From the cover of Talking Heads' Remain in the Light (Sire Records, 1980)

When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.

Considering its rhythmic complexities and instrumental demands, at first glance funk music would appear to make for an unlikely partner for punk rock. Add its focus on the bass and drums, its mostly mid-to-slow tempos, and its African-American roots, and one might assume that the notion of punk-funk would amount to an attempt at one hybrid too far. Yet, this sub-genre not only flourished after the first outbursts of primary punk, but it has remained one of punk’s most sustainable lifelines, reinventing itself in many forms and fashions over subsequent decades.

In 1979, Lester Bangs wrote an essay for The Village Voice entitled “The White Noise Supremacists” in which he bemoaned punk’s disengagement from black culture. Not only did punk excise those musical elements prior white hipsters had once enthusiastically appropriated (blues, jazz, R&B, soul), but its occasional flirtations with Nazi imagery signaled outright opposition to non-white expression. No subculture was more dismissive of the disco and light funk music that dominated the charts in 1976, and the jazz-funk adventures of Pere Ubu, Ian Dury, and Talking Heads notwithstanding, most punk groups responded to mainstream black music by dismissing and disparaging it—then avoiding any signs of it.

img-1421Album image from PexelsPixabay License /Pixabay

But funk was never a natural enemy, particularly as practiced by pioneers like James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone, and Parliament/Funkadelic. In fact, their funk had much in common with the punk insurgency. Both came from a position and point-of-view of the underdog; even the words “funk” and “punk” were generic put-down terms, the former denoting a bad smell and the latter a bad person! Bands from both genres also responded to their subordinate positions in society with subversive revolts that simultaneously railed against “common sense” norms while promoting alternative means of acting, expressing, and being. Indeed, David Byrne‘s instruction to “stop making sense” is essentially the equivalent of George Clinton‘s prescription to “free your mind and your ass will follow.”

In both funk and punk, both body and mind are required in order to resist repression and reinvent liberation. For funk, this empowerment often took its artists down some escapist and science fiction paths, but those paths invariably led back to earthly considerations, as in The Isley Brothers‘ “Fight the Power” (1975) or Parliament‘s “Chocolate City” (1975). Punks soon came to realize that the slang-infested in-crowd significations of funk were not dissimilar to what they had found so attractive in reggae.

Just as punk’s anarchic consciousness was eliciting waves of fear throughout the establishment, so reggae and funk provided the shock waves that Public Enemy would later characterize as a “fear of a black planet”. By 1979, as punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.

As funk crept into post-punk in 1979, new sub-genre terms were concocted by the hip music press. When not cast under the umbrella of post-punk, tags like dance-punk, avant-funk, disco-punk, mutant disco, and perverted disco were used to capture the strange manifestations of punk that had merged with (its take on) funk.

That take was neither true nor pure because punk-funkers were not trying to sound like the Brothers Johnson or the Meters; they were just using what such bands represented—both musically and culturally. Because funk signified otherness, its appropriation could highlight punk as such, too. Moreover, because punk had reached sonic exhaustion in terms of its limited structural permutations, funk also provided the apparatus for a musical rebellion against punk music itself.

Whereas punk accentuated the electric guitar, funk emphasized bass and drums; whereas punk involved an all-in all-the-time approach, funk allowed instruments to engage in a conversation rather than all shouting at once. Employing these alternative approaches, punk broadened its musical scope. Still, one of the funkier post-punk bands, the Gang of Four, were also least like funk predecessors. Their songs resembled funk in skeletal form, as though a purge had taken place of any excess detail. Their imposition of punk minimalism on a style renowned for its smorgasbord of ingredients transformed the funk sound into something new.

By stripping funk down to its raw essentials, post-punk punk-funk bands were engaging in an ideological as well as musical regimen, producing what Al Spicer calls a “cunningly danceable mix of radical politics and polyrhythms” (p.147). Starting with the presumption that white music—as represented by primary punk—reflects white cultural norms, left-leaning punks entered the “post” era with the intention of darkening punk’s whiteness and disavowing its perceived anti-blackness. Funk offered solutions to their dilemmas by embodying styles (jazz, soul, R&B, Afrobeat) from a black musical heritage, and it had its own attitude of menace and inclination towards rule-breaking, too. Post-punks thus identified with funk even if they could/would not play it as the originators had. More important was that they could use it to comment upon both participating genres.

Such motivation elicited backlash of different kinds. Charges of cultural appropriation were made against bands like The Pop Group, The Slits, and Adam and the Ants, all seen by some as indulging in either minstrelsy or a crass romanticism of “noble savage” stereotypes. Their common rationale that they were countering western rationality with anti-western spontaneity was not always accepted as a convincing or adequate defense. Contrarily, another complaint was that in making funk “stark and severe” (Reynolds, p.57) as the Gang of Four and Delta 5 had done, the “sex” got lost, a cold front of clinical commentary replacing the genre’s usual personal humanity and hyper-expressions of feeling.

However, funk’s sex-as-music, music-as-sex ambitions, like in so much rock, sometimes came with a sexist baggage of male-only bonding, misogynistic lyrics, and egotistical attitudes. These were antithetical to the progressive politics shared by most of the post-punk bands. Indeed, the involvement of so many women in punk-funk constitutes one of its most subversive outcomes. The Au Pairs, Delta 5, Maximum Joy, Rip Rig + Panic, and The Slits were among the female-centered bands in the vanguard of this post-punk hybrid.

