Album review: Funkadelic – Standing on the Verge of Getting it On

Album review: Funkadelic – Standing on the Verge of Getting it On

Parliament-Funkadelic in their mid-’70s heyday were brimming with paradox—patent absurdity juxtaposed against a surprisingly profound spiritual worldview, danceable rhythmic grooves providing the foundation for dense classical music-inspired arrangements and staggeringly complex harmonies, black soul melding with white hard rock, and lyrics that range from simple dance instructions to erotica to political commentary to religious revelation to erudite philosophical ruminations on the metaphorical meanings of bowel movements. George Clinton may have famously said “it ain’t nothing but a party, y’all”, but it was never just a party; there was always something deeper at work, a desire to awaken new musical, political, spiritual, and moral consciousness in the listener, and P-Funk’s music rewards critical listening to entire albums just as much as it rewards tearing the roof off the sucker at a nightclub. Even listeners who never consciously picked up on these tensions would have noticed them unconsciously, and they have helped to make P-Funk legendary while most of the other ‘70s funk acts have faded into obscurity.

Most of these paradoxes, of course, are creations of the artistic establishment and record industry, the former to protect the snob appeal of “serious music” from challengers from below, the latter to protect their class-, genre-, and race-based market segmentation. It was never the case that capitalist culture industries merely reflected the will of consumers (“consumers” themselves being constructed by capitalism) as expressed via “market forces”; these industries actively cultivate and manipulate tastes and limit the diversity of styles and ideas consumers are exposed to so as to create neat marketing categories into which people can be slotted, the better to sell them mass-produced Potted Culture Product. However, during the early to middle 1970s, these categories were in danger of being torn down, weakened by a raft of artistic movements that came from the artists themselves—art rock, jazz fusion, psychedelic soul, New Hollywood, and others, and did not respect the artificial dichotomies of silly and serious, simple and complicated, highbrow and lowbrow, or black culture and white culture, but instead showed how these things coexisted and interpenetrated. P-Funk’s music captured a comprehensive snapshot of the era’s zeitgeist in America in a way that became impossible after the mainstream retrenchment of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.

Standing on the Verge of Getting it On shows an increasing amount of influence from the Parliament side of the P-Funk collective, with none of the long, rambling jam sessions of early Funkadelic albums. The songs are much more tightly structured and the lyrics are given far more emphasis, and the vocal arrangements are now complex, multi-part affairs rather than a single male lead with interchangeable female backup singers. Unlike Parliament, however, the music is still primarily guitar-based, with rhythm guitar riffs being the fundamental building blocks of most of the songs—one can see the beginnings here of the heavy metal influences that would become more apparent on Hardcore Jollies with the replacement of Eddie Hazel by Michael Hampton. Whereas white rock bands typically break down their arrangements during a guitar solo to direct the listener’s complete attention to the individual soloist, the (quite numerous) solos on Standing on the Verge of Getting it On are more like parts of a larger musical tapestry. The three lead guitarists often solo right over (or under) lyric passages and even choruses, which helps tighten the song structures further and allow Funkadelic to put more musical content into less runtime.

Eddie Hazel dominates the guitar parts on this album, having co-written all of the songs. In many ways his playing is a direct continuation and consummation of Jimi Hendrix’s psychedelic style, although Hazel tended to go more for displays of raw dexterity rather than relying on tricks with the amplifier or wah-wah pedal. His best playing on this album is on the closer “Good Thoughts, Bad Thoughts”, a long, moody improvisation that sounds something like what Pink Floyd might have played if David Gilmour were much faster and more precise than he actually was. Hazel deftly switches between hazy atmospheric textures and extremely clean, fast runs, and while it’s not quite up to the majesty of his 1971 masterpiece “Maggot Brain”, it’s not too far off, especially combined with the rumbling basso profundo narration of Ray Davis, whose voice is so resonant and powerful as to sound downright superhuman at times, and his power and conviction help sell George Clinton’s more eccentric poetic turns, which would sound absolutely hokey from a lesser voice.

