The parallels between 1976 and 2008 are undeniable. Back then, the economy was in shambles, suffering through a wicked bout of inflation. Late in the year, hope arrived in the person of Jimmy Carter, a Democrat who was elected president to put an end to eight dark years of Republican rule. Sound familiar?
Sadly, no such parallels exist within the music world. In 1976, record companies were on the verge of seeing some of their biggest sales ever. Artistic giants prowled the stages of the world. Concert venues were sold out everywhere. New York City was soon to give birth, nearly simultaneously, to both the disco and the punk movements, even as the city faced financial ruin.
Elsewhere on the musical landscape, funk was in its ascendancy, and the undeniable kings of the genre were Parliament-Funkadelic. George Clinton had founded Parliament as a barbershop quintet back in the ’60s, and that is literally what they were, as Clinton earned a living my styling hair while rehearsing with the vocal group. Parliament had a #3 R&B hit in 1967 with “I Wanna Testify,” but the winds of change were blowing, and it wasn’t long before Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone showed up on the scene to change things forever. Of course, no discussion of funk can even begin without talking about the man who invented the genre, and James Brown was at the peak of his powers.
It was a combination of these musical influences, together with the rise of the black power movement, and the availability of psychedelic drugs that informed Clinton’s next move. While Parliament continued on, he created a rock band that he called Funkadelic. They toured the northeast, often sharing the bill with white bands like the Stooges, and the MC5, and also hit the black college circuit in the South and on the East Coast.
The big break came in 1974, when Clinton signed his whole organization to Neil Bogart’s Casablanca Records. To say the label was eclectic is something of an understatement. Other artists signed to Casablanca included disco queen Donna Summer, and make-up kings Kiss. Parliament’s early success was such that Bogart agreed to give Clinton a massive budget for his next project. Nearly half that money went to the creation of a spaceship for the upcoming Parliament-Funkadelic tour. On Halloween night, 1976, the tour arrived at the Houston Summit, the fifth date on the P. Funk Earth Tour. They needed seven trucks to get them there. Fortunately, the tour date was filmed, and it’s finally been released on dvd by Shout! Factory.
Don’t let the fact that it was Halloween fool you. Having attended several P. Funk shows, I can assure you that the outlandish costumes the band members were sporting were not just for that night. The band at that point was a virtual who’s who of funk, including keyboard player Bernie Worrell, sax player Maceo Parker and trombonist Fred Wesley, both veterans of James Brown’s band, the just-out-of-high-school guitarist Michael Hampton who was taking the place of the jailed Eddie Hazel, guitarists/vocalists Garry “Starchild” Shider (yes, he’s the one in the diaper), and the incredible Glenn Goins. Hampton and Shider remain in the band to this day. Goins tragically died of Hodgkins Lymphoma in 1978. Then there are the Parliament singers, the female backup singers, an amazing rhythm section, more horn players, George Clinton himself … let’s just say there was a cast of thousands on the stage that night.
The funk begins right at the top with “Cosmic Slop,” and doesn’t let up through the 14 songs, including the penultimate “Night of the Thumpasorus Peoples,” which features cameos by musicians from the night’s opening bands, Bootsy Collins Rubber Band, and Sly and the Family Stone. If you like pyrotechnics, the highlight of the performance might be the arrival of the aforementioned spaceship, which descends from on high to land Clinton, clad in white fur and sporting a three foot high hairdo, on the stage. But musically, it’s the leadup to the big moment that will truly move you, with Goins turning in an incendiary performance as he exhorts the mothership to arrive with “Swing Down Sweet Chariot.”
The band is in excellent form, and the sound is uniformly good. The film is a bit claustrophobic at times, concentrating a bit too much on closeups to the detriment of providing the bigger picture. In fact, there are band members that you never even see, but you know they’re there.
I began this talking about parallels, and there’s one more thing that’s the same as it’s ever been; there are good times and there are bad times, but when those bad times come around, nothing helps quite as much as just shaking your ass to the funk. George Clinton knew it then, and he knows it now.
I assure you that this will make a welcome Christmas gift for the funkster in your life, but don’t forget to get a copy for yourself.