40 years of Funkentelechy

Funkentelechy: The Placebo Syndrome, Parliament’s sixth album, came out forty years today. Here are some of my retrospective thoughts on it.

About a year ago I played Parliament’s “Flash Light” to a dear friend of mine who likes classic ‘90s rap—probably more than I do—but doesn’t quite share in my love of funk. His reaction was incredulous. “Is Snoop Dogg just ripping off George Clinton?”

Well, of course he is. Snoop Dogg was born in 1971, and he grew up with Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic empire as they found new ways to wiggle their wormy tentacles into the pop world. He would have been six when Funkentelechy: The Placebo Syndrome came out—not old enough that he’d be buying records himself, but old enough that he’d be aware of them, whether they were playing at home on his singer mother’s stereo or out of a passing car or a neighbor’s garage. Snoop must have heard “Flash Light” hundreds of of times before first going into the studio.

And what of the voice of Sir Nose D’Voidoffunk? Imagine six-year-old Snoop hearing the burbling voice of P-Funk’s arch-villain coming out of the stereo for the first time and grinning with glee. It’s the kind of silly sound that fires a child’s mind at that age, and I’d be surprised if Snoop doesn’t have strong, fond memories tied to it that he sought to channel through his raps. In fact, the sliding synth ubiquitous in G-funk was born from the Ohio Players’ “Funky Worm,” another great funny-voice single from 1973. (I had a similar reaction with the Who’s “Boris the Spider,” growing up as I did in a white classic-rock household; I even used to have a suction-cup spider toy lovingly nicknamed Boris.)

This nostalgic streak is still strong in rap. Kids raised on nu-metal and pop-punk are now lacing their raps with references to Linkin Park, Panic! at the Disco and Marilyn Manson. When talented kids get to the age when they can really realize their musical whims, the urge to channel those memories is all but inevitable, because they’re such a part of us. 

Parliament sold a lot of goddamn records. “Flash Light” remains their biggest hit, and Funkentelechy might be their peak. Mothership Connection may be the Classic, but it’s more of a coming-out party than a plateau, cementing the previously ephemeral Parliament project as a force to be reckoned with. Motor Booty Affair isn’t remembered nearly as fondly as it should be. Gloryhallastoopid is (a lot) better than its reputation suggests, but a lot of the band had quit at that point and the Parliament project was on its way out.

Funkentelechy remains immovable and incontrovertible. It might be the album that best represents what P-Funk is: a messy and noncommittal, if often poignant, tangle of spacey mythology married to some of the hardest grooves ever conceived. On Mothership Connection, it was easy to get lost in all the references to “The Extraterrestrial Brothers” and other weirdos from the corners of Clinton’s mind. Here, Parliament precedes HBO’s “sexposition” and Aaron Sorkin’s walk ’n’ talk by a few decades through what we might call funksposition—ten-minute stretches of absurd action that’d be terribly long-winded if they weren’t married to such great music.

The story is pretty simple: Starchild, who represents all that is good and funky, does battle with Sir Nose, who will never dance. Clinton weaves some of his own ideas about the state of funk into the mix. He wasn’t too hyped on cocaine either (at least at that point), and with delightful acidhead logic he connects the organ used to snort it with his bassist Bootsy Collins’ “Pinocchio Theory”—“if you fake the funk, your nose will grow!” He also wasn’t enthusiastic about disco, but not for the usual homophobic mess of reasons but because he saw it as a commercial corruption of what funk was and is (understandable, though still a gross reduction of disco as an art form).

It’d be stodgy if the music didn’t make a case for funk as a progressive genre. Though the extremes of their explorations in sound were long behind them, the music here and on Motor-Booty Affair (the best Parliament album for my money) is among their most interesting—and pretty. This is an unusually pretty funk album, with its pianos and distant co-ed chants, and it features its own nod to the music of Clinton’s past: “Wizard of Finance,” as good an R&B song as was ever written even if the subject manner is preposterous. “Flash Light” itself brought P-Funk into the digital age, with the immortal Bernie Worrell stringing no less than four synthesizers together for its bassline.

By my reckoning, ‘70s funk is some of the best music on earth. It lets artists stretch the limits of sound and form within the prerogative of being fun, being goofy, being carefree. Save perhaps some of the stodgier British mutants of the post-punk era, I can’t think of any funk that takes itself so seriously it stops trying to have fun. There’s a Riot Goin’ On is a bleak album, but only if you know about the circumstances of its making and what happened to poor Sly Stone. Miles Davis’s ‘70s material is spiky stuff, but it’s not the kind of thing you have to “get;” it’s about good musicians making a joyful noise together.

And that’s true of Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome. This is artful, considered, labor-intensive music that can blindside you with poignancy. But the overwhelming impression is still of dirty dogs and feather boas and sex and aliens and acid and astral travel. As adults, we get the dirty jokes, we can comb through the intricacies, we understand where “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” came from and why it’s so poignant that Glenn Goins uses it to sing the Mothership in. Kids are just delighted to hear the sound of Sir Nose D’Voidoffunk burbling out of the speakers. Sometimes, that’s enough.