Funkadelic – The Electric Spanking Of War Babies

Funkadelic The Electric Spanking Of War Babies

Warner Bros. 1981

Funk. The term has been rinsed thoroughly through the years — applied and mis-applied all over the shop on a seemingly loop — but at the end of the day, what is it really? The groove, hitting on the one, interlocking parts of a rhythm, all of them cycling in clockwork motion, players playing deep in the pocket all night long. Is it tight, is it loose, or somewhere in between? In attempting to answer that question, perhaps it makes sense to rewind to the man who dreamed it all up in the first place...

James Brown in impassioned performance
The Hardest Working Man In Show Business does his thing

Smack in the middle of the 1960s, James Brown released the epochal Papa's Got A Brand New Bag, a frisky bit of proto-funk that took the nimble soul shuffle of early records like Think and Night Train to its logical conclusion. With an agile rhythm that found Melvin Parker's beats seemingly dancing three feet off the ground, while the bassline (played either by Bernard Odum or Sam Thomas, depending on who you ask) hopscotches across the spaces in between, it set the template for funk proper that would be hammered home further in records like Mother Popcorn, Give It Up Or Turnit A Loose, all the way up to Sex Machine, The Payback and beyond.

James Brown famously rehearsed his band The J.B.'s mercilessly, even going so far as to dock a musician's pay if they made a mistake live! The result was perhaps the most tightly regimented rhythmic unit ever assembled, with a style that moved so far beyond precision that they somehow wrapped around into looseness again. In essence, he constructed a a perfect machine from a group of individual human players, an innovation that set the course for large swathes of music's development in the years to come.

Iconic image of Funkadelic from the Maggot Brain LP
Funkadelic at the dawn of the 1970s

George Clinton's Detroit-based empire slowly developed in parallel, off-record in the shadows of Motown's artist roster before exploding with the twin debuts of Parliament's Osmium and Funkadelic's self-titled LP in 1970. Picking up where artists like James Brown and Sly & The Family Stone left off at the tail-end of the sixties, both groups spiked their funk/soul strange brew with a healthy dose of acid. Records like Maggot Brain and Cosmic Slop were shot through with post-Hendrix psychedelia, adding a dirty edge to the proceedings that was in thrall to the times.

Kraftwerk performing live
Kraftwerk, on stage and deep in the groove

Seemingly on the flipside of the coin lies that other institution that would prove to be so crucial in the development of Detroit's nascent progressive scene: Kraftwerk. They're often placed on opposite ends of the spectrum, Kraftwerk and Parliament, machine music and funk, but the truth — as is so often the case — is far more messy than one might expect.

There's that oft-quoted remark from Detroit club kids that Kraftwerk were so stiff, they're funky. Then, you hear something like The Model and Sex Machine back to back, and the parallels between the two become striking. Both tracks glide three feet above the ground on the horizontal tension of tautly arranged components interlocking like clockwork: rolling rhythms finding joy in repetition.

Somewhere in all of that was the sound of the future...

Whole worlds would spring from this fertile nexus — from techno and g-funk to r&b and electro — in the years to come, post-disco realms of sound stretching out in every direction, dazzling in their strange shapes and oftentimes even their distance from each other. And yet if there's one record that embodies this point of intersection — and did so before the fact, even — then it's surely Funkadelic's The Electric Spanking Of War Babies.

Funkadelic performing live on stage as the Mothership looms in the distance
Funkadelic takes the stage 1980

The Electric Spanking Of War Babies is the final album from P-Funk's original run, the last stop before George Clinton's Computer Games (which made the connections between funk and the machine explicit), an album that it also presages in many ways. War Babies is the illogical conclusion to everything that had come before, a record that throws everything from Flash Light and Not Just Knee Deep to Hit It And Quit It and There Is Nothing Before Me But Thang into a blender of abstraction and comes up with the adrenaline rush of pure future shock.

