FEW rock ‘n’ roll careers have the breadth of George Clinton’s. The one-time leader of 50s doo-wop group The Parliaments, he went on to rub shoulders with songwriting greats at the Brill Building in New York before moving to Detroit to work for Motown.
Later, influenced by the likes of James Brown, Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone, he formed the groups Funkadelic and Parliament, dressing in outrageous costumes, using a spaceship as a stage prop and forging his own genre-crossing brand of dance music he called P-Funk.
His biggest UK hit came in 1978 with One Nation Under a Groove but in the 80s and 90s he found a new audience when his songs such as Chocolate City, Flash Light and Atomic Dog were widely sampled by a new generation of hip-hop artists.
At 73, he continues to tour and last year published his memoir, Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain’t That Funkin’ Kind of Hard on You?
In the book, Clinton describes the Brill Building as his “university education”. Today, he says, that early period laid the foundations for everything he went on to do.
“Being around in the mid-50s on that was the beginning of what we call rock ’n’ roll as a concept and all its different styles – Little Richard, Jerry Lee, Elvis – then The Coasters right on the early 60s, Motown, I had the chance to see all those different styles of it, when songwriting was the dominant thing. I got a feeling for all those different styles that came out and how to find a song that fitted them.
“When you had the British Invasion they started putting classical and jazz interpretation into rock ’n’ roll, I saw the development of that along with The Beatles – all different styles mixed together in time, forward and backwards, that’s what I’ve been doing in the last 20 or 30 years, mixing James Brown and Sly Stone and Motown with the knowledge of the Brill Building.”
The arrival of LSD in the late 60s opened the doors to the classic albums Funkadelic, Free Your Mind...And Your A** Will Follow and Maggot Brain, Clinton admits.
“It probably had an influence on all of it. Once I realised you can be free enough to do what you want to do, don’t worry about being put into a bag, once I did LSD I consciously made the decision that any style that we wanted to do was any one that represented us.
“Motown was an artist with lots of stars on it, that’s the way Funkadelic is. Musicians come through the band, each represented a period of the group’s history – Eddie Hazel, Bernie Worrell, Gary Shider, Bootsy Collins, Maceo Parker. There’s always some kids coming in. Now we’ve got a new set of young kids at the front but we’ve still got [guitarist] Dewayne ‘Blackbird’ McKnight who’s been with us since the end of the 70s.”
Remarkably the landmark album Free Your Mind... was recorded in a frenzied couple of days in 1970. “We were going for the psychedelic thing we’d been doing on stage,” Clinton remembers. “We could not think about that, we were tripping our a**** off, it was turn it to the highest volume.
“We slowed down on [the first Parliament album] Osmium to convince ourselves we still had brain cells left. The Osmium thing was about doing a song as opposed to Free Your Mind or stream of consciousness. But all of it worked.
“Crazy is a prerequisite, but you have to make sure you are in charge of your crazy, you can’t let it run wild or then, as my mother would say, it becomes lazy. Funk can easily become lazy as an excuse.”
The outlandish funk-meets-acid-rock of Funkadelic, in particular, became a source of confusion to some people – as Clinton puts it in his book “too white for black people and too black for white people”. Yet crossing boundaries was what Clinton’s band was all about.
“Always,” he says. “Kids are going to make you break boundaries every four or five years. Kids pick up new stuff as they grow up.”
For musicians to survive, he appreciates “you’ve got to be able to let go of what you are holding on to”. Popular music, he feels, is about “planned obsolence”, to enable record companies to move on to the next big thing.
“You’ve got to be ready to let go, the only thing you keep is the foundation you know is true and stay true all the time. You put a new ceiling on top of it.
“People want to dance, there are only so many notes, grooves, tones or sounds, you have let the kids have their way or they’ll break you if you don’t. You had punk rock, people spitting on each other (laughs). But I love it. It’s the same as parents saying, ‘That ain’t music’. I know it’s the next music.”
Dressing up in wigs, robes and nappies and assuming larger than life stage characters such as Sir Nose was a fundamental part of getting Parliament-Funkadelic noticed. Clinton was quick to assimilate hippie culture that made “all types of styles in things, colours perhaps clashing with each other permissable”.
“We took total advantage of that. Ugly folks was beautiful, sounds that were basically noise – Jimi Hendrix made feedback sound like religion, like a love song. Your brain can open up and accommodate every new thing and give it a positive point of view if you get out of the way.”
Young teenagers protesting against the Vietnam war left a lasting impression on him. “A kid of 13 or 14 could take a flower and put it in a soldier’s gun just to let you know that was what it’s got to be about. Once you get to be a college kid you can get into trouble protesting that s***, but that young kid changed the world. They would have dropped the bomb on Vietnam if had not been for television and hippies.”
In the mid-70s Clinton introduced a spaceship into Parliament-Funkadelic’s stage act. It chimed with sci-fi themes of the time, explored in Parliament’s 1975 album Mothership Connection and in Hollywood films such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Wars. Like many things he’s done over the years, it was about more than entertainment.
“It grows,” he says. “First it was entertainment, just like props for Pink Floyd’s The Wall or Tommy the rock opera, it was my version of a funk opera.”
Stirring in elements from the book Chariots of the Gods – which suggested that technologies and religions of ancient civilizations were given to them by astronauts who became worshipped as deities – and works he’d been reading on cloning gave the concept new depth.
“I felt blessed,” he chuckles. “It started to look like I knew about it all along.”
George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic play at O2 Academy Leeds on April 18. For details visit http://georgeclinton.com/
In the 80s and 90s George Clinton’s work was widely sampled by hip-hop acts such as Public Enemy, De La Soul, Ice Cube and Dr Dre. Such sampling subsequently became the source of much copyright litigation but George Clinton says he was flattered that his legacy was continuing to influence others.
“That’s part of it, I love them doing that. What’s messing me up with the litigation is it’s killing hip-hop,” he says.
“The money don’t want to let it go. People are scared to sample like I’m the one that’s suing them. The fight for copyright that’s going on is killing hip-hop.”
Via his campaigning website flashlight2013.com Clinton is leading the fight against “misappropriated” copyright and what he believes is “ongoing, systematic fraud on the US Copyright Office by record executives and their lawyers and accountants”.