For some, like Ari Up (The Slits) and Neneh Cherry (Rip Rig + Panic), funk offered the opportunity to unleash a wildness of vocal, spirit and personality lacking in some of their male peers. Other women parodied funk’s macho chants with their own feminist slogan-songs, like the Au Pairs’ Lesley Woods in “Come Again” (1981) and Delta 5’s Julz Sale in “Mind Your Own Business” (1979), both rebuttals to the kind of masculine presumptions pervading funk (and punk).

A significant factor in the innovations of British post-punk was geographical. Punk-funk developed beyond London, where primary punk had been centralized and codified under the watchful eyes of the industry superstructure. By 1978, though, punk had infiltrated the whole nation, and the new out-with-the-out-crowds were less beholden to London’s rules, restraints, and expectations.

In cities like Leeds (Gang of Four, The Mekons, Delta 5), Bristol (Pop Group, Rip Rig + Panic, Maximum Joy), and Manchester (A Certain Ratio, Section 25, New Order), new mutations grew without interference. Essential in enabling such developments were indie labels like Fast Product, Rough Trade, and Factory Records, the latter providing a (factory) line producing punk-funk then electro-funk then its own ecstasy-fueled house-meets-punk scene.

Factory’s Tony Wilson and New Order even provided the space for these successions to take place with their own in-house venue, The Haçienda. There, A Certain Ratio developed some of the earliest punk-funk, their jigsaw puzzle of Ian Curtis-like monotone vocals, eerie flanged bass, and syncopated drums (courtesy of Donald Johnson) catching the attention of many, including David Byrne who, after touring with the band, paid homage to them with his own post-punk styled song, “The Overload” (1980).

Byrne’s band, Talking Heads, had been one of the pioneers of CBGB’s punk rock, and their innovations with the punk-funk hybrid allowed them to operate both within and beyond that scene. In contrast to post-punk’s often abstract and abrasive adventures with funk, Talking Heads’ new wave mutation was more sonically palatable, offering, says Theo Cateforis, “safe entry for white audiences into the black musical appeal of funk” (p.213).

Like the post-punk purveyors, though, Talking Heads’ career-long penchant for African and African-American music styles also elicited accusations of “sonic neocolonialis[m]” (Reynolds, p.169). Some, though, read the band’s adoption of a Dionysian style like funk as their way of distancing themselves from their own art school background, with all the stiff white intellectual associations that came with.

A funk flavor marked Talking Heads’ early albums, though the music was more nervous than free-flowing, the guitars more jagged than chugging, and the bass understated rather than busy. By their third album, Fear of Music (1979), though, they had graduated from the post-punk school of edgy minimalism into more authentic funk-based world music. That album’s “I Zimbra” while tipping its hat to punk with its Dadaist lyrics, is made more musically funky with the additions of horns and percussion to the rock instruments, a formula the band would maintain on their follow-up, Remain in Light (1980). By that album’s tour the four-piece had expanded into a more funk-familiar nine-piece, one of the new players being Parliament/Funkadelic’s keyboard veteran, Bernie Worrell.

As Talking Heads were taking punk-funk out of cramped spaces like CBGBs and into stadiums around the world, another set of New York residents were readying to occupy the dive bars of the city. Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, Bush Tetras, Mars, DNA, the Lounge Lizards, and James Chance and the Contortions became known as no wave, though mutant disco and avant-funk were also commonly used descriptors.

These bands may have resided in the same city as Talking Heads, but their indie punk-funk had more in common with British counter-parts like The Pop Group and Rip Rig + Panic. James Chance (a.k.a. James White) captured the spirit of no wave by following the post-punk rule book, which instructed: throw the rules away! His free jazz-informed mutations of funk and disco were infused with an abandon only matched by his manic stage presence, which involved James Brown-like moves parodied with an exaggerated punk execution. Chance had been impressed with the combative irreverence and proud amateurism of CBGB punk predecessors like Richard Hell and Stiv Bators, but he was less enamored with the limitations and repetition in their music, preferring the more exploratory room provided by funk and jazz.

Entering the 1980s, it became apparent that the punk-funk hybrid was moving in opposite directions along two parallel paths. Whereas post-punk and no wave advocates were content to remain in the indie margins, so long as their ideological credentials and goals remained intact, new wave players like Talking Heads and Ian Dury and the Blockheads proved that the hybrid had broad marketable reach and potential. Even ambitious young black funksters like Rick James, Prince, and Living Colour were not averse to adding a little new wave spice—in attitude, attire, lyrics, and sound—to expand their reach across racial lines.

And the groove goes on…dominating much of this century’s indie music: lingering via veteran rockers like Rage Against the Machine and Red Hot Chili Peppers; into dance/hip-hop genres like acid house and grime; into the indie rock of Franz Ferdinand, Bloc Party, and the Rapture; into the post-no wave New York avant-garde of LCD Soundsystem, Liars, and Yeah Yeah Yeahs; into the new rave of Klaxons and Shit Disco; into the electroclash feminism of Le Tigre and Peaches; and no doubt into innumerable other outposts of punk (but not punk) mixtures with funk (but not funk) yet to be given a name.

Works Cited

Cateforis, Theo. Are We Not New Wave? Modern Pop at the Turn of the 1980s. University of Michigan Press. 2005.

Reynolds, Simon. Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984. Penguin. 2005.

Spicer, Al. A Rough Guide to Punk. Rough Guides. 2006.

Bangs, Lester. “The White Noise Supremacists“. The Village Voice. 1979. Sourced from MariaBuszek.com