My Pop Life #138 : Give Up The Funk (Tear The Roof Off The Sucker) – Parliament

My Pop Life #137 :  Give Up The Funk (Tear The Roof Off The Sucker)  –   Parliament

we gotta turn this mother out….

…Owww…we want the funk, gotta have that funk…

My brother Andrew was born in Mum and Dad’s upstairs bedroom on May 6th 1964.  Mum wondered afterwards if she’d been given too much gas, but Andrew was a perfectly healthy bonny boy.   One year later Mum was in Hellingly suffering a severe mental breakdown.  She was there for nine months all told.  (Discussed in My Pop Life #55).  Within a year after coming out of hospital she and dad had divorced on the advice of her doctor.   It was a turbulent start to my brother’s life.  Mum’s second marriage in 1969 and 2nd divorce in 1972 happened before he was 10 years old.  Middle brother Paul and I were only 2 years apart, and we shared a bedroom, it was always RALPH, PAUL………..(and Andrew).  In that order.  Always.  We joked about it.  We still do.  I’m sure growing up with two parental divorces, numerous maternal hospitalisations for mental illness and two older brothers who didn’t include you much was traumatic and scarring.   But Andrew has turned out all right, when he lifts his head from the bellybutton of self-pity which we all get tempted by in our family, Rebecca excepted.  Rebecca is the youngest, our sister.  Resilient as fuck.  But we all are in our way.  None of us went to prison, got addicted to drugs, vote Conservative.  Dysfunctional childhood sure, but who didn’t ?

the great George Clinton 

Andrew suffered my 1970s taste as he grew, before he could afford to buy music, he had to listen to ours, being forced to consume the likes of Gentle Giant, Osibisa, Jimi Hendrix, The Sweet and The Moody Blues alongside Mum’s pop genius – Motown, Joe South, Johnny Nash and Hurricane Smith and Paul’s adoption of Bowie & Roxy while getting more into disco as the decade advanced and he moved out to Eastbourne:  Barry White.  Chic.  Candi Staton.  Andrew had a lot to choose from, plus we all watched TOTP together for years, and religiously tuned into the Top 40 Countdown on a Sunday afternoon, almost always presented by Alan Freeman.  I think initially he drifted towards prog rock.

Andrew went to school in Hailsham but was so many years below Paul that seeing his older brother crossing the playground in 4-inch stack heels and red flares with his friend Vince was probably like spotting a badger at dusk.  I was 25 miles away in Lewes.  I’ve become closer to Andrew as we’ve got older, as the age difference narrows as it must, now we’re both in our 50s it seems foolish for him to still look up to me, but he does.  We’re just not on equal footing.  So he asks questions, and I answer them in an irritable voice.

When Andrew was young, in Selmeston village in the 1960s, we enjoyed watching him learn how to talk.  Sugar was “oog“.  Yellow Submarine was “Mam Mamfreen“.  And Andrew, his own name, was “Godrib“.    That was so biblical and semi-satanic that it stuck, we have called him it for years, and then Andrew himself adopted the moniker so that now he often signs off emails and letters as Godrib.   Thus early scars become tattoos.  Perfectly normal.

At some possibly pre-ordained point in the 1980s when Andrew was studying either in Anglesey where he read Ecology or perhaps in Bristol where he and Debbie settled post-education he got seriously involved with The Funk.  This moment combined with Andrew picking up a bass guitar and deciding that it was his instrument.  And the deadly combination of The Funk and The Bass Guitar could only mean One Thing.

Bootsy Collins.

Bootsy Collins, a native of Cincinatti, Ohio, has been playing music since the 1950s.  His funk band The Pacemakers, which included his brother Phelps “Catfish” Collins, Phillipé Wynne and Frankie Waddy, joined James Brown in 1969 after Brown had sacked his entire band.  In 1970 they played on Sex Machine, Superbad, Soul Power and über-sampled The Grunt (as The J.B.s) before they too parted ways with the exacting Mr Brown, and thereupon moved to Detroit in 1972 to join forces with the genius of George Clinton and Parliament, who’d released one record at that point, called Osmium.  It was a match made in heaven, and together Collins and Clinton with their outstanding band of funkateers re-invented funk music using science fiction, LSD and fake fur.

