Friday, March 30, 2007

Funkadelic- in search of the drum

It was some time in the early 90's when I visited legendary (and now deceased) Gotham record haven Vinylmania looking for rap singles by A Tribe Called Quest and other favorites. Then I stumbled across a 12" single (remember those?) by Funkadelic that I'd never seen or heard of before. It was called "By Way of the Drum" and it left me puzzled 'cause as a P-Funk fan, I was totally unaware of this. I wondered if it was one of those concoctions by the phony band who took the band's name and put out Who's A Funkadelic in '81. Regardless, I had to take a chance and buy it. I took it home and was amazed by it. It sound so powerful and yet so different from the rest of the Funkadelic catalog that I was convinced that it was a version of the band without leader/mastermind George Clinton. But his name was at least on the label as one of the writers and it mentioned that it was the title track of an album. BUT WHERE WAS THAT ALBUM? It was a great curiosity that I didn't hear about otherwise.

It turns out that George and friends were putting together the material for MCA records in 1988 and while GC was still sorting out assorted legal matters, the label pulled the plug and just half-heartedly put out the single (the one I bought) in the summer of '89. Clinton hated what they did with it and soon he was seeking greener pastures with Prince and Paisley Park (arranged by Alan Leeds, who did the liner notes for Drum).

Then earlier this year, I heard about Hip-O Select putting out the actual By Way of the Drum album for the first time anywhere. If the single was any indication, this had to be THE great lost P-Funk album. Again, I was drooling over this and had to have it.

But then I actually heard the record and my god, what a dud it is. Other than a Eddie Hazel guitar solo ("Some Fresh Delic"), you got weak rehashes of not only "Nubian Nut" and "Chocolate City" but also a so-so cover of Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love" (we already knew George was a guitar-rock fan, thanks).

Despite the disappointment, there was that freaky single tacked on at the end as a bonus- the same single that George hated and I loved. Nothing had changed for me- this was still a great single, maybe a possible path that P-Funk could have taken but never did. GC in particular objected to the post-production work by Jeff Lorber on it but for me, that's what made the song so special and much better than the regular album version. For one thing, the single is three minutes longer, giving it more of an epic feel. Lorber pumps up the drums (drum machines actually) with furious momentum and the whole sound is sparer, with extended room for pounding rhythms (almost like Public Image's Flowers of Romance album). The keyboards drift in and out (with that glossy 80's sound) all over the place as a bass synth pumps out a steady, heavy beat. This leaves the vocals up front, sounding more desperate also. Later, Lorber adds a doomy goth synth deep in the background that Depeche Mode would have killed for, giving the song an added sense of urgency. Occasionally, he stutters the keyboards or vocals for dramatic effect. These are not m.o.'s of Clinton and that's why it threw me off so much when I first heard it and why he disavowed it. Yet the chances that Lorber takes are worth it- these 80's staples could have easily made it dated and disposable mush but he turns them into real drama and a killer dance track to boot.

So skip the album but download the single. It was the best thing I heard circa 1990 and it's still one of the best singles I've heard this year.

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