It's an engine
Metal Machine Music

I often think the record works like a bizarre fusion of garage and laboratory, nestled deep in the heart of the Motor City, a place where mechanics and mad scientists disassemble vehicles and rebuild them in strange new combinations. Then, they flip the switch and machines spring to life, sputtering and scurrying like unwieldy insects across the shot room floor.

This shop operates at the interzone between post-disco, new wave and the nascent electro funk (the latter which Parliament/Funkadelic had a large part in birthing via Bernie Worrell's rubberband electronic basslines and gliding Arps). Rising stars like Prince and Zapp were soon hot at their heels, mapping both parallel and intersecting territory with their own innovations.

And yet, Funkadelic managed to up the ante one last time. Just as Kraftwerk rose to the challenge of new wave upstarts like The Human League and Gary Numan with their masterpiece, Computer World, Funkadelic went out with the left field big bang that is The Electric Spanking Of War Babies. Recorded after many key figures had left the group, including the aforementioned Worrell, the record is nevertheless the band's twilight era masterpiece.

Pedro Bell's rendering of Funkadelic from the record's gatefold interior

The record opens with the title track, which kicks off with what sounds like one of Eddie Hazel's Maggot Brain guitar phantasmagorias (although it's actually played by Michael Hampton). Outer space sounds swirl as a booming voice intones the following madness:

Hi there...

You probably don't remember me, but...

But I remember you.

You probably won't believe this, but, uh...

I, at the early age of 72... was adopted by aliens. [bursts into laughter]

Was adopted by aliens... [bursts into laughter again]

That's right, I said aliens.

They have long since programmed me to return with this message...

Then, a bouncing groove at the intersection of new wave funk and video game music pounces into the fray for the repeated refrain, When you learn to dance, you won't forget it, before it all turns into a trademark p-funk groove in the tradition of Not Just Knee Deep and One Nation Under A Groove, only with an added sense of creeping desperation swirling in the mix. The phrase End Of The World Party springs to mind whenever I hear it, the band standing on the verge of the precipice, still getting it on. I suspect Prince was listening closely (see 1999).

Junie Morrison livin' large

The track is almost entirely built on Junie Morrison's electro funk foundation in the form of squelching neon synth architecture, throbbing basslines and a hybrid man-machine beat, while Michael Hampton shreds guitar into post-acid sparks across the track's entirety. Various members of Parlet and The Brides Of Funkenstein turn up on the chorus, giving their trademark input in the form of a gloriously sneering sing-song of the track's title, while Junie punctuates every bar with synth stabs that punch through the mix like electric-shock therapy.

Truth be told, it probably even edges out Not Just Knee Deep as my favorite P-Funk dancefloor rave-up ever...

Pedro Bell's original, uncensored sleeve for The Electric Spanking Of War Babies

After such a mind-bending opening, Electro-Cuties might feel just a little bit less extraordinary. A minor track, even. Nevertheless, it manages to connect the band's disco funk present with their rock hard roots, fusing a slap-bass fueled groove with a Cosmic Slop-esque riff in the bridge. Like the previous track, it has the lurching feel of disparate random parts recomposed into a brand new machine. The Brides even turn up on backing vocals again, with one even delivering a proto-rap in the track's extended second half.

Sly Stone in the eighties

Funk Gets Stronger Part 1 is another matter entirely: featuring the great Sly Stone, it's the indisputable peak of the record. Opening with a talking drum figure and psychedelic voices drifting in the ether, it kicks into a whirring, stop-start beat that seems to perpetually trip forward over it's own throbbing bassline. It seems another strange machine has been conjured up from spare parts, and more than any other track here, it embodies the record's modus operandi.

Lurching in one direction before swooping and diving in the other, the rhythm seems to be powered by unstable elements, its tripping beat kicking into high-gear double-time every so often as the band struggles to catch up. You're just waiting for the tune to shift gears again, and in its Doppler rush of acceleration and deceleration on can almost feel an eerie pre-echo of jungle.

