom took the Stone stage name as their surnames. The band featured an integrated line-up, following the example of Sly’s high-school doo-wop group; an exciting line-up of vocalists; a great horn section; and the combination of Stone’s rock-influenced guitar and Larry Graham’s relentlessly funky bass.

All the group’s features are in full display on the album’s title track. “Stand!” starts out as a pretty straightforward rock song… for about four bars, until it changes keys in the second half of the verse. A chugging guitar and bass combo leads to the ecstatic chorus. The second verse follows the pattern of the first, and the second chorus starts the same way—and then an abrupt cut into funkytown plays out the last minute of the track, with an incredible syncopated bass pattern on the base and fifth from Larry Graham. Apparently Sly tested the song in a San Francisco club, got a lukewarm response, and went back and recorded the ending with a group of studio musicians.

The second track swerves hard into psychedelia. “Don’t Call Me N—, Whitey” has one of the great (if unprintable) titles of 1960s rock, and the verse (sung by Rose Stone) suggests irreconcilable racial tension and a weariness after the difficult 1960s:

Well, I went down across the country
And I heard two voices ring
They were talkin’ funky to each other
And neither other could change a thing

“Don’t Call Me N—, Whitey”

The rest of the track is pure psychedelic funk, with distorted vocals reminiscent of a harmonica solo over a fiery guitar solo. It wouldn’t be out of place on an early Funkadelic album.

I Want to Take You Higher” is one of the great bits of synthesis on the album, as the pessimistic blues funk of the second track meets the relentless singalong optimism of the first. A gutbucket harmonica line alternates between solo and backing as each of the band’s five vocalists takes turns on the verse, with stacked harmonies on the chorus. But the most amazing feature on the song has to be the locked in rhythm section, with Graham, drummer Larry Errico, a chugging rhythm guitar, and handclaps hold the line ominously and doggedly on the tonic. The narrator may want to take you higher, but something is decidedly anchoring him to something a lot lower.

Somebody’s Watching You” again starts out sounding like a pop song, with the verse’s alternating vocals from Sly and the Little Sister backing group over a great trumpet line from Cynthia Robinson. But Sly’s funky organ and the gospel inflected chorus bring the track out of the polite airwaves and into a much funkier place.

Sing a Simple Song” is a straight ahead funk onslaught, with the band’s secret weapon Rose Stone opening up with one of the bluesiest “yeah, yeah, yeah” openings on record. After the second verse everyone drops out except for drums and trumpet for a moment of pure funk satori. The instruments suddenly drop out behind the vocalists with ten seconds left in the track, to reveal Sly and Rose trading lines with Little Sister behind. It’s a stunner.

Everyday People,” ironically, had the longest afterlife of any song on the album, thanks to its use in the late 1990s by Toyota for an ad campaign. It deserves its fame for the great songwriting—a chugging bassline behind a low-pitched verse; the trumpet ratcheting up the tension to the chorus an octave higher, with the voices leaning in from the ninth; and the great B part with Rose Stone taunting all the haters to the tune of “Nanny, nanny, boo boo.” It’s the song that Larry Graham famously claims is the first ever use of slap bass. It’s the song that popularized the phrase “different strokes for different folks.” Is it therefore the song that we should blame for Gary Coleman’s career? I find it difficult to be too cynical while singing that chorus, though.

And then, “Sex Machine.” No relation to James Brown’s better known “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine,” this is the longest track on the album, clocking in at almost 14 minutes of pure funky jam. Sly returns to the vocal harmonica technique from “Don’t Call Me…” on this track for a lengthy improvisation, with Graham’s bass alternately walking up and dropping out. A five minute guitar solo follows, leading up to a crescendo and the return of the harmonica vocals. Another solo on fuzzed out guitar follows, and the track speeds up just a notch. Jerry Martini comes in on saxophone and blows through a key change from G to A, topping out with an ecstatic high A. The rest of the instruments fade out to reveal Eric’s drums; after four measures of the pattern that he had played for the last 12 minutes, he speeds up, soloing in double time, then slowly drops the speed until he is waiting several seconds between beats and someone calls “Time!”

