Sunday 29 May 2011

More influential than the Beatles; Meet George Clinton

George Clinton onstage at the Indigo2, 2007
Picture: James Newman

"Do a search for the greatest rock bands of all time and you won't see mention of Parliament-Funkadelic. I know that rock critics like to fight over whether the Rolling Stones or the Beatles deserve the number one spot but in my eyes neither of them can hold a candle to what P-Funk brought to the music. As far as I'm concerned, P-Funk rocked harder than all of them combined... It's funny that the greatest rock group is always assumed to be white."André Torres - Editor-in-Chief, Wax Poetics

News of George Clinton's hospitalisation shocked music lovers around the world this week but perhaps none more so than me, for the hospitalisation came just days after I enjoyed a 75-minute interview with George, during which he seemed to be perfectly fine.

Alarm bells sounded among funk fans after Bootsy Collins reported the news on his facebook page and asked his followers to pray for George Clinton's recovery. Fortunately the hospitalisation wasn't too serious - a staph infection was discovered in George's leg as he underwent a routine check-up. He's already checked out and is now busy preparing to embark on yet another international concert tour.

The level of media interest was surprising given that George Clinton is one of the most unsung music pioneers still walking among us. Fusing the hard funk of James Brown with the psychedelic edge of Sly and the Family Stone and the blistering rock of Jimi Hendrix, George and his group Parliament-Funkadelic cultivated a groundbreaking sound.

According to Rolling Stone their output, which "[mixed] funk polyrhythms, psychedelic guitar, jazzy horns [and] vocal-group harmonies" was "some of pop's most adventurous music of the Seventies." Their unique sound ultimately laid the foundations for much of the hip-hop that now dominates the musical landscape.

Despite achieving three platinum albums, Parliament-Funkadelic never quite reached chart blockbuster status. Nonetheless, their danceable beats and affirmative lyrics resonated with a huge audience and today they're considered one of the most influential groups of the last century.

Flourishing in the early 1970s, P-Funk's music was often laced with political commentary but delivered it in a far less divisive way than 1960s protest songs like James Brown's 'Say It Loud, I'm Black And I'm Proud'. Instead the tunes often focused on music as a uniting factor. P-Funk sang of 'One Nation Under A Groove'. Music could make barriers melt away into insignificance; 'Free Your Mind And Your Ass Will Follow' read their 1970 album cover.

Even the compositions were about unity. When Bootsy Collins migrated to P-Funk from James Brown's revue he brought with him the concept of 'the one': the one-and-three beat Brown popularised during the 1960s and early 1970s. "When everybody's playing it in unison instead of harmony, it's as one," George said in 2010. "That's strong... It's in unison so it's like it'll be around forever. It's in your genes... Then we're all together as one... The entity of one as a life form - as life. One DNA. I'm for you, you for me. We for trees and we for the planet."

In a stroke of genius, Clinton devised a distinct, space-age image with which the band's music became synonymous. Dressed in otherworldly costumes and starring in comic strips on their album artwork, the group presented themselves as a band of black superheroes - an empowering and cutting edge move so far ahead of its time, in fact, that we're now halfway into 2011 and there's still never been a major movie about a black superhero (bar Hancock, in which the black superhero was an inept drunkard).

By fusing searing social commentary with radio-friendly grooves and comic book imagery, Clinton and his band were able to rail against social ills in a non-threatening way. Clinton's ideology crept past the same DJs who dropped James Brown from their playlists when he released 'Say It Loud'. 'Cosmic Slop' became a club smash, filling dancefloors all over America, despite telling the story of a woman who becomes a prostitute to feed her children.

Combining their pioneering funk-rock fusion and their distinctive visual presentation, P-Funk enjoyed enormous success as a touring act, selling out stadiums throughout the 1970s with an elaborate concert experience in which Clinton would descend in a million-dollar spaceship to bestow the gift of funk upon his audience. That spaceship - the mothership - has now been acquired by the Smithsonian.

