George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic collective isn’t always posed as a leading candidate for greatest or most important band of the ’70s, but try and imagine what music would sound like without them. You’d still have Stevie pushing forward R&B’s artistry, Kraftwerk doing their thing to turn synthesized pop into a mainstream notion, Donald Byrd finding innovative ways to modernize jazz, Led Zeppelin taking heavy metal to exospheric new heights, the O’Jays hitting the zenith of close-harmony soul, Pink Floyd fusing musical intricacy with concert theatrics, the Ramones injecting pop music with rebellious pulp-culture irreverence, James Brown and Sly Stone and the Ohio Players turning out a fine succession of funk-defining records … and yet you wouldn’t have that one core of musicians that could do all of that, and did so to stunning commercial success without compromising their sound, their look, or an essential perspective on post-civil rights America that still carries through today.
P-Funk were geniuses disguised as weirdos, sentimental populists under the guise of freaky outlanders, and it is damn near impossible to think of some strain of popular music or another that they have nothing to do with. George Clinton grew up in Plainfield, New Jersey, immersed in doo-wop when he wasn’t cutting hair, and by the late ’60s, he and his vocal group the Parliaments had followed that rhythm & blues lineage through Stax and Motown with a revelatory detour through Hendrix and Sly Stone. By the time Clinton had begun to internalize the impact of rock’s new counterculture — his time in the late ’60s was just as often spent in thrall to Cream and Jethro Tull as it was to Smokey and Diana — he was more upfront than anybody about his desires to shake down the “black group = soul/white group = rock” dichotomy. Soon enough, Funkadelic became just the band to crumble those barriers, recruiting Clinton’s Parliaments co-singers — Fuzzy Haskins, Calvin Simon, Ray Davis, and Grady Thomas — into a group that would eventually encompass one of the era’s most down-for-whatever ensemble casts. Throughout their peak, both Parliament and Funkadelic would feature a versatile show-band drummer who could play heavy or jazzy and all points in between (Tyrone Lampkin), a keyboard player with a thing for hi-tech experimentation who could sound like Mozart and Booker T. at the same time (Bernie Worrell), a succession of guitarists who took the precedent of Hendrix’s future-soul psychedelia into even further reaches (Eddie Hazel and Michael Hampton chief amongst them), and a bass player who started out stealing the show from James Brown and just got more spectacular from there (Bootsy Collins).
What Funkadelic and Parliament eventually accomplished in their initial 11-year prime was staggering: Imagine if a band that started as weirdo-niche as the Stooges somehow went on to become as big as Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band, without having to compromise to go platinum and notch crossover radio hits. And almost as soon as they disbanded — a side effect of label woes and personnel frustration that only served to make Clinton’s vision even more modular — their effects started shaping the next three decades’ worth of music. Talking Heads, Uncle Jamm’s Army, Prince, Dr. Dre, Mike Watt, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Dinosaur Jr., Fishbone, Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, Prince Paul, Snoop Dogg, OutKast, Missy Elliott, Meshell Ndegeocello, D’Angelo, Dam-Funk … those are just the artists who are the most obviously indebted to P-Funk in some way or another — stylistically, thematically, philosophically, or otherwise. And with Clinton still keeping the P-Funk spirit alive as a rapidly shifting ensemble cast of both original players and younger musicians who came of age looking up to them, it’s become nearly impossible to imagine even a contemporary pop music culture that would be unvisited by the Mothership.
Just as a forewarning, this list doesn’t cover every single album featuring a significant portion of Parliament, Funkadelic, or some mixture thereof. (If it did, we’d be here all week.) Individual members’ solo albums like the Bootsy’s Rubber Band LPs or Hazel’s Game, Dames, And Guitar Thangs are excluded, and that covers solo George Clinton records, too — though exceptions are made for the scattered post-’81 releases that are actually credited to Parliament-Funkadelic or the P-Funk All Stars, whether or not they follow the word “and…” There are no compilations or works featuring the band from multiple years (cf. the archival odds-and-ends Funkadelic collection Toys). And with as many P-Funk concerts as there are floating around out there in bootleg, semi-bootleg, or micro-indie form, we’ve had to limit their live releases to three — though they should provide a strong cross-reference of what made them such a spectacular live act in their various incarnations. With that said, let’s get started — there might be a roof over your head that hasn’t been torn off yet, and that should probably be addressed.
Start the Countdown here.