“Funkentelechy against the placebo syndrome”: Parliament’s funk opera
At the height of his powers, Parliament-Funkadelic seemed capable of anything: scoring radio hits, creating hit visionary albums, creating hit solos and satellite bands, even producing an unprecedented live show that culminated each night with a spaceship landing on stage. Yet frontman George Clinton thought P-Funk still had unfinished creative business. From the Parliament Scrapbook in 1975 chocolate city, as he recalled in his 2014 memoir, he was working on “a complete and complete funk opera”. Having seen the conceptual and narrative breadth of rock evolve with The Beatles, The Who is tommyand the musical Hairhe wondered, “Why couldn’t soul or funk music be so sophisticated, so varied, so artistically successful?”
At the heart of his answer would be the philosophical concept of entelechy — that is, realizing one’s potential — as presented to Clinton by his then-business partner, Nene Montes. In the spirit of his mad scientist alter ego, Dr. Funkenstein, Clinton fused the word “funk” with “entelechy” and came up with “Funkentelechy” — meaning the realization of his funkiness. If “Funkentelechy” represented a force for good through a commitment to the purest music of all, funk, its opposing force would naturally (or not) be any kind of artificial short-term simulation of such, “The Placebo Syndrome”. Clinton had found the basis of his opera: a battle between the interplanetary funk emissary/hero, Starchild, and a non-dancer villain, Sir Nose D’Voidoffunk. And with Funkentelechy versus placebo syndromeParliament has achieved one of its greatest achievements.
Of course, the album’s conceptual framework wouldn’t be as impressive without consummate funk in the execution. Luckily, P-Funk was still the tightest band on this planet or any other planet. Lyrically, “Bop Gun” and “Flash Light” celebrate the space-age weaponry Starchild uses to make Sir Nose dance; musically, they proved equally powerful. This latest classic single in particular – with Bernie Worrell’s ever-smooth Moog supplanting Bootsy Collins’ space bass – still sounds as futuristic as it probably did when it hit No. 1 on the R&B charts at the time. “Sir Nose D’Voidoffunk,” a slinky villain theme, flaunts plenty of menacing freshness via Fred Wesley and Worrell’s jazzy arrangements. And in a bit of playful irony, “Placebo Syndrome” laments the empty synthetic pleasures of modern life in a dazzling symphony of Worrell’s synthesizers.
“Funkentelechy” is the sprawling centerpiece of the album. A collection of chants (“When you take all kinds of pills/Nothing ever seems to cure your disease”) interspersed with Clinton’s comedic advertising slogans, he gleefully tackles consumerism and cultural vacancy. As with the rest of this brilliant album, however, it’s the music that encodes the message. At over 11 minutes, it’s one of the longest P-Funk studio tracks ever recorded, yet it wastes no notes. Halfway through, the band heads to the bridge spinning the meditative groove, everyone repeatedly harmonises “Funkentelechy” like a spiritual mantra, and you perform the song’s other main chorus – “Where have you got your funk?” – is the only question that really matters.