America Eats Its Young, the album that Funkadelic recorded during their time in Toronto
“This documentary is about much more than just music. I daresay it might be the most important thing I’ve ever worked on.”
It was this statement that cemented my interest in David Dacks’ radio documentary about George Clinton and Funkadelic’s time in Toronto during the early ’70s. (You can listen to the audio trailer for it here.) While the subject of the documentary is fascinating in its own right, chronicling a little-known chapter in this seminal funk band’s existence, it wasn’t just the narrative intrigue that hooked me. The three years the documentary focuses on represent an important time in the band’s life, and very soon after they left their career skyrocketed, laying the foundation for West Coast hip-hop and virtually defining funk in the process. But it was Dacks’ passion that truly hooked me, and it is ultimately that passion – for this music and story – that makes Funk Getting Ready To Roll: Funkadelic’s Life and Times in Toronto During the Early Seventies successful.
David Dacks is someone who does a great deal of integral work when it comes to music in Canada; he currently serves as the Artistic Director for the Music Gallery in Toronto, as a member of the Polaris Prize jury, and is an Assistant Editor at Exclaim!, where his purview extends to both the Groove (Funk, Soul and Outernational Vibes) and Destination Out (Experimental and Avant-Garde) sections. To hear he considered this project the most important thing he had ever done immediately captured my attention.
I met with David Dacks after work one afternoon, when we were both worn out from our days and nursing beers inside, almost entirely alone, while outside the patio was crammed with energetic patrons laughing loudly. But even as we we both sat wilted in our corner booth, Dacks’ excitement about the project was palpable.
“It’s an idea I’ve kind of had since high school,” Dacks admits. The germ of the idea was implanted when his high school music teacher told him that Funkadelic had resided in Toronto for a time – and that the music teacher had jammed with them. Dacks says that when talking about it, “his eyes glazed over and he told me it was the most extraordinary music experience of his life.” For Dacks, this anecdote re-contextualized a band that had always seemed untouchable and remote in the way that extreme fame can distance artists from fans, and the Toronto connection always fascinated Dacks.
While pioneering band leader George Clinton’s spell in Toronto is certainly not a secret, Dacks’ work concerns a period well before Clinton and the Parliament-Funkadelic collective rose to the heights of their fame. As such, the time isn’t particularly well documented, aside from stories circulating amongst the veterans of the old Yonge Street music scene and a few footnotes, such as some early pages in the book P-Funk, An Oral History, written by David Mills. Dacks also notes that Funkadelic are strangely absent from many musical histories of Toronto, such as Bruce MacDonald’s three-part series Yonge Street: Toronto Rock and Roll Stories. As such, “people don’t understand the extent to which R&B ruled this city for many years: from the mid-’50s to the mid-’70s. When most people think of Toronto, they think Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and the Yorkville scene, but this was in its way the alternative scene at the time, and it was never as popular as the R&B scene – the biggest names in R&B would play the Brass Rail and Zanzibar.”
But once Dacks began to speak to the band members about their time in Toronto and to do additional research on the importance of this time in P-Funk’s career, it quickly dawned on him what an important and formative influence that time in Toronto represented, not only to the band members, but to the Toronto scene at large.
Dacks spends a quarter of the documentary giving the context for their time in Toronto, moving from the band’s origins as a ’50s doo-wop group in a New Jersey suburb to eventually becoming a Motown act known as the Parliaments and then finally blossoming into what would become Funkadelic. Clinton had already been in the music business for 15 years when he and his cohorts decided to leave Detroit for Toronto. By that point, the glamour of Motown had faded and the city was beginning its long, steady decline. After the lineup imploded in 1971, George Clinton set out for Toronto in an attempt to start anew, and that’s where the story properly begins, at a moment of re-evaluation
“In some ways, not much of importance happened in Toronto. What is interesting about it is really the context,” Dacks explains. He notes that Funkadelic’s time in Toronto often “falls through the cracks” of the grand narrative about the city’s musical history because “it wasn’t an artistically or commercially successful time for them.” However, while here Clinton would partner with a variety of local and international artists, ultimately producing the strange double LP America Eats Its Young in 1972. While Dacks is the first to admit this album is deeply flawed, he notes that during the writing process they also laid the creative groundwork, in the form of bed tracks and other preliminary work, that would become the foundation for some of Funkadelic’s greatest creative triumphs.