Unfortunately, the talents of the other musicians on the album are not used nearly as well as those of the guitarists and singers. Cordell Mosson’s bass playing is professional but lacks the flair Bootsy Collins brought to contemporary Parliament records, and his tone is dull and fails to cut through the loud guitars. Bernie Worrell’s keyboards are tragically underused, mostly limited to basic vamps with his only leads being some quite simple ones in “I’ll Stay” and “Sexy Ways”, the latter of which also has what appears to be the only performance at all from Calvin Simon on congas. The production doesn’t help—Westbound Records were a small and inexperienced label that were not up to the task of mixing an album with so many musicians on it. Instead of an expansive soundstage with space for every player to be heard, the band sounds like it’s been crammed into a small box. It can be difficult to mix a huge guitar attack with other instruments without the guitars drowning out everybody else, but it’s been done by bands with much huger guitar sounds than this one. The productions on contemporary Parliament records were much better, as befitting the big Warner Bros. money backing Casablanca Records. Overall, both Parliament and Funkadelic are better the more they resemble each other, with the absolute peak being the stupendous 1976 live tour for Mothership Connection where the bands’ sounds and styles were fully integrated.

The vinyl, produced by the cringily yclept label 4 Men with Beards, is of quite adequate quality, but doesn’t do much to improve on the claustrophobic mixing. It’s a hell of a lot quieter and better made than the original Westbound edition, but it won’t be one of the records you pull out to impress your friends with your audiophile sound system. At least it faithfully represents the album as Funkadelic originally cut it, unlike many of the CD reissues which make cuts to many of the songs, especially “I’ll Stay”, which might stand to be a bit shorter but not by hacking two minutes off the end of the recording like a butcher, and add the inevitable dynamic range compression to make the mix sound even more confined. I recommend this vinyl reissue over any of the other editions.

This is actually pretty normal by Funkadelic standards. Even Calvin Simon’s head emerging as a planet from a giant vagina.

P-Funk’s absurdist quasi-Gnostic mysticism is downplayed on this record, mostly confined to bits of narration from Ray Davis at the beginning of “Red Hot Mama” and the second half of “Good Thoughts, Bad Thoughts”. The first is an utterly fascinating and thoroughly profane allegory about white American society, filtered through Funkadeloccultic imagery, describing America plundering the earth/”Mother Nature” and suppressing the consciousness of the American people, Mother Nature’s children, by “sucking their brains until their ability to think has been amputated / And pimping their instincts until they’re fat, horny, and strung out”, thus inviting Nature’s wrath to punish her for her “neurotic attempt to be queen of the universe”. Unfortunately it’s also deeply misogynist, with the word “bitch” thrown around like punctuation—the P-Funk mythology is completely male-centered and involves women mostly as things men desire or possess, but this is particularly egregious. “Good Thoughts, Bad Thoughts” is fairly disappointing in the lyrical department, banal New Agery in the vein of Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret, and while there’s something to be said for trying to think positively and avoid cynicism, this so completely elides the social and material reasons someone might feel that way that it becomes facile, even useless. Only Ray Davis’ tremendous charisma and some memorable and funny turns of phrase save these lyrics from complete mediocrity. The liner notes provide some much more substantial material to chew on, but unfortunately the completely over-the-top art design with its eye-wateringly bright gatefold backdrop renders them nearly illegible unless you’re really determined. Between the need for credits for a dozen-plus musicians and all the recording staff and Pedro Bell’s Afrofuturistic artwork (which is as usual, stunning, with little details to catch the eye everywhere, but did there have to be so muchof it?) crammed into every square inch of space, there are no lyrics so anyone hoping to learn these songs will have to consult Google.

The second side has another bit of problematic lyrics with “Jimmy’s Got a Little Bit of Bitch in Him”, a jaunty number riding on the vocal harmonies of the Parliament singers alternating with Garry Shider’s poetic recitatives about a gay friend of the band, delivered as a rapid-fire stream of phallic jokes and innuendos. I’m kind of torn on this song; as a gay man I do not at all appreciate the idea that gay men are not real men or have “a bit of she in he”, but some of the dick jokes are pretty clever and the music is perfect for a comedy song, with its lascivious, vaudevillian blues-jazz progression and some piano interjections that sound quite unlike Bernie Worrell (I’m guessing they’re Leon Patillo’s contribution to the album), and it provides a refreshing stylistic contrast to the music that came before. Overall I can’t be too hard on this song—it’s obvious that the band like and accept Jimmy as much as a bunch of straight dudes in 1974 were ever going to accept a gay person. After all, as Shider puts it, “why frown? Even the sun go down / We’ll call it mixed emotions for now.”

