I have a well-respected musician friend who related in an interview a few years ago that when he was in his early teens he thought that playing bass guitar “funky” meant playing the instrument badly. His story of youthful naiveté is hilarious for the innocent irony involved but shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Yet if one was to judge the entire musical genre known as funk by Parliament’s “Live: P-Funk Earth Tour” double album one might draw a similar conclusion. I won’t mince words. It’s one of the worst in-concert recordings I’ve ever encountered. I can hear the excuses already. It was 1977. Folks just wanted to party. Funk was a legitimate movement that was infiltrating R&B, jazz and rock by leaps and bounds and Parliament’s head honcho George Clinton was simply basing his unique form of satire upon that foundation and capitalizing on its growing popularity. Therefore it’s just a glimpse into a wild & wooly era that won’t be repeated and should be viewed as nothing more than a historical curiosity. I’ll readily agree to all of that. But there’s no excuse for sloppy musicianship. I recall that Frank Zappa did much the same thing as Mr. Clinton with his sarcastic brand of humor yet on stage he and his cohorts steadfastly maintained the same high level of professional integrity that they insisted on in the studio environment. I expected to hear something equivalent to that mindset when I sat down to listen to this album. I was wrong to do so.
The show begins with over 6 minutes of "P-Funk (Wants To Get Funked Up)," a loose jam in which the band members seem to be slowly finding their assigned spots while the drums, trombone, sax and electric piano vamp without a trace of urgency. Their leader George delivers a rambling spoken introduction to the mumbling crowd that eventually leads to an ensemble-warbled chorale that’s hard to understand. An imperceptible segue to "Dr. Funkenstein's Supergroovalisticprosifunkstication Medley" ensues. It sports the same lazy vibe but this time a thumping bass guitar is more involved as it becomes obvious to me that the audience participation aspect of the presentation is going to take precedence over the music. That’d be fine if this was a video but that’s not the case. My ears are all I’ve got to go by and they’re starving already. At least on “Do That Stuff” the drums lay down a solid beat for the bass to lock onto and the song is a tad more organized but the group as a whole is still stuck in a stifling, one-dimensional rut. "The Landing (Of The Holy Mothership)" is next and it’s a snippet-filled, mostly pre-recorded comedy routine that’s impossible to follow, much less to find anything to laugh about. Maybe the stage props gave it relevancy. I hope so. For "The Undisco Kidd (The Girl Is Bad!)" a pattern surfaces that involves the rhythm section laying down a basic funk base but, alas, it never evolves into anything engaging. Instead, you get a long soliloquy punctuated by a hook line chorus that’s pointless unless you happened to be there that night and were able to merrily join in the communal sing-along. Those of us wanting to hear some great musicianship are out of luck, I suppose.
"Children Of Productions" is the shortest cut and that’s a shame because it’s the apex (relatively speaking) of the album. It’s a unison chant with brassy horns and decently layered harmonies but it passes by like a rare cool breeze in the middle of August and is gone. "Mothership Connection (Star Child)" is a rowdy jam that rumbles behind a repeated refrain and features enthusiastic exhortations aimed at the audience. After a long spell the track inexplicably evaporates into the ether and then fades back in as "Swing Down, Sweet Chariot." The same gospel-tinged mantra continues but a male vocalist scats on and on for a full five minutes till you reach the number’s noisy ending. That’d be okay if it was special but it ain’t. Suddenly you’re whisked away from the live festivities and treated to a studio take of "This Is The Way We Funk With You." It’s vaguely reminiscent of what Sly Stone was up to in the early 70s but it’s also not terribly original or inspiring. Monotonous describes it best. We’re then returned to the scene of the crime to endure a quarter of an hour of "Dr. Funkenstein." Due to the gathered throng’s reaction there must’ve been some kind of visual stimuli happening to enhance the moment but aurally it’s a lot of the same old shtick involving a crowd-sung chorus echoed ad nauseum. There’s a solo from the guitarist and an ARP ride to fill up some space but I found myself drifting into a coma waiting for something entertaining to occur. "Gamin' On Ya!" actually resembles a tune and by now that’s a plus. The full horn arrangement is very Famous Flames-worthy but all that does is cause you to yearn for James Brown’s inimitable charisma to give it life. Next comes their "Tear The Roof Off The Sucker Medley" and it’s an admirable rendition of one of their more recognizable ditties but it does sound very different from the rest of the album which begs the question “Is it live or is it Memorex?” At this juncture I don’t care but the suspicious fade-in to the closer, "Night Of The Thumpasorus People," gives the inquiry credence. By now the well-oiled show attendees are in a stimulant-induced frenzy so, while there’s plenty of excitement in the hall for the reveler in you to soak up, there’s not much for the jazz enthusiast to celebrate. It’s just another rave up that goes nowhere near interesting.
Released in the Spring of ’77 when George Clinton’s eclectic entourage was enjoying tremendous popularity in urban markets all across the civilized world, this 2-disc set sold and went gold. If you were one of the spunky pups who got to witness one of their stops along the P-Funk Earth Tour then I have no doubt that your memory of the event is a fabulous one. I wasn’t there but it was undoubtedly a hoot to treasure forevermore even if the music had to take a seat in the back of the bus. However, this album doesn’t do it any justice on one side or the other. Future generations who want to sample what went on at one of those concerts will not conclusively find out what the fuss was about from listening to this discombobulated mess. As a rule, a little bit of craziness goes a long, long way and then it quickly becomes ridiculous and a waste of valuable time. This proves it. To use their own grossly overused term, “What the funk?”