Often dismissed as clownish figures at the height of their fame, in more recent years George Clinton and P-Funk have been acknowledged as some of the most respected and influential musicians of all time. From Prince to the Red Hot Chilli Peppers (who recruited George in 1985 to produce and write for their album 'Freaky Styley') a lot of the biggest acts to have emerged since the early 1980s have cited P-Funk as one of their greatest influences. In 1997 the group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and in 2009 George was handed the BMI Icon Award.

P-Funk's influence on several generations of hip-hop musicians is self-evident in the number of times their music has been sampled, which runs into the thousands. In fact, P-Funk are thought to be the second most sampled act of all time, beaten only by James Brown. Academic Vladimir Gutkovich has described them as "the key predecessor of hip-hop music."

Indeed, there is a very strong argument to be made that George and P-Funk have had more impact on the contemporary musical landscape than even the Beatles. Wax Poetics editor André Torres wrote in 2006:

"While most critics want to put the holy trinity [Beatles, Stones, Zeppelin] on a pedestal, with the world domination of hip-hop culture and the large role that P-Funk has played in the sound of hip-hop, I dare say that P-Funk's impact can be felt much more strongly thirty years later than that of those three bands. When I asked Dr Dre, the quintessential post-modern producer who has changed the course of pop music three times in two decades, who he listened to growing up and was his biggest influence, he said P-Funk. Not the Beatles."

Presently, though, George is troubled. While his pioneering music continues to form the basis for so much contemporary output, he's getting the props but he's not getting the cash. Like many black musicians of his era, he was hoodwinked by the very music industry figures who were supposed to be looking out for his best interests.

George's financial problems began in the 1980s and have continued on-and-off ever since. In 2005 a court ruled that a man called Armen Boladian had forged George's signature on numerous documents in order to falsely assert ownership of some of George's masters. The masters in question were returned to George but Boladian still controls much of the P-Funk catalogue and George contests his ownership of those masters too.

George's investigations into the corporate skullduggery around him and his music have turned up what could be one of the biggest known conspiracies in the history of the music business. His losses over the last 25 years or so could total as much as $100million. Just one sample can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and George is one of the most sampled artists in music history. For more than two decades artists have been paying for the rights to sample his work and that money has been landing straight into other people's bank accounts. But the injustice doesn't even end there.

His albums hop labels when he's not looking. At an album signing a few years ago a fan handed him a CD he'd released on Sony and he noticed that instead of saying 'Sony' on the artwork, it said 'Westbound'. He'd never sanctioned nor profited from this apparent re-release. Somebody else was getting paid for it. There's more, too.

Type George's name into iTunes and you'll notice that a lot of his tracks show up as having been written by 'George S. Clinton'. That's not George Clinton. Every time you buy one of those tracks, somebody else gets paid for it.

During a recent trip to the US Copyright Office, arranged by Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, George discovered documents showing that his songs had been repeatedly re-registered without his knowledge or permission, with original songwriters missing and new songwriters added.

Deceased P-Funk members' catalogues had been re-registered as though they were still alive, years after they passed away. At one point somebody went to NYC to re-register George's entire catalogue in one hit. George has even obtained a signed declaration from a man who says he was paid thousands of dollars to pretend he'd written some of George's material.

George's legal disputes are ongoing with no resolution in sight. The scale of the battle facing George is almost beyond comprehension. It could take years to unpick - meanwhile, other people continue to profit from his record sales and samples.

Outside of this troubling issue, though, George remains upbeat. At 69-years-old, he is appalled by the mere mention of retirement. He plays roughly 200 gigs every year and is horrified by the idea of stopping. He loves gigging and the proceeds allow him to pursue his often overlooked humanitarian efforts. Just last year he was involved in fundraising efforts for Haiti and donated 25% of all future P-Funk royalties to the Barrack Obama Green Charter High School in his home town of Plainfield, New Jersey.

During our interview we also covered more emotional topics. In the last year and a half he has lost his son and his mother, as well as P-Funk bandmates Garry Shider and Phelps 'Catfish' Collins. He told me how getting onstage 200 nights a year and spreading his positive message helps him to cope with the loss. He also spoke candidly about the aging process, his periods of drug abuse and checking into rehab with Sly Stone, with whom he's recently been in the studio working on new music.

