[14 January 2010]
Some musical artists are able to move; others are a movement. Such artists tap into a need within a mass of people, musically feeding off of the axiom that there is strength in numbers. George Clinton has always had both, strength and numbers, and from 1975 to 1978 he led a funk movement that changed the landscape of popular music forever. For that four-year period he and the numerous members of his bands Parliament and Funkadelic, always two sides of the world’s funkiest coin, were Masters of the Form that traded masterpieces back and forth while creating a new brand of musical expression and black consciousness. It was a movement that any casual Funkadelic fan should have known was coming. The title track of their 1974 release, Standing on the Verge of Getting It On was a proclamation to all that would listen that Funkadelic should be listened to by all. The following year they released the amazing Let’s Take It to the Stage.
Let’s Take It to the Stage was part invitation, part challenge, part promise and all funk. It was the work of a group that had turned a corner, a combination of all the disparate aspects of Funkadelic’s music up to that point, the extended jams, aggressive guitars, smooth ballads, tight vocals, psychedelic flourishes, risqué sexual lyrics and dirty funk into the most concise songs they’d ever recorded. In 1974 they had asked listeners to, “Stick us in your ears and dig us”; in 1975 they promised, “to be good to your earhole”. On Let’s Take It to the Stage it’s a promise the group kept.
Calling Funkadelic (or Parliament for that matter) a group is a bit of an understatement though. They were that and more. They were a group, a community, the community of funk music and mid-seventies black politics. “They call us the funk mob,” George Clinton sings in the title track, an open insult and challenge to other notable funk artists of the day like James Brown (“godmother”; “grandfather”), Sly and The Family Stone (“Slick and the Family Brick”), Kool and the Gang (“Fool and the Gang” and Earth, Wind and Fire (“Earth, Hot air and no fire”). He doesn’t really sing the line though. He speaks it; coos it. He makes the entire song sound forbidden and libidinous and the political appeal of the entire album can be found in the simple vocal delivery of the track. This was an album of cool music made by cool people for cool people, and while “cool” might not sound like a political statement, Let’s Take It to the Stage successfully showcased the oldest political ploy in history – the concept of “us” vs. “them”. To Funkadelic though, “us” was a potentially all inclusive concept, one that had room to embrace anybody who was down (on the one, of course) with the sounds of sex, spectacle and equality that Let’s Take It to the Stage offered.
Funkadelic guitar great Eddie Hazel
To that end, Funkadelic refused to play what was considered “black music” at the time. At its heart Funkadelic had always been a guitar band and they continued to be one throughout Let’s Take It to the Stage. The album is filled with the type of raucous rock and roll that was generally considered to be the domain of white musicians in the mid-seventies. In the first verse of “Good to Your Earhole” Clinton sings, “I’m not here to kill you softly,” and the song ends with a swirling guitar solo that finds virtuoso Eddie Hazel “Mashing your brain like silly putty.” “No Head No Backstage Pass” is a ribald tale of backstage excess with guitar licks that leap across the verses, which are completely devoid of innuendo, like gazelles towards the falsetto vocals of the chorus only to turn into lions as they attack the song’s conclusion. “Get Off Your Ass and Jam” is a call to arms that slaps listeners in the face with drums to get their attention and then stabs them through the heart with a sharpened sword of a guitar solo, lifting them up from their seats with the blade and holding them on their feet, making it impossible to sit back down.
Movement is an involuntary response of listening to Let’s Take It to the Stage, because it is ultimately a work of funk, and while it frequently employs the terms of white music, it crafts these terms as a means to further an R&B/soul aesthetic. White terms; black terminology. Let’s Take It to the Stage never sounds as though it’s seeking a white audience at the expense of black fans, it simply sounds as though it’s ready for all comers. The album shows off a constant blurring of musical color lines. “Better By the Pound” and “Stuffs & Things” are pop confections; “There is a Song” a pop ballad. None would be obvious choices for a funk album, but they fit perfectly on a Funkadelic album because Funkadelic routinely rose above the constrictions of what they should or shouldn’t play.
As such their music, at any given moment, could appeal to anybody, black or white, anybody who was willing to eliminate their preconceptions and listen to “Baby I Owe You Something Good”, a gospel ballad that sounds like a funk 45 being played back at the speed of 33 1/3, while drowning in electric guitar and amazing Calvin Simon vocals. Their music was for anybody that appreciated the sly wit and political nods in the lyrics, like a reference to Watergate being caused by Nixon’s love of funk music or the announcement that “McFunk is here”. Their music was for everybody who wanted to join the movement, the ever-growing Parliament-Funkadelic community. Finally, their music was for anybody who wanted the type of transcendence that only an album like Let’s Take It to the Stage could provide; those that were training for a mission on the Mothership.