The album closes out with “You Can Make It if You Try,” the only track not featuring Graham on bass; Sly played the instrument on this closing track, which opens with the chorus and alternating vocals on the verses. Then a moment that caught me by surprise—suddenly we get the organ and drum part that the Jungle Brothers famously sampled to create “Because I Got It Like That.” Again, Sly peels away the instruments until it’s just drums and backing vocals, then brings the guitar, organ, and bass back in one at a time for the final coda. It’s an optimistic finale to an improbably upbeat album.

The album was Sly’s first big commercial success, hitting 13 on the Billboard pop chart and 3 on the R&B album chart. “Everyday People” hit number one the week of February 15, 1969. Sly and the band enjoyed the success, maybe a little too much. We’ll hear another one from them in a few weeks, but next week we’ll hear how some of the funk sounds on this album influenced an unlikely musician…with help from someone we’ve heard many times before in this series.

You can listen to this week’s album here:

New mix: God made me funky

I’ve been working on this one for a while, and today felt like the right day to finish it up. This is an indulgent (over four hours long) tour through at least four different genres, with a common thread of funk.

There’s no particular logic to the sequence except that they’re loosely grouped by genre so as to keep the groove flowing. And the first track might seem odd, but listen to Carleton Coon and Joe Sanders trading scat syllables (in a style that will seem familiar to fans of the Warner Brothers cartoon “Dough for the Do-Do”) and the connection to funk becomes clear.

