Parliament: Up for the Down Stroke

Up for the Down Stroke

If James Brown is the Godfather of Soul, then George Clinton is the Weird Uncle, the one who shows up occasionally at family gatherings smelling faintly of pot smoke and regaling the children with games of Pull My Finger. Clinton is of course best known as the chief architect of that disreputable offshoot of soul music called funk, which he didn’t invent, but which he sure as hell catapulted to new heights of groove-laden, psychedelic glory in the ’70s as the ringleader of one (or two, if you want to get technical) of the most influential bands of all time, Parliament-Funkadelic.

The image of Clinton at the helm of the Funk Mob, strutting in his latest pimpadelic outfit, candy-colored braids flying, is so iconic that it seems almost unbelievable now that Mr. Mothership himself spent nearly 15 years laboring in an obscure doo-wop outfit called the Parliaments before finally busting out in 1970 with a pair of groundbreaking LPs, Funkadelic’s self-titled debut and the first proper album from the Parliaments (rechristened simply Parliament), Osmium. Four years of mind-bending Funkadelic releases followed, as Clinton and company plumbed the depths of their obsession with cross-breeding Sly Stone-inspired, down-and-dirty funk and a loopy, psychedelic rock sound that was equal parts Hendrix and Zappa. In 1974, Clinton decided to revive the Parliament name, not just so he could double the group’s prolific outfit (the Parliament and Funkadelic lineups were virtually the same), but also as a nod to his decision to recycle some old Parliaments tunes from his ’60s doo-wop days.

The resulting record, Up for the Down Stroke is a fascinatingly schizophrenic classic, retro and forward-thinking all at once as it restlessly tries to distill the chaotic Funkadelic sound into something resembling actual song structure. Four of the eight tracks here are funked-up retreads of old Parliaments tunes, and all five original Parliaments vocalists are credited, but the songs and the voices are barely recognizable as the P-Funk crew twist them like silly putty into funhouse versions of their former selves. It’s not Parliament’s best — too many tracks pale in comparison to the wall-to-wall grooves on later masterpieces like Mothership Connection and Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome — but it’s one of those turning-point records that’s essential listening more for what it points to than for what it actually is.

The title track is the standout, of course, an immortal rave-up that every dance party anthem since, from “1999” to “Love Shack” to “Who Let the Dogs Out”, owes a little debt to. One of the first collaborations between the essential P-Funk songwriting trio of Clinton, bassist Bootsy Collins and keyboardist Bernie Worrell, it shows all the ingredients for future Parliament epics already in place — a stone-solid groove led by Collins’ bass and Worrell’s squelching keys; chanting choruses, often layered into casually intricate three-part harmonies; an uncredited horn section (most likely led by ex-James Brown sidemen Maceo Parker and Fred Wesley) blowing endlessly inventive riffs around the tune’s simple chords; and tons of additional vocals and studio chatter buried in the mix to create that unmistakable “ain’t no party like a P-Funk party” atmosphere. For Clinton, the track was pivotal, giving him his first hit in seven years and effectively putting him back on the map.

That earlier hit, “Testify”, gets funked up here on the very next track, and though the song’s R&B roots can still be heard in its verse-chorus-verse structure, the new version is every bit as funky as “Down Stroke” itself. Though they don’t get songwriting credits, the hands of Bootsy and Bernie are all over this tune, as well, as more rollicking horns and Worrell’s scorching clavinet riff give the song a seriously funky sound. Interestingly, the folks at Universal have been good enough to provide an earlier mix of the song, which shows Clinton and crew taking a somewhat more timid approach to funking up their old hit, pushing the bass down and the harmony vocals up in the mix. It still sounds good, but the version that’s familiar to P-Funk fans is far superior.

The rest of Up for the Down Stroke is a weird hodgepodge of embryonic P-Funk jams, revamped Parliaments chestnuts, and a few downright oddities like the psychedelic pop epic “I Just Got Back From the Fantasy, Ahead of Our Time in the Four Lands of Ellet”, a fairly awful, funkless number that’s notable only for the amazing whistling solos of songwriter Peter Chase. Other tracks charm without dazzling, never quite coming together like an “Up for the Down Stroke” but still noteworthy for their individual components, like legendary guitarist Eddie Hazel’s great lead vocal on “Presence of a Brain” and the spidery guitar licks that open “I Can Move You (If You Let Me)” and instantly reveal where David Byrne got his jittery guitar sound for Talking Heads’ early albums.

The other old Parliaments remakes all hold up fairly well, despite not receiving the same heavy dose of funk injected into “Testify”. “The Goose That Layed the Golden Egg” gets relaid as “The Goose”, a Clinton/Hazel slow blues jam that is the album’s only epic, four minutes of wittily over-the-top huffing and puffing from Clinton followed by five minutes of somewhat aimless, effects-laden soloing by Hazel. “Whatever Makes Baby Feel Good” gets a similar blues-vamp makeover, with much livelier guitar work but a regrettably lumbering piano-driven backbeat. The standout Parliaments retread, however, is “All Your Goodies Are Gone”, thanks mainly to an amazing lead vocal by Clinton himself. Clinton was never a conventionally gifted vocalist, which is why he phased himself more and more into the role of ringleader over the years, but the way he moans, whispers, rasps, gulps and sneers his way through this song’s kiss-off lyrics has to be heard to be believed.

In addition to the alternate mix of “Testify”, this Universal reissue gives us two other bonus tracks, an “alternate mix” of “Up for the Down Stroke” that basically just features an additional, uncredited spoken vocal track, and a studio jam called “Singing Another Song”. The latter is more or less a throwaway, a Family Stone-style jam showcasing Worrell’s organ and those unidentified horns, but the “Down Stroke” alternate is fascinating for that insidious extra vocal, which riffs on everyone from “Tricky Dick” Nixon to the Godfather of Soul himself as it exhorts “all you unfunky folks and innocent bystanders” to “move in close so we can see you smile”. Conversational in tone yet winkingly insistent, that voice embodies the spirit of every Parliament-Funkadelic release that spread the gospel of the Mothership to every corner of funkland and beyond for the rest of the decade.