Parliament’s Peak: ‘Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome’ Turns 45

The climactic album in Parliament’s space opera about Starchild, Dr. Funkenstein, and Sir Nose d’Voidoffunk, Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome, remains their best work.

Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome
28 November 1977

George Clinton and ParliamentFunkadelic were R&B’s great jesters. Their outrageous outfits and lyrics are often hysterically funny. Clinton walking out of a stage prop spaceship wearing a pimp’s full-length fur coat is pretty hard to forget, as is guitarist Garry Shider wearing nothing but a diaper, shooting the audience with a toy gun while suspended from an arena’s ceiling. But jesters do more than make us laugh. They speak the truth under the protective umbrella of humor, which helps keep them from getting their heads chopped off by those in power. That’s exactly what George Clinton and Parliament so effectively did on Funkentelechy and the Placebo Syndrome and the two albums that preceded it.

At a time when Parliament and its alter ego Funkadelic were incredibly prolific, Funkentelechy stood alone among their studio albums. Its predecessor, The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein,  was clustered in four months the previous year with two albums by Funkadelic (Tales of Kidd Funkadelic and Hardcore Jollies), and its successor in Parliament’s discography, Motor Booty Affair, shared the stage with Funkadelic’s One Nation Under a Groove later the following year. Though the cover of One Nation features the planting of a flag atop a peak, Funkentelechy stands as the 1970s pinnacle of the P-Funk empire — more complex and virtuosic than Mothership Connection, more consistent and focused than One Nation. Funkentelechy peaked at #2 R&B, was certified Platinum less than six months after its release, and spawned P-Funk’s first #1 R&B single (“Flash Light”).

From a plot perspective, Funkentelechy isn’t a fully developed opera like the Who‘s Tommy (which inspired Clinton), but it does tell a story, or at least the climax of one. It’s the culmination of a narrative arc stretched over three consecutive Parliament albums (Mothership in 1975 and The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein in 1976 came before this album). The entire trilogy was attuned to the zeitgeist, focusing on outer space. Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind arrived in movie theaters between Clones and Funkentelechy. But Clinton wasn’t just cashing in on a trend: he and bassist Bootsy Collins claim to have seen an actual UFO before launching this trilogy of space-themed albums.

“Characters last longer,” Clinton said in the documentary One Nation Under a Groove. “Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse will last forever.” On Mothership, the band introduced the story’s hero, Starchild. On the following album, they present Starchild’s boss Dr. Funkenstein, an outer space funk overlord who is creating clones (the “Children of Production”) to spread the funk here on Earth. To that point, there’s no villain in this galactic saga, and Funkentelechy is the first time on record that we meet Starchild’s nemesis, Sir Nose d’Voidoffunk. The idea for Sir Nose came from the hit released earlier in 1977 by Bootsy’s Rubber Band, “The Pinocchio Theory”, which explains that if you “fake the funk”, your nose will grow.

How do these characters relate to the concepts in the album’s title? The idea of entelechy was developed by Aristotle about 2,300 years ago. The gist is to simultaneously be — and work towards becoming — what one should. So, funkentelechy is to funk (or live) in the right and natural way. Starchild is the defender of funkentelechy, the freedom to be your genuine, fully realized self. On the other side is the placebo syndrome — living in a dishonest, synthetic, repressive way — championed by the uptight Sir Nose, who refuses ever to dance. At the story’s climax, Starchild shoots Sir Nose with the Bop Gun, causing him to loosen up, get in touch with his authentic funk, and dance. If this is a bit hard to follow, the Funkentelechy LP included a comic book explaining the story (along with a fold-out poster of Sir Nose).

“Bop Gun (Endangered Species)” was Funkentelechy’s first track and lead single. In the song, the real funk is an endangered species. Echoing a civil rights movement anthem, “Bop Gun” promises “we shall overcome”, but this time, with “funk and dance”, and warns “don’t let your guard down” when “the syndrome is around”, or you’ll be in danger of faking the funk. “Bop Gun” was the last P-Funk record to feature singer Glenn Goins. He was beloved for his gospel-tinged vocals on “Mothership Connection” and other critical songs in Parliament’s 1970s canon. Due to Clinton’s business practices, Goins left the band shortly after the Funkentelechy sessions, and the following year, he tragically died of Hodgkin’s lymphoma at age 24. In hindsight, it’s hard not to hear him here as a man singing for his life while the background singers urge us to “defend” and “protect” ourselves.