Adam And The Ants Dirk Wears White Sox U.S. Version Epic

All the while, the track's held-down by Zapp mastermind Roger Troutman's new wave-tinged rhythm guitar that's always struck me as a dead ringer for the sound on Adam And The Ants awesome Dirk Wears White Sox (the American version, of course). There's strong new wave/post punk currents running through the entirety of War Babies, and nowhere is that more evident than here. Think Metal Box, but coming from the opposite direction. Mike Hampton's incredibly pretty lead guitar threads the rhythm almost subconsciously, adding another dimension of emotion to the whole affair.

Sly & The Family Stone There's A Riot Goin' On Epic

Sly Stone famously in the mix here, credited as co-producer alongside George Clinton and Bootsy Collins, and combined with staccato trumpet lines provided by Sly's old band-mate Cynthia Robinson in the chorus, there's a definite Sly & The Family Stone flavor to the whole strange affair. There's even a lush organ passage in the breakdown in the breakdown that would have fit right in on There's A Riot Going On! I'd swear it was laid down by Sly Stone himself, but the only keyboards on the track are credited to Roger Troutman, who works the Moog synthesizers. However, as with Riot's famously hard to navigate album credits (see also the Talking Heads Remain In Light), I suspect that it's not the whole story. It's a late-era, extended band kinda thing...

The tune gets reprised a couple tracks later in the Killer Millimeter Longer Version, which finds the machine being started back up, its heartbeat pulsing quickly before tugging into shape. With its slightly more languid, open-ended arrangement, this version sounds even more like something from Riot. What's more, Sly Stone is credited on drums and keyboards, and late-period Family Stone member Pat Rizzo is present on saxophone. According to the album credits, it also features the lone contribution from original Funkadelic guitarist Eddie Hazel, who had already released his solo album Game, Dames And Guitar Thangs back in 1977.

These four lads...
The Beatles

There's an errant quote from The Beatles' All You Need Is Love before it all fades out and then back into place, with a thirty-second reprise-within-a-reprise cover version of She Loves You over the same rhythm. A drunken group chant, to be sure, and the perfect way to wrap up the Funk Gets Stronger saga.

Running parallel to these new wave/post punk moves, the record also spends a satisfying amount of time messing around with fourth world rhythms, with the extended rhythm sequence Brettino's Bounce nestled between both versions of Funk Gets Stronger. It's the sort of Caribbean-inflected groove that a post punk band like A Certain Ratio would kill for, with the band seemingly effortlessly unfurling a rolling percussion frenzy that lasts the better part of four minutes. A gong brings it all into focus, chattering polyrhythms and talking drums careening across the sound stage, before another gong sounds to conclude the jam session. Some might call it filler, but I think it's great!

Funkadelic's Shockwaves Warner Bros.

The other big fourth world moment is Shockwaves, a cod reggae number that rocks a malfunktioning skank across the showroom floor. Once again, strange machines are afoot in the sound lab, this time with parts imported from Jamaica... Crazy!

At first it almost seems like a joke song, complete with ridiculous fake island accent in the verses, but like Chuck Berry's Havana Moon it quickly bolts toward the sublime. The sprightly rhythm slowly goes overcast with the descent of soaring backing vocals and its incredible chorus:

I'm from the first world,

I like to groove.

Don't want no problems,

Set up that groove.

I'm probably out on a limb here, but it always makes be flash on Bowie. Particularly contemporary things like the proto-Remain In Light fourth world stylings of Lodger (the most obvious example being Yassassin), Up The Hill Backwards and even twenty later with Earthling's Looking For Satellites. It certainly fits right in with the wider My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts drift of the times. Interestingly, aside from the title track, it was chosen as the only other single from War Babies, coming out on 7" wax. Shades of new wave's détente with reggae (see also The Police, Jah Wobble, The Clash, et al.).

More peak-era Funkadelic onstage shenanigans

The following Oh, I almost feels like a breather after the breathless experimentation of the record's mid-section. It's the most straight-up p-funk number here, relaxing in a gently mid-tempo manner the way that Mothership Connection and Aquaboogie were. Adding to its sun-glazed aura is the acid-tinged, Ernie Isley-esque guitarwork of Michael Hampton and Jerome Ali. Interestingly, an unreleased 12" version of the tune later washed up on Parliament's The 12" Collection And More.

