The human fireworks show of George Clinton’s “I Got a Thing.”
Editor’s note: In light of the continued closure of music venues during the coronavirus pandemic, we have invited our contributors to reflect on a musical moment of particular significance to them that is easily
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1970. The clip begins with US TV announcer Don Webster, whose vibe (square hair, purple shirt worn with white tie, deckchair blazer) is straight out of a mid-journey episode of Mad Men: a Hef hipster who’s sighted some paisley tremble of change beyond his three-martini-lunch but has yet to totally adjust. The music program is called Upbeat, initially out of Cleveland before it broke nationally. Don name-checks future guest John Denver and then (as though it were the most logical jump-cut in the world): “Next, the Funkadelic do ‘I Got a Thing.’ ” There follows a brief burst of cage-dancer go-go bop over the one-word legend UPBEAT, using the kind of softly psychedelic font familiar to a whole generation from shows like The Banana Splits and Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.
Brief pause; three seconds of matte. Cue wide shot of studio sound stage: silver walls, dark orange podiums. Hanging at the back are what could be huge capital M’s, or equally plausibly, a set of outsize Pop Art Afro combs. Over guitarist Dennis Coffey’s forthright wah-wah we make out maybe half-a-dozen more dancers, players, strollers, influence peddlers. (Although officially attributed to Funkadelic, “I Got a Thing, You Got A Thing, Everybody’s Got A Thing,” to give it its full title, also featured members of ringleader George Clinton’s original soul/doo-wop group, the Parliaments, soon to be renamed Parliament.) Around the minute and forty seconds mark, drummer “Tiki” Fulwood—who initially presented as afloat in some deep whirlpool of inward contemplation—suddenly wakes, and everything turns faster, harder, more urgent: a buffeting whirlwind of sound. “I Got a Thing” has a definite down-home testifying sheen, but this is Gospel as sung by some ragged street-corner character, twitchy and impatient, grit and bad weather all in their face.
The eye is ineluctably drawn to Parliament singer Fuzzy Haskins’s bright yellow long johns and crazy chicken-legs dance, before the camera picks out George Clinton; like Fulwood, Clinton seems lost in some gauzy Saturn’s ring of private ecstasies, and decked out in what appears to be an authentic American Indian ceremonial headdress. In nine out of ten clips, Clinton himself would easily be the mind-blowing highlight here, but another shaky Upbeat dissolve gifts us a clearer shot of the whole ensemble, and—hold it hold it hold it: Did I really just see what I think I saw? PAUSE—REWIND—and there it is . . . yep, that languidly swaying Black man in cool dark shades, just behind Haskins and off to the right of the stage, really is tricked out in a full-on, shiny purple satin, pointy-headed Ku Klux Klan outfit. Oh yes he is.
When I first saw this YouTube clip a couple of weeks back and caught sight of Purple KKK Guy, I laughed out loud with shocked awe and ambushed delight; I actually stood and applauded. I was instantaneously freaked out, even though (a) my long-time favorite YouTube clip was already a similar Funkadelic TV performance, from a 1969 edition of a program called Say Brother. (A longer performance than “I Got a Thing,” it is, if anything, even further out, although spun around an entirely different mood; Clinton isn’t wearing his American Indian attire, but he is sporting a very eye-catching Mohican, seven years before Taxi Driver and Punk); and (b) in 1978, a nineteen-year-old naïf and totally green cub reporter, I witnessed the entire Parliament-Funkadelic congressional thang live at Hammersmith Odeon, climactic silver Mothership and all. So it’s not like I was totally unprepared for all this.
If the Upbeat clip still maintains its power to shock and unsettle fifty years on, how in Jehovah’s name must it have played in its original “and-John-Denver-joins-us-later” context, in the disunited states of America, 1970? In some respects, that half-century-ago moment feels like yesterday’s CNN update: simmering Black rage in American inner cities after galvanic riots, and President Nixon doing his dog-whistle “law and order” number. But “I Got a Thing” surely doesn’t look, feel, or sound like your average box-ticking Protest Song. It doesn’t say, in any straightforward or explicit way: we want societal equality. (Who wants equality with something so anemic and hypocritical and repressed?) Rather, it’s deliberately excessive, shooting off in several directions at once, a human fireworks show. Maybe, to note-bend a phrase from Adam Phillips, “I Got a Thing” is a “performance of the perplexity of demand.” There is a half-buried clue to the evolving P-Funk ethos here, easily lost in the muddy sound. “You don’t drink what I drink!” chant the assembled celebrants. “You don’t smoke what I smoke! / You don’t think like I think!” Which could be just about anyone’s sincere, sock-it-to-the-Man boilerplate of that time, but the payoff line is pure Clinton: You don’t joke like I joke. Well, quite. But what kind of a joke is this, exactly?