Parliament/Funkadelic early 70s looking normal

Parliament/Funkadelic mid-70s looking trippy

There followed a string of outlandish and brilliant funk records where Clinton placed the black man (and woman) in situations where they would not normally be found, notably science fiction.  When Parliament and their sister band the rockier Funkadelic toured, their stage show was a massive supersized spaceship, The Mothership, and the psychedelic clothes, make-up and drug intake was almost unique in black musical culture. Perhaps Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone got there first, and perhaps Rahsaan Roland Kirk got there before them…but this band were like no other before them to be honest.  A little bit of ELO, a touch of The Tubes, some Hendrix, but no one had done theatricality and funk music quite like this before or since.  Genesis had their moments when Gabriel was the lead singer, and The Tubes were pretty astounding too.  Most bands just stand there and play though don’t they ?  Parliament looked like they were having a whole load of fun onstage and the crowds loved them for it.

George Clinton steps out of the Mothership

I was lucky enough to see this show at Hammersmith Odeon in December 1978 in my 3rd year at LSE, when a bunch of us got heavily stoned jumped on the Piccadilly Line and became One Nation Under A Groove.  It was an amazing show.   But after that night I really didn’t keep up with the groove I have to admit.  Or the funk.  I was very much post punk/two tone around then, with an interest in reggae and pop, and George Clinton & Bootsy Collins faded from my radar.  In this sense I have to hold my hands up – both my younger brothers are groovier than I.   Paul was by now deep into disco, and Andrew was following Bootsy and George.

It was around this point that Collins created Bootsy’s Rubber Band, releasing albums alongside the continued Parliament/Funkadelic LPs, some claim them to be the funkiest records ever released.  Andrew would be among these disciples.  Andrew has always been attracted to ‘difficult’ music – difficult to play at least – including Bill Bruford, King Crimson, Herbie Hancock, Delius, Messiaen and yes, Van der Graaf, and I’m guessing that he tried to play some of these, including Bootsy Collins on his bass guitar.  Funk might be simple, but making it sound funky sure ain’t.

Bootsy’s star-spangled bass guitar

Andrew next travelled to the Colombian and Peruvian rainforests for ecology work then split with Debbie, moved to London and met Katie at Middlesex College.  They had a beautiful baby boy called Alexander together in Enfield around the turn of the century and we have a photo of Andrew throwing his two-week-old son into the air.  They moved to Bournemouth together to make house, and ever since his birth my nephew has been affectionately known as Bootsy.  Even at primary school he was called Bootsy.  We call him Bootsy too, but when secondary school started a few years ago there was a general feeling that Alex would be the preferred name.  Alex is a fantastic bright and funny cricket mad young man who has carried on the family tradition of rapping, loves his video games and sees Andrew his dad on weekends and holidays since Katie and Andrew separated.  Having a teenage son has kept Andrew in Bournemouth, an honourable decision for a father.  Paul and I have no children, and Rebecca has three.  Whenever Andrew whinges about wasting his life, wishing he’d done this or that, wondering what to do for a career, I remind him that he has created and nurtured this child.  Alex.  Bootsy.

Bootsy’s Rubber Band 2nd LP 

In actual fact Andrew has links with many of Dorset’s wildlife projects, helps on the heathlands, is a trained bat-spotter, and runs the dragonfly society and website of Dorset from his flat.  It’s a terribly competitive world to get paid work in, but it gives him real pleasure, and again having grown up in a tiny Sussex village, we both share an affinity for the changing seasons and the local flora and fauna.  Bird-watching we both enjoy, and while my passion is butterflies, Andrew has adopted the dragonfly as his creature of excellence, and become an expert.

