To label Funkadelic’s second full-length as a funk album, as is the case with most of the group’s discography, would be to miss the point entirely.
To label Funkadelic’s second full-length as a funk album, as is the case with most of the group’s discography, would be to miss the point entirely. George Clinton and his ever-revolving bandmembers have never been interested in presenting a purist’s version of funk; rather they use the style’s repetitive grooves and interlocking instrumental layers as a jumping-off point for wildly experimental music. Free Your Mind… and Your Ass Will Follow, allegedly an experiment in recording an entire record on acid, is a disturbed, manic album, one that potently stabs at American capitalism through transcendental psychedelic music.
The opening title track serves as a manifesto for the rest of the album, with Clinton repeating the following mantra in his hypnotic baritone: “Free your mind and your ass will follow/ The kingdom of heaven is within.” The subsequent ten minutes of music are less a song than they are a loosely assembled funk collage that matches the heady philosophizing of the lyrics. Everything revolves around a six-note descending melody, presented first by guitarist Eddie Hazel, then carried through by new organist Bernie Worrell. Grounded only by this simple motif, the track jumps in and out of double time, runs through different solo sections and endlessly collapses and reforms itself. As one of the group’s most far-out jams to date, it achieves a youthful, glorious abandon.
After the loose title track, Funkadelic make a hard turn and deliver a more song-based rocker. “Friday Night, August 14th” features a Hendrix-style riff blown to bits by Hazel played against splashy drumming and gigantic organ stabs, resulting in a deafening cacophony of funk sounds. Free Your Mind came out almost exactly one year before Hazel cemented his legacy with one of the greatest longform guitar solos in pop music, but his talents are already on display here. He can—and does—play with blistering speed, but most of the time he prefers long, screaming phrases with piles of distortion. His playing throughout is incredible, but the solo at the end of “Friday Night” is the most noteworthy. Especially in the more spacious section, both his skill and taste are at their finest, a perfect mix of technical know-how and pure expression.
What gives this album a unique flavor is that even the most straight-ahead tracks can’t escape the overarching oddity, as in the forlorn “Some More.” Much of the instrumental recalls traditional blues, but the drums are run through a disorienting slapback echo and Clinton’s voice is affected to the point that it sounds like he’s screaming through a broken megaphone. The chorus is an explosion of feeling, one that only lasts for so long before the phrase abruptly ends and fades to silence. It’s the closest Free Your Mind comes to delivering a pop song, though one with more uneasy loose ends and jagged transitions than any radio group would’ve attempted.
Even though the album is brief and drenched in surrealism, the anti-capitalist thread running throughout is well-conceived and well-realized. “Friday Night” details a shopping spree after getting your tax return, buoyed by an earworm chorus: “I know that I probably should not/ Matter of fact I probably could not/ Buy all the good times meant for me.” The alternating voices negate any one narrator, positing the message as a universal dilemma experienced by all exploited laborers. “Funky Dollar Bill” offers a similar message in a more despairing lens. Every American is trapped in a reliance on the market, living in servitude to the dollar bill. This woe is delivered through the blues-tinged instrumental and Tawl Ross’s gritty snarl, giving it an edge that feels close to the impending angst of punk.
Despite its origins in jazz, blues and soul music, Free Your Mind has an overtly studio-constructed sound, one that plays out to varying degrees of success throughout the album. There’s a lot of panning effects and slapback echo, to the point that by the time you reach the extended jam at the back end of “I Wanna Know if It’s Good to You,” the swirling haze the band attempts to conjure feels forced. There’s so much instrumental skill here that sometimes a reliance on effects and augmentations buries the great performances in a gooey, sonic mess. Clinton was obviously an adventurous producer at this point, but the crisp sound of Funkadelic’s later albums like Cosmic Slop or Let’s Take It to the Stage was yet to crystalize.
The studio trickery does redeem itself, however, on the final track, “Eulogy and Light.” Any relation to funk has vanished, replaced by an electronic piece that reads closer to the work of an avant-garde giant like Luc Ferrari. Clinton’s production here, however, delivers a more potent message and atmosphere than most concrète attempted to at the time. Along with his reading parodic version of The Lord’s Prayer, which situates God as the force of Wall Street, a choir of backwards vocals, tape noises and airy instrumental interjections make this short coda one of the album’s most spell-binding moments.
Much of the album’s pure strangeness might be attributed to the heavy drug influence that the band flout, but it’s all rooted in the real skills of the musicians and Clinton’s increasingly airtight songwriting. While drugs don’t make you inherently good, in the hands of stellar artists like the ones present here, they can help open new doors. By their second album, Funkadelic committed themselves to intellectual and artistic freedom. While the metaphoric “ass” of the musical nuts and bolts hadn’t quite achieved the same liberation as the group’s concepts and ideology, the chaos of Free Your Mind was a decided step in the right direction.