Listen to this track by earth-moving intergalactic funk pioneers Parliament. It’s “Mothership Connection (Star Child)”, aka “Star Child (Mothership Connection)”, the second track and third single off of 1975’s Mothership Connection and released in August of 1976.
This record was their second full-length album in the same year, following up Chocolate City which was released in the spring of 1975. That earlier album created a mythology that placed black culture in the mainstream, and in the literal seats of power in the United States where in real life it was absent; the white house and the Lincoln memorial as depicted on its cover. With the follow-up in Mothership Connection, lead creative mind George Clinton decided to make the presence of black people and culture known in another sphere where they had largely (Star Trek excepted) also been absent; in the stars, and the realm of science fiction. This led to an even more potent mythology and set of imagery for which Clinton and his various projects would become best known; a comic book-style world of outer space.
In some ways, Clinton’s child-like vision that frames the music here was the antithesis of much of funk-soul music at the time. It’s fun and full of abandon instead of political and earnest. And yet, with this approach, it was political in its own way, just by challenging the expectations of the mainstream, and helping to change perspectives on the role of black voices in the wider culture at the time. Read more
Listen to this trackby Animalistic, leaping gnome-like singer Eric Burdon as backed by Latin-influenced Long Beach L.A funkateers War. It’s “Spill The Wine”, a 1970 hit as featured on the collaborative and self-referentially titled album Eric Burdon Declares War. It was initially released as a single, scoring a top ten chart result.
The song bridges the gaps between British rock, R&B, and Latin music, with a long portion of it being something of a spoken-word short story. That story is a rather dreamlike excursion, filled with images of tall grass, afternoon naps, dreams, Hollywood movies, and visions of “every kind of girl”. There aren’t too many tunes like it. Since its release, it’s been featured on soundtracks in movies and on TV, and covered by a number of artists from The Isley Brothers, to Michael Hutchence.
War was an outfit that started out as a socio-political concern, with statements against racism, crime, poverty, and other negative forces that were becoming serious issues in their native Los Angeles. Eric Burdon had moved to the West Coast from Britain after having dissolved the second incarnation of the Animals, with the original group having split by the mid-60s. In some ways, it was kind of an odd pairing, with Burdon being a student of Chicago blues, and War being more of a funk outfit who’d left the blues behind for a more contemporary Latin R&B funk hybrid sound.
But, “Spill The Wine” consolidated their success, and with an approach that was stylistically off the map in many ways. Here are a few of them. Read more
Listen to this track by diminutive musical savant Prince. It’s “Sign O’ The Times”, as taken from the 1987 LP of the same name, Sign O’ The Times, a post-Purple Rain double-album that would keep Prince on his trajectory to being one of the most influential, and certainly one of the most prolific, artists of the decade.
Despite being a singular artistic entity capable of creating albums completely on his own, this was the first album released after his work with his celebrated back-up group The Revolution. The previous album Parade (featuring his now very well covered single “Kiss”) was the last record that group would collaborate with him on in name, ending a run starting with 1999 in 1982.
This new record would incorporate some of the material the ensemble had worked up. But, the album would be an amalgam of solo projects as well, from an aborted triple album, to an off-the-beaten path project Camille, something of a female alter ego. The resulting album here would continue to demonstrate Prince’s agility with funk, soul, electro-pop, and rock styles, plus other styles besides.
But, along with songs with sexual themes (“If I Was Your Girlfriend”), and party songs (“Housequake”) for which he was known, Sign O’The Times adds yet another set of themes to his pallette – the state of the world according to Prince. And what does he see here on the album’s title track, as the world edged closer and closer to the end of the 20th Century? Read more
Listen to this track by L.A-based R&B-fixated pop cut-up artist Beck. It’s “Debra”, a Princely track taken from his 1999 funkified, Young Americans-esque Midnite Vultures, a follow-up to the more sombre Mutations album. The song was a stuck in at the end of the record that explored a number of R&B textures through an indie-rock filter in Beck’s attempt to tear down the walls between the rock world and the world of R&B as it stood at the time.
Known for being something of a slacker poster boy when he debuted in the early ’90s, by the end of the decade, Beck had done some serious work in undercutting that original incarnation by cutting follow-up records that seemingly had no connection between each one. If Odelay was a study in cut-and-paste quasi hip hop, then Mutations turned in a more acoustically based acid folk-rock direction. That record was only to be followed by this one, Midnite Vultures, full of samples and squiggly casios, yet also now punctuated with R&B horns and falsetto vocals.
But, what was Beck trying to pull with this song, “Debra”. Was he really serious?
Listen to this track by Japanese-born, American-raised hip hop messiah Lyrics Born. It’s “Callin’ Out”, a party tune with something of an inwardly-looking point of view, underpinned by a groove inspired by 70s funk as much as from modern hip-hop. The track is taken from 2003’s Later That Day…, a debut album that is the product of an active career in hip hop as a support player.
