40 Years Ago: George Clinton Reboots P-Funk With ‘Computer Games’
With his debut "solo" album Computer Games, released on Nov. 5, 1982, George Clinton rebooted his career.
The man known as Dr. Funkenstein had already been through a few creative permutations: the doo-wop Parliaments out of New Jersey, staff writer for Motown, leader of the groundbreaking bands Parliament and Funkadelic, and mastermind of a funk empire that included spin-offs such as Bootsy's Rubber Band, the Brides of Funkenstein, Parlet, the Horny Horns, Quazar, Mutiny and the Sweat Band. By his own estimation, Clinton-related acts released nearly 40 albums during the '70s.
"At the time, it was hard to see the whole cheese board," Clinton wrote in his 2014 memoir Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain't That Funkin' Kinda Hard On You? With the bandleader admittedly "fucked up on crack," the cheese had started to curdle a bit. The drug use had led to debts, and relationships with labels such as Warner Bros. and Casablanca were strained. So in 1980, Clinton "suspended operations" for Parliament and Funkadelic and signed a four-album solo deal with Capitol Records, for whom he had written and recorded a hit for the group Xavier called "Work That Sucker to Death."
Computer Games was the first project under that new groove, and operationally, it wasn't terribly different than anything in the Parliament-Funkadelic axis. Recording at The Disc Ltd. and United Sound Systems studios in Detroit, Clinton used the same cast of characters, including principals such as Bootsy Collins, Walter "Junie" Morrison (who co-wrote three of Computer Games' seven tracks), Garry Shider (co-writer on two), Eddie Hazel, Gary Bernie Worrell, Dennis Chambers, Fred Wesley, Maceo Parker, the Brides of Funkenstein and more.
Listen to George Clinton's 'Man's Best Friend / Loopzilla'
"It was the usual madness," Larry Fratangelo, percussionist since 1978's One Nation Under a Groove, tells UCR. "You'd go in and play something with no idea where it would end up a lot of the time, which I always enjoyed. There was always a lot of studio time booked, and you could just get in and play what you felt, and then they'd figure out where it fit."
Fratangelo adds that those sessions still felt like business as usual, even with Parliament and Funkadelic on hold. "I'm not sure how that really reacted within the camp," he says of Clinton's solo deal. "There wasn't really that much communication about what the feelings were in the band. I know they weren't happy about that, necessarily, but if George was still using them for work I think they sort of adjusted, 'cause what else can you do?"
In Brothers Be..., Clinton recalled that at the time, he was working with two different production groups: Morrison on one hand and Shider and David Spradley on the other. The material with the former, he felt, was "an extension" of Funkadelic's 1981 finale The Electric Spanking of War Babies, although Computer Games' sprawling title track "was a door to the future, even if it was an unhinged door." The Motown hit-quoting "Loopzilla," which started life as the end of another (then-unreleased) song called "Pumpin' It Up," cast a definite gaze forward into mash-up and sampling culture.
"I had two distinct styles that I could go to, depending on the material," Clinton wrote, though he added that "I wasn't necessarily looking to make albums that had a single tone." Computer Games accordingly runs the gamut from the smooth and melodic "One Fun at a Time" to the stoned-out, nursery rhyme-esque "Pot Sharing Tots."
And then there was Computer Games' signature track, "Atomic Dog," which topped Billboard's Hot Black Singles chart after its December 1982 release, becoming a sampling staple for hip-hop artists and a frequently cited influence on techno artists, including the Belleville Three (Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson, Derrick May), who hailed from the Detroit suburbs. Clinton wrote that Shider and Spradley began the song without him, and when he came in, "the lyrics were a free-associative stream of puns and phrases," culminating in the "Bow-wow-wow-yippie-yo-yippie-yeah" refrain. (Snoop Dogg famously sampled the hook a decade later on his debut single "Who Am I? [What's My Name?]")
Listen to George Clinton's 'Atomic Dog'
"It was the catchiest thing I had made since the glory days of Parliament," Clinton wrote. "Atomic Dog" was initially the B-side of "Loopzilla," but DJs and other artists helped propel it to hit-single status. "The success of 'Atomic Dog' rattled me a little," Clinton confessed. "I liked knowing that I could succeed, but the spotlight was a little blinding. I didn't want to fuck things up."
Computer Games was an auspicious start to Clinton's solo deal, peaking at No. 3 on Billboard's Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart and No. 40 on the Billboard 200 — his best showing since late-'70s Parliament and Funkadelic efforts such as Uncle Jam Wants You, Motor Booty Affair and Gloryhallastoopid, and better than all subsequent releases. Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic were nevertheless given their due, as 16 of the collective's members entered the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1997, and they received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2019.