There was more positive chat, too, including discussion of a planned Motown album and a flash drive in the shape of George's hand, the finger of which will plug into your home computer giving access to almost every track the group has ever recorded, including demos and live recordings.

Despite this week's health scare, George is still very much alive and kicking. He works constantly in the studio down the street from his home and is about to embark on a grueling concert tour around America and Europe. These aren't rigid, untaxing oldies gigs either. P-Funk gigs are perhaps the best value for money around. George and the band routinely play for three hours or more and the shows often consist of long improvisations. No two gigs are the same.

In the background George is relentlessly pursuing years of unpaid royalties for himself and his P-Funk collaborators as well as restored ownership of his masters. He also intends to start a legal fund for artists facing similar copyright problems and has agreed to give lessons at the Barrack Obama Green Charter High School, teaching music students how to avoid getting ripped off in the same way. So fear not, funkateers - it's going to take a lot more than a staph infection to slow him down.

For news on the publication of my interview with George Clinton, keep an eye on my blog. For details of George's upcoming gigs, click here.

(Click to enlarge)
Charles Thomson and George Clinton at the Indigo2, 2007
Picture: James Newman

The Best Laid Plans

Regular blog readers will recall that back in January I interviewed funk legend Pee Wee Ellis and said that it would be published in the coming months. It's now almost June and the interview is nowhere to be seen so I thought I'd let you know what's going on.

My interview with Pee Wee was carried out at a time when I was contributing regularly to a publication with whom I had an ongoing relationship. In the current financial climate that publication was unable to retain my services after March, nor pay me for any work which they'd already given the go ahead. As such, this interview is currently in limbo.

More news as and when I have it. I look forward to sharing this interview with you as soon as I possibly can.

Thursday 26 May 2011

Radio Silence

It's been more than eight weeks since I last blogged and this is only my fourth entry since January. The reason is that I've thrown myself into my work of late - albeit a different type of work to what many of you are familiar with.

For the last five months I've been spending, on average, between three and five days per week at my local courthouse. During this time I've witnessed pretty much every stage of the legal process - arraignments, trials, sentences, appeals and more. The trials I've sat through have encompassed everything from rape to child molestation, domestic violence to perverting the course of justice, indecent exposure to actual bodily harm.

The idea came to me during dinner with a friend who is ensconced in his exams to become a barrister. As part of his course he'd spent a period of time shadowing a judge at the local courthouse and was telling me about the interesting cases he'd witnessed.

It occurred to me that the courthouse was potentially an untapped source of local and national news stories; who knew what was going on inside that building? I certainly wasn't reading anything about any of the cases my friend had observed in either the local or the national press. I decided that if nobody else was going to write about them, I'd give it a shot.

Often fascinating and occasionally disturbing, the past five months have been revelatory, to say the least. I've embarked on an exploration not only of the court system and its workings but also the courts' relationship with the media and, sadly, the media's failings which it comes to reporting on our justice system.

I've seen prosecutors force defendants to stand trial on the flimsiest of evidence and not be held to account for their arrogance. I've seen judges let off paedophiles with minor sentences when their offences could easily have merited several years behind bars.

I've seen one person convicted of a crime which I saw no evidence that they'd committed. I also witnessed 'churnalism' in action when a news agency journalist showed up for twenty minutes of a three week trial and then had their story circulated internationally.

The first trial I sat through was a fascinating introduction. A local man stood accused of domestic violence resulting in actual bodily harm to his then pregnant girlfriend. Giving evidence for the prosecution, the claimant sobbed repeatedly as she claimed that the defendant had attacked her and attempted to kill her unborn baby. But as she underwent cross-examination it became clear that her claims just didn't stack up.

Photographs of her injuries didn't tally with her description of the alleged assault. She claimed to have had her head smashed repeatedly against a wall and a door, as well as receiving numerous blows to the head and face from the defendant's fists. She even said that the defendant had bitten her hard on the cheek - but police photographs showed only two or three small marks on her face; no large bruises, no cuts and no bite marks.

