In the heart of every American city, at least one high-octane funk band toils away in obscurity. Every weekend they hit the local stages in glittery uniforms, dipping and turning with horns and guitars as they dig out the deepest possible dance groove. Steady work turns them into expert musicians while they wait for the song, the producer or the gimmick that will break them out of the neighborhood.
George Clinton, Dr. Funkenstein himself, who has waved the magic wand in the past on bands like Dayton's Zapp and Hartford's Xavier, has now pointed his flashlight at Detroit's Erasmus Hall. Clinton and his sidekick, Bootsy Collins, coproduced four of the eight cuts on Erasmus Hall's debut album, "Gohead" (Capitol ST-12376), and all eight tracks sound like vintage P-Funk.
Known earlier as the Soul Mates and Seven Below Zero, Erasmus Hall has worked as a unit for 15 years, backing such singers as Al Green, David Ruffin, the Spinners and Betty Leavette. That kind of experience would turn almost any band into a funk machine, and the seven members of Erasmus Hall pump out the funk like well-tuned pistons. They've stuck to their horns and guitars in this synth age, creating a sound that's more sweaty than cool.
Songwriter-producer Joel Martin took over management of Erasmus Hall and brought his old friend Clinton into the project. Martin's composition, "I Can't Keep My Head," is the first single, built up from a captivating staggered rhythm figure with Clinton's trademark counterpointed vocals. The band keeps the bottom punchy even in the tricky passages and keeps so much happening on top that the ear never gets bored.
Guitarist Marvin Williams, the band's best soloist, injects both Dire Straits and James Brown licks into Bootsy Collins' "Checkin' You," which pits harmony vocals against a jagged beat. Clinton and Collins cook up another potential hit single with the extended jam, "Keep Burnin'." Even without Clinton and Collins, Martin comes up with impressive tunes: the jingly synth hook of "Freaky But Sneaky" and the lazy but deep groove of "Stuck in the Mud."
Donnie Sterling, who served three years in Clinton's P-Funk Mob, is now the leader of California's funk sextet, Kiddo. Their second album, "Action" (A&M SP-6-5005), is a disappointment after their likable 1983 debut. The band has grown so infatuated with synthesizers and electric percussion that it has neglected to develop any real songs and falls prey to the great danger of funk -- monotony.
Sterling's appealing tenor is wasted on chants devoid of melody or content. Even a promising synth-funk remake of The Who's "Can't Explain" gets bogged down in a stagnant electric drum pattern. The one exception to the album's dreariness is John Barnes' "Young Love," an old-fashioned soul ballad duet between Sterling and Marva King, with a muscular funk backing.
Unlike female funk groups such as Apollonia 6, Vanity 6, the Mary Jane Girls or the Brides of Funkenstein who are puppet singers for a male producer-songwriter, the all-female sextet Klymaxx is a genuine band. Its members play all the instruments; they write and produce the bulk of their songs. It's no coincidence, therefore, that their songs are geared more to female than male fantasies.
The title of their new album, "Meeting in the Ladies Room" (Constellation MCA-5529), is indicative of their perspective. Lead singer Lorena (Lungs) Hardimon gathers her friends in the sanctuary of the restroom to settle romantic disputes without male interference. With help from Midnight Star's Reggie Calloway, Klymaxx establishes a sassy "don't-mess" attitude.
Sometimes it seems that nothing changes in Oklahoma's Gap Band but the Roman numeral. The three Wilson brothers -- Charlie, Ronnie and Robert -- and their producer, Lonnie Simmons, turn out great funk party records year after year. Since the songs are never about anything but having a good time and since the ear-grabbing melodies and blood-pumping rhythms assure that good time, the albums are pretty much interchangeable.
"Gap Band VI" (Total Experience, TEL 8-5705) relies a bit more on synthesizers and a little less on horns than past editions, but it still delivers the goods for the party. Songs like "Beep a Freak" and "Disrespect" have so many whistles, handclaps, shouts and keyboards going at once that they sound as if they were recorded in a crowded room with everyone jumping on the same beat.
This album even has the usual quota of maudlin ballads: "The Sun Don't Shine Every Day" and "I Believe." The only surprise is a nicely understated midtempo love song, "I Found My Baby."