Dacks identifies a few key things as the most important and positive influences the Toronto scene had on Funkadelic’s career, one of which was access to Manta Recording studios, which were brand new at the time, and the fact that their record label Westbound Records gave Clinton complete creative freedom during the recording process. As a result, he was able to experiment more than ever before, building a studio-centric album while bringing in a huge cast of singers and musicians to perform and collaborate with. While America Eats Its Young wasn’t a breakthrough album, and didn’t represent the direction they thought it would, it did allow for the band to completely restructure themselves, gain almost a dozen new members and become a transnational entity. The whole time Funkadelic were based here, they were “gaining different ingredients, trying to move forward.”
Toronto also offered the band a respite from several things, including drugs. While George Clinton has never been a poster child for clean living, Dacks noted that he drew a line between using drugs such as acid and a drug like heroin, which he referred to as “real drugs.” Dacks notes that heroin swept through Plainfield, New Jersey, where the band were based in their earliest days in the ’60s, and Clinton sought to avoid that path. In fact, once established in Toronto, Clinton invited former colleagues and friends to come up here to get away from the drug’s influence.
Another salient point that came up repeatedly in interviews was that of racism, and Dacks notes that the band members he interviewed all discussed that “being black was different in Toronto than being black in Detroit or black in Cincinnati. Clinton and other Funkadelic members state that the racism they experienced where they came from was not at all a factor when they came to Toronto,” and while Dacks is careful to state that Toronto in the ’70s was certainly not free from racism, he also notes that other artists in Toronto gave Clinton and his collaborators “acceptance that they would not have had otherwise.” Dacks states, “It was difficult to find a balance between saying, ‘Canada is great! No racism!,’ which we all know is not true, while also expressing that they did experience a great difference when they came here. For them, at least, it was different.”
In the end, it was the explosion of creativity that George Clinton and Funkadelic experienced while they were in Toronto, from an environment that was free and accommodating enough to allow them to experiment as much as possible, which helped pave the way for future success. While in many ways the results didn’t initially make a great deal of sense, once Clinton again relocated (this time to the West Coast), much of that wild energy was reordered and reassembled into what would become some of Funkadelic’s finest work. Dacks notes that their time here wasn’t “immediately successful,” and that this part of the tale “does not have a neat beginning and end, but is just a part of the story.” Both this creative wildness and the sense of messy, in-the-middle-of-things narrative are captured well and navigated with grace in Funk Getting Ready To Roll.
The documentary mirrors the form of the oral history that many of the stories existed in before Dacks assembled and produced the finished piece. Dacks chose to limit the voices that actually speak on the documentary to George Clinton, keyboardist Bernie Worrell, drummer Frankie Kash,
bassist/guitarist Cordell “Boogie” Mosson (who is still with P-Funk), former road manager and booking agent Chris Tannis, bassist and collaborator Prakash John, and York University professor Rob Bowman. In limiting the voices to a few with the most visceral, personal or well-researched connections to P-Funk’s time in Toronto, Dacks gives increased weight to their words. Listening to the documentary is an engrossing experience that does an excellent job of capturing that exceptional moment when you find yourself in the back of a bar with that one old scene vet who has an exceptional story to tell, and who decides that you are cool enough to tell it to.
You can listen to a full stream of the hour-long CBC documentary Funk Getting Ready To Roll: Funkadelic’s Life and Times in Toronto During the Early Seventies, which originally aired on CBC’s Inside the Music on August 12, 2012, here.
Natalie Zina Walschots is a poet and music writer based in Toronto, Ontario. Her second book of poetry, DOOM: Love Poems for Supervillains, was published by Insomniac Press this spring. You can follow her on Twitter at @NatalieZed.