Bootsy Collins

Our musical tastes overlap slightly – we both adore Wagner, Debussy and Mahler, we are both capable of buying tickets to see Van Der Graaf Generator (see My Pop Life #85 ) when they occasionally play live and swooning over a track from Pawn Hearts being included in the set list, and we’re both inordinately fond of The Stylistics (see My Pop Life #70).  We both love Public Enemy and other early hip hop, and this love has passed to Alex who has grown up with rap as a natural form of communication.  And we both love this track, from Parliament’s 4th album Mothership Connection (1975) and the big hit that allowed them to play stadiums.  I’ve recently bought a load of Parliament albums (more of a soul vibe),  I prefer them to the harder rockier sound of Funkadelic, and today I downloaded the first three Bootsy’s Rubber Band albums in honour of my nephew Alex and his Dad.   They sound great.   Hopefully as I gently approach 60 years of age I can get a little funkier, a little more funktastic, perhaps a lot more funkadelic with a little help from Dr Funkenstein, George Clinton, Bootsy Collins and Andrew, my funk soul brother.

short hit single version :

P-Funk live 1976 at their interplanetary best :

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My Pop Life #127 : He Who Would Valiant Be

To Be A Pilgrim

he who would valiant be ‘gainst all disaster

let hm in constancy follow the master

there’s no discouragement can make him once relent

his first avowed intent to be a pilgrim…

At some point in 1966 my mother was still in Hellingly Hospital near Herstmonceux in East Sussex, receiving ECG and taking various medications, mainly Largactyl.   She’d had a Nervous Breakdown.  She would be there for 9 months in all.  I wrote about this period in My Pop Life #55.  My dad was struggling to cope with three young sons and a full-time teaching job in Brighton and initially he’d been helped by our Nan, Ruby Laming who’d travelled up from Portsmouth and lived with us in the village.   Apart from missing Mum terribly our lives hadn’t changed all that much – we still walked up the road to the little village school, played football, fought in the playground, saved up for a packet of crisps and hid in the bales of the barn opposite our house.

Mum came home eventually 9 months later, but Dad moved out under a cloud pretty soon after that after being caught with the babysitter.  So then it was Mum and three boys.   These years blur and blend, but perhaps it was 1968 when she must have returned to hospital again.

And suddenly we were shipped out to Brighton – or at least Paul and I were.  Andrew was only 3 or 4 years old at this point and would have been transferred to Mum’s sister Valerie in Portsmouth.   Separated not for the first or the last time.   But at least we weren’t in care.   Being abused somewhere.   Lucky us.   I think Paul and I were 10 and 8 years old respectively.  It may be 9 and 7.  Someone may help me pin the year down.  It won’t make that much difference.

We were taken to a house in Lauriston Road where a colleague of my Dad’s lived with his family.  Phil was a teacher at Westlain Grammar too.  His wife Moyra also worked but I cannot remember her job.  They had two children called Ceri and Eleri – the daughter Eleri was one year older than Ceri.

Lauriston Road is opposite the top end of Preston Park in Brighton.    Us country boys from a small village with one shop were suitably gobsmacked by this development.  Just down Preston Road was the Rookery Rock Garden, right opposite the park and we explored that with delight.  Twisty paths, ponds with fish, rocks and overhanging trees, all built on a hillside between the main road north – the A23 and the railway line.  It has a slightly Japanese feel in design, and was built in 1935 using tons of imported Cheddar rock and stone.   It is still a delightful place to visit.  It was my first taste of Brighton.

We were all taken to their primary school the next morning, but Paul refused to go, hanging onto the baluster of the staircase and screaming his head off.  Moyra got quite upset with him – I imagine she was being made late for work, and there was nowhere else for us to be at that age.  Eventually his hands were prised free from the staircase and we were bundled into a Morris Traveller and taken to school.