Her version of events changed repeatedly between her police interview, a deposition she gave in order to prevent the defendant from visiting his child and then her courtroom testimony during his trial. On the stand she seemed to strategically omit certain claims she'd earlier made to police, which she knew were unsupported by any evidence.

These included a claim that the defendant had torn her nipple during the alleged assault and her shirt had been 'covered in blood'. The nipple injury was neither noted nor photographed by police and the bloodied shirt was nowhere to be found, even though she'd gone to the police within hours of the attack having supposedly taken place.

Her allegations were further undermined when a police officer took the stand and testified that the defendant had been helpful in his police interview and his story, unlike the claimant's, had remained consistent. He had not only waved his right to remain silent but also his right to a lawyer, telling police he'd done nothing wrong so he didn't need one. He even volunteered his mobile phone to officers for analysis and police found that the confused text messages he'd sent the claimant tallied with his claim that he didn't know why she'd disappeared with all her stuff that morning.

Significantly, the police officer noted upon the defendant's arrest, less than 24 hours after the alleged incident, that he had no cuts, bruises or markings to his fists or any other part of his body.

Two defence witnesses testified that the claimant had a history of self-harming and could have self-inflicted the handful of injuries she actually exhibited when she contacted police. Both testified that the claimant had told them she'd previously spent time in the Priory Clinic receiving treatment for drugs, alcohol and self-harm issues.

Attempts to obtain the claimant's Priory records were derailed when the clinic informed police that they'd recently switched to a new computer filing system and couldn't look far back enough to check whether she'd been a patient before the alleged attack. It emerged, though, that she had been treated for self-harm issues at the Priory after the alleged incident.

Further doubt was shed on the claimant's version of events when a defence witness testified that she'd seen the claimant on the morning after the alleged attack but before she went to police. The witness testified that the claimant's hair had been tied back that morning and she hadn't displayed any visible injuries.

The defendant's belief, he said on the stand, was that his girlfriend had decided that she didn't want to be in a relationship with him anymore but knew that the child would ensure his continued presence in her life. Her solution, he posited, was to fabricate the assault because it allowed her to obtain a court order preventing him from seeing his child and therefore from seeing her. In the months since she'd left, his child had been born and he had no idea what it was called or even what sex it was or whether it was healthy.

A jury of six men and six women took roughly one hour to acquit the defendant on the third day of his trial - but he was less concerned with the verdict than he was with the health of his 80-year-old grandmother, who was in hospital after crashing her car that morning on her way to court to support him; a journey she'd never have embarked on if the borderline deranged prosecution hadn't gone forward in the first place.

I was relieved to see the defendant acquitted because the doubt in that case was beyond reasonable. At the very least, the claimant appeared to have fabricated aspects of the alleged assault but some evidence, such as the defendant's lack of injuries, strongly suggested that the incident was simply the product of her imagination.

It could easily have gone the other way, though. Some crimes - particularly crimes against women and children - are emotive. You have only to mention them and the jury is already horrified. All it takes is a good prosecutor (or a bad defender) or even for the jury to simply look the defendant up and down and decide that he looks like the type - and things can go awry.

During my first few weeks at the courthouse I realised that I was, generally, the only journalist in the building. If I hadn't been sitting in that courtroom and the verdict had gone the other way, nobody would have known that a miscarriage of justice had occurred. Moreover, there are five courtrooms at my local courthouse so for every trial I watched, up to four more were potentially going ahead with nobody present to keep an eye on proceedings.

My next trial showed me that even when journalists do show up to watch a trial, they're not necessarily fulfilling their role properly. The defendant was Emma Smiter, a former Police Community Support Officer who stood accused of leaking sensitive information, including the name of a sex assault victim, to a journalist and then perverting the course of justice.

Smiter's first trial for misconduct in a public office had begun in 2010 but was disbanded after documents she produced as part of her defence - namely two blogs which she claimed were the source of her information, as opposed to police computers - were found to have been faked.

