Finally, '70s funk gets the respect it deserves

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Ask the average pop fan to trace the development of rock and roll through the '60s and '70s, and he or she will immediately recall the way the music moved from the British Invasion into psychedelia, or how punk rock pushed aside pomp rock at the end of the '70s. It's easy to remember stuff like that, because rock and roll did all of its growing up in public.

Ask the same person to outline the progress of R&B;, however, and a different picture emerges. Motown and Stax? Everybody knows that stuff. Sly Stone and the Jackson Five? No problem. But wasn't it just a lot of disco records after that?

Hardly. In fact, some of the funkiest records ever made came out in the mid- to late '70s -- singles like Parliament's "Up for the Down Stroke," Kool & the Gang's "Funky Stuff," the Temptations' "Shakey Ground" and James Brown's "Get up Offa That Thing." But few of those tunes ever cracked the Top 40 (though all were R&B; hits), and none ever became as well-known as "Shake Your Booty" or "The Hustle." It was almost as if the public had forgotten about real R&B.;

Some people remembered, though, and thanks to them, '70s funk is finally beginning to get the respect it deserves. Some of that, naturally, has to do with the way rap has revived classic '70s grooves, as when De La Soul appropriated Funkadelic's "(Not Just) Knee Deep" to power "Me Myself and I."

But mostly, it has to do with reissue programs. Ever since "Star Time," Polydor's 1991 James Brown set, showed that there was an interested and enthusiastic audience for post-Motown R&B;, the amount of '70s soul on the market has increased exponentially. Even better, many of the reissue packages are being assembled by fellow funk fanatics, ensuring that the emphasis is kept on deep-groove stuff -- not just the few tunes that somehow trickled into the mainstream.

Take, for example, Mercury's Funk Essentials series. Unlike their rock-oriented counterparts, these albums don't make a big deal about chart clout or historical importance. Instead, each album seems framed around a single question: What was the funkiest stuff these bands cut? The answer, as always, is in the grooves.

And you may be surprised by what you'll find there.

Take, for example, "The Best of Kool & the Gang (1969-1976)" (Mercury 314 514 822). Although pop fans know this band through such ultra-smooth hits as "Celebration" and "Joanna," few listeners outside the R&B; audience are probably aware that Kool & the Gang was once one of the most intensely funky bands in creation. True, some of that occasionally bubbled over into the pop market -- remember "Jungle Boogie," with its jagged horn lines and hypnotic rhythm vamp? -- but for the most part, it was enjoyed only by hard-core devotees who knew the band from singles like "Give It Up" and "Chocolate Buttermilk," as well as its incendiary live show.

Healthy sampling

"The Best of Kool & the Gang" doesn't offer much in the way of live material (though it does include the classic "Who's Gonna Take the Weight" in its two-part entirety), but it does offer a healthy sampling of the band's early R&B; hits. Even better, it fleshes out those hits with a healthy dollop of jazz. Not that Kool (bassist Robert Bell) and his crew would quite pass muster with the purists, but the instrumental extrapolations found on tracks like "Open Sesame, Pt. 2" and "N.T., Pts. 1 & 2" are often more daring than anything Grover Washington was doing at the time. An even better example, "Jungle Jazz," can be found on the sampler album, "Funky Stuff: The Best of Funk Essentials" (Mercury 314 514 821).

Kool & the Gang may see its reputation improve as a result of the Funk Essentials series, but for the Bar-Kays and Con-Funk-Shun, the series will probably end up showing pop fans what R&B; listeners have known all along: That these were major bands despite their low profile on the hit parade.

Start with the Bar-Kays, a horn-heavy band from Memphis that last saw mainstream success when "Soul Finger" slipped into the Top 20 in 1967. The band suffered a crippling blow a couple years after that, when four members died in the same crash that killed Otis Redding, but the Bar-Kays' story doesn't end there.

Groove band first

As "The Best of the Bar-Kays (Mercury 314 514 823) bears out, the Bar-Kays -- like early Kool & the Gang -- were a groove band first, and a pop act second (if at all). As such, the best moments on this collection -- fatback-driven funk tunes like "Too Hot to Stop," "Shake Your Rump to the Funk" and "Move Your Boogie Body" -- always build from the rhythm section up, with the vocals and horn parts often serving as mere ornamentation.

That's not to say the band couldn't handle songs that are slow and tuneful, as "Attitudes" and the gospel-inflected "Deliver Us" make plain. But the Bar-Kays were a party band at heart, and shone brightest when riding the sort of deep, communal groove that makes booty-shaking an almost involuntary reaction.

Con-Funk-Shun, by contrast, was equally at home with melody or rhythm. In fact, even though "The Best of Con-Funk-Shun (Mercury 314 510 275) is packed with bass-pumping, horn-accented dance tunes like "Chase Me" and "Shake and Dance With Me," the most memorable songs here are those with the strongest melodies. Some of that is simply a matter of pop appeal, as with "Ffun," which fleshes out its hard-funking pulse with a tuneful, Earth, Wind & Fire-ish chorus.

Elsewhere, though, it's simply a matter of songwriting skills. "Love's Train," for instance, is funky in only the most general sense of the term, but its verse and chorus are so flowingly melodic that the listener is pulled along like a leaf on a stream. It sounds so much like a pop smash, in fact, that you may find it hard to believe that the single never even cracked the Top 40.

But that's nothing compared to the number of great P-Funk singles the pop audience ignored. Although P-Funk -- shorthand for Parliament/Funkadelic, but which has come to refer to almost any offshoot of George Clinton's Parliafunkadelicment Thang -- is now almost as revered in R&B; circles as the great James Brown bands, the sad fact is that only a smattering of the group's output ever crossed over to pop.

And, frankly, that was the pop audience's loss.

Scan through the tracks on Parliament's "Tear the Roof Off" (Casablanca 314 514 417, two discs), and you'll immediately understand. Even though only two of these tracks made it into the Top 40 -- "Give up the Funk (Tear the Roof off the Sucker)" in 1976, and "Flashlight" two years later -- most will seem instantly familiar.

That's especially true if you happen to be a rap fan. As with James Brown's hits, much of the P-Funk catalog has been rifled for riffs by rap producers, with the end result that many younger listeners will end up flashing on Ice Cube or Dr. Dre as they listen to "Bop Gun" or "Mothership Connection." With luck, though, hearing those grooves in context will clue them into the larger picture Clinton and his Funk Mob presented -- a musical world that ranged from the sublime silliness of "Aqua Boogie (A Psychoalphadiscobetabioaquadoloop)" to the sly politics of "Chocolate City."

Finally available

In fact, the only complaint anyone could have with "Tear the Roof Off" is that it offers nothing devoted P-Funkers don't already have. That's because Casablanca doesn't have the rights to any unreleased P-Funk -- but George Clinton does. And with the release of "Go fer Yer Funk" (AEM 25621) and " 'P' Is the Funk" (AEM 25651), he's finally making it available.

Both albums are part of his "Family Series," and consist of previously unreleased tracks by Parliament, Funkadelic and various P-Funk satellite bands. " 'P' Is the Funk" is probably the stronger of the two, thanks to such gems as Parliament's "Every Booty (Get on Down)" and Funkadelic's "Clone Communicado," but "Go fer Yer Funk" is well worth owning, if only for the title tune (a classic Parliament performance) and Blackbyrd McKnight's acid-funk rethink of Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love."

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