Though my first sighting of Purple KKK Guy brought an eruption of mind-blown laughter, just under the waterline of decade-cusp Funkadelic there’s something deadly serious—scary, even. (Soon-to-arrive bassist Bootsy Collins: “We found ourselves getting off on people getting scared, you know?”) The Upbeat performance is a bit like Clinton’s mohawk—over the top in more than one sense. I can’t think of any other act I’ve seen that achieved quite the same unnerving tone. While I hesitate to deploy the overused and near-devalued word shamanic here, it does smell right. Or rite. The Sufic musicians of the Moroccan Jilala and Gnaoua sects, for instance, claim to heal the psychic disorders of their followers using a trance-inducing assault of specific colours, images, scents, and shocks. Clinton’s perfume was always nothing but the funk, but the rest of that modus operandi strikes me as a pretty good fit.
One of George Clinton’s odder enthusiasms at this point was The Process Church of The Final Judgement—whose swastika-like logo was known as the “P-Sign.” Although never an actual congregant, Clinton drew heavily on their literature, and something of the darkness within definitely seeped into his nascent worldview. The Funkadelic lineup on Upbeat may look like they just flipped out inside a fancy-dress emporium, but this is not the giggly cartoon delirium of later gigs. If Clinton ultimately transmogrified into a kind of charismatically benign Uncle Fun figure—a Zen abbot of funky hedonics—the linking (or synthetic) thread between early and late P-Funk is its pervasive anti-cool stance. A different clip on YouTube of a much later live show features another cherished P-Funk moment. Cue head shot of one of the (many) onstage guitarists looking impossibly cool: voluminous asymmetrical headgear, heavy eyelids, cigarette dangling from his lip. Color me impressed! Then the camera slowly tracks down to reveal this paragon of blissed-out self-possession is entirely naked except for . . . a big white diaper. All the codes of cool scrambled at a stroke.
There is definitely some kind of whispery logic under all the role-playing hullabaloo. In a contemporaneous photo of the 1970 Parliament-Funkadelic lineup, as well as American Indian Chief and Purple KKK Guy there’s also a chilled-out Black George Washington, squatting idly on the curb. In George Clinton’s psychedelic vision, American Indian, African Griot, Southern Bigot, Founding Father—they all just become a shifting prism of attention-fracking colors. My thing, your thing, their thing: it’s all just . . . one color or another. And if such Important Things are seen as mere agglomerations of color, and all colors are equal, and equally transient, and see-through, and molecular, and absurd . . .
I think of the mysterious, occult character in Ishmael Reed’s poem “The Wardrobe Master of Paradise,” and also this excerpt from an online Reed interview: “So this is what we want: to sabotage history. They won’t know whether we’re serious or whether we are writing fiction. . . . Always keep them guessing.” (Clinton is a declared fan of Reed’s history-scrambling novel Mumbo Jumbo.) And then, of all people, I think of the divine Muriel Spark, and a key sentence from her Watergate-echoing novella The Abbess of Crewe (1974):
But modern times come into a historical context, and as far as I’m concerned history doesn’t work. Here, in the Abbey of Crewe, we have discarded history. We have entered the sphere, dear Sisters, of mythology.
One last thing. Rabbit-hopping round the internet in search of further P-Funk theophany, I uncovered something about George Clinton I hadn’t previously known: he is, and always has been . . . color-blind. (Oh, happy phrase!) Delirious enough already, what on earth (or elsewhere) must all those fantastic carnivals have actually looked like to their ringmaster?
Ian Penman is a freelance critic. A collection of essays on music, It Gets Me Home, This Curving Track, was published last year by Fitzcarraldo Editions. He’s currently working on a book about Billie Holiday.