Christian reads his Book :  William Blake

The school was terrifying of course.  We’d been used to a tiny classroom with a dozen kids, three or four of them my own age.   Now we were lined up at desks with 25-30 strange faces and a large female teacher whose name I have erased.  She read to us every day from a large book about a man called Christian and his journey across a strange forbidding landscape – the Hill Of Difficulty, the Valley of Humiliation and carrying this weight everywhere he went – a book.  When Christian was captured by The Giant Despair and imprisoned in his Doubting Castle I started freaking out.

The psycho-geography of Pilgrim’s Progress

Then I caught chicken pox.  Then Paul caught chicken pox.  Then Ceri caught chicken pox.  Then Eleri caught chicken pox.  That was the end of school !!  We were bedridden for at least a week, maybe more.  Phil would read us bedtime stories at night bless him.  In loco parentis.  We never really made friends with those kids and I don’t think we ever saw them again.  It was like an unearthly interlude with illness – and probably felt like chaos to my parents.

John Bunyan (detail) – painting by Thomas Sadler

Later I realised that the book that was being read aloud to us was John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, a christian allegory the first part of which was published in England in 1677 while Bunyan was imprisoned for preaching without a licence.   Perhaps it was an abridged version, or a child’s version we were listening to.  In any event the looming Celestial City and the Valley Of The Shadow Of Death both represented the same thing to me – horror.  I can’t ever remember enjoying Christian stories, whether Old Testament, New Testament or books like Pilgrim’s Progress.  They always felt slightly threatening.  Perhaps it was the context, or the character of the teller.

6th-former, Lewes Grammar 1964 by the Chapel

Later when I was at Grammar School in Lewes we sang in the School Chapel, the whole school assembled to stand in pews and hold hymnbooks and sing together.   Me in shorts, uniform, striped dark blue and light blue tie and cap.   And there was that word again, in a tune that filled my heart :  To Be A Pilgrim.  I never heard any version of this on record or anywhere else, my entire memory of it is as a hymn sung in a church.  Little did I know that the words of the hymn were taken from Bunyan’s book, slightly modified in 1906 by Percy Dearnal, and set to music in the same year by my namesake Ralph Vaughan Williams.   Later on Vaughan Williams would write an opera called Pilgrim’s Progress which premiered in 1951.

English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams

Young Ralph – he was 34 at the time – took the music from a Sussex folk song called Monk’s Gate, named after a village near Horsham, the tune being collected by a Mrs Harriet Verrall of that parish who was also responsible for the Sussex Carol.  The resulting tune and words are forever stirring and pleasing to mine ear, and do not remind me of the shadowy days listening to Pilgrim’s Progress in some strange forbidding grey school in Brighton.  I can pick up and discard these associations in my own time – luckily – for the hated Thatcher’s funeral also featured this very hymn.   In fact I’m quite fond of the word Pilgrim.  I like to set myself random tasks, usually psycho-geographical in nature, oft times muso-geographical, and then become a pilgrim for the length of a day, a week, a year.  An example is to be found at My Pop Life 16 when Jenny and I visited the Metropolitan Museum in 2014 seeking the paintings from Rufus Wainwright‘s The Art Teacher, or at My Pop Life #97 when I sought out the locations in Berlin that David Bowie references in “Where Are We Now?“.  In both instances I was a pilgrim.  There is a staggeringly good Van Der Graaf Generator song called Pilgrims which I am inordinately fond of.

And there is a Wishbone Ash LP called Pilgrimage which captured our teenage imagination at one point with its twin lead guitar attack and which I have not revisited this long century since.   But it means so much more than this.  Remember the Canterbury Tales?

The Hajj to Mecca ? The Pilgrimage Of Grace ?

Benares ?  

These mass movements of the devoted are peaceful in nature, the very opposite of a crusade.  And yet and yet.  I have to reject the religious way, the idea of such certainly being handed to me in a book, from a man, located in a place, a system of beliefs laid out for me.  The centre of the universe is surely everywhere as Sitting Bull once observed.