Instrumentally, the song’s sturdy frame is a twisting, turning guitar riff locked in from the first note with the drums, which emphasize “the one” over and over again, for nearly nine minutes, with a heavy crash cymbal. The horns weave in and out of that riff, adding melodic accents. Bootsy Collins helps hold down the rhythm with a steady bass pattern but also improvises a ton, making good use of his Musictronics Mu-Tron III Envelope Filter (which gave his bass its distinctive liquid sound). The song’s midsection, four minutes in, consists of a series of forceful, overlapping, ascending riffs, driven primarily by Bootsy’s bass, as the vocalists repeat the phrase “endangered species”. Once we get back to the verse, Bernie Worrell’s keys add layer upon layer of improvisation, with some of his lines phase-shifted, out of sync with the song’s rhythm. This music is far from simple, venturing deep into compositional complexity and technical prowess.

“Sir Nose D’Voidoffunk (Pay Attention – B3M)” is as compelling a villain’s theme as the “Imperial March” from the Star Wars soundtrack. Musically, the horns quote “Merrily We Roll Along”, the theme from the Warner Brothers Merrie Melodies cartoons. Then, the central, sinister riff arrives, with Worrell doubling Bootsy’s bassline. It’s easy to imagine a procession of ballers strutting into the room to it, and in fact, P-Funk later performed at a player’s ball in Las Vegas. Clocking in at more than ten minutes, “Sir Nose” is a conversation that lays out the battle lines between Starchild and Sir Nose, whose distinctive vocal tone is created with an Eventide H910 Harmonizer (the world’s first digital effects processor). As on Funkadelic’s “Let’s Take It to the Stage” in 1975, Clinton’s lyrics are adult nursery rhymes. The chorus rhymes “tweedle-dee-dee-dum” with “humdrum” and “don’t succumb”, and Clinton sings about “three blind mice” (a.k.a. B3M, or “blind three mice”) who “ran after the farmer’s wife” and used a “water pipe” to smoke a “nickel bag”. 

Like “Fantasy Is Reality” from earlier in 1977, “Wizard of Finance” is a midtempo track that points back to Parliament’s genesis as the vocal group the Parliaments, who hit #3 R&B in 1967 with “(I Wanna) Testify”. The world of high finance likely wasn’t foreign to Clinton. Plainfield, New Jersey, where he and many other Parliament members grew up, is less than 30 miles from Manhattan’s Wall Street, and Newark, where Clinton lived before moving to Plainfield, is even closer. The song’s funny lyrics analogize investing in the stock market to investing in a romantic relationship, describing a man’s romantic dividends as “so tremendous” that even “Dow Jones” wouldn’t believe them. It would be easy to see this track as filler, but there’s more to it than that. By pointing to Wall Street, Clinton acknowledges his awareness of where the power lies in America, but again, he’s doing so in a humorous, unthreatening way. Musically, the horns take the lead on this track, and its midsection features dueling, intersecting solos by Maceo Parker’s saxophone and Worrell’s keyboard. 

“Funkentelechy” isn’t just the title track of the album but also its narrative centerpiece (though “Bop Gun” and “Flash Light” were bigger hits). This track hides a nuanced, anticommercial analysis behind a ferocious dance groove. There was a world of difference between Clinton’s Starchild and the character of the same name played by Paul Stanley in Parliament’s Casablanca Records labelmates Kiss, known as the world’s most commercial band because they would slap their logo on just about anything to sell merch to their fans. In a nutshell, the moral of this song is “mind your wants ’cause there’s someone that wants your mind.” “Mood control” is “pimping” the pleasure principle with “urge overkill” (and yes, that band is named after this lyric). People are “taking every kind of pill”, but “nothing seems to ever cure” their ills. It’s consumerism where the consumer never wins: “heads I win, tails you lose”. People are selling themselves out, trading their real funk (or life force, if you like) for “what’s behind the third door” on a game show. Clinton mockingly repeats many commercial slogans from the 1970s: “how do you spell relief” (Rolaids), “you deserve a break today” (McDonald’s), and “have it your way” (Burger King).

This is the placebo syndrome. After seeing ads, people expect to receive what they need from the products they’re buying, but those products don’t have the promised positive effect and instead confer little to no benefit. At the end of “Funkentelechy”, Clinton says that the “pleasure principle” is “rescued” with “the aid of the funk”, the real, “heavyweight” funk. It’s “mood de-control”, pushing us to “pay more attention” and “name that feeling”. Not just lyrically but also musically, “Funkentelechy” remains compelling over 11 minutes, mainly because Parliament so expertly manages space, deftly balancing notes and silence. The verse occupies nearly the entire first half of the song, alternating four beats of frantic activity (led by Bootsy’s leaping bassline and a chorus of background singers) with another four beats of relative quiet (leaving space for Clinton’s vocals). Throughout all eight beats, the horns swoop in and out and up and down, and Worrell’s keys add accents. The song’s second half is mostly an extended bridge, as the background singers repeat the song’s title over and over, asking us all, “How’s your funkentelechy?”

