Music

Mothership North: Tracing Parliament-Funkadelic’s Canadian Years, 1971-73

Don’t Miss the CBC Radio Documentary Funk Getting Ready to Roll, airing Sunday August 12.

Well, this CBC radio documentary sure hits the nail on the head. Both a fascinating story about the creative process behind Funkadelic’s wild 1972 double album America Eats Its Young and a terrific study of Toronto’s role in fostering this creativity, Canadian journalist David Dacks’ lovingly-compiled documentary makes for some great listening.

By 1971, Toronto had emerged as a standard destination for recording artists, big and small, as they toured the northeast. With its budding population (it would soon overtake Montreal as the largest city in Canada) and recent history as a kind of Haight-Ashbury North -- the Yorkville and Yonge Street hip music scenes had produced a raft of '60s-era talent, including such megastars as Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Steppenwolf, Gordon Lightfoot, and the Band -- Toronto had a certain allure. There was a ripping party scene, too; but more importantly there was a large and committed audience of music lovers with ears to the ground.

As has been pointed out by many chroniclers of the history of Canadian music, though the domestic industry tended to eat its young, forcing local musicians to split for the United States if they wanted to break onto the charts, there was still a remarkably vibrant community of musicians who found the starving artist’s life in the Big Smoke to be preferable to struggling down south. Toronto, then, was a kind of incubator of talent.

The basic history of most of the major artists to spend time in the Toronto scene has been written (and, in some cases, explored extensively in biographies and autobiographies), but somehow the tale of George Clinton’s extraordinary collective and their time in the city has been mostly forgotten. “Toronto, oddly enough, was a hotbed of R&B interests at that time”, explains Rob Bowman, musicologist at York University, a fact that today surprises many. Indeed, it was such a hotbed that, when Geogre Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic needed a change of scene after years of heavy psychedelic drug use, and the end of a long, blistering decade of social (especially racial) turmoil in the United States, Toronto’s odd hotbed seemed to fit the bill. It didn’t hurt that they had found new management based in the city, and their previous home base of Detroit had just had its heart ripped out when Barry Gordy moved Motown Studios to Los Angeles. All told, about a dozen members of the P-Funk collective moved to Toronto in 1971. And they weren’t alone -- between the tens of thousands of draft resistors who’d been pouring into the city in recent years, there was a real community of Americans in early 1970s Toronto. “When we got up there”, recalls Clinton, “we found so many of our friends who had already moved there!”

But as fun as it is to hear tales of Toronto the Good (its longtime nickname, a derisive dig at the city’s pre-1960s no-vice reputation) and the way it inspired the Mothership metaphor, the real joy here is learning about the development of America Eats Its Young. A messy, stylistic gumbo of a double LP, AEIY holds a special place in the hearts of many P-Funk fanatics the world over. Here is the definitive story of its development. A Joyful Process, indeed.

Check out a clip from the upcoming special here. Funk Getting Ready to Roll airs on Sunday, August 12, 3 PM EST on CBC Radio 2, and 9PM EST on CBC Radio 1 / Sirius Satellite 159.

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