When I first heard this at an office party of all places recently, I thought of both Parliament Funkadelic and DJ Shadow, just because of the unabashed funk approach, and with plenty of bottom in the Larry Graham sense of the word. And I thought “At last! A hip hop record that understands the importance of textural variety!” which is a common complaint of mine.
Another reaction was that Lyrics Born isn’t the only voice you’re hearing on this track, which is another important element of traditional funk. The best of the form always gathers multiple voices together, and make it sound like the most communal, community-oriented music in the world. And this one seems to take up that mantle quite nicely.
Third, because the sonic variety on this opens things up for the ear, I could really begin to appreciate the sheer vocal skill it takes to deliver material in this style, which is a combination of singing and rapping, one technique often intertwining with the other. And this is not even mentioning the breathing control it takes to pull off the phrasing in a number like this, which borders on the superhuman.
I have a lot of musical interests, yet I mostly feel shut out by hip hop. Yet, this track seems to welcome me in, by the sheer sweatiness of the groove, and by the vocal skill of Lyrics (born Tom Shimura) himself. My education continues!
Listen to this track, a funk workout by groove-oriented soul-funk collective Rose Royce. It’s ‘Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is’ as taken from the soundtrack album of the 1976 film Car Wash.
This tune has all of the hallmarks of classic funk; a groove-centric appeal, made to dance to, and with the voices of the musicians talking with each other as the song moves along. It’s all here. For me, it’s the sound of celebration, with something of an off-the-cuff kind of feel about it. Its interlocked rhythm driven by a deliciously sweaty bassline, percussive guitar, and tasty horn shots still sounds like it’s been made up on the spot. And that’s part of what makes it so charming.
This song comes out of an era when the idea of black subculture meeting the mainstream was a pretty new idea. It’s something we take for granted now, of course. But, it’s important to remember that the civil rights movement was less than fifteen years behind the release date of this tune, and the movie in which it is featured.
If the characters in the film are more stereotypical then our modern sensibilities might be used to, then it’s because the movie was scripted by someone outside of the community it depicts – one Joel Schumacher who would later make a name for himself as a director. And it’s marked by growing pains, with Hollywood attempting to branch out to brand new audiences by making films that feature the types of characters with whom those communities can more easily identify.
It should be noted that the soundtrack to the Car Wash movie had a more lasting impact than the film, produced as it was by legendary Motown impresario Norman Whitfield who produced the Temptations and Gladys Knight and the Pips, among others. Rose Royce of course would have a smash hit in the title track to this soundtrack, among other hits like ‘Wishing on a Star’ and other songs that stand as a sort of middle ground between the influence of southern soul music of the first half of the decade and the smoother, and more ubiquitous disco of the second half.
Listen to this song by self-effacing Scottish funk disciples Average White Band with their horntastic early-1975 hit, “Pick Up The Pieces” as taken from their album AWB. If you don’t feel the need to shake yer thang while this is playing, check your pulse – if you have one.
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“Pick Up the Pieces” is one of my favourite pieces of music by anyone, just a powerhouse of unstoppable joy; sweaty, funky, sexy, fun. I love the tightly knit JBs-influenced horn section, the rhythmic guitar figure, the popping bass, and the crisp backbeat that pushes the whole thing along. I love the call-and-response horn shots during the tenor sax solo. And I love when the groove hits its stride and someone loses control of their enthusiasm, giving it up into a great big ‘WOOOOO!!”
Average White Band, indeed. If only.
There’s a story about the recording of this song, which I kind of hope is true, and wouldn’t surprise me if it was. I read it in The Mojo Collection: The Greatest Albums of All Time, in which AWB is listed. The band, under the leadership of drummer Robbie McIntosh, recorded the track and gathered together in the booth to listen to the playback. On hearing it, each member of the band turned to the next: “That’s Us!” And then they started jiving around the studio, knowing that they had a hit.
The success of the single, and the album would be marred by tragedy. McIntosh would die not long afterward as the result of taking a lethal dose of heroin at a Hollywood party, thinking it to be cocaine. The band would go on without him, making some of the finest funk ever to be made on either side of the pond.
Listen to this track by pioneering funkateers Sly & the Family Stone with their 1973 take on a song made famous by Doris Day of all people, “Que Sera Sera”, as taken from their album Fresh. At this point in the band’s career, it was the beginning of the end of their classic period. But, what an ending!
When I first heard this, I thought it would be a kind of throwaway track, not to be taken too seriously. But, in the end I think it’s really effective. Rose Stone’s vocal delivery is perfect, a little on the sad side which reflects the undercurrent of the lyrics. And Sly’s arrangement, and his own vocal asides, make it into something of a bluesy lament. This tune would be the last of the Family Stone’s songs to feature bass guitar übermench Larry Graham, who had a pretty major falling out with Sly and would later form his own band, Graham Central Station. His work alone on this track should make anyone who cares about bass playing to take notice. Graham would later work with Prince, who owed a thing or two to the Family Stone himself.
