As elder statesman of P-Funk, George Clinton refused to dim with age. Here, he trades conspiracies with Ben Watson, and tells how he triumphed over the big, bad record industry. This article originally appeared in The Wire 139 (September 1995).
George Clinton speaks it like he struts it. His wild appearance on stage - multi-coloured, benign, conjurous as a cockatoo on acid - is not toned down in person; an interview could never be a mere public relations exercise. As Clinton's discography stretches to Sun Ra-like dimensions, it becomes obvious that meeting the man is likely to raise as many questions as it answers. How can one get a perspective on someone so gaudily determined to elude black and white definitions?
A P-Funk performance is itself a blinding cornucopia of talent, a jive-ass R&B roadshow that doesn't care about getting out of control. For instance, this July at The Grand in Clapham, South London, you could witness soaring psychedelic guitar features; a gospel-infected singer named Belita Woods with the stage presence of an Esther Philips or Lyn Collins (ie awesome); street-sharp raps from Clinton's son Shawn; stabbing horn solos from Greg Boyer and Bennie Cowan; improvised felt tip graphics from artist Pedro Bell (scribbled continually, held aloft and hurled into the audience: "PLAY ATTENTION!" said it all); riotous audience singalongs to warped, food-for-thought slogans. Throughout, George Clinton presided, interrupted, cajoled, directed, as a capacity audience went beserk in the peculiarly amiable manner of cultists receiving their favoured communion.
P-Funk is brash, demonstrative, propagandistic - and very funny. Unlike the insinuating swing of Go-Go, Washington DC's brand of black roots funk, P-Funk is designed for public statements; it wants to be as global as Coca-Cola. In a world where commercial success generally implies subordination to official concepts of mass taste, P-Funk is an eruption of what-the-hell freedom, a lesson in black music history that manages to be militant and irresponsible at once. A few days before that Clapham show, I met Clinton in London and asked him how he kept everything so fresh yet seamless.
"We've done it so many years now it just comes naturally. It really works well because I can flow from so many musicians - I never do it the same way twice; on different nights different ones feel like they wanna play more. And if it's starting to get too tight and too good, I'll do something that'll fuck it up. We're doing some really important change and everyone's ready to hit it, and I'll say, 'Hold it!' And they'll be like, 'What the fuck is he doing now?' Now they've got to wake up, because they can basically do it in their sleep, they've been doing it for so long. Now they have to figure out, 'How do we get back to that cue at the same time?' So it becomes a brand new thing each time."
It comes alive again?
"It makes it very alive again. If they're real good they'll get out of it without stumbling -it's order and chaos at the same time. We've been playing the same songs for 25 years, and you tend to evolve them. We had some people who wanted to sample the songs just like they were in the beginning, so we had to actually go back and learn the songs just like we started out, real simple. It made it interesting to the band because they'd never played it like that for the most part, they'd come in playing our most advanced versions. When we run into young rock 'n' roll bands that's copied us, they're playing it just like the record was, and all of a sudden you say, 'So that's how it really was!' [Red] Hot Chili Peppers taught us "Free Your Mind" and "Funky Dollar Bill" - we never played that on stage originally. We had two days rehearsal with them for the Grammies, and they taught us our songs!"
In a period when the music industry has reduced most live performances to touring adverts for the new album, this insistence on keeping music live and improvised has a heroic aspect, almost like the Duke Ellington Orchestra.
"That's what I tell the record companies when they say, 'You can't do this, you can't do that.' I say it's like Duke Ellington's Orchestra or Count Basie's Orchestra - it's a band and I have a lot of sidemen. They like to make it sound like I've done something really sneaky or dubious because I have Parliament or Funkadelic, but they're just names for the band -and I have a lot of sidemen. And they can be on all the records they want to be on."
