Osmium is recommended listening: a crucial transitional moment between the psychedelic sounds of early P-Funk and their more sui generis later work.
The 1970 debut album by Parliament tends to be remembered as a footnote, if it’s remembered at all. Its place in the group’s discography has been overshadowed by the more fully-realized debut for Casablanca Records, 1974’s Up for the Down Stroke. But Osmium, named for the heaviest naturally-occurring element on the periodic table, is more essential than its reputation suggests, offering early evidence of bandleader George Clinton’s grand plans for what he would later dub the “Parliafunkadelicment thang.”
Released a scant seven months after the self-titled debut by Clinton’s other outfit, Funkadelic—and just two months after its follow-up, Free Your Mind… And Your Ass Will Follow—Osmium was on one level a purely pragmatic move. Knowing that he couldn’t put out the volume of music he was producing on a single label, Clinton assembled a “new” band with almost identical personnel, resurrected the name of his old group the Parliaments (with slight adjustments to dissuade legal difficulties with their former label) and got them signed to Holland-Dozier-Holland’s Invictus imprint. Parliament/Funkadelic wasn’t the first band to record under different names for different labels: the practice dated back to at least the ‘20s and ‘30s, when for example Duke Ellington’s band would cut sides for Columbia as the Washingtonians, for Brunswick as the Jungle Band and so on. What made Clinton’s scheme unique were the distinct musical identities he assigned to each group, with Funkadelic taking the heavier and more hard-rocking material while Parliament aimed for the R&B market.
On Osmium, the distinction isn’t as clear-cut as it would eventually become on Up for the Down Stroke and (especially) later, but it’s still there if you look. The album’s sound is brighter and less overtly druggy than on Funkadelic. Its song structures are more conventional and less likely to descend into murky jams. In the spirit of the original Parliaments project, arrangements put an emphasis on vocal harmonies, with each member getting their turn in the spotlight, from Ray Davis’ bass on the prog-gospel workout “Put Love in Your Life” to Calvin Simon’s tenor on the elegiac closer “The Silent Boatman.” Keyboardist Bernie Worrell, who had only appeared on one Funkadelic track, hadn’t yet discovered his trademark Minimoog, but his understated playing on “Livin’ the Life” shows off his classical training and impeccable jazz chops.
Also setting Osmium apart from its predecessors was the presence of English singer-songwriter Ruth Copeland, another Invictus signee who briefly served as the Nico to Parliament’s Velvet Underground. Copeland is responsible for three of the more album’s more incongruous tracks: the hillbilly pastiche “Little Ole Country Boy”—complete with jaw harp, pedal steel and yodeling later sampled on De La Soul’s “Potholes in My Lawn”—and the baroque soul of “Oh Lord, Why Lord/Prayer” and “The Silent Boatman.” The latter two tracks, with “Oh Lord”’s prominent harpsichord (!) and “Boatman’”s almost as prominent acoustic guitar, harp and bagpipes (!!), are both the album’s least recognizably “P-Funk” tracks and arguably its most dated. But it’s nevertheless interesting to hear this relic from a more democratic Parliament. While the band was of course never 100% Clinton’s show, he’d never again have to share the spotlight with another artist whose aesthetic diverged so wildly from his.
For all that Parliament deliberately set itself apart from its sibling group, though, they were still recognizably two sides of the same coin. Opening track “I Call My Baby Pussycat”—a reworking of Muddy Waters’ “Tom Cat” that basically exists to get the word “pussy” on the record—sounds like a more polished version of Funkadelic’s acid-blues, with a propulsive bassline by co-writer Billy Nelson. “Moonshine Heather,” Clinton’s only sole writing credit on the album, boasts an Eddie Hazel guitar riff that is at once funky and Deep Purple heavy. And while Osmium goes slightly easy on the psychedelic flourishes compared to its older siblings, Clinton’s production still has an aural playfulness that feels decidedly of its time: from the reverb-laden exclamations on “Put Love in Your Life,” which recall Frank Zappa’s late-‘60s tape experiments, to the audio verité-style glimpse of Clinton and Fuzzy Haskins working out the harmonies for “My Automobile,” complete with audible cuts.
Judged purely on its musical merits, it’s hard to reconcile why Osmium doesn’t occupy a similar place in the P-Funk canon to Funkadelic or Free Your Mind; but the album’s awkward afterlife does provide some clues. Supposedly, the legal dispute over the Parliaments name reared its head again—apparently dropping “the” wasn’t enough of a change to satisfy Revilot Records—and the group had to go back to recording only as Funkadelic. The Invictus label would also take a hit in the next few years, due to problems with Dozier and the Hollands’ ability to pay royalties. With the Invictus catalogue in limbo, Osmium has been reissued under a variety of titles and track lists, often paired with non-LP singles and unreleased recordings from the same period; this more than anything likely accounts for its slightly bootleg reputation. And of course, as of this writing it isn’t legally available for streaming on any of the major services: ensuring that as far as casual listeners are concerned, Parliament’s official history began in 1974. But for those willing to do some digging—or, like, try YouTube—Osmium is recommended listening: a crucial transitional moment between the psychedelic sounds of early P-Funk and their more sui generis later work.