War Babies's scandalous rear sleeve, from the singular mind of Pedro Bell

The record closes with the rubberband electro funk jam Icka Prick, the key final track in this song cycle. With its machine box rhythms rolling along at a hip hop pace, it's practically a g-funk track. David Lee Chong holds down synthesizer duties here, injecting the track with squiggly day-glo boogie shapes, while Michael Hampton returns (yet again) for some crunchy lead guitar work. One's immediately reminded of Zapp, but this is much looser, and less locked down, coming on like an amorphous, jell-o take on the electro funk sound.

As the song opens, Michael Hampton ad-libs Oh, you ain't seen obscene yet, We gonna be nasty this here time, and he ain't lying. Icka prick and iron pussy, yucka fuck and muscle cunt, while we servin' pussy from the shoulder, she servin' dick from the head, and Elmo MacNasty, mental masturbation, psychological perversion (hey, hey), are just some of the couplets you're treated to after he warns you to Put on some protection for your ears. Ain't no decent dick in Detroit! The Brides' backing vocals retort That's disgusting!

Without warning, it all goes supernova in the track's denouement, with soaring Hit It And Quit It vocals, whining Drexciyan synths and metallic guitars elevating the track toward its epic conclusion before it all fades without warning...

Video still from live performance of the title track 1981

Over the years, The Electric Spanking Of War Babies has crept up on me to become my favorite piece of the P-Funk story. I've never seen it singled out for praise as such, but for me it distills nearly everything great about Parliament/Funkadelic into a sleek capsule aimed toward the future. Its man-machine hybrid draws together disparate contemporary strands — the post-disco funk of Zapp and Funkadelic themselves, the new wave shapes of Prince and the Minneapolis sound, and fourth world sonics straight out of the My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts playbook — all while pointing the way toward Cybotron, Model 500, Kosmic Messenger and beyond.

And as such, it's myriad routes stretch right up through the present day... not to mention the fact that it's a killer party record.

Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry teases some tones from his electric guitar

The grand architect of rock 'n roll guitar, Chuck Berry stripped contemporary rhythm & blues down to its framework and rebuilt it like a Detroit muscle car. More often than not, he'd rev the engine of this souped-up sonic machine and race it down the road at a blazing speed, drums pounding at a furious pace — his wild guitar sound at the focal point, cutting through the mix like a straight razor. Along with Bo Diddley's red hot sides and The Sun Sessions, this is where the future was laid down in steel and chrome.

Elvis Presley The Sun Sessions RCA Victor

Whereas many of the early rock 'n roll sides would often employ what amounted to a downsized big band orchestra, Berry's sound was rugged and raw; where many of those bands still traded in the rhythm of swing, he accelerated the beat to a motorik stomp. Horns were out, and pianos played but a supporting role. He'd have been rock's first minimalist if he weren't rock's first, period. Where earlier artists might have gestured in the general direction — songs like Ike Turner & Jackie Brenston's Rocket 88 and Hank Williams' Move It On Over offering the first warning shots — he was the living embodiment of rock 'n roll.

Chuck Berry plays guitar on stage
Chuck Berry invents the power stance

Not only did he redefine the guitar's place in music, he was also an ace songwriter and lyricist: rock's first singer-songwriter-performer... he was the whole package. Songs like Thirty Days To Come Back Home played like episodes in an ongoing travelogue (think On The Road with a sense of danger and a killer backbeat). He'd return to many of his favorite themes again and again — the road, school, women and the music itself — circling back to look at them from another angle, inhabiting different characters and descending into further capers each time out.

