Happy 45th Anniversary to Parliament’s second studio album Up For The Down Stroke, originally released July 3, 1974.
There’s the common misconception that Parliament and Funkadelic are completely indistinguishable. Things can get complicated, but these brainchildren of funk architect George Clinton were, at least near the beginning of their careers, very much separate entities. And suffice to say that Parliament, as they are currently recognized and celebrated, started 45 years ago with Up For the Down Stroke.
The incarnation of Parliament that we know and love is essentially the second full “reboot” of the group. Clinton first got his start as the leader of The Parliaments, a New Jersey based doo-wop group that scored a few hits during the mid to late ’60s. After a stint songwriting for Motown, Clinton put the “Parliament” vocal unit back together, and had them backed by the band Funkadelic. Hence, Parliament-Funkadelic.
Up For The Down Stroke isn’t technically Parliament’s first album. That would be Osmium, which the group put out in 1970 through Invictus Records. It was good, but much closer in sound to the acid-infused rock sound of the early Funkadelic releases. Contractual issues prevented Clinton from recording more Parliament albums, so he shifted his focus to recording the groundbreaking Funkadelic albums.
Eventually this lead to reboot number two, as Parliament signed with Casablanca Records, sporting a lineup that featured quite a bit of overlap with Funkadelic. However, with Up For The Down Stroke, Parliament became its own unique animal. Rather than the dusted rock and blues approach, Parliament recorded straight funk with hints of R&B. The inherent kookiness of Funkadelic was still present, but it was grounded in traditional soul grooves. Still, Up For The Down Stroke set the stage for George Clinton’s signature funk stylings and laid the groundwork for the eclectic imagery and complex mythology that he would create as they continued to record.
Up For The Down Stroke is a thematically upbeat album. Whereas the Funkadelic albums often veered into raw and disturbing territory, Parliament mostly keep things on the bright side with this project. Most of the songs are aural celebrations, and it makes for good, upbeat summer listening.
The album ostensibly introduced an integral member to Parliament: bassist William “Bootsy” Collins. As a teenager, along with his brother Phelps, drummer Frankie “Kash” Waddy, and Phillipe Wayne, Collins had formed the funk band the Pacemakers. The group had been drafted by the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, after the majority of Brown’s backing band had abruptly quit over money issues. Collins’ crew became known as The JB’s, and performed on some of Mr. Brown’s funkiest numbers during the early ’70s.
After Bootsy parted ways with Brown, he entered Clinton’s P-Funk fold on Funkadelic’s America Eats Its Young (1972), the band’s sprawling double album, along with other James Brown refugees, including Phelps and Waddy. Bootsy wrote and performed on the brief but nasty “Philmore.” He eventually migrated over to Parliament, where he played on every album that the band released during its Casablanca Records heyday.
Bootsy’s presence is felt on the album’s title track, the song that really sent Parliament into orbit. Collins, Clinton, and legendary keyboardist Bernie Worrell wrote the song, which builds the template for the P-Funk sound that everyone refers to when they discuss the Clinton-led collective. It features an extremely catchy groove, filled with high-powered horns and a rock-steady bassline. The lyrics are heavy on repeated phrases that are extremely easy to chant while the song is being performed live. Still one of the group’s signature songs and biggest hits, “Up For The Down Stroke” is a wild and outrageous party on record.
Parliament reinterprets one of its earliest hits with “Testify,” a remake of “(I Wanna) Testify.” Originally recorded back in 1967 when they were the still The Parliaments, the Temptations-styled soul number had been a reasonable hit, reaching #3 on the R&B chart and #20 on the Pop chart. Clinton and crew repurpose it here to fit into their P-Funk pastiche, keeping the lyrics and the harmonization, but mixing it with overlapping warped guitars, keys and blaring horns. The result is very busy without being cacophonous.
Parliament still experiments with styles and formats throughout Up For The Down Stroke. “The Goose” would have fit in on an early Funkadelic album. Even at over nine minutes in length, the group adopts a minimalist approach, as Eddie Hazel plays a bluesy guitar riff, accompanied by precision-like drums. On vocals, Clinton describes the discovery of his love which has made him as “happy as a monkey with a peanut machine” and “as proud as a mole with eagle eyes,” which are two of the most bugged out similes that he used during his career.
It’s often lost how good of a vocalist Clinton once was. Advanced age coupled with years of hard living turned his voice into a husky rasp, and on stage, transformed him into a nearly octogenarian Lil’ Jon, leading call-and-responses while the other band members do the heavy lifting. However, there’s a reason that the Parliaments were well regarded for their singing ability, and Up For The Down Stroke showcases Clinton’s then ample vocal chops.
“Whatever Makes Baby Feel Good” is a funk ballad that oozes soul, as Clinton sings to the object of his affection, promising to do whatever it takes to continue giving her bliss. Meanwhile, “I Just Got Back (From the Fantasy, Ahead of Our Time in the Four Lands of Ellet)” is completely different than anything Clinton had a hand in creating before or since. It’s one of the most beautifully melodic funk compositions ever recorded, complete with lush and layered pianos, guitars, and percussion. Clinton transforms himself into a flowery soul crooner, describing seeing the world and exploring its beauty, before deciding to return to his love and help raise his progeny. It’s weird to even type that the real centerpiece of the song is a pair of extended whistling solos by Clinton. It’s even weirder that it works so well.
“All Your Goodies Are Gone” is in the running for the best entry on Up For The Down Stroke. It’s the darkest song on the album, and draws a lot of lyrical inspiration and phrasing from Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” Clinton laments that he fooled himself into believing he could be the one true love of the object of his desire. He bitterly declares that she’s making a mistake that she will soon regret. The song is quite haunting, bolstered by Worrell’s classical-influenced piano playing, Bootsy’s heavy bass thump, and the echoing backing vocals.
Up For The Down Stroke was a wildly successful first step for the re-imagined Parliament, whose renaissance would continue through the ’70s. It’s an overlooked example of successful musical reinvention, and a testament to Parliament’s continued evolution as artists. It’s amazing that Clinton was able to assemble such a bottomless well of creativity, marked by his bandmates’ ability to make something that was both “traditional” and revolutionary. Funk music was never the same because of it.