Bernie Worrell died a couple of weeks ago. Who was Bernie Worrell? He was the future in Parliament-Funkadelic’s afrofuturist future-funk. If bandleader George Clinton (aka Supreme Maggot Minister of Funkadelia aka Maggot Overlord aka Starchild) was the cartographer of these strange outer limits of the African-American musical experience, and bass player Bootsy Collins was the mothership’s own alien, then keyboardist Worrell (aka Spaced Viking) was the whole mission’s technology.
Post-Parliament, Worrell would front or support in a variety of talented projects – most notably he was Talking Heads keyboardist from the Remain in Light tours onward, but he also lent his sounds to Fela Kuti, Bill Laswell and Sly & Robbie, and performed in supergroups with everyone from Buckethead and Les Claypool to drone metal producer Randall Dunn, Mos Def and Prince Paul.
As an early adopter of the Moog synthesiser, though, Bernie brought the first significant contribution from synthesisers to dance music in our timeline, although Worrell was still operating in the margins of the Parliament-Funkadelic funk-rock sound during this period – contributing what George Clinton called “sound effects” – smears and dashes of Moogy code. It wouldn’t be until Flashlight in 1978 that Worrell was holding the entire bass, rhythm and melody of the band’s hits in his fingertips.
The symbiotic psychedelic funk troupes Parliament and Funkadelic had both evolved from George Clinton’s 1950s doo-wop vocal group, The Parliaments, and their backing band, which became Funkadelic.
Bass player Bootsy had been a member of James Brown’s JB’s, and the twin groups would later also absorb Brown’s legendary horn section – The Horny Horns – featuring Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker.
By the mid-1970s, the two bands – who had shared musicians but assumed separate brand identities for a mixture of legal reasons – had been consolidated as ‘Parliament-Funkadelic’, and while Parliament was originally perceived as being Clinton’s soul outfit, with Funkadelic being his outlet for harder, rockier, more psychedelic stuff, the respective directions of the two groups had increasingly merged into something idiosyncratic, innovative and groove-laden.
This music was P-funk. It was music that was only ever played – and could only ever be played – by Parliament-Funkadelic, during the band’s sweet spot, right just when the eternal acid trip of early Funkadelic began to melt into a surreal, but angry, realisation of the world around them, but before the cocaine and moneystacks of late seventies Parliament rotted away the black hippy harmony that had had fostered their telepathic musical abilities and passionate work ethic.
Mothership Connection, released in 1975 under the Parliament brand, might be considered now as Clinton’s masterpiece, but it was Parliament-Funkadelic’s tenth full-length album in just 5 years, all unloaded with barley a dip in quality.
This is pure P-funk. A lurid, lewd, brash, brave, hilarious-offensive dance music wrapped up in a surreal comic book cosmology that drew on Sun Ra’s afro-futurism but made it hyper-sexual, pop-arty, gloriously mad.
Sun-Ra used the concept of black space-travellers as a metaphor for an afro-centric cultural space that could operate to the limits of the imagination and beyond and draw exclusively from non-white, non-European traditions, while articulating a better tomorrow. It was Utopianism, but with a scathing cultural critique.
In Clinton’s hands, afro-futurism was a little hokier and more pantomime – live shows would open with Clinton emerging from a prop UFO that would descend from the stadium rafters, and his key characters, the puritanical Sir Nose D’Voidoffunk and hedonistic Starchild were locked in an eternal battle for the funk, which would typically resolve during live performances when Starchild (Clinton) shot Sir Nose (sort of a pimp version of Pinocchio) with a “bop gun”, causing the too-cool-to-dance Sir Nose to submit to the universal rump-shaking om sound of the funk and lose himself in a flurry of dance moves.
And if you’re wondering where Clinton and company got their ideas from, well, a 2011 Guardian interview with Bootsy might offer some clues:
“Imagine a lot of chicks and people walking around naked – people doing the wild thing everywhere. Everyone’s taking LSD, smoking weed, no one is scared of doing anything. Whatever you can think of, do it! And it was like that before the gig, on the way to the gig, during the gig and after the gig. Truly, the freak show never ended. I took LSD every day for at least two years, right up until the point I began feeling like I was living in another world.”
“One night this chick gave us all Purple Haze acid,” Bootsy continued, “and everyone on stage was turning into giants and butterflies, it was so beautiful! We were playing so well that we didn’t notice that the lights had come on and everyone had gone home. We were playing to an empty room.”
Parliament-Funkadelic may have been space cadets, but in their trippy Robert Crumb-ish album artwork and alter egos they exaggerated to the point of near-abstraction a spectra of insidious African-American caricatures and stereotypes, and in doing so had reclaimed them.
In their make-believe black America, Muhammed Ali was in the White House, Aretha Franklin was the first lady, Stevie Wonder was the Secretary of Fine Arts and Richard Pryor was Minister for Education.
This was an emancipatory, consciousness-elevating dance music. Pimps, gangsters, intellectuals and hippies alike loved this band and still do.
And that funk – throbbing, reality-dissolving, lysergic funk. A funk that could make you see through time.
Postscript: Not strictly dance music per se, but those early, pre-P-funk Funkadelic records really are the last word in face-melting acid rock. Largely built around the superior psych-metal guitar streams of Eddie Hazel, this was where Hendrix should have gone next, if he’d stayed alive and ended up fronting Acid Mothers Temple. For those who are yet to be initiated, we’ve created a 2-hour collage of the most far-out moments from those LPs:
There are no Flashlights here. Just new worlds of aural nastiness. This is what being born must sound like, if you happen to be on a bad acid trip at the time.