Big in Japan

P-Funk keyboardist Bernie Worrell doesn't want America to lose its funkiness

The prodigy developed at a startling rate, writing his first concerto when he was eight ("One day I'll look at it again and redo it," he says) and serving as a guest soloist with the Plainfield, New Jersey, symphony just two years later. But even though he was being groomed for a career in classical music, he also had a taste for rhythm and blues--and he found a kindred spirit in Clinton, who fronted a vocal combo called the Parliaments.

When Worrell was in his mid-teens, he would sneak out of the house in order to get his hair processed at the barber shop where Clinton worked, and he subsequently put together some lead sheets for the band. Clinton was impressed and told Worrell that when he could afford to expand his lineup, he'd call--and he kept his word. After graduating from the conservatory, Worrell was hired as musical director for soul singer Maxine Brown, and while he was in Bermuda with her band, he received a summons. Clinton had relocated to Detroit, and he wanted Worrell to be part of his increasingly idiosyncratic musical projects.

It was the late '60s, and the times were wild. "Everything was so psychedelic, but it was also backbreaking, because we had to tour in rent-a-cars or station wagons at the time," he says about his early work with Funkadelic and Parliament (the "s" was dropped because of a lawsuit over its name). "But it didn't matter so much, since we were young and it was so exciting."

There were oodles of drugs on hand as well. Worrell doesn't know how much acid was gobbled during this period, but he admits with a laugh that "some people probably took too much. Me, I didn't do a quarter as much as some others. I experimented, because I'm an experimenter, but I'd only take half a dose when everyone else was taking a whole one. And since our friends were the MC5 and Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels and Ted Nugent, you can imagine what that was like. It's a blessing that so many of us are still here, especially since so many of my favorite ones didn't make it." Among the casualties: brilliant guitarists Eddie Hazel and Glenn Goins and drummer Raymond "Tiki" Fulwood.

Despite the volume of their chemical intake, Clinton and company managed to put out some of the weirdest, most original, most enjoyable albums of the era: crazed Funkadelic opuses such as 1970's Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow, 1974's Standing on the Verge of Getting It On, and 1978's One Nation Under a Groove, and Parliament fantasias such as 1975's Chocolate City, 1976's Mothership Connection: The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein, and 1977's Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome. The platters, overflowing with scatological references and science-fiction lunacy, are most assuredly products of Clinton's imagination, but the inventive musicianship of players such as Collins and Worrell helped push them into the stratosphere. Worrell's bubbling grooves were utterly singular, and even though players have spent the past several decades trying to clone his sound, no one's yet managed it.

The solo work churned out by Worrell is intriguing but considerably less accessible than the grooves he produced for Clinton. Blacktronic Science, released in 1993 by Gramavision, juxtaposes funk workouts featuring P-Funk compatriots with avant-gardisms in which Bill Laswell and others struggle to keep pace with odd time signatures that draw equally from classical and jazz. The same formula is utilized on Free Agent. "WOO Awakens, the Wizard Cometh" is an 11-minute epic whose art-rock intro, which wouldn't sound out of place on a mid-'70s Genesis record, leads to an extra-funky synthesized bass line and a free-jazz guitar solo courtesy of Buckethead. The 16-minute-plus "AfroFuturism (Phazed One)," co-written by Worrell and Laswell, is just as adventurous, and even "Warriors of the WOO," the most straightforward tune on the CD, sports the occasional snippet of space racket.

The forthcoming Woo Warriors salvo should be just as eclectic. Worrell says he and his assistants (drummer Van Romaine, keyboardist Greg Fitz, bassist Donna McPherson, guitarist Michael "Moon" Reuben, and vocalist B.J. Nelson) dabble in so many different genres that attempting to categorize the result is a waste of time. These sounds are mated to a sci-fi storyline with a very Clinton-esque feel. "See, there's the Wooniverse, and I'm the wizard--and I call on my different warriors and the woo-boos, which are little animalettes like those little furry guys in Star Wars. I call on them using different notes, and my mission is to try to rid the world of the negative through music and enlightenment by wooing them in. And the villain is the negative, which could be mama, papa, girlfriend, the government. Definitely the government."

Given Worrell's current label situation, the Woo Warriors' tale may not be widely heard, but Worrell isn't ready to surrender yet. He's heartened by the support he receives from the young audiences that come out to see him, many of which are dominated by neo-hippies who see a link between Worrell's extended funk excursions and the jamming of the Phishy bands they love. Worrell does too. "Everything's related," he says. "A new form is being created, and the new generation is in tune already. They haven't been deadened or had their sensitivity cut off by radio stations or by programming. They're a new breed, just like we were. People talk about the '60s, with the flower children and the psychedelics and all that. Well, the new generation is different, but it has a connection to us. I feel it.

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