The best band of the 1970s – the only close rival I can think of is Neil Young & Crazy Horse, who match them in depth of expression if not in range – was Parliament/Funkadelic, a.k.a. the P-Funk collective, the ever-mutating funk rock monster that was the brain child of eccentric genius George Clinton.
Shifting between genres with ease (funk, rock, soul, R&B, doo-wop, reggae, avant-garde sound collages, nursery rhymes, whatever they felt like really) was not just a matter of showing off for them, it was their essential philosophy: “Who Says a Funk Band Can’t Play Rock Music?!” as they famously demanded on their ultimate mission statement, 1978’s One Nation Under a Groove. They hated being labelled so much they switched up their band name between records without warning; their music was so changeable band members came and went, taking and leaving their different musical influences.
The main constant throughout were spectacular live shows in fancy dress and with giant spaceships onstage with the band; but also the groove, which rarely let up across a multitude of albums of wildly inconsistent quality. This was perhaps inevitable when your band members included such sensational musicians as Bootsy Collins (bass), Bernie Worrell (keyboards), Eddie Hazel (guitar), Garry Shider (guitar), Michael Hampton (guitar), and just about the entire horn section pinched from James Brown’s band, including the legendary Maceo Parker and Fred Wesley. Among his many gifts, George Clinton had pull.
P-Funk’s impact was as huge and varied as its vision – it’s hard to imagine Dr. Dre and G-Funk without them, and anyone who’s played any kind of mixture of funk and rock owes them a huge debt. This debt has been acknowledged by countless acts, including Prince and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Here we are, 38 years since the apparent demise of Parliament (their last album under this moniker was 1980’s Trombipulation), with a new album from the funk collective which excitingly features most of the surviving players from their 70s peak. Yet there are voices young and old on the sprawling Medicaid Fraud Dogg, with Clinton’s progeny both literal (his son Tracey Lewis is a key collaborator here and co-wrote most of the tracks) and musical (Scarface raps on lead single “I’m Gon’ Make U Sick O’Me”) joining the collective and adding a greater variety of spices to P-Funk’s home brew in the time-honoured way.
But do they really tear the roof off the mothersucker? Not quite; the saddest thing here is a feeling of entropy, that despite the young blood injected into the band, they never sound as dynamic as their whopping great 70s peaks. Bootsy Collins, Maceo Parker, Clinton et. al are still miraculously sharp and well-timed on their respective instruments, but they rarely start a fire any more. The collective power of their experience doesn’t seem to be able to sustain a groove like they used to. The album sometimes feels like a dozen men blowing with all their might – into a balloon with holes in it.
Which is not to say that the album’s flawed at conception. All of us who love funk music are glad they’re back. And the album’s overarching concept is a good one – where once in their utopian youth they had envisaged one nation under a groove, now all they can see around them is “one nation under sedation, everybody is getting high on something” (Clinton’s words in an Offbeat interview). The various addictions tackled on Medicaid include pharmaceuticals (“Medicated Creep”), social media (the cringingly titled “Antisocial Media”), even love (“69”). And if Clinton uses the character of a Medicaid Fraud Dogg to help sniff out all of this bullshit in society, you’ve got to be concerned when that same Dogg becomes addicted to the very drugs it’s been hired to sniff out. Clinton senses we’re all in an endless cycle of addiction, as a society. Which is hardly an original idea, particularly with regards to social media, on which his thoughts are reminiscent of every single grandparent ever moaning about the state of the world: “Antisocial media is a sickness, I can’t cope/My Twitter finger is itching like I’m on dope”.
And it’s not enough to keep a 110-minute album afloat, especially when the music is substandard. Moments of excitement emerge from the bloat every now and then, including some amusing gangsta rap songs that are obviously parodies but with some genuinely funky rapping – “Set Trip” and “I’m Gon’ Make U Sick O’Me” stand out in particular. But generally, the pace is too slow, the filler stacked up too high, and the wit and invention of the rhythms not nearly enough to tickle anyone for almost 2 hours.
Of course, it’s silly to expect a legendary band to return after 38 years and retain their glory. But I recall Ice Cube saying that when he was growing up, this band’s hits like “Flashlight” were so groovy that they were enough to start a fight in local nightclubs. There’s that feeling of entropy again; with too many of the jams on Medicaid Fraud Dogg, you’d be lucky if they even got you up out of your chair and dancing.