This song is a marvel, even without Sly’s hazy, slow-jam gospel groove. Speaking of happy songs that aren’t really happy, surely this is the granddaddy of them all. A child asks her mother what the future may hold, hoping for happiness and fulfillment. Instead of offering her child the hope that things will work out, she tells her child effectively that the future is a tyrant that doesn’t let anyone in on its plans, and we’ve no right to expect anything we hope for. And the most cynical mum in the world award goes to…
That this was a signature tune for perky poster girl Doris Day who sang it in the remake of Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, and was in fact the theme of The Doris Day TV show, is even more incredible. The show’s ;ast season roughly corresponded to the release of this record, starting its run in 1968 (around the same time as Sly & the Family Stone rose to fame) and ended in 1973. Maybe Sly was a fan, since it would be the only cover version to appear on any of his records. Anything’s possible – whatever was, was.
Here’s a clip of soul-funk emperors The Isley Brothers with their 1969 hit “It’s Your Thing”, surely one of the sweatiest, funkiest floor fillers in the history of sound.
I just love this tune, full of joie de vive and almost supernaturally funky. I love the flowing rhythm guitar lines, and the sexy horn shots. This is of course not to mention the bassline, a writhing, seething thing that defies you not to shake your hips. The song is used to great effect in Stephen Soderburgh’s heist picture Out of Sight, starring George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez, which also included their song “Fight the Power” in the soundtrack.
The band began in the 50s, starting out strictly as a gospel group before starting on a pop career. Their biggest hit from their early period is probably “Twist & Shout”, a tune which was arguably supplanted by the Beatles’ 1963 version of the song on their debut album. Yet, the Isleys had more tricks up their glittery sleeves, with another song called “Shout“, which is heard at wedding receptions across the nation and yet never gets stale. By 1969, the line-up of the band had changed, when younger siblings came into the fold, a period known as the “3+3” period. And the landscape of soul music had changed by then too. Luckily the infusion of new blood into the band would allow the Isleys to easily make the transition from early gospel-based pop, to a sound with a funkier edge.
The group had a string of hits in the 70s, particularly with their take on Seals & Crofts “Summer Breeze” being a massive hit in the UK, where they’d built a solid following. Their 1985 hit “Caravan of Love” was covered by British group The Housemartins, featuring one Norman Cook (AKA Fat Boy Slim), and future Beautiful South frontman Paul Heaton.
And because of their vocal and instrumental prowess (Ernie Isley in particular is one of the world’s most underrated guitarists), they are a popular choice for sampling, up there with the JBs and Parliament-Funkadelic. Public Enemy, Notorius B.I.G, and Snoop Dogg are among the hip-hop artists who have sampled the Isley’s work.
Here’s a clip of one of the Founding Fathers of Funk, Maceo Parker and his band All the King’s Men with their 1970 funk workout “Funky Women”. The song comes from the album Doing Their Own Thing.
One of the things that top drawer funk musicians do very well is take the attention off of their own individual skill, and shift it to what the band as a whole is creating in the moment. And they do this in a few ways, it seems to me.
First, the emphasis is on the groove, which is simply the nature of the beast; everything interlocks and interrelates to achieve this end. Second, they keep everything simple by having equally straightforward goals, namely to get people on the floor and get them moving. There is no funk if there is no sweat, after all. And third, even if each band member is named and invited to solo, the ultimate objective is to contribute to what has been offered by the one who’s played his bit before. And fourth, the band lets the audience in on what is being created as it’s happening, sometimes even letting them know where the music is going to go (‘Let’s we hit it and quit it! ‘We gonna give the drummer some?’).
“Funky Women” does all of this, and has the additional benefit of being really, really playful, and very sexy too. We get some fine playing from all involved, each band member having gone through James Brown’s school of hard knocks where they were fined for mistakes among other punishments. Yet, this isn’t workmanlike playing – it’s pure joy, pure excitement, pure funk, with each instrumental solo delivered with a woman’s voice in mind. The lilting trumpet is the voice of the breezy, talkative girl. The deep tenor sax is the voice of the sultry man eater in the red dress. And Maceo’s own alto sax the short and sassy party girl.
All the while, Maceo is the master of ceremonies, the spinner of the tale, the setter of the scene, inviting his guys to imagine a humid evening playing a club in a roomful of appreciative, and vibrant women, who are to be looked upon not as mere decorations in the scene, but the very lifeblood of it, the living reasons for making music in the first place – to see them dance, to see them laugh, to draw them closer. I just love this tune, an ode to the beauty of women and a reminder of how closely music and dance is tied to other physical yearnings. And “Funky Women” is ultimately about acknowledging how great it is to be alive, as a physical being.
A close friend and collaborator with James Brown during his mid-to-late 60s period, Maceo Parker is of course a figure of authority in his own right, having made albums of notable consistency together with Brown, George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, and Prince, as well as on his own, even if his profile isn’t quite as high as some of these artists. Parker’s handle on funk, soul, and even jazz remains undiminished, active as he is as a touring performer and recording artist today.