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Music writing

Mothership collection – George Clinton cleans up

interior-georgeclintonPublished in The Age on December 27, 2014.

One of the first things George Clinton did after he stopped smoking crack, four years ago, was to untangle his hair. The multi-coloured extensions, a neon rainbow of polyester dreadlocks, had been his signature look for a decade. He figured that if he wanted to cut through the knots of his business affairs and straighten out his story, he should get his head right first.

It had been twenty-nine years since his first hit of freebase cocaine, and almost as long since his last hit record, Atomic Dog. He had been out there, to where “the view was breath-taking but the air was thin,” so far and so often that people wondered if he would ever come back.

All autobiographies settle accounts and lay claim to legacies, but Clinton needed to write his more than most, to address the mess of his present circumstances by setting the past in order. In keeping with the records he released with Parliament and Funkadelic in the 1970s, it has a long-winded name: Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard On You? “Before, I thought if it wasn’t for flashbacks I didn’t have any memory, but once I got started, it started unravelling in pretty good sequence,” he says.

That’s him reading it, guarding the nightclub door in the new Kendrick Lamar video. To hip-hop artists, Clinton is a god, the Stepfather of Funk, second only to James Brown in his influence. And while his songs aren’t sampled as brazenly these days as they were in the G-Funk era, when Snoop Dogg and Dr Dre lifted Parliament loops wholesale, he’s clearly still relevant and still beloved.

He isn’t rich, though, and nor are the musicians that played the hooks. Clinton’s autobiography features cross-dressing freaks, hotel rooms on fire, grown men in nappies, a pig shitting on the steps of the Albert Memorial, a naked photo shoot at Harvard University and more acid than Woodstock and Altamont put together, but it’s also a lucid indictment of copyright theft and a call for songwriters to be fairly compensated for their work.

“I knew that I was building a crazy story all along,” Clinton says. “And I thought ‘if I can stop getting fucked up without them knowing that I stopped, I can catch them off guard.’”

The newly-coherent Dr Funkenstein may be sober, but he will never be soberly-dressed. Backstage at BB King’s club in New York, Clinton is sprawled on a sofa, puffing on a marijuana vaporiser. He’s wearing an ankle-length fake-fur coat, pink silk trousers, an orange and white striped shirt, and a tie with pink, brown and yellow polka dots that matches his socks.

Where he used to have day-glo braids, he now wears an aquamarine bandana and a pork pie hat. His hair is important to him. As a young man, he learned to straighten and braid at the Uptown Tonsorial Palace in Newark, where stories told by “the pimps, politicians and preachers” in his chair became his first doo-wop songs. He soon had a local reputation as a singer, and enough loyal customers to buy his own barbershop, the Silk Palace in Passaic.

His group, The Parliaments, were named after a popular brand of cigarettes and dreamed of emulating the Drifters. One day after the salon closed, they clambered into a Pontiac Bonneville and drove through the night, arriving outside the Motown offices in Detroit before dawn. “Eight o’clock they start coming in to work: the Four Tops, the Temps, Miracles, all slick-looking,” Clinton remembers. Although the audition went well enough, afterwards Martha Reeves was assigned to let them down gently.

Clinton wrote songs for Motown’s publishing company for a while, but his musical identity was defined in opposition to the label’s formula, in which every note, every step and every hair was just so. Funkadelic combined the groove of Motown’s peerless house band, the Funk Brothers, with the psychedelic rock of Jimi Hendrix and Cream.

Clinton is no musician, and has never been that great a singer, but he proved a natural band leader. The first group were recruited at the barber shop: Billy Nelson, Eddie Hazell, Lucius Ross and Bernie Worrell. From then on, he picked up musicians with chops and stamina wherever he found them.

One night in Cleveland, he heard about a seventeen-year-old who could play Hazell’s nine minute guitar solo on Maggot Brain note for note (the original was recorded while tripping and then set to a stark, cavernously empty backing track by Clinton). Michael Hampton’s parents took a little convincing, but were eventually persuaded to let him leave on tour.

In Cincinnati, they were introduced to Bootsy and Catfish Collins, who had done a stint in James Brown’s backing band. Before long, the Godfather’s horn players Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker came on board too. By the end of some Parliament/Funkadelic shows there were fifty people on stage, once side projects Bootsy’s Rubber Band and the Brides of Funkenstein had come back for the encore.

Considering they got high almost every day – LSD and marijuana were constants, some were into heroin, others cocaine, valium or quaaludes – they were astonishingly prolific. Funkadelic was a playground for guitar excess and spaced-out production. Parliament, which featured many of the same musicians, was funkier and stranger still, like a stoned and giggly Stevie Wonder. Throughout the 1970s, the twin bands released an album each every year.