Chuck Berry The Great Twenty-Eight Chess

You listen to something like The Great Twenty-Eight (where I first started with Berry way back when), and the songs race past thick and fast — Maybellene zoom! Oh Baby Doll zoom!! Johnny B. Goode zoom!! — and the passage of sixty-odd years does nothing to dull the rush, the man's guitar simply tears out the speakers. This was one of my go to records when I'd cruise out past Lake Henshaw on one of my periodic sojourns back in the day, its shimmying beat the perfect soundtrack for hitching Highway 78 — by way of the 67 — and winding out past Santa Ysabel and beyond.

Chuck Berry After School Session Chess

Now obviously that run of singles was red hot (and the basis for his legend), but his trio of excellent fifties LPs — After School Session, One Dozen Berrys and Chuck Berry Is On Top — broaden the scope considerably to include diversions like the Latin-tinged beatless pulse of Havana Moon (also the b-side to You Can't Catch Me, one of my favorite 7" singles ever), Drifting Heart's exotica-in-all-but-name, the circular, proto-surf machinery of Jo Jo Gunne, Down Bound Train's careening pulse and the gutbucket instrumental blues of Low Feeling, all of which betray a vision that expands far beyond the parameters usually ascribed to the man.

Bo Diddley Bo Diddley Is A Gunslinger Checker

And yet even those usual parameters are simply staggering: from the fast-forward groove of Can't Catch Me — with Berry's rapid-fire delivery sliding across its shimmying surface — to the raw swagger of Around And Around and the complex tumbling rhythms of I Want To Be Your Driver, this is is some of the greatest rock 'n roll you'll ever hear. With the exception of Bo Diddley, nobody rocked harder at the time, and while you could call Bo a hard blues man in the tradition stretching from Howlin' Wolf to Captain Beefheart, with Chuck Berry you were dealing with something different altogether.

A single lane highway stretches into the desert
Route 66 stretching through the desert

In an era when Eisenhower's Interstate Highway System began its stretch from sea to shining sea, Berry laid down the definitive soundtrack. There may have been car songs before Chuck Berry (see Nat "King" Cole's Route 66 and the K.C. Douglas Trio's Mercury Blues), but he crystallized it into something in which the form matched the content. It's tempting to extrapolate the man's early years working on the assembly line at the Fisher Body automobile assembly plant into the mean machine music he'd ultimately engineer.

Rails stretch through an abandoned factory floor
The Fisher Body Plant in Detroit, Michigan

You Can't Catch Me — again! — is the blueprint, but the motorik drive of a song like Carol makes this point as well, stretching well into the future and presaging Neu!'s endless horizons on the Autobahn. Cars, motorik, Detroit... all of this is no coincidence. In the mid-fifties Chuck Berry did to rhythm & blues what Juan Atkins would later do to electronic music in the mid-eighties, rebuilding it into a lean street racer set to overdrive and pointed toward the future.

The Rolling Stones England's Newest Hit Makers London

The man's songs would form the bedrock for early rock 'n roll and beyond, endlessly cribbed (see The Beatles' Come Together, The Beach Boys' Surfin' USA, etc.) and covered, fueling the nascent scene as it gained steam to go on and conquer the world. There's loads of crucial covers — The Stones had their hand in more than a few — some of them even managing to exceed the man's original vision, but then you hear a song like Too Much Monkey Business in its original context — shot through with a spartan elegance and those nagging vocal asides — and it becomes clear that its never been bettered on its own terms.

Link Wray Early Recordings Chiswick

Along with Bo Diddley's work, this is ground zero for hard-edged rock 'n roll spanning from Link Wray and surf rock to The Rolling Stones and Nuggets and beyond (it's not hard to hear the interlocking gears of Queens Of The Stone Age in Berry's metal machine music). This is where the whole rock endeavor accumulated the energy it needed to reach critical velocity and escape orbit, where it took on molten form and splintered into myriad shards and sounds in the process.

Ushered in by a brown-eyed handsome man from St. Louis, it's a sound that live on in the present day, over sixty years later. All of that, and the man lived to be ninety, riding off into the sunset a legend. So when all is said and done, I say so long Mr. Berry, and thanks for leaving us the music.