Like with many ‘70s records, the two sides of this album have distinctly different characters, with the first side being mostly straightforward rock and soul material with lyrics about sex and relationships, relying more on Funkadelic’s raw energy and talent rather than unusual or particularly complex songwriting. “Red Hot Mama” is perhaps the best of these, and certainly the finest moment of “polyester soul-powered token white devil” Ron Bykowski in his short tenure with the band, as he lays down some fiery feedback-drenched solos that many mistake for being Eddie Hazel’s work. I like the way he structures his solos into short bursts spread throughout the song instead of stuffing a big, boring jerk-off section into the bridge. Sadly, this song was truncated for the album and the last couple of minutes only exist as an outtake, “Vital Juices”, that appears as a bonus track on CD reissues. George Clinton’s vocal on this song really smokes too, with a yelping, strident timbre that sometimes calls to mind a young Rob Halford (!!!) with a black R&B twist—he doesn’t do any head voice shrieks, but his midrange is strikingly similar to Halford’s approach to songs like “Genocide” and “Victim of Changes”. “Alice in My Fantasies” is broadly similar but this track is Eddie Hazel’s baby, a fulminating, furious blast of heavily distorted acid rock. Like “Red Hot Mama”, this song sounds incomplete, fading out inconclusively in the middle of a solo after only two and a half minutes. The lyrics are more obscene than “Red Hot Mama” and also more interesting, with a reference to Frank Zappa (“don’t eat the yellow snow”) of all people popping up during a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it transition.

If the first two tracks got cut off to allow “I’ll Stay” to stretch out over seven minutes, it was an unfair trade because “I’ll Stay” is really kind of a snoozer, a slow, languid R&B ballad that ambles along on a single groove with no dynamic buildups or counter-themes to provide direction. It has Bernie Worrell’s best keyboard work on the album by far, with some somber piano and a pretty unique “squawking” synth lead, but not enough to carry the song alone—Garry Shider’s guitar seems to be dialed to around “4” and mostly wanders in circles playing blues licks. “Sexy Ways” brings the energy level back up a bit, the bass line is the most prominent and adventurous on the album, and the addition of congas to the rhythm section is quite welcome, but Shider sings in an extremely goofy falsetto that seriously grates on me after a minute or so. I suppose it’s meant to sound tender but it comes off more as a mockery of Marvin Gaye’s trademark falsetto than an honest attempt at the style. The lyrics are a complete wash—baby you’re generically sexy, I need you, girl, you’re my nondescript soul music cliché.

The big highlight on this album is the title track, a smoldering mid-paced dance song riding a disco-like four-on-the-floor beat, but there’s a hell of a lot more going on here than your average disco song. Ramon Fulwood has an excellent instinct for when to throw in a fill or flourish, or even switch to a different beat, to keep the four-on-the-floor rhythm from getting stale, and the band are completely in the pocket, phase-locked but not rigidly so. The guitar department is a feast for kings, with all three guitarists trading licks and playing off each other constantly, sometimes with multiple guitar leads going on simultaneously. The tempo is not actually that fast, somewhere between andante and moderato, but it sounds a lot faster than it really is due to the volcanic energy driving it. The vocal harmonies among the Parliament singers, who deliver the lyrics as a united quintet all the way through, are absolutely superb and sound more like ten singers than the actual five. Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young would kill their mothers for vocal arrangements that are this good. Even the lyrics are more on point than they are anywhere else on the album, providing a compact but comprehensive statement of P-Funk’s musical intent and entreating the listener to surrender to the power of the funk. When I first heard Parliament-Funkadelic, I was not initially all that impressed, but this song completely sold me on the band immediately. Rhythm, melody, composition, and words all work in perfect synchronicity to give any listener (except perhaps 20th century academics whose brains were completely rotted by serialism) pleasure in their earholes. It’s one and only flaw is that, like every other song on the album, it ends on a fadeout instead of getting a proper coda like it deserves. It’s a masterpiece of funk and one of the most essential songs in the entire P-Funk discography.

Standing on the Verge of Getting it On may not be the most inventive, complex, or transporting album of the gargantuan P-Funk discography, but it makes a very good introduction to the band for rock music fans, heavy on guitar workouts and light on the mind-fucking weirdness that permeates Mothership Connection, Maggot Brain, or their legendary late ‘70s live act. If you were raised on guitar music and feel inclined to explore P-Funk’s musical oeuvre, if you’re standing on the verge of getting it on, this album is the one to pick, mixing the familiar and the freakish in a nice proportion to prepare you for further funkatization. It will do you no harm…but it might pee in your afro. So what are you waiting for?

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