George Clinton puts a lot into his records: they suit the obsessional world of the fan, someone still building their own world-picture, rather than the cool ambience of the adult consumer, someone requiring a prop for sophisticated lifestyle. 'Cool' implies streamlining, impersonality, professionalism: in contrast, Clinton's albums are a barrage of puzzles, jokes, references, asides. They don't flatter the know-it-all: they demand curiosity, involvement, thought; they protest the alienation of 'product'. Again and again, Funkadelic and Parliament albums emphasise the material facts of their realisation: record label promotion, censorship, media scams and scandals. And again and again Clinton returns the interview to talk of politics.Not politics as some pompous, holier-than-thou crusade, but politics as urgent newscast, dangerous truths 'they' don't want you to hear, scurrilous facts excavated from the mountains of media bullshit. Talking to him is like studying one of his record covers: it's a cascade of information and images which forces you to examine your preconceptions, shock your whitey propriety. Clinton's new album, Cope Dogs, has a cover featuring a dog sniffing up a woman's skirt, while the back carries personal attacks on George Bush, Oliver North, plus a rogue's gallery of black 'sell out' politicians. Clinton does not see himself as a singer or musician so much as a media agitator, a persistent irritant, a subversive.
"Inflomation - in-flow-mation! When they were making money off the rappers, it was cool, but when it got to the point that someone was using the concept to give us some information, they clamp down on it... We're sniffing out the truth, I tell you," Clinton sings from "A US Customs Coast Guard Dope Dog (Hyper Mix)", asong which accuses the American government - and George Bush in particular - of running the very drug traffic they denounce so shrilly: "Old Mac Uncles had some drugs, CIA I-O".
Won't he get into trouble saying these things?
"Not if you look stupid and say it funny!"
George Clinton assumes the posture of the clown in order to say things a sober citizen would be sued for. Dazzled by the comic book lunacy with which he surrounds himself, some commentators have attempted to 'read' Clinton as a propagator of black science fiction, and P-Funk as a utopian cry from the heart of the diaspora, a protest against the Caucasian chalk circle of cyberspace technology. Actually, satirical scatology and provocatively reductive sex lurk beneath each cartoon rocket and 'mothership' reference. Clinton's obscene tongue-twisters and wordplay mock transcendence; his infantile regressions celebrate the realities of cradle and courtship, an invert-virus to the fascistoid techno-worship of Ayn Rand and L Ron Hubbard. Far from pursuing the out-of-body Platonism of Ambient, George Clinton wants to get you back into your body, in all its funksome fulsomeness: "I'm the product of a Pavlovian experiment/We rub each others' cheeks/We sniff each others' seats/We tug each others' leash when we find each other in heat/We scratch each others' fleas and put each other at ease/When in Dogtown, do as dogs do."
Clinton's ability to relish the musical and sexual circus - while using it to comment on all kinds of unsavoury truths about America - is inspirational, a blueprint for an engaged and critical art. His statements have a personable, devil-may-care directness; no 'tactful' silences, no 'discreet' compliance, no coyness about naming names. He tells it like it is. This corresponds to the hearty, value for money sweat of his live concerts. He is aware that his values are not shared by those who control the purse strings.
"It might mean I get no record deal sometimes. That's what killed my last record on [Prince's] Paisley Park [label], Hey Man Smell My Finger, because it had "Martial Law" on there. Prince had paid $40,000 for two videos, Ice Cube and Dr Dre were going to do them, [then] Warners closed the company down. We had just moved into these offices, 1999, Avenue Of The Stars, and they put locks on the door. The only thing I could think of was that martial law was really something they didn't want us to talk about."
It's a truism that modern art is meant to disrupt the passivity of the spectacle, empower the spectator. Such ideas too often turn into complex theoretical justifications that merely lead to yet more elitist obscurantism. Clinton presents the argument without using such art jargon. In fact, he invents his own.
