The golden run of Clinton’s collective would soon come to an end, but here they sounded absolutely unbeatable, the unassailable best band there ever was.
By 1977, Parliament was operating at its peak. Riding high off of the dual triumphs of Mothership Connection and The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein, the band had successfully parlayed their mutant funk into massive artistic and commercial success. Far from settling into their groove, however, Parliament would use these avant-R&B classics as a launchpad for their wildest statement yet. Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome was the result of George Clinton reaching the top of the mountain and finding himself displeased that no one could stand there with him and his outfit. The album is Clinton’s cri de coeur against the simplicity of so many of his peers, a castigation of mistaking brainless conformity for chart appeal.
And if the rubber-band basslines and partyup intensity of Mothership Connection has since filtered so thoroughly into pop’s bloodstream that it seems like the apotheosis of its era rather than a strange outlier, Funkentelechy remains abstruse and impenetrable. Oh, it still sold, nearly as much as its predecessors. But in doing so it only made Clinton’s point, as he shoved his strange sonic obsessions into elaborate new realms of squelching bass, chopped horn sections, call-and-response vocals and intergalactic keyboards. As ever crafting a baffling, satirical, defiant narrative, this time projecting the resistance to selling out on a cosmic scale, Clinton produces some of his sharpest work.
Everything you need to know about the album is contained within its justifiably legendary bookends. “Bop Gun (Endangered Species)” teases the listener with a brittle, halting guitar line as it opens, only to immediately give way to a burst of horns that announces a lurch into laser-beam synths and swampy bass. For nearly nine minutes, the band grinds through one of their all-timer party jams; plenty of disco and funk bands of the ‘70s relied on group vocals to craft a party atmosphere, but Parliament was the only group whose giant chant numbers were so huge that you, the listener, felt like you were there shouting with them. “Bop Gun” has the hypnotic, trancelike power of a classic disco long jam, its steady rhythm lasting so long that you begin to imagine variations in the unbending composition.
At the other end is “Flash Light,” arguably the best track Parliament ever performed. Unfortunately truncated from its truly transcendent 12” single version for space limitations, the song nonetheless contains galaxies. Its warm-up is like a rollercoaster slowly climbing to the crest of its track, the pseud-orchestral synth tones guiding it to its eruption into Bernie Worrell’s world-class synthesized bassline, which somehow manages to perfectly embody the band’s sonic polarities of humid, organic funk and sharp, artificial tech futurism. Buzzing and gurgling, the bassline is joined by handclaps that are loudly mixed so loudly in the foreground as vocals slur and cascade. Whirring synths intersect and refact in the air overhead to create a dizzying soundscape that is propelled forward only by Worrell. By the time the song gets to its dynamite false ending, it emerges as one of the great works of synthetic R&B, a track as evolutionary and revolutionary as the other great cyber-funk hit of 1977, Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love.”
Were Funkentelechy no more than a double-A side single with these two songs, it would still be among the greatest funk recordings ever produced. Yet the rest of the album is just as ambitious. “Wizard of Finance” hilariously boats a swooning saxophone line that harks back to the band doo-wop origin story, albeit with some muffled belches of Bootsy Collins’s bass and some electronic flourishes that drag the material into Clinton’s sci-fi vision. The mammoth “Funkentelechy” is maximum robo-funk, a caterwauling collision of Horny Horns fills and a jittery interplay between Collins and Worrell that slowly takes over the audio space as the track floats deeper and deeper into space. “Placebo Syndrome,” meanwhile, offers a sedate journey back to Earth, though even its relatively sedate groove has spikes of strange noises and unexpected vocal outbursts. Of course, one cannot leave out “Sir Nose d’Voidoffunk,” one of Clinton’s most demented epics. Referring to one of Clinton’s many guises, in this case a vocoder-warped hater of funk (“I will never dance!” he vows in an opening speech) who becomes the arch-villain of the erstwhile established hero Star Child, the song is in deliberate war with itself. With a start-stop bassline that resists settling into a pocket, the track is overwhelmed by keyboard howls, jagged guitars and strafing trumpets that testify to the character’s anti-soul crusade.
If Mothership Connection was Parliament’s Maggot Brain, the true introduction of a maverick act reaching maturity with a work of staggeringly advanced pop, Funkentelechy could perhaps be their Standing on the Verge of Getting It On, the album that consolidated its legendary predecessor’s strength into the band’s most consistent yet forward-thinking statement. It lays fair claim to being the single best LP that Clinton ever put his name to, and its grooves remain as dense as they are compulsively danceable. Parliament had nothing to prove by this stage of the game, but they continued to build on their daring, peerless form. The golden run of Clinton’s collective would soon come to an end, but here they sounded absolutely unbeatable, the unassailable best band there ever was.