We want the funk

Traditionally, and in spite of several funk incursions, Western pop and rock has been wedded to the backbeat. This means in a 4/4 rhythm emphasising the two and the four: one-TWO-three-FOUR. Think: we-WILL-we-WILL rock you.

Just as we're all drawn to different styles of music, different timbres and different scales, so are we drawn to different rhythms - they each have their own personalities. The backbeat can be spectacular, as on John Bonham's behemoth opening to Led Zeppelin's 'When the levee breaks',  but I've never particularly liked it.

In fact, I find it ruins many a beautiful song. What was the producer thinking here?

The foursquare backbeat is about solidity and gravity. You can't dance to it because it keeps your feet anchored firmly to the floor. The best you can do is contort your body in ever more excruciating shapes. Along with Thatcherism and cocaine, I hold the backbeat responsible for the 1980s.

Happily, at the end of the decade an unstoppable tide of electronic dance music swept the backbeat away. Producers realised that if you wanted people to dance, you needed funk.

Funk can be explained quite simply as a matter of syncopation, groove and the semi-mystical concept of the one...

But funk can't be analysed. It doesn't come from the head, or even the heart, but rises up from the fleecy shanks of the loins. I know more than one drummer who, though they get all their beats down with mathematical precision, just don't have it. You've either got the funk or you haven't.

It's more an attitude to life than anything. In fact, I'd go further. For when the physicists finally drill down into matter so deeply they can go no further, they'll discover that the fundamental particle is pure undiluted funk. Funk is life itself.

And though funk, in its current manifestation, is an Afro-American creation, it's truly universal. I've heard it everywhere, from Indian tabla playing to Irish fiddling. It's just that in white Western culture, where the fact that we have bodies comes as a something of a revelation, we must fight continually against the gravitational pull of the backbeat. Funk is our Holy Grail.

When you hear the song the Mighty Boosh were parodying, you realise that the quest for the funk has only just begun.


  1. I don't know that I've got funk, but I have some kind of terrible affliction that naturally makes me clap on the 'offbeat', or the 'and', which means I'm always, always and without fail, clapping by myself at any musical event, while everyone else is clapping along on the 'one two three four' and looking at me as if I have the musical equivalent of two left feet. But I can't help it, I try to bow to peer group pressure and clap on the ON beat, but it just feels so clunky and weird, the off beat just feels so much...more right!

  2. "Funk is our Holy Grail" - can't argue with that!

  3. How do I make it turn that into a YouTube link?



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