To get started, Clinton would convene a Funkathon, an open-ended meeting at which everyone dropped acid and discussed the theme of the record. Clinton’s lyrics tend towards free-associative wordplay and bad puns, but they also address the pressing issues of the era: the Vietnam war, racism, drug laws, voting rights and Wall Street greed.

Just another Parliament Funkadelic day.

Just another Parliament Funkadelic day.

The best of the Parliament-Funkadelic concerts available online is a 1976 gig on the Mothership Connection tour. If you can accept the risk that you might fall down the rabbit hole and watch the whole thing, I urge you to check it out. The band, although it has a wild energy, is tight as a drum. Clinton starts the show in a pink PVC jester’s outfit and ends it in a fluffy white suit and waist-length Jesus wig. Towards the end, the Mothership descends in a storm of pyrotechnics and dry ice, disco balls flashing.

“English groups coming over looking like hippies… we just did the same thing and called it funky,” says Clinton. “We made a joke out of it. But the music is soulful as shit. That’s what confuses you. It’s like church, with these clowns.”

To pay for the ship, Clinton took out a $1 million loan. Some of this went to buy cars for the band – a Jaguar, a Thunderbird, a Volvo, two Cadillac Sevilles… “I didn’t need a car, I didn’t drive. I just wanted my spaceship,” Clinton writes. “When I got money… I thought about experiences.” In a book full of blank contracts, verbal agreements and carelessly-worded legal disclaimers, this is the biggest red flag of all.

Clinton only realised how badly he had been taken advantage of in the mid-1980s, when hip-hop acts started to sample his records. The list of rap tracks that borrow from Parliament and Funkadelic is staggering: multi-million-selling hits by Public Enemy, De La Soul, Dr Dre, Snoop Doggy Dogg and the Beastie Boys, among hundreds of others.

Most of Clinton’s copyrights and publishing rights are owned by Bridgeport Music LLC, founded by Armen Boladian, who released the early Parliament-Funkadelic albums on Westbound Records. The company is a “sample troll,” keeping an ear open for loops it can demand restitution for and launching copyright violation lawsuits, which are generally settled out of court.

Clinton doesn’t see a penny of this money. Although he won back the copyrights to four Funkadelic albums, he doesn’t own the biggest hits, and so doesn’t get paid when they are purchased, streamed or played on the radio. The last time he tried to get his publishing rights back, his lawyers ran up a $1.6 million bill and are now suing him for payment.

“We’ve been to Congress, to Senators, to the FBI,” he says. “It is so much money.” A legal statement by Boladian’s former assistant is printed in full in the autobiography, alleging numerous fraudulent business practices including back-dating contracts.

Bridgeport’s lawyer, Richard Busch, says the statement has been “discredited in court and struck from the record.” The company has produced documents signed by Clinton assigning publishing rights to all his Parliament-Funkadelic songs to Bridgeport, in return for the cancellation a $2.4 million debt, shortly before he filed for bankruptcy in 1983.

Although Clinton disputes the validity of these papers, for the time being he is only raising his claim in the court of public opinion. “There is no lawsuit filed by Mr Clinton that is still pending against Bridgeport,” says Busch. “He has lost, each and every time.”

Showtime at BB King’s. Clinton is, by his standards, dressed down to perform, in a brown and orange checked suit. He’s joined on stage by a horn section, two keyboard players, two bassists, two drummers, three guitarists, a sweet-voiced preacher, a female rapper, a chap with a Clark Gable moustache looking very refreshed indeed and too many other backing vocalists to count. At the far edge, a “token white devil” in a tie-dye t-shirt – Clinton’s liner notes, not mine – rattles out a steady eight beat on his shaker.

As the band takes a tour through its most-sampled hits – Flash Light, Mothership Connection, Give Up The Funk and (Not Just) Knee Deep, it strikes me that, whatever the courts say, Snoop should buy Clinton a holiday home, or better, a timeshare for the surviving members of Funkadelic and their families. Dr Dre, whose biggest solo album, The Chronic, was built on foundations that Clinton dug, and whose most recent annual income was estimated by Forbes at $620 million, should probably chip in too.

As a performer, Clinton is… diminished, taking fewer of the vocals than he used to, but it doesn’t matter. One Nation Under A Groove is an awesome trip into Fela Kuti territory and back, the crowd singing along throughout. The set reminds me of seeing James Brown on his last tour, a performance that made up in stagecraft for what it lacked in dynamism. Clinton is a paternal figure, presiding over a family of musicians and singers – literally, in some cases. Funkadelic’s new album, Shake The Gate, features four of his grandchildren.

In 2011, the Smithsonian Museum announced that it had acquired the Mothership for its permanent collection. The spacecraft will go on display next year, when the Museum of African American History and Culture opens to the public. “That’s why I’m fighting so hard for the copyrights. If it’s so important to the country that it’s going to be there forever, I gotta do everything I can,” Clinton says. He is proud to have touched down. Now he just wants to get paid.