The “Placebo Syndrome” is lightweight and breezy, pleasant enough, but not significant on an album full of major statements. In this song, what “used to be such fun to do” is described as now leaving us “weak”. With the placebo syndrome, “your ups lift you down”, so the more you take whatever you crave, the worse it gets. Fred Welsey and the horn section drive this song forward, and Bernie Worrell’s synthesizers sound like Billy Joel‘s on his hit “The Entertainer” from 1974. 

If “Funkentelechy” is the album’s lyrical core, its final track — “Flash Light” — is its musical standout and the story’s narrative climax. Like so much funk music, this track is driven by the bass. However, in this case, Bootsy Collins passed on releasing the song when he recorded it for his band, and he even neglected to play bass on Parliament’s version, choosing to sit on the drum stool instead. In the documentary One Nation Under a Groove, Clinton described “Flash Light” as “the first of the songs with the synthesizer as the bass.” Regardless of which version you’re listening to — the 4:28 single, the 5:46 album version, or the 10:42 extended 12″ — it’s primarily a vehicle for Worrell, who’s here, there, and everywhere, providing the bass part, the melody, and so much more.

Other key elements: the guitar pulse provided by Bootsy’s brother Phelps, holding steady as Worrell rockets into the stratosphere; the frantic sax solo from Darryl Dixon; and the unforgettable chant based on something a friend of Clinton’s heard at someone’s Bar Mitzvah. “Flash Light” is also the song on which Starchild defeats Sir Nose, who finally gives in and dances — like so many others did when they heard this song, helping drive it to #1 R&B for three weeks in March 1978. The key lyric — “everybody’s got a little light under the sun” — is the last thing heard in the song and on the album, and it explains Sir Nose’s redemption. Like the sun’s rays, the life force the real funk provides is inexhaustible and freely available to everyone. Just because Starchild is bathed in it doesn’t mean Sir Nose gets any less.

After the trilogy that Funkentelechy brought to a close, Motor Booty Affair provided a less satisfying coda in 1978 (with Sir Nose and Starchild going underwater to Atlantis). That album already showed Parliament falling off its game, and the decline accelerated with Gloryhallastoopid in 1979 and Trombipulation in 1980 (the last album credited to Parliament until 2018). Parliament’s alter ego, Funkadelic, hit its apex in 1978 with One Nation, but by 1981, Funkadelic was finished, too. As the 1980s dawned, it wasn’t just the art that suffered, as Clinton’s business empire also fell into decline. After he got the better of the music industry for so many years, somehow recording with what was essentially the same band for two different labels, Clinton’s luck ran out.

Gone were the days of partnering with small, independent labels like Casablanca, Westbound, and Revilot. Clinton instead found himself working with the majors: not just Warner Brothers but also CBS and PolyGram (which bought half of Casablanca in 1978 and the remaining half in 1980). The beginning of the end was the establishment of his short-lived label Uncle Jam Records, which was distributed by CBS but never took off. Roger Troutman (of Zapp fame) recorded a solo project that was supposed to be released on Uncle Jam. Still, Roger sold the completed masters out from under Clinton to Warner Brothers, and the album later reached #1 R&B. Clinton sued, which ultimately led to Funkadelic leaving Warner Brothers.

When it comes to dollars and cents, Clinton can’t be considered just a victim of the music industry. In the film Tear The Roof Off: The Untold Story of Parliament Funkadelic, many of his P-Funk bandmates accused him of keeping nearly all the money the band earned, paying them little to nothing for their work, and sometimes even compensating them with drugs instead of cash. Despite their critical roles in numerous hit records and sold-out arena concerts, many of those musicians were impoverished. In addition, Clinton later appeared in a 1990 Burger King commercial for breakfast muffins, raising questions about the authenticity of his anti-commercial lyrics in “Funkentelechy” and other songs. Maybe he was so financially hard up by then that he was willing to do just about anything for a buck. 

However, none of this has limited P-Funk’s ongoing sway on a wide swath of popular music. Clinton produced the Red Hot Chili Peppers and influenced Prince, Fishbone, and many others, but the band has perhaps had its most significant impact on hip-hop. Sampled thousands of times, it affected individual songs, artists, and an entire influential and popular subgenre, G-funk. “Gangsters love Parliament and Funkadelic,” said Ice Cube, one of G-funk’s key artists, in the film One Nation Under a Groove. Two notable G-funk songs from 1991 called on music from Funkentelechy: the riff at the center of “Sir Nose” anchored the title track from the second N.W.A. album, Niggaz4Life, and “Funkentelechy” is the basis for Ice Cube’s “Doing Dumb Shit” from his album Death Certificate.

With P-Funk’s legacy secure and Clinton surviving (and even thriving) past the age of 80, it seems he has had the last laugh, despite his difficulties and shortcomings. A version of his prop spaceship is now prominently displayed at the Smithsonian, and like that spaceship, Funkentelechy vs. The Placebo Syndrome has more than stood the test of time.