Eat the old

Pub date December 1, 2005
WriterWill York
SectionFood & Drink

THERE’S NOTHING LIKE  in-the-moment enthusiasm to make you lose critical perspective. I can think of a hundred albums that have excited me to the point of thinking, "This is the best band ever." That a handful of those albums belong to early-’70s-era Funkadelic makes it that much harder to be unbiased, especially since the recent reissues of their Westbound Records catalog have been parked in my disc changer for the past month.

 So when I call Funkadelic the best rock band of the early ’70s, I’m aware of the possible hyperbole – but I still think I’m right. Yet the recent reissue of their first seven studio albums – with liner notes, original artwork, remastered sound, and bonus tracks – is the first time these records have been given the archival treatment they deserve. Funkadelic and Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow (both 1970), Maggot Brain (1971), Cosmic Slop (1973), and Standing on the Verge of Getting It On (1974) are all start-to-finish classics in my book, with the transitional, uneven America Eats Its Young and the more casual, jam-oriented Let’s Take It to the Stage just a notch below them.

 Taken together, these albums represent an amazing progression of sounds and styles, from acid rock, Detroit soul, and studio-based psychedelia on the earlier ones to heavy funk-rock, sicko novelty songs, and soaring R&B ballads on the next few. There are also hints – especially on America and Stage – of the anthemic funk style that sister band Parliament and the later, slicker version of Funkadelic made famous, but not as many as newcomers or casual P-Funk fans might expect. After all, I remember how surprised and blown away I was when I heard Maggot Brain’s proto-metal masterpiece "Super Stupid" for the first time. I had only heard a Parliament greatest-hits CD before, and I somehow thought I knew e xactly what this whole P-Funk business was all about. Boy, was I wrong.

 One of the remarkable aspects of the Westbound-era Funkadelic is the sheer variety of their music. Commercially, this variety probably worked against them – as if there weren’t enough strikes already against an acid-dropping, guitar-wielding black rock band with a bunch of uncredited vocalists and no true lead vocalist. But the range encompassed in these albums is part of what gives them depth and makes them so interesting to listen to over and over. Funny songs, angry songs, sad songs, uplifting songs – they did ’em all equally well, thanks to leader, producer, and chief songwriter George Clinton’s casting instincts as well as the vast pool of talent he had on hand.

 It’s true of the much-lauded Maggot Brain as well as the purposefully slicker Cosmic Slop. In addition to Clinton’s grim Vietnam War monologue on "March to the Witch’s Castle," Slop includes a tasteless recounting of a transvestite groupie encounter ("No Compute") followed by an old-school R&B tearjerker ("This Broken Heart") – a remarkable contrast that gives both songs a resonance they wouldn’t have just on their own. Such contrasts are one reason why you can’t just buy a greatest-hits album and get what Funkadelic were about. They were an albums band, not a singles band – in contrast to Parliamen t, which made several fine albums but excelled more at making concise, catchy dance-floor anthems.

 The liner notes to these reissues do a helpful job of sorting out the group’s confusing, on-again, off-again personnel changes. After Maggot Brain, the lineup changed so much that Funkadelic was less a "band" than a conglomerate (although not nearly as loose a conglomerate as the P-Funk All-Stars touring act). This revolving-door cast included legends such as guitar shredder Eddie Hazel and keyboardist-arranger Bernie Worrell, as well as lesser-known heroes like drummer Tiki Fulwood and vocalist-guitarist Gary Shider, a VIP on the post-Maggot Brain albums. America Eats Its Young alone includes some 40 musicians and vocalists, while the others average around 10. (Yes, bass icon Bootsy Collins is one of them, but he wasn’t a major player until later, beginning with Let’s Take It to the Stage.)

If you’re an old fan who’s just interested in bonus tracks, Funkadelic, with its many alternate versions and B-sides, and Maggot Brain, with its alternate, full-band mix of the monumental title track, are the standouts. If you haven’t heard these albums, just start with the first and go in chronological order from there, skipping America Eats Its Young and saving it until after you’ve heard Cosmic Slop and Standing on the Verge. (America is less of an a rchetypal Funkadelic LP and more of a hodgepodge of various P-Funk ideas.) I love ’em all, though, and  will continue to generate hyperbole on the band’s behalf until stations like the Bone drop the Guess Who and Grand Funk Railroad and start playing "Super Stupid" and "Funk Dollar Bill," or until journalists quit perpetuating the booty-shaking party-band aspect of Clinton and company’s legacy at the expense of all the other incredible music they made. Don’t hold your breath.