Funkadelic is dead, long live Funkadelic. And still there’s no decent dick in Detroit.
For evidence that Funkadelic was in shambles by 1981, one need only look at the credits of the group’s 12th official studio album. The Electric Spanking of War Babies lists no fewer than 23 musicians, with lineups varying wildly from song to song. The sole constant is lead producer and frontman George Clinton: by this point, not so much the captain of the Mothership as the chewing gum and spit holding the rickety vessel together.
It’s little surprise, then, that Electric Spanking can be a murky, desultory album—albeit one still rife with the absurdist humor and mile-wide weird streak that is P-Funk’s stock in trade. The bright synthesizers and cartoonish backing vocals of the Junie Morrison-produced title track can’t disguise its undercurrent of minor-key melancholy, with Clinton’s ineffably wistful refrain of “You can walk a mile in my shoes/ But you can’t dance a step in my feet.” Even the more conventionally joyful material has a whiff of mania about it: “I’m overloaded/ Just blowin’ a fuse,” Clinton grunts on “Electro Cuties,” while guitarist Michael Hampton’s hyper-speed rendition of Jimi Hendrix’s “Power of Soul” riff all but promises that a crash is imminent.
In its own way, Electric Spanking feels as much like a hangover for Clinton’s hedonistic ‘70s as There’s a Riot Goin’ On was for Sly Stone’s utopian ‘60s—a comparison that grows all the more apropos when Sly himself stumbles in for the two-part mega-jam “Funk Gets Stronger.” The troubled funk pioneer’s startlingly frail rasp haunts the second part of the song like a ghost, even as the horns by Family Stone veterans Pat Rizzo and Cynthia Robinson add some much-needed lightness. But it’s the longer first part that feels more in tune with the album’s mood: driven by a circular guitar riff that is more spooky than funky, the groove lurches to life in defiance of its own unwieldiness.
Already a tough pill to swallow for casual listeners, Electric Spanking could have been even more of a doozy. Supposedly, Clinton intended it to be a double album, but Funkadelic’s label Warner Bros.—no doubt seeing the writing on the wall for the group—insisted he cut it down to a single disc. Warner also balked at the album’s original cover, an admittedly Smell the Glove-esque Pedro Bell illustration of a naked fembot being spanked by robotic paddles while strapped to a spacecraft in the shape of a cock and balls. In the context of these creative squabbles, it’s not hard to interpret the album’s final release as something of an act of spite. The vinyl version’s cover is bowdlerized by a label sarcastically reading, “Oh look! The cover that ‘THEY’ were TOO SCARED to print!” As for the songs Clinton chose to cut, they included none other than “Atomic Dog,” a bona fide hit he opted to save for himself, releasing it in 1982 on his new label Capitol Records.
But while Electric Spanking lacks a standout track of that caliber, it nevertheless rewards listeners willing to meet it halfway. Even its apparent filler is never less than interesting: “Brettino’s Bounce,” an instrumental showpiece for percussionist Larry Fratangelo, puts P-Funk in conversation with its African roots; while “Shockwaves,” a self-conscious stab at “first-world” reggae, demonstrates the elasticity of this mostly-fresh crop of funkateers. “Oh, I” is an underrated slice of latter-day P-Funk, rewriting 1979’s “(Not Just) Knee Deep” with jazz-inflected piano by Marion Saulsby and a saxophone solo by veteran session man Michael Brecker.
Finally, there’s “Icka Prick,” which closes the album with arguably the filthiest doggerel of the whole P-Funk oeuvre; “If you think that’s nasty, follow me to the men’s room/ Watch me write on the wall,” Clinton boasts. The song is a fitting end for Funkadelic: an explicit (In every sense of the word) return to the group’s stoned, sloppy origins at a moment when they could scarcely have resembled their old selves less. The group as such would be defunct within a year—a victim of both Clinton’s feud with Warner Bros. and the implosion of Parliament label Casablanca, as well as more general shifting trends in Black popular music. But their spirit lived on in Clinton’s solo ventures of the following years, which utilized many of the same musicians from the P-Funk stable; in the music of satellite groups like Roger Troutman and Zapp; and in the hearts of anyone who ever giggled at the thought of folk hero John Henry “doing pushups with his clit.” Funkadelic is dead, long live Funkadelic. And still there’s no decent dick in Detroit.