By The Landlord
“Ding dong!” came the sound, not of old-school British actor Leslie Phillips exclaiming at the sight of an attractive lady, but when I pressed the doorbell to the House of Funk. What goes down in the House of Funk? No prizes for guessing. I had been tipped off that there was a bit of a do there that night, got slipped the golden ticket, put on my Bootsie-est boots, my funkiest hat, and set off on a quest to find out who indeed has got it – the funk that is. I pressed the bell again and the ring got even funkier. What does a funk doorbell sound like? Certainly not a fast, shrill, in a hurry must-get-things-done busy-bee kind of shop ding. More a slow, deep, big, fat, inhaling, exhaling, resonant, slap bass with wacky wobble kind of dong. Ding-a-ding, dong, dong, bong! Oh yeah. You rang?
The door swung open, and my jaw dropped to the floor. There, standing in knee-high platform boots and hot pants, with a low-cut top and a huge afro hairdo, was one big-eyed beautiful lady. “Yes, honey?” she said, looking me up and down. “Well, er, hi,” I replied, wide-eyed. “I’ve come to find who has got the funk tonight?”
“Uh, huh?” she replied, with a swivel of those hips and a mischievous twinkle in the eye. And then, as music started up, with the funkiest of guitar intros, a keyboard and bass following, she began to growl and howl in a primeval way, a voice that made me think of Janis Joplin but with a don’t-mess-with-me darker, nasty girl depth to it. And with each breath she spelled it out for any fool to understand: “F.U.N.K!”
Her song built up, like a force rising from the ground, and she began naming some names – Stevie Wonder, Tina Turner, Al Green, Ann Peebles, Barry White, the OJs, Isaac Hayes, Chaka Khan, the Funkadelics, and many more. And then I realised who it was before me. Only Betty Davis, the one of the great unsung queens of funk! She knew everyone who was anyone. She was friends with Jimi Hendrix (“he could make that guitar talk, make it sing, do any-thang!” she exclaimed) and she married Miles Davis! “Is Miles funky, Betty?” She didn’t answer. Could have been awkward. And so in a funky haze of smoke, I moved on to the next room …
And here was another performer. He was super smooth and easy going, his low-key funk groove had a superb, syncopated beat and bass line, and he gave out a cool smile. It was Bill Withers of course. “Have you got the funk, Bill?” “Maybe I have,” he replied. “But what IS the funk?” I said.
“Well, you could use me to find out,” he said, sneakily. He seemed to be getting over a relationship, but the funk was so smooth it was soothing his situation, because the lady in question had used him up. The funk wasn’t used up though, it was just pouring out of him. Now then, who was next?
Marvin Gaye, drummer, singer and soul pioneer. Suddenly opening his show with an all-time favourite. And the music flowed so easily. Sparse, stripped back, it was like jazz but with all the extra notes trimmed. Marvin’s soulful voice stood out, but he knew exactly how much to put in, as well as leave out:
I used to go out to parties
And stand around
'Cause I was too nervous
To really get down
But my body yearned to be free
I got up on the floor and thought
Somebody could choose me.
The reason being, he realised, that you’ve got to give it up. Not give up as in ducking or flunking out, but give it up as in expressing yourself, in other words, getting stuck in. That’s what the funk does. It gets you moving. Good advice, obviously, and certainly better than anything offered, or done by Robin Thicke in his copycat sort of way…
So what did the song do to me? I realised that as I was at a party, there was no point in standing around on the edge of the dancefloor, pint in hand, nodding your head to the music, trying to look cool, and not speaking to anyone. So I thought, fuck it, I’ll follow Marvin’s advice, and I began to dance, strut my stuff, and, well, just give it up.
And while dancing I turned to a sexy lady dancing next to me. “Hey there,” I said, doing my thing, “Do you know who’s got the funk tonight?” She smiled, kindly. Good things happen when you're just being yourself. She pointed out and then introduced me to a tall man in a big hat and sunglasses. Sly Stone (and family), of course. Oh yes, he certainly had it, the funk and much more, many times, and was willing to show his gratitude to whoever, in turn, had given it to him. “Thank you,” he said, politely, for letting him be himself. Again.
Next? Rumour went around that “the man” had arrived. Was Sly “the man”? If not, who is the man? Sly pointed me in the direction of someone who perhaps was that very fellow. Isaac Hayes. “The Man? Maybe you talkin’ about Shaft,” he said to me in his deep, dark, melty tones, mixing perfectly with that rhythmic classic 70s TV and film theme wah-wah rhythm guitar. “But where is Shaft? I asked. “Well, man, he’s outside, getting his car washed …”
So I stepped outside, but couldn’t find Shaft. But instead I found a whole team tending to his car, giving it a scrub and a rub, but mainly dancing around the vehicle, laughing, joking and, doing the Car Wash, building to a frenzy of insane catchiness. Funk to get the work done.
What with all the sponges, splashing and sploshing, things were getting kind of wet around there, so much so that there were plenty of Slippery People. So it was time to sharpen up the sound around here. And this is where I happened to slide on the floor into Talking Heads, mixing into the percussion African bongos, a scratchier bass sound, and a post-punk shrieks from a physically jerky and eccentric frontman. Brilliant. Were Talking Heads speaking in tongues or had this simply stop making sense? Either way, it was funky in a whole new kind of way.
And then, out of a dark corner, a Green light came on. Was it a lightbulb moment? What emerged was a funk getting more like pop, a purer sound with a high voice, 80s keyboards, and rhythms criss-crossing in a way that complex yet somehow simple. Was it the Perfect Way? Scritti Politti seemed to make it so.