"I'm no preacher, I'm no guru, that's just my opinion of it. If you think about it, you have to come to your own conclusion. You might get out of it more than what I put in - I just mix it in there. I don't tell you what to think about it. Because they have what they call Social Engineering in operation everywhere. They engineer our lifestyles so we come to certain conclusions, it's pre-arranged for you. They give you a list of options when they take a public opinion survey, you've got to answer the questions in this space right here - the definitions are all narrowed down to this, so when they ask you, you can only answer from here to here, from there to there, like the rest of it don't exist, so they're still manipulating it, telling you what to think. I don't believe none of that. Some dumb question, 'What you think about Affirmative Action [the US phrase for Positive Discrimination]?' It's fucked up, anyway you look at it, because it's designed to piss somebody off. Whether you have it or don't have it, that's not all that there is. If you just take some of that fucking money that they spend making these bombs, you wouldn't need no Affirmative Action in there, everyone would have a job. They buy all these planes and missiles and before they finish making them they're obsolete. They don't take the planes apart and use the parts to make a new plane, they set them out in the desert. They won't let you fly over them most of the time, but they've got thousands of planes and trucks and tanks out in the desert, obsolete before they finished them - a whole fleet can sit there and rust. They want someone to go in and make a new set - and get a kickback from that."
Clinton is an astute observer of the way that sexual morality is used as a weapon against those who criticise the American political establishment. For instance, he is convinced that Michael Jackson and Richard Gere were both targeted for political reasons. With juvenile Hollywood seeking a return to the 50s - sex as something 'nice' girls don't do, suburbia as a haven from urban vice - his hedonism, his express commitment to sex and drugs and rock and roll, constitutes a defence of core 60s values. he says, with disarming frankness, "I tell the fans, I'm not your guru, because I'm trying to get some pussy, you'll catch me trying to get some dope..." He adds with a smile, "Not heavy dope!"
Clinton is also acute when assessing the situation in England. On this visit he was warned by his record company that London's East End was full of racist thugs.
"When we was in the east part of London they were telling us how bad the skinhead was over there, and I said, 'Do they have jobs' I don't doubt that they're pissed off at anybody who moves in there. Not that that's right, but that goes with property. It offends them to see another nationality come in with all the stores - it's not right, but they're poor, they ain't got no education to understand no shit like that, so they set you up and walk away and leave you, and you live out the rest of it like you were programmed - it's called Social Engineering."
Rather than moralising in a high-minded way, Clinton's anti-racism demands a cross-race challenge to the rich and those in power.
"White middle America is just now finding out that it's not blacks on welfare that's their problem, it's not the gays, it's not pro- or anti- abortion. Middle America is just now finding out that the people in power don't give a fuck about them either. That Oklahoma City bombing was very fucking strange. I read this book called Behold A Pale Horse by William Cooper. He was a de-briefer in naval intelligence. He went AWOL in the late 80s and he faxed a manuscript of the book to about 1500 entertainers and media people. Now the book is out, but I had the manuscript since 1987. It says the Wall of Berlin is coming down, Russia was going pop! And people would start blowing up airports and buildings in the United States. They were going to tell you that it was terrorists that did it, and it was going to be the government themselves who were doing it. On page 160 it says that Oklahoma will be the test city for the new world order martial law concept - this was written in 1987! So when the World Trade Center was blown up it was very suspicious - and then the Waco incident and the Oklahoma bombing. He said they're gonna attack the patriots and wear them out, and pit them against other people by calling them white supremists, when most of them are just plain pissed off because they lost their farm. Think about it! That's a lot of people. It's not like a few black people this time, it's your average American farmer, and when you do it to him, he's not going to roll over. They're gonna pick up the flag and the Bible and it's revolution time. By calling them white supremists and all those names... Too many of them were just regular straight people who were not that yet. When it got really stupid they were saying that black street gangs were going to help the police. They're already pissed at the blacks because of the ones on welfare, but by the time they hear that! And they make the blacks mad by calling them white supremists... You've got the makings of a nice little war going on. And they'll keep each other busy while whoever did it creeps on off."
