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Taken from The Sydney Morning Herald (Apr 04, 2019)

Captain Funk's final frontier

by Michael Dwyer


George Clinton. PhotoCredit: William Thoren
George Clinton is bringing his P-Funk back to Australia one final time. PhotoCredit: William Thoren


The funky gentleman steps out of the elevator like he's entering the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. Metallic tights and sneakers; wide-brimmed hat glittering with silver artefacts. A white leather triangular bib buckles and zips to a pointy collar and peaked shoulders.


Sixteen hours earlier, George Clinton's Parliament-Funkadelic opened for the Red Hot Chili Peppers across the road at Rod Laver Arena. He can see the entourage through the hotel's glass frontage: a couple of dozen musicians and minders clamouring round a bus bound for somewhere.


"They're my family," he explains as we opt for a quiet corner of the lobby. "The guitar player with a long dreads, that's my grandson. My son is in the group too but he wasn't there last night. And the girl with the short hair is his daughter.


"The bass player and guitar player, they're from way back in the day: '78, '82 ... The other guitar player is the son of 'the diaper man' who used to be in the group, Gary Shider. The drummer is the trumpet player's son. He's been with us since Woodstock in '99. He was 14 then ... "


If your head's spinning now, don't look back at the hundreds of players who have shared the P-Funk trip since Clinton led his original doo-wop group the Parliaments out of a barbershop in Plainfield, New Jersey, 60 years ago.


I went to the Apollo Theatre every day ... I'd skip school and go and stay all day and watch whoever was on.


Today there are scores of albums under his various monikers. Last year's Medicaid Fraud Dogg was the tenth by Parliament since 1970. Before that, First Ya Gotta Shake the Gate was the 16th Funkadelic opus. A universe of projects by associates in countless permutations defies summary.


"It's not really a group," he explains. "It's a movement."


At the end of this year, after the tour that brings them back to Melbourne yet again this month, Clinton has decided it's time for the movement to roll on without him. "Because I got them in shape now," he says. "They're ready to run this shit."


The stories of the travelling funk circus drenched in '60s LSD madness, '70s sci-fi spectacle and not-so-euphoric decades of crack addiction will never die. "My nose caught on fire," Clinton cackles over one incident that nearly burned down a Los Angeles hotel in the '80s.


More instructive is the history he's moulded into his morphing mothership these past seven decades. The Hall of Fame legend is cited in the same breath as James Brown and Sly Stone as a funk pioneer, but he traces his roots as an entertainer way deeper, into 1940s jump blues.


"Louis Jordan was crazy. He was big like Duke Ellington and Count Basie but it was funky music ... and he was a clown. Louis did three or four movies that were really funny. YouTube got 'em ...


"Between him and then the Coasters - remember them? Yackety Yak and all that? I went to the Apollo Theatre every day and they were the clowns of the Apollo Theatre. I'd skip school and go and stay all day and watch whoever was on."


As a barbershop doo-wop wannabe, Clinton recalls leaving "three or four customers under the dryer" in a rush to catch the bus to New York to audition at the Brill Building in 1960. Style-wise, he was chasing "the Four Tops and The Temptations with the pretty suits and pretty harmony".


"Everybody was clean and that wore us out for a while but as soon as we got Testify as a hit record, everything flipped because here come the hippies in shirts and jeans with holes and the Rolling Stones and Jimi [Hendrix] are playin' big fields and we realise ... we got to change."


George Clinton. PhotoCredit: The Sydney Morning Herald
P-Funk is more of a movement than a group, according to George Clinton. PhotoCredit: The Sydney Morning Herald

The funk, by this time, was a given. "We could play psychedelic, we could play Motown, we could play Stax, we could play anything and we did." But it was Clinton's instinct for the pop zeitgeist that kept P-Funk rolling through the '70s.


"Psychedelic was getting old so we had to get a brand new thing. So we got a spaceship. And a bunch of leather costumes. This is our newest version," he chuckles, fingering his starship bib. "When you do that, you reinvent yourself. Kids look at me and say, 'Wow, how old you say you was?'"


The answer is 77, "but I actually feel younger now than I did 20 years ago". Other side effects of giving up decades of drug abuse include his 2014 memoir, Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain't That Funkin' Kinda Hard on You?, and tighter ownership of one of the most sampled catalogues in hip-hop.


Come 2020, Dr Funkenstein will retire to the studio "cause the kids all got their projects" and as always, the mothership stands ready for new frontiers. "My mother said to me when we started, 'What the hell is a-wop-bop-a-loo-mop-alop-bam-boom?' That got on her nerves. Now, whatever the new thing that get on your nerves? That's the new shit, and that's what you better learn."


George Clinton's last Australian shows with Parliament-Funkadelic are at the Enmore Theatre in Sydney on April 20; Bluesfest in Byron Bay on April 21 and 22; and the Forum Theatre in Melbourne on April 25.



 
 

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