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47 Miles of Barbed Wire: Greatest American Rock Band…REVEALED!
A couple of weeks ago, I asked you guys who you thought the Greatest American Rock Band of All Time was. I got some interesting responses (Guns N Roses, Melvins, Van Halen) and some completely off-base ones (no offense, people, but FOO FIGHTERS ARE NOT THE GREATEST AMERICAN ROCK BAND OF ALL TIME and are actually getting worse over time because Dave Grohl has a creeping case of the taking-himself-seriously).
But I must respectfully disagree with everyone who sent in comments, because the real answer is…
…a ragged collective of drug-takin’, rump-shakin’, sci-fi spewin’, trouble-brewin’, spaced-out autonauts of the cosmoroute called FUNKADELIC.
A bit of history for those who don’t know: Southern-raised but New Jersey-hardened George Clinton formed a 1960s soul band called the Parliaments and had a pretty big hit with “I Wanna Testify” before getting ripped off by his record company. Then he hooked up with some seriously unsavory characters who played loud electric guitars and such; this backing band earned the name Funkadelic, and released its first self-titled record in 1970. For the next almost-four decades now, this thing has been continued under many names and in many guises, all revolving around Clinton and a huge amount of full- and part-timers, hangers-on, friends and relations, and sundry: Funkadelic, Parliament, P.Funk, Parlet, the Clones of Dr. Funkenstein, P.Funk All-Stars, Bootsy’s Rubber Band; and everybody’s solo projects have all been part of this undertaking, mixed and matched and muddled and mangled. But here I will just discuss the overtly rocked-out side of things called Funkadelic.
From the very first thangs released under this name, Funkadelic was out to blow the doors off the mother. Early guitarist Eddie Hazel was capable of unleashing sonic hell at any moment, the rhythm section was both competent and gleefully insane no matter who was in it, and Clinton’s kaleidoscopic vision had a tendency to reflect the world back in very curious cut-up ways, from soul being “a joint rolled in toilet paper” to “the revolution is a fat funky person.” Bad jokes abounded–the fart noises on “Wars of Armaggedon” alone are completely worth the price of admission–but they could get poignant, too: the guitar piece “Maggot Brain” was famously described as Hazel playing as if he had just learned that his mother was dead and then that she had miraculously recovered, and other jams talked about judicial corruption, black middle-class conservatism, racism, sexism, homosexuality, drugs, voyeurism, outer space–you know, all the great ol’ American rock and roll topics.
But why consider Funkadelic a ROCK band rather than a funk band or a soul band or anything else? Dude you have not heard them, or you would not be asking. Hazel is one of the great guitar gods, but latter-day additions like Michael Hampton and Blackbyrd McKnight should be on the Honorable Mention team, as well. Their first few albums were not only recorded quickly and cheaply because of drugs and time pressure, but also sported real live “LOVE SATAN” propaganda on their inside sleeves. Lyrics doubled back on themselves, became instant track-by-track meta-commentaries; entire solos were backwards (and entire albums were done in a day while everyone was flying on old-timey drugs), and–once keyboard prodigy Bernie Worrell joined– Clinton was so hardcore that he once married Iggy Pop live onstage. The vibe was dark and dangerous and transgressive, and American music would not have been the same without it.
Ultimately, Parliament was considered the “funk” side of the equation, with Funkadelic being the “rock” side. All the great concept-album stuff (Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome, Motor-Booty Affair) ended up in the former camp, while all the uglier and messier stuff was kinda sorta supposed to be in the latter. But as the 1970s wore on, these two were pretty much indistinguishable from each other. Which is okay as far as I’m concerned–rock and roll SHOULD contain other elements to it, and it SHOULD be messy and uncategorizable, and it SHOULD be all over the place and confusing. But that’s why the best party record in the group’s oeuvre, One Nation Under a Groove, ended up being labeled Funkadelic. Or was it the extended guitar workouts like “Cholly” and Hampton’s live “Maggot Brain” solo? Or was it the 10-minute poop-joke/cult-parody extravaganza “Promentalshitbackwashpsychosis Enema Squad (The Doo-Doo Chasers)”? Dude, it’s all good, which sometimes means it’s all bad.
I could go on and on here, but I will stop. Let’s start recognizing, however, that the greatest U.S. rock band was a black group who asked “Who Says a Funk Band Can’t Play Rock?!” and who talked more crap than Axl, were heavier than Buzz, and are STILL blowing the doors off hundreds of arenas every year.