Clinton is so well-informed and attentive to facts, it's hard to figure out quite where his observations blur into full-blown fantasy. I told him of the monumental statue of Michael Jackson currently overlooking Berlin's Alexanderplatz, a pastiche Stalinreturned to haunt East Berliners. He roared with laughter.
"Well, it gave a lot of people jobs to built it... I mean, I'm cracking up at that! Because the people who did it to East Germany, they are the same people - communists, fascists, capitalists, it's the same people. It's the bankers, the few bankers around the world. They were around during the second world war, they financed both sides of the war. They don't care who got hurt. You figure they have to belong to some race that's evolving this stuff. They belong to two or three of the races and they financed it - it's real weird, the World Bank, the Illuminati."
The idea that the entire course of the 20th century has been the hollow clash of marionettes, its cataclysmic events mere episodes in a script, is a somewhat simplistic reduction of the complexities of historical reality. Like many radical American artists Clinton is prone to conspiracy theory. It is not so much black science fiction that he propagates, as the visionary paranoia of a William Burroughs or Philip K Dick. However what Clinton extracts from Cooper - the book is actually a careless farrago of recycled UFOlogy, JFK speculation and other nuthouse stuff, including a whole reprint of The Protocols Of The Elders of Zion, the notorious anti-semitic forgery that Hitler quotes in Mein Kampf - is something different. He notes that Louis Farrakhan's journal has advertised Cooper's book, but rather than pursuing the anti-semitic tack one might expect, Clinton gives it all a distinctly socialist twist. For him, the success of the book - it is popular among commie-hating farmers as well as radical young blacks - is a sign that the American working class is beginning to put the real enemy in their sights.
"You have to educate the people and tell them racism's not cool, but at the same time you have to give them some jobs. You can only show who the real enemy is by helping them with their situation. Like Castro - he didn't want to be no communist! It was the only place to go against the people who just wanted his country to be full of Las Vegas casinos, when the people in his country couldn't even go into the casinos."
According to Clinton, Michael Jackson was pilloried by an establishment that despises him for challenging their right to speak for 'the kids'.
"Michael's a real kid, he really is a real kid. I've known him since he was eight. He gets pussy. He gets pussy! I've known that for the longest time. He may say he haven't but he's crossing his fingers when he says that. This time he actually said, 'You're afraid I'm going to be powerful and be a diplomat!' Look at that video for "Scream" - that has to be scary, even though Russia is supposedly no longer a threat. He's saying, 'Okay, you were afraid of me before, now really be afraid of me! I'm going to play with what you're afraid I might be, which is a diplomat.' Mohammed Ali got locked up, got sent to the army for talking to Gaddaffi, trying to be a diplomat. They don't allow you to be a diplomat if it's with people the government is not into being diplomatic with. If you get that much power... Look what happened to John Lennon!"
And so it goes. The man should have a chat show. In one hour George Clinton told me enough about American politics to write a book. The FBI has been infiltrating the street gangs and causing inter-gang warfare just as they did with the Black Panthers in the 60s (accusations which sounded just as wild back then have now been documented by agents provocateurs who have published memoirs). The beating of the white truck driver in the Rodney King riots was a set up (Clinton's analysis of camera angles is rivetting). Kurt Cobain was used as an advertisement for heroin by an establishment terrified of the Lollapalooza ferment running a repeat of the 60s. The Richard Gere scandal was scripted by the same people that tried to bring down Michael Jackson, all because he was talking to Tibet's Dalai Lama at a time when the American government wanted to ingratiate itself with China - "and sell 40 billion hamburgers".
Whatever you may think of Clinton's claims, it is great to hear a pop star who refused to kowtow to 'political correctness', someone capable of using the music industry to say things which are progressive yet heretical.
"Our next album has three titles," he tells me. "TAPFORM: The Awesome Power For The Operation Of Mothership, Verses and SEAIC: Social Engineered And Anarchically-Induced Chaos. Those are the concepts."
All this from a man who put Valerie Singleton and the Blue Peter dog on the back cover of his last album. Barking mad, but talking sense.