A subsequent investigation found that the blogs had been created just days before her trial began but were backdated to the time of the leaks, and that they'd been created on a computer in Smiter's home under a user profile called 'Emma'. She was charged with perverting the course of justice and her trial was rescheduled for late February 2011. She was convicted on March 16th and sentenced in April to twelve months in jail, of which she will serve six.

I sat in the courtroom for almost the entirety of that trial, missing only the first day or two because I was watching another case down the corridor. For the overwhelming majority of the trial, I was the only journalist in the courtroom.

I was the only journalist to sit through Smiter's testimony from beginning to end. I was the only journalist to witness the key testimony of her father, a senior police officer. I was the only journalist to sit through the closing speeches and the judge's summing up. But despite having sat through more of the trial than any other journalist and despite the national interest in the trial, I couldn't sell a story on it. Why? Because I was scooped by a news agency who scarcely attended any of the proceedings.

The news agency was present for perhaps three days out of the three week trial, covering the opening of the prosecution case and the opening of the defence case but none of the evidence. By the time the verdict was handed down on March 16th the news agency hadn't been on the scene for roughly a week. However, when the case was called for verdict, a journalist from the organisation - who hadn't attended a single other day of the trial - appeared in the courtroom just for the twenty-minute verdict reading. On the way out of the courtroom, she stopped me and asked, "Sorry - do you know what the charges are in this case?"

Despite the fact that this journalist had witnessed a grand total of twenty minutes of Emma Smiter's three week trial and didn't even know what charges Smiter had been convicted on, her copy was syndicated internationally. Meanwhile I, having witnessed the trial almost from beginning to end, couldn't sell a story. Here's why.

Newspapers pay subscription to news agencies or 'wires', whose copy arrives in the newsroom electronically and is technically already bought and paid for, whether they choose to use it or not. In an era of falling circulations, downsizing and dwindling freelance budgets some newspapers, when confronted with a choice between detailed freelance copy or superficial wire copy, will choose the wire copy for budgetary reasons. Why buy a freelancer's version of the story when you've already paid for the wire copy?

The wire copy didn't do the trial justice. The case was fascinating and the news agency didn't have even 10% of the information I had. I even had an exclusive post-trial briefing with the head of Hertfordshire Constabulary's Anti-Corruption Department. None of it got published.

In his book Flat Earth News, Nick Davies discusses in detail how freelance reporters have suffered as a direct consequence of the increasing corporate ownership of newspapers. The knock-on effect has been that the quality of journalism has suffered, particularly the coverage of Britain's court network.

Just twenty years ago, most courthouses in the country would have had a reporter in them most days filing copy with news agencies and newspapers. Now entire regions are covered by just one or two freelancers dividing their time between dozens of courthouses.

This is alarming. It is absolutely vital that our courts operate openly and transparently. That's why members of the public can walk in off of the street and sit in on almost any trial in any courthouse in the country. Scrutiny is supposed to keep prosecutors and judges in check but with nobody documenting what's going on inside our courthouses, innocent people could be convicted on a daily basis and we'd never know anything about it.

In the past few months I've seen prosecutors pursue cases which were flimsy to the point of being farcical. Prosecutors shouldn't be allowed to just pursue anybody they like by virtue of their status. Every person is innocent until proven guilty but I've seen prosecutors put people on trial with literally no compelling evidence of their guilt - and in one of those trials, they won (more on that shortly).

I've seen judges get away with some pretty bizarre behavior too. On two occasions I've had stories published in national newspapers about judges letting off child sex offenders with ridiculously light sentences.

A teacher who downloaded child porn onto a school laptop and then ferried it between school and home got off without even an hour's community service, despite a previous judge recommending custody. Another man with almost 5million child porn images, who described collecting the pictures as his 'hobby', was eligible for more than five years in prison but was sentenced to just thirty months, of which he will serve only fifteen. That story made front page of the local paper.

