I’ve written before about The Quietus, the British music and pop-culture site that turns out high-quality commentary at a rate bloggers like me can only envy.
I’m pretty sure I haven’t written the full story of how I got turned on to Parliament-Funkadelic as a teen — possibly the last good pop-culture story in my trick bag that hasn’t been told yet.
Anyway, Ned Raggett, writing for The Quietus, has pried some of it out with an excellent 40th-anniversary essay on Funkadelic’s Let’s Take It To The Stage album.
Raggett’s piece is well worth a read, relating as it does the pot-smoked Seventies wanderings of George Clinton’s funk mob to America’s eternally tangled racial politics. (Indeed: Go check it out. If you never make it back to this post you won’t have missed much.)
At one point in the essay, Raggett admits that he was too young to have heard Let’s Take It… when it came out, and that his eyes were not opened to P-Funk until later:
I only first heard of Clinton himself a couple of years later, seeing the famous photo of him riding the dolphins, wondering what the heck was up, as much of a, “Oh… this is music?” moment as knowing that Kiss were out there, in all their make-up.
When I hit that graf, it transported me to a high school library in the suburbs of Rochester, N.Y., circa 1987. (“Vanilla suburbs,” yes … the phrase is perhaps cliche at this point, but true enough in this case.)
I read about what I liked; and I liked rock n’ roll; so I burned a lot of free periods reading a rock encyclopedia put out by someone or other. You know the deal — each band got a discography, usually a picture, and a brief career summary.
Anyway, I got to the P section … and there was this picture of a sharp-dressed black guy looking like some sort of cowboy-pimp, diamond ring glinting, hoisting a boom box to his ear while riding a pair of dolphins.
And just to make things weirder, the accompanying discography of his bands (he had enough juice for two, apparently, and they both put out releases at the same time) featured titles like Cosmic Slop and Motor Booty Affair and Hardcore Jollies and Standing On The Verge of Getting It On.
With the exception of Zappa and the Mothers, who’d blown open a corner of my brain at an even earlier age, it was just about the weirdest thing I’d ever seen in my life. It definitely stood out a mile in a book filled with pictures of white guys posed against backstage walls. And I decided I had to check it out.
How I did is another story, and I’ll get back to those details at some other point. Suffice it for now to say that I found my way onto the P-Funk bus, and that it was a significant influence on my high school years that occasionally still resonates today.
Raggett’s essay, involved as it is in larger arguments, doesn’t touch too deeply on most of the album’s songs. There’s a lot of good stuff on Let’s Take It To The Stage, but the song that sums up the whole trip for me is the title track.
I’d heard call-and-response vocals before, soul from the old school, like maybe when my dad would play Aretha Franklin or Ray Charles records. But this was something unruly, anarchic, totally different.
There was a lead voice — not really a singer — reciting twisted nursery rhymes and throwing shade at other funk bands. He sounded thoroughly stroked out on some drug I didn’t even know existed, and also very pleased with himself.
Then there was another not-really-singing voice, farther away from the mic, aggressively shouting imprecations and insults (“Slick and the Family Prick! Let’s take it higher!”)
Sometimes the stoned guy closer to the mic would echo the shouter. Sometimes it went the other way ’round. And sometimes Stoned Guy would straight-up step on Shouting Guy in mid-sentence, as if they were just making it up as they went.
(Even the cats on my dad’s classic jazz albums, the improvisers like John Coltrane and Miles Davis, weren’t entirely making it up as they went. There were regular cycles of chords underneath, and they’d wrap up their solo at the end of the chord sequence and make way for the next soloist. There was nothing so predictable about this self-proclaimed Funk Mob. Maybe they’d all surfed to the recording session on dolphins.)
And that doesn’t even mention the choir of background singers singing … something, I’m still not totally sure what. Whatever it was, it didn’t echo either Stoned Guy or Shouting Guy, much of the time. It was its own thang. Still another thang.
(The celebrated musicians of the P-Funk stable are not heard in their full improvisatory glory here, except for some classically wonderful synth squiggles on the bridge. I suppose somebody on this song needed to stay in the bag. Their structure sets the backdrop against which the vocalists can fly free, anyway.)
As I got to know Funkadelic more deeply, I would come across tracks that I wished they’d put a little more effort into — songs that seemed like stoned sketches, perhaps relevant to the people in the studio at the time, but lacking some polish that would help them carry further.
“Let’s Take It To The Stage” is not one of those songs. Polish or other arrangement would only detract from its swaggering, loopy perfection. It defines its own logic, sets out its own law and pitches its tent. It might just be the perfect introduction to the P-Funk realm — one of the best places to step through the funhouse mirror and get initiated into a whole new world.
In that sense, the song captures the feel of that moment when you take the reins, and put your feet on the dolphins’ backs, and lose your breath in a gasp as you find yourself skimming across the water for the first time.