Pilgrims are focussed.  Single minded.  Valiant – possibly.   They seek, they search, they have a reason to go on.  Following a master ?  Don’t know about that.  It would certainly make it easier though wouldn’t it ?  Make it easier to be a pilgrim.

Maddy Prior who used to be in Steeleye Span :

My Pop Life#85 : The Undercover Man – Van Der Graaf Generator

Featured image

The Undercover Man   –   Van Der Graaf Generator

here…at the glass…all the usual problems…all the habitual farce..

you ask..in uncertain voice..what you should do..as if there were a choice..

..but to carry on..miming the song..

..and hope that it all works out right

Didn’t need to look up the lyrics for this song.   Burned into my brain.   The man who wrote them, Peter Hammill, he of the extraordinary angelic devil’s voice, was a constant companion of mine through the 1970s.  I bought H to He (Who Am The Only One) from Simon Korner in 1971 (?) Van Der Graaf’s second LP, quite possibly my first album that was all mine;  terribly weird and prog, heavy and jazzy, literate and dense.   I loved it.   I still do.  I first heard this track from their 5th album on the John Peel show late one night in my bedroom in Hailsham.  Van Der Graaf Generator were so underground and unloved at school (Lewes Priory) that I was astonished to hear their name and their music on the actual radio.  The song is from an album called Godbluff.   This and the follow-up Still Life are my favourite musical moments from VDGG.   There is something about the intensity of Hammill’s lyrics and his uncompromising vocal delivery, his fury and his passion, his feeling and his focus that drilled through the teenage me, through all the layers of coping and pretence and bearing up, all the capability that I summoned at each maternal nervous breakdown, each visit to the phone box to call the doctor and complain about the latest bottle of pills prescribed to Mum, each battle in the kitchen over food, washing up, coal, cats, milk bills, noise, TV channels or haircuts.  The music exposed my innermost panic.  It cut through the pop fluff and the melodic flair to the gritty bone of loneliness that was my very private world.  In a way it was quite good that no one else in school liked Van Der Graaf Generator because I didn’t want to share my feelings with anyone.   Of course I used to feel that my spectacularly dysfunctional family was a kind of pin-up of affliction, that the cross I bore, heavy and splintered and surely too much for one teenage boy to carry, was heavier and harder than anyone else’s.   It was a badge of honour, a hidden scar that I would only reveal to girlfriends, look, this is who I really am, then they would want to make it better, they did !

Now an adult I see my childhood as just another suburban tragedy.  Everyone has one.

I bought this LP in 1975 when it came out – late October as the leaves fell from the trees.  I’d left school, left home and been left by my girlfriend in the same week (see My Pop Life #58).

My first day of work on B Villa, Laughton Lodge I had thirty strange faces staring at me – the new nursing assistant in a white coat with name badge.  The friendliest bloke Martin had Down’s Syndrome and immediately introduced himself “hello sir!” with a strong lisp.  He shouldn’t have been in there.  But who should ?  Described on the entrance hoarding as a “Hospital For The Mentally Sub-Normal”, Laughton Lodge in 1975 was what local people called the loony bin, ‘bedlam’ or the madhouse.   On B Villa all the 30 men could walk, feed themselves and take themselves to the toilet.   Critical distinctions.   It meant our work was watching out for epileptic fits, walking the hyper Michael Payne round the grounds because he upset the other “residents”, taking a select group to ‘work experience’, or maybe into Lewes, sorting out problems and fights and helping with tying of shoelaces, distribution of drugs (I wasn’t allowed to do this except with another nurse) and subduing of violence.  The drug of choice was Largactyl, the chemical cosh.  Half of the ward walked around like zombies under the effect of this powerful sedative.  The other half either behaved, or were headed the same way.  Ian was severely autistic and didn’t speak, kind of yelped when he was upset.  He had memorised all the puzzles in the day-room, he would pick up a piece and know where it went immediately.  Ronnie was a 19-year old murderer, and a pyschopath with a sickly grin.  Gerald was a big dangerous intelligent man who would explode with violence from time to time, attack another patient, he smashed the acquarium one day, it would take six male nurses to hold him down.  when a patient went “up the wall” they acquired superhuman strength from deep within and furniture would go flying.  We had largactyl injections, straightjackets and a padded cell upstairs.