  1. RoodlesThe Coon-Sanders Nighthawks (“Radio’s Aces”)
  2. Calling On My DarlingAlbert King (Chess Blues 1960-1967)
  3. Grab This Thing (Part 1)The Mar-Keys (The Stax Story)
  4. Black BoyRoebuck ‘Pops’ Staples (The Stax Story)
  5. I Have Learned to Do Without YouMavis Staples (The Stax Story)
  6. Sissy Walk (Full) (Vocal)Eddie Bo (The Hook and Sling)
  7. Tighten Up Tighter (Feat. Roosevelt Matthews)Billy Ball and the Upsetters (The Funky 16 Corners)
  8. Dap WalkErnie and The Top Notes Inc (The Funky 16 Corners)
  9. Check Your Bucket (Full)Eddie Bo (The Hook and Sling)
  10. Sock It To ‘Em Soul BrotherBill Moss (Eccentric Soul: The Capsoul Label)
  11. Hey Pocky A-Way (A Way)The Wild Tchoupitoulas (The Wild Tchoupitoulas)
  12. The Meters – Here Comes The Meter ManDJ Jedi (Blowout Breaks)
  13. The Headhunters – God Made Me FunkyDJ Jedi (Blowout Breaks)
  14. Honky Tonk (Parts 1 & 2)James Brown (Messing With The Blues)
  15. Outer Spaceways IncorporatedSun Ra (Space Is The Place (Original Soundtrack))
  16. UmbrellasWeather Report (Weather Report)
  17. Red China BluesMiles Davis (Get Up With It)
  18. Harvey Mason – Hop Scotch (1975)Herbie Hancock (Herbie Hancock – Man With a Suitcase)
  19. Eddie Henderson – Ecstasy (1978)Herbie Hancock (Herbie Hancock – Man With a Suitcase)
  20. Whitey on the MoonGil Scott-Heron (Small Talk At 125th and Lennox)
  21. The Last Poets – Black Is – ChantDJ Jedi (Blowout Breaks)
  22. Ku Mi Da HankanThe Elcados (Nigeria Rock Special: Psychedelic Afro-rock & Fuzz Funk In 1)
  23. Everybody Likes Something GoodIfy Jerry Crusade (Nigeria 70 – Lagos Jump)
  24. Live in Another WorldItadi (Afro-Beat Airways)
  25. The Things We Do In SowetoAlmon Memela (Next Stop Soweto 4: Zulu Rock, Afro-Disco & Mbaqanga 1975-19)
  26. Do The Afro Shuffle – Godwin Omabuwa & His Casanova DandiesGodwin Omabuwa & His Casanova Dandies (Nigeria Afrobeat Special: The New Explosive Sound In 1970&#0)
  27. Sex VeveVerckys & L’Orchestre Vévé (Congolese Funk, Afrobeat & Psychedelic Rumba 1969-1978)
  28. KenimaniaMonoMono (Nigeria Rock Special: Psychedelic Afro-rock & Fuzz Funk In 1)
  29. Afro-blues – Orlando Julius & His Afro-soundersOrlando Julius & His Afro-sounders (Nigeria Afrobeat Special: The New Explosive Sound In 1970&#0)
  30. Khomo Tsaka Deile Kae?Marumo (Next Stop Soweto 4: Zulu Rock, Afro-Disco & Mbaqanga 1975-19)
  31. Nuki SukiLittle Richard (King of Rock & Roll: The Complete Reprise Recordings)
  32. Home Is Where the Hatred IsGil Scott-Heron (Pieces of a Man)
  33. Mommy, What’s a Funkadelic?Funkadelic (Funkadelic)
  34. Maybe Your BabyStevie Wonder (Talking Book)
  35. Funky Dollar BillFunkadelic (Free Your Mind…And Your Ass Will Follow)
  36. Ride OnParliament (Chocolate City)
  37. Everybody Loves the SunshineRoy Ayers Ubiquity (The Best of Roy Ayers (The Best of Roy Ayers: Love Fantasy))
  38. So Ruff, So TuffZapp (Historia de la Musica Rock: Locas)
  39. I’ve Got My Eyes On YouThe Girls (Purple Snow: Forecasting the Minneapolis Sound)
  40. HigherThe Lewis Connection (Purple Snow: Forecasting the Minneapolis Sound)
  41. Feel UpGrace Jones (Lives of the Saints 5)
  42. ContagiousRonnie Robbins (Purple Snow: Forecasting the Minneapolis Sound)
  43. Cloreen Bacon SkinPrince (Crystal Ball)
  44. Sexy M.F.Prince (The Hits/The B-Sides)
  45. Tribe VibesJungle Brothers (Done By the Forces of Nature)
  46. Doin’ Our Own DangJungle Brothers (Done By the Forces of Nature)
  47. Can I Kick It?A Tribe Called Quest (People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm (25th Anniversary Edition))
  48. Rhythm (Devoted to the Art of Moving Butts)A Tribe Called Quest (People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm (25th Anniversary Edition))
  49. The Magic NumberDe La Soul (3 Feet High And Rising)
  50. Where I’m FromDigable Planets (Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time & Space))
  51. Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)Digable Planets (Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time & Space))
  52. God Lives ThroughA Tribe Called Quest (Midnight Marauders)
  53. Jettin’Digable Planets (Blowout Comb)
  54. Gold ChainsBeck (Odelay (Deluxe Edition))
  55. Manteca (The Funky Lowlives Extended Remix)Dizzy Gillespie & Funky Lowlives (Verve Remixed 2 – Exclusive EP)
  56. Show MeMint Royale (Dancehall Places)

Catch-up post vacation music link post

We were out of town for a week doing family things, during which time I managed to refrain from posting (much) on social media, but still collected a handful of interesting links. Here we go:

Aquarium Drunkard: James Booker, Montreux Jazz Festival, July 1978. Looking forward to checking this out; I’ve heard of Booker but never heard his music.

Doom and Gloom from the Tomb: Funkadelic – Rocky Mountain Shakedown. A farewell to the giant Bernie Worrell (DY16).

Boing Boing: Legendary Betty Davis and Miles Davis funk/fusion/psych session released. The vinyl bundles are all sold out, but the single vinyl LP and CD offerings are still available.

Doom and Gloom from the Tomb: Miles Davis – Paul’s Mall, Boston Massachusetts September 14, 1972. Live On The Corner era Miles.