But meanwhile, over on the other stage, there was a frenzy building up. Four white guys with tattoos were dancing around almost naked. They’d just played an insane mix of Subway to Venus/Sexy Mexican Maid, but managed to converge, inspired by 70s funk, mix some grunge into it, rolling their rrs with relish. A new sound again, funk evolving into and from white rock. While Marvin Gaye had been giving it up, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers were happy to Give It Away.
But next, what the funk was going on? The pace went even crazier, as I turned around to find a bunch of Japanese musicians cooking up a bento box of anarchic jazz, with brass, choppy guitars and a screaming voice. Trouble Funk famously sang Drop the Bomb, but these guys were letting of an explosion of their own with their song, Bakudan Kowai (Scary Bomb). That’s Zainichi Funk!
Funk has it’s origins not only Africa, but also New Orleans, Cuba and South America. So who would I spot next but that brilliant Puerto Rican-American guitarist, Carlos Alomar, smartly dressed, and with a bunch of young soulful Americans. No shortage of various influences plugging in there. But who else was in the mix? A thin white Englishman putting it altogether in a slow, fractious brutal sound, mixing clean and distorted guitar and a fraught vocal to make funk disturbing and not what it at first seems. That’s Fame for you. What’s your name? David Bowie.
But some people really want fame. Charles Bradley is well up for it. He looks like an old funk star from the past, but no, he’s right up in the present – 2017, and he’s only getting big success now aged 68! There’s hope for us all. Imagine how many years of frustration that must have built up. “I’m tired of being used,” he says. “It’s my turn to love and be loved. It’s my turn!” I hear you Charles, I hear you. But Charles is frustrated. He’s angry. He’s trying to be a good man, but he is so full of passion, he might kill someone if they don’t treat him right. Ain’t It A Sin. But with bass riff like that and the passion in his voice, that’s a virtue.
Where has all this funk come from? The place you’re born of course,. So before we go forward, let’s go back. A lady with a big voice and long legs takes me by the hand and leads me there, to a place where funk comes with boogie stomp that’s unstoppable and to the very best of raw brilliance. That’s Nutbush City Limits with Ike and Tina Turner.
And finally, well, it’s time to go. But I feel someone’s missing. In fact several people are missing, but I’m running of time and space. “I’m back!” says the man. Now he, yes, he, really is the man. The man who started this whole party. It’s James Brown, with the tightest funk there can ever be. Before he begins I briefly sit down to get a quick rest, but there’s no stopping when the man is about. Get Up Offa That Thing!
The song is all riff. There’s no verse, no chorus. It’s a driving force. It’s pure funk. It never stops. “Where is that bridge?” I ask Mr Brown. "You want to go the bridge? You want me to take you to the bridge?! Get Up Offa That Thing!"
And at that moment I realised that the true meaning of funk is that once it pulls you in, you are in always in the moment. Time has no meaning. Beyond the brilliant the skill, the craft, the artistry, funk is without thought, it is pure, physical joy.
But then a thought did occur to me. There was whole other, even bigger party going on in the basement. The funk? It's just everywhere. Nobody can stop it going down so I went down too, to investigate …
Funkin’ A! Playlist:
Betty Davis – F.U.N.K.
Bill Withers – Use Me
Marvin Gaye – Got To Give It Up
Sly and the Family Stone - Thank You
Isaac Hayes – Shaft
Rose Royce – Car Wash
Talking Heads – Slippery People
Scritti Politti – Perfect Way
Red Hot Chilli Peppers – Give It Away
Zainichi Funk - Bakudan Kowai (Scary Bomb)
David Bowie – Fame
Charles Bradley – Ain’t It A Sin
Ike and Tina Turner - Nutbush City Limits
James Brown – Get Up Offa That Thing
Blistering Funk Basement Boogie List:
The O'Jays – Give the People What they Want
Michael Jackson – Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough
The Isley Brothers – It’s Your Thing
Funkadelic – One Nation Under A Groove
Wild Cherry Pie – Play That Funky Music
Chef (Isaac Hayes) – Chocolate Salty Balls
Bobby Byrd – I Know You Got Soul - Unclean
The Philadelphia International All Stars - Let's Clean Up the Ghetto
War – Me and Baby Brother
Eumir Deodato – Also Sprach Zarathustra
The Explosions – Jockey Ride Pt 1&2
Anette Peacock – I’m The One
A Certain Ratio – Shack Up
Thundercat – Oh Sheit It’s X
Cameo – Just Be Yourself
Kid Creole and the Coconuts – The Sex of It
Digital Underground –The Humpty Dance
Basement Jaxx – Red Alert
The Meters - Fire On the Bayou
Archie Bell and the Drells – Where Will You Go When the Party’s Over
Finally, after finally crossing that bridge, I took a turn down Alphabet Street, and out of there came a fusion of pop, disco, rock, jazz and funk like never heard before. It was so funky it made the House Quake. And then,, there he was, last man standing at the longest gig of the night, and perhaps the funkiest of them all, smiling coquettishly, swivelling on his Cuban heels, directing the band, playing lightning guitar solos, and screaming from the depths of his soul. And with that, taking his final bow, he blew the crowd a kiss.
These playlists were inspired by readers' song nominations from last week's topic: Who's got the funk? Prince, Parliament and more – elect your favourites. The next topic will launch on Thursday at 1pm UK time.
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Fancy a turn behind the pumps at The Song Bar? Care to choose a playlist from songs nominated and write something about it? Then feel free to contact The Song Bar here, or try the usual email address.