Michael Payne was the saddest case. A handsome gentle man in his thirties, he’d witnessed a motorbike accident at close quarters and his mind had cracked.  Somehow through the system he’d found his way onto B Villa Laughton Lodge.  He talked incessantly and we would take it in turns to walk him around the grounds, answering his questions, never quite sure what was a memory and what wasn’t.  “Did you see that tiger on television last night Mr Brown?  Scratched me right down my face!”   The Charge Nurse Ray Lucas explained to me that he was on a decreasing cycle of experience, his ups and downs were getting closer together, at that point he was three days up (walk around the grounds talking ten to the dozen) three days down (slumped in green plastic armchair on the ward).  As the wavelength got shorter he would be more difficult to manage and when the up and the down met eventually he would short-circuit and burn out, and become like the monosyllabic zombies.  This made me terribly sad.

The whole place was incredibly sad.  There were psychiatric patients mixed with murderers.  One fella Nick got picked up by his Mum and Dad every Saturday and brought back every Sunday night.  Apart from a twisted hand and club foot he was perfectly fine: intelligent but damaged.  The nurses were compassionate and coped well.   There was no abuse or piss-taking that I witnessed.   All the patients, and some of the staff were institutionalised – stuck in routines and ways of thinking.   I was only there for nine months, I couldn’t change anything.  Eventually one of the nurses from C Villa (the women’s ward) invited me to dinner one night in Ringmer.  While she was cooking, she handed me a book saying “this is what I’m interested in”.   Christine Glinkowski – a Polish woman in her late 20s – had given me “The Joy Of Sex”.  Readers, I was 18 years old.  “We can’t have sex on the first date” said Christine, “but we can do this…”

After work I would walk across the fields to the Nurses Home where I lived, a huge manor house divided into living quarters for the staff.  I shared a kitchen with two Mauritian gentleman who cooked gentle curries and were very friendly and sweet.  I would read a book, watch TV or play records on my little record player.  My first independent flat.  No surrogate mum.  Just me and my dope and cups of tea and vinyl LPs : Van Der Graaf Generator, Wings, Joe Walsh, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Gentle Giant, Stevie Wonder, Spirit, Commander Cody, Osibisa, Roxy Music, Brian Eno, Focus, David Bowie, Bryan Ferry, John Lennon, Man, The Beach Boys, The Doors, Greenslade, Hawkwind, The Faces, Audience, Blue Öyster Cult, The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band and Peter Hammill’s solo albums.  White people !  Apart from Jimi.  To be fair I had a box of singles too, 45s which were nuggets of gold, among them Al Green, Smokey Robinson, Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder and Dave & Ansel Collins.

Van Der Graaf were the original pretentious art-rock prog band par excellence.  Formed by Peter Hammill and Chris Judge-Smith, the classic line-up became Hammill, organist and bass pedals Hugh Banton, sax-player David Jackson and drummer Guy Evans.  You’ll note that there’s no guitarist.  They are still going, although Jackson doesn’t appear with them often, I saw them at The Barbican in 2009 and they were, as ever, amazing.  The voice of Hammill which goes from a whisper to a blood-curdling scream, from a sweet melody to a harsh monosyllabic bark is one of the wonders of the world, and has influenced many singers including John Lydon.  Hammill’s solo albums are more introspective and personal, while the Van Der Graaf catalogue is often science fiction speculation, Hammill being a fan (like me!) of Philip K. Dick.  For all their harsh pretentious beauty the band soothed me through my troubled teens.   Perhaps just knowing that someone else felt fierce anguish and wasn’t afraid to express it was enough.  I was always afraid to express it.  I still am.