Disco's funky godfather

ROCK George Clinton is back. Ben Thompson talks to the man who put the 'F' into funk
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The Independent Culture
George Clinton has learnt some things in five decades of music- making, and one of them is how to make an entrance. As the Clinton party empties out of its limousine, the top-hatted commissionaires in the Mayfair hotel lobby are left scraping their bottom jaws off the carpet. Clinton, the legendary hairdresser turned funkateer, the self-styled "maggot overlord", has a uniform of his own to wear to work. It is an arresting combination of fluorescent cape, bright green football shirt and multi-coloured hair extensions, topped off with a three-cornered pirate's hat wrapped - the finishing touch - in a yellow feather boa.

His music is as omnipresent as his garb is regal. And not just in the form of his all-time party anthem "One Nation Under a Groove", currently supplying the soundtrack to - of all things - a building society advert. From the West Coast gangsta rap of Dr Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg to the saucy, sinuous South Yorkshire electro-funk of Moloko, Clinton's legacy is everywhere. His name is one of three (the others being James Brown and Kraftwerk) on the blueprints of all modern dance music. And a comprehensive reissue programme of the innumerable albums made by his psychedelic cornucopia of shifting collaborative incarnations - Funkadelic, Parliament, Bootsy's Rubber Band, the Brides of Funkenstein - is constantly introducing new ears to the heady Clintonian brew of sex and sedition.

Listening to Funkadelic's early-Seventies recordings on the Westbound label - such landmarks of sensual overload as Maggot Brain, Free Your Mind ... and Your Ass Will Follow and Cosmic Slop - is still a gloriously disorienting experience. The typically understated sleeve-notes to 1974's Standing on the Verge of Getting It On perhaps put it best: "On the eighth day the cosmic strumpet of Mother Nature was spawned to envelope this Third Planet in Funkacidal vibrations. And she birthed Apostles Ra, Hendrix, Stone and CLINTON to preserve all funkiness of man unto eternity."

In the flesh, Clinton's handshake has a regal limpness to it. Within the frame of crazy hair and pirate's hat, the thin rectangular frame of his spectacles gives his bright eyes an unexpectedly studious aspect. Inside his hotel suite, his entourage has ordered a medieval banquet. "It's like the Seventies in there!" proclaims the Sony press officer, admiration mingling with alarm as the not-far-short-of-four-figure bill for trolley- loads of salmon and salads and pies and potatoes will be on his credit card. It's not hard to see why Clinton has had more record companies than George Michael has had hot dinners.

How would he characterise his relations with the music industry over the years? "They always gave us strange looks," Clinton responds genially, between mouthfuls. "But I couldn't analyse them, because I was looking at them strange too." Could their strange looks have actually been a reflection of his own? "Probably." The munching intensifies. "Things have got a little different lately," he continues in upbeat mode. "I still look at them like this [mimes astonishment at unsuitability of corporate apparel] - 'What've you got on?' But now they know I'm supposed to look the way I do." So there's no problem with his new label Sony yet? "It hasn't got to that point," he chuckles. "I'm still spending their money."

In the title of his new album T.A.P.O.A.F.O.M. (that's The Awesome Power Of A Fully Operational Mothership to you) there is a tacit recognition that not all of his recent releases have been quite up to scratch. From the exact science of "Mathematics" ("Any per cent of you is as good as the whole pie") to the historical accuracy of "Funky King" (with its irresistably tasteless hook-line: "When I do it, I be sticking to it, like hot grits on Al Green"), this one sounds pretty carefully polished. Clinton is unequivocal: "We buffed it."

The new disc invokes the name of one of Clinton's biggest successes, Mothership Connection (1975): the potent and hallucinatory cocktail of politics and porn, social allegory and sci-fi that established his P-Funk musical dynasty as a genre in its own right. So why did he decide to relaunch the Mothership? "We're going to need a vehicle to get where we have to go ... I loaned the spaceship out and it's taken a while to get it back." Clinton's backing vocalist Gary Cooper, sitting next to him, takes up the story in a crazy helium voice. "I'll bring your spaceship back ... in the next millennium!"

For a man who has been associated with Clinton for almost 30 years - "I was 14 when I met him, I'll be 43 this year" - Cooper looks remarkably healthy. "I don't have a fixed income," he maintains cheerfully, "but I have a fixed outcome." Clinton's relations with an extended family of extravagantly talented sidemen - such celebrated P-funk alumni as Bootsy Collins and Bernie Worrell are among those returning on T.A.P.O.A.F.O.M. - recalls that of the great jazz-band leaders Duke Ellington and Sun Ra. He defines his role as somewhere "between referee and traffic cop". How about dictator? "The music dictates itself."

Life in the fast lane takes its toll, however. In mid-conversation, sitting perfectly upright, Clinton's eyes close. This has happened a couple of times already, but this time he's out like a light. His band rouse him from his slumber with shouts of "Animation!" This word reminds him of something. "Animation is a reality," he observes gnomically. "I go to Disneyland and they make me cover my head, because Mickey [Mouse] might get mad." Like many of Clinton's nuttier utterances, this one turns out to contain a healthy kernel of truth. On a recent visit to Disneyland, his flamboyant aspect caused him to be charged with the heinous crime of "character obstruction", and he was forced to cover his head on pain of expulsion.

There could only be one winner in this battle between the shocktroops of corporate leisure and the man who has done more than any other American this century (with the possible exception of Frank Zappa, but you can't dance to him) to fuse the libido and the intellect. George Clinton showed Mickey a half-hour's respect and then took his hat off. "Someone came up to me and said, 'Didn't I tell you to keep your head covered?' I told him, 'I thought y'all had changed shift'."

! 'T.A.P.O.A.F.O.M.' (Epic, CD/LP/tape) is out next week. George Clinton & the P-Funk All-Stars tour Britain in July.