In his new book, George Clinton: The Cosmic Odyssey of Dr Funkenstein, veteran music journalist Kris Needs dives headlong into the world of George Clinton, exploring his life and career as one of the most interesting and influential funk musicians of all time. But the book doesn’t only focus on Clinton. It also takes a few side trips giving great info on many involved in the P-Funk legacy. Players like Bootsy Collins, Bernie Worrell, and Eddie Hazel are examined as musicians and important cogs in the wheel of the mothership. Kris took a few minutes to talk to us about the project:
Music Tomes: The book grew out of a personal relationship between you and George Clinton. When did you first meet him?
Kris Needs: That may be exaggerating slightly! The book actually germinated then blossomed from being a massive P-Funk fan since the early 70s, collecting every record through the 80s by scouring the streets and record stores of New York City, then meeting George for the first time in 1989 when I interviewed him. Back then he was the wild, hyperactive funk dog with multicoloured hair who’d just been rescued by Prince. We had a blast and hit it off but the way George talked articulately and hilariously through the pile of records I stuck in front of him also provided a fantastic feature in the magazine I was editing at the time and planted the thought that a book would be a great idea one day! For years I thought it could never happen but I was encouraged by my girlfriend Helen, who managed to steer the idea through Omnibus Press and suddenly I was faced with what was undoubtedly the biggest challenge I’ve had to face in 40 years of writing about music: the story of George Clinton, the P-Funk Empire and all that sailed in it. Halfway through my writing it, George announced he was writing his own book so I upped the fan’s-eye and trainspotting angles, deciding to leave the the copyright battles and 21st century for George to talk about. I started thinking of my book as more of a companion tome to his.
MT: You have written extensively on the punk scene. What drew you to Funkadelic?
KN: I knew about Funkadelic before punk, after first reading about their 1971 UK visit and how George’s jock-strap shocked our innocent audiences. I found their first album in Kensington Market as a cheap import and never looked back. From seeing the Rolling Stones and Hendrix in the 60s I’d always been attracted to the wildest, loudest, furthest out artists, and the louder the better. Those first three Funkadelic albums beat anything else hands down for acid-fried mania and shattering guitar bombast. When punk came along much of it sounded tame in comparison! The way Funkadelic upset both musical and social traditions and broke the rules presaged punk anyway. I included one of their tracks on my Dirty Water roots of punk attitude compilation.
MT: Was there anything that you ran across that surprised you?
KN: Nothing in terms of behaviour or some of the tragedies which befell the groups, such as the death of Eddie Hazel. I was pretty surprised at how perfectly formed and all encompassing George’s musical visions were even at the very start of the Parliaments’ musical career. Listening to his earliest compositions and productions for labels such as Golden World – a voyage of discovery in itself! – it was eye-opening and often spine-tingling to hear his grasp of great lyrics (‘Heart Trouble’ is a masterpiece) and vocal arrangements.
MT: Clinton took the psychedelic aspects of music, particularly that of Jimi Hendrix, and them amped them up tremendously. How was the band received at the time?
KN: With a lot of confusion, sometimes hostility and even disbelief! George’s favourite quote, which he seems to drop in every interview he’s ever done, is “We were too white for the black stations and too black for the white stations”. Radio didn’t know where to slot Funkadelic in America and, at the time, the UK just didn’t have much of a radio outlet for hardcore black music anyway. I was an out and out Hendrix nut since seeing him on TV in December 1966 and really saw Funkadelic filling some of the huge, gaping hole he’d left after his death in September 1970. The aforementioned Eddie Hazel is still the closest thing to Jimi the world has ever seen and ever will see. He said he carried a bit of Jimi’s spirit in him and I can hear it every time. But you try telling that to your average rock fan – both then and now – and were quite likely to be met with a befuddled look. Despite the clenched fist salutes and earnest growling, rock fans have always been the most conservative in the world and Funkadelic were simply too heavy, too weird and too black for many of them. George had to go to Detroit in 1967 to find kindred spirits among John Sinclair, the MC5 and the Stooges. They were into free jazz, so already had the antenna to plug into the Funkadelic wavelength.
MT: Clinton’s work is one of the most sampled, but how do you think he is thought of today?
KN: I last saw him in May, when he was in Ibiza being honoured as a living legend at the International Music Summit. He can rise to that sort of occasion well, trotting out the sound bites and Mothership memories but obviously isn’t the rampant hound I first met 25 years ago. For a start, he’s given up the hard drugs and, as he says, is now addicted to lawyers, who he has been forced to employ to try and regain some of his copyrights and song rights. To this end, George is still gigging his ass off at 73, selling meet and greets, trying to raise cash to fight for his own music. He’s one of the few 60s black music legends still doing it so will obviously attract the long time fans but, hopefully, he can still pick up new fans as one of the most important cutting edge artists the world has ever seen.
MT: What are you currently working on?
KN: It never stops! I was going to be finishing a book about my old friends Primal Scream but the opportunity arose to do my long-planned work on Suicide and their home city of New York. They are the ultimate NY band and I want to make the definitive statement on this most unique pair of artists while capturing the lost city which spawned them.
As ever, I’m also writing for various UK music magazines, including Record Collector, Classic Rock, Shindig, Vive Le Rock and the Data Transmission dance music website. Keeps me off the streets and my ear to the ground! There’s also some other exciting stuff in the works (including me and Helen hoping to start our own magazine, suitably dealing with our obsessions: from P-Funk to Patrick MacGoohan!).
MT: Can you recommend some of your favorite music tomes?
KN: It’s funny but today’s post just brought my 2 favourite books from when I was a kid; Our Own Story By The Rolling Stones was the first music biog I ever read (after getting it as a 10th birthday present in 1964!). I guess it all started there but, as I’d lost my original copy, it’s amazing to discover that I still knew every photo and word by heart!
The other one was Who’s Who In Pop Radio; a 1966 book about British pirate radio. Obviously, the US was spoilt for great radio in the 60s, as the Cruisin’ series attests, but we only had the boring BBC in the UK. To suddenly be able to tune in and hear the Yardbirds, Hendrix or the Strawberry Alarm Clock blasting out of your transistor radio, introduced by a DJ who sounded like they were alive, was alien and fantastic!
I’ve also just read Robert Greenfield’s latest Stones book, Ain’t it Time We Said Goodbye, which is built on notes he made as the only journalist on the band’s 1971 farewell tour of the UK. I’ve been collecting Stones books since that first one in 1964 and, much as I love the huge coffee table jobs, you can’t beat up close and personal eye witness accounts from back in the day. Plus he’s cleverly added his 2014 insights and clarifications. There are many more Stones books I could name (I wrote one on Keef myself over 10 years ago but now don’t feel I was qualified to take on such a task at that time).
I have to mention the Mott The Hoople coffee table book, We’ve Got A Great Future Behind Us. Befitting this mighty band, it’s the biggest book I’ve got, stacked with memorabilia. I was honoured to be asked to take part, so shared my memories from first seeing Mott in 1969 through running the fan club. Also from that era (in terms of artists I was thoroughly immersed in then), Victor Bockris has updated his Lou Reed biography Transformer for Harper Collins. It’s always been the definitive work and has been suitably brought up to date as such (with an amazing new cover photo!).
For one of my favourite books of all time, Funk by Rickey Vincent takes some beating, straddling the history of conscious black music with insight, knowledge and passion. John F. Szwed’s beautiful Space is The Place: The Life & Times Of Sun Ra is the ultimate word on music’s other intergalactic visionary. I could go on but thank you for having me!