Masters of the Form: Parliament, 1977 – Funkentelechy Vs. The Placebo Syndrome

In 1976, Parliament, led by the incomparable George Clinton, released chapters one and two of a trilogy that changed the landscape of contemporary music. Mothership Connection and The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein proved that Parliament were Masters of the Form by pushing the boundaries of what funk music could be. 1977 found Clinton and his funk mob touring the country in perhaps the most elaborate stage show ever produced by a black musician. The tour reinforced the storylines of the two albums, and when the Mothership landed onstage each night, the band was lifted into the musical stratosphere.

Mothership Connection had recast Clinton and his musical peers, Bootsy Collins, Fred Wesley, Maceo Parker, and Bernie Worrell amongst many others, as otherworldly freethinkers descending from space onto a planet in desperate need of the free thought that funk music symbolized. The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein introduced their leader and his clones, who had come to help their listeners fight for this freedom. In 1977, Parliament didn’t release an album at all; they released a war, a final stand, the third part of the trilogy and an absolute musical masterpiece called Funkentelechy Vs. the Placebo Syndrome. It was the third album in a funk-tinged science fiction comic book trilogy that focused all of Parliament’s power, humor, and politics into 44 minutes of courageous musical climax.

Parliament, and its brother band Funkadelic, had a rather consistent political agenda matched only by its keen sense of showmanship. Funkentelechy Vs. the Placebo Syndrome, like its two predecessors, was an album about an ideal “us” struggling for freedom in a world run by an oppressive “them”. The genius of George Clinton and Parliament was that they packaged their politics in music that seemed to stain the skin upon the first listen. The LP could be lifted from the turntable, but the groove lasted long after the needle had been lifted from the vinyl groove of the LP itself. Additionally, they wove their most political statements throughout a hilarious tapestry of one–liners, slogans, and non-sequiturs. At times it seemed as though the lyrics were little more than gibberish, humorous jigsaw pieces, but part of the fun of the three albums was assembling the pieces to view the whole funky picture.

Funkentelechy Vs. the Placebo Syndrome presents Parliament’s most vivid picture. It delivers on the promises of Mothership Connection and The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein, the space themed narrative, the colorful heroes, and the hint of an epic struggle to come. Funkentelechy Vs. the Placebo Syndrome introduces the villain, the fight for freedom itself, and a gloriously shiny victory.

“On guard! Defend yourself!” is shouted from the speakers and Parliament drops its opening salvo by dropping lucky listeners into the middle of the battle against “the Syndrome”. It’s a battle that Starchild and the clones have no intention of losing; they’ve come armed with the “Bop Gun”, and from the moment Glen Goins’s “Yeah!” pierces the calm of the opening guitar line, Parliament is all attack. “Turn me lose, we shall overcome,” Goins sings before taking aim, “They’re spoiling the fun / Let’s shoot them with the Bop Gun!” It is a mission statement of sorts, a revelation of symbols where funk is freedom, the Placebo Syndrome is an acceptance of oppression, and dance can help you achieve the first by protecting you from the second.

“Bop Gun” is the opening shot of the most hysterically entertaining war ever conceived. Both the fight and the fun continue with the introduction of “the subliminal seducer” Sir Nose D’Voidoffunk, who wants to seduce listeners into the Syndrome, robbing them of their free thought. “Sir Nose D’Voidoffunk” is a political allegory hidden in a series of nursery rhymes. Starchild warns continually “Syndrome, Tweedle-dee-dee-dum, Humdrum don’t succumb!”

“You might as well pay attention. You can’t afford free speech”, Clinton warns at the beginning of “Funkentelechy”, which trades in nursery rhymes for pop culture slogans paraphrasing McDonald’s and Burger King advertisements before pointedly asking, “Where’d you get that funk from?” It’s the album’s biggest political statement. “Funk is not domestically produced”. Funk, like freedom, is not a commodity. Both must be sought and felt rather than bought and sold. The track defines the concept of Funkentelechy, complete funkability, and it does so in music that is, as its own lyrics boast, “heavyweight funk”. “Funkentelechy” is a ferocious musical workout, layers of horns that glow over the deep rumbling of Bootsy Collin’s pulsating bass, more hand than instrument, reaching through the speaker, fully endowed with “the Pleasure Principle”, to shake listeners out of whatever funk they might be in by letting them listen to the kind of funk they could be in.

If “Funkentelechy” is a masterpiece, “Flash Light” is a miracle. A dance song for which all superlatives seem anemic, “Flash Light” deserves every bit of the legend it has earned. It is a rarity in music, a song that sounds wholly original every listen. The track is a witch’s cauldron of bubbling bass, courtesy of Bernie Worrell’s synthesizer. He is accompanied by an amazing Catfish Collins guitar performance and some bare bones drumming from Bootsy, but Bernie is clearly the star, creating a sound that had never been heard before and has never quite been duplicated since. It is the sound of freedom, funk, and victory. It is what it sounds like when “Everybody’s got a little light under the sun”.

The title, “Flash Light”, is fitting, because once again Parliament was shining a light on something else that funk music could be. Once again they were proving themselves to be Masters of the Form. In a year’s time they would be back. They would come together under the Funkadelic banner to compose a new “Star Spangled Banner”.