Click to enlarge

By far the most disturbing experience thus far, though, has been the case of Terence Ruddigan. Mr Ruddigan was 21 years old when a jury at my local courthouse convicted him of seriously assaulting a doorman at a local bar. I believe Mr Ruddigan's conviction was a miscarriage of justice. I sat through his trial from beginning to end and didn't see the prosecutor offer up one piece of evidence or one reliable witness proving Mr Ruddigan's guilt.

Police failed to conduct vital forensic analysis which could have cleared Ruddigan, but the necessary tests were never carried out and no explanation was offered as to why. On grounds of 'hearsay', prosecutors were allowed to cover up evidence in a police officer's statement that a witness had told police Ruddigan wasn't responsible for the altercation, but police failed to take the witness's details or follow up that lead. The jurors never got to hear about that.

The only witnesses who fingered Ruddigan as the attacker all gave completely contradictory versions of events. The only 'eyewitness' whose testimony stood up to scrutiny was the victim, who never saw his attacker.

One witness claimed to have had a conversation with Mr Ruddigan while he was locked in the back of a police car with the window rolled up - a nonsensical claim which Ruddigan legitimately blasted as untrue. Another witness said he had absolutely no recollection of ever attending the identity parade and picking out Ruddigan as the culprit - a bizarre claim that nobody in the court had ever heard from any witness in any previous trial.

The identification evidence itself was tainted. The ID parade was held a full three months after the attack happened and events in the interim seriously called into question its validity. Just days after the assault - before Ruddigan had even been charged with a crime - police attached his mugshot to a 'Behave Or Be Banned' poster and circulated it to all local bars - including the scene of the crime. At that bar, staff were required to observe the poster before work every day and memorise the faces so they knew who to pay attention to during opening hours.

In other words, before attending the ID parade the eyewitnesses spent several minutes every day for three months staring at Mr Ruddigan's face and memorising it as that of a troublemaker. When they eventually attended the ID parade - which was based on pictures rather than a line-up - the mugshot they saw was the same mugshot that appeared on the poster.

Ruddigan took a further blow when it turned out that his previous solicitors had omitted vital information from his defence case statement, which made it appear that he was making up his defence on the spot. It was later shown via legal documents that Ruddigan's testimony had indeed been consistent and the fault was that of his solicitors, but by that time he'd already taken a beating from the prosecutor during cross-examination.

Outside court Ruddigan also told me that his previous solicitor had obtained and showed him CCTV of another person fleeing the bar after the attack, but he had no idea where it was now that he'd hired new counsel.

A predominantly middle-aged/elderly jury took several hours to convict 21-year-old Ruddigan of smashing a glass into the head of the doorman. The conviction was, in my opinion, unjust. Ruddigan was convicted in the absence of any CCTV or physical evidence connecting him to the crime and therefore solely on the highly questionable testimony of several bar staff members whose evidence was at best contradictory and at worst outlandish.

Miss Recorder Hudson, who presided over Ruddigan's trial, seemed aware that the prosecution was a flimsy one. The usual sentence for similar assaults tends to be around eighteen months in prison but when it came to sentencing Terence Ruddigan on April 5th 2011, Hudson commended his 'dignified' manner and gave him a suspended sentence and a community service order.

Nonetheless, this conviction will remain on Mr Ruddigan's police record for life. Moreover, for the next eight years he will be forced to disclose this conviction to prospective employers, which could severely impede his job prospects. But at least Terence Ruddigan was lucky enough to be sentenced by his trial judge. Another judge, not knowing the details of the case, might easily have sent him to jail.

How many Terence Ruddigans passed through my local courthouse before I started attending? How many pass through right under my nose every week while I'm sitting down the corridor in another courtroom? How many pass through our unwatched court system every week because corporate ownership and shrinking circulations are chaining newspaper reporters to their desks and forcing hardworking freelancers out of the industry? How many every year?

It's a genuinely troubling question and one which will hang in the air until corporate newspaper owners see fit to begin reinvesting in good journalism and unshackling reporters from their desks so they can venture out into the world and start fulfilling their most vital function - scrutiny. In a world where prosecutors are publicly embarrassed for pursuing pathetic prosecutions, we'll see a lot less of them.