Sunday, March 13, 2011

Pedro Bell: Picasso of P-Funk

Way back in the day, one of my favorite things to do after buying a new Funkadelic album was checking out Pedro Bell's sublime cover art while listening to the band's wildly inventive and intoxicating stew of rock, funk, soul and psychedelia. Bell's album covers were true works of art and played a big part in the P-Funk experience.

Back in the early 1970s, fledgling artist and illustrator Bell found the ideal muse in Funkadelic, as his oddly unique art style fit right in with the band's freaky image, irreverent themes and acid-funk sound. The two went together like a Super Fly perm and a pair of two-toned gators. The young artist's Funkadelic album covers were psychedelic landscapes filled with distorted cartoon images, bawdy humor and sharp satirical commentary. And all were set in a futuristic black urban milieu on the funky side of town. Bell's artwork was a pivotal component of P-Funk's mythology, providing a provocative visual to the band's frenetic, subversive music and George Clinton's ingeniously wigged-out themes and concepts. In addition to creating the albums' cover designs, Bell wrote the liner notes, which included clever puns, satirical observations, as well as P-Funk's silly-serious ideology.

Bell's first Funkadelic album cover was Cosmic Slop (released in 1973). The band actually had a promotional video for the album's title track, which I saw recently on youtube. It's freaky to say the least, but how many people actually saw the video back when the song was released? Prior to the MTV revolution in the early '80s, videos were not a big marketing tool in promoting musical acts. During the mid-'60s and '70s, album cover art played a huge part in disseminating a band or artist's image. And if you check out some of the old album covers from that era, you'll see that many were great pieces of art, particularly in the genres of rock, soul, jazz and funk.

Bell's phantasmagorical and grotesque cover art for Cosmic Slop looks like something Salvador Dali might have dreamed up after spending a wild weekend in the hood while on acid. The focal point of the cover is a topless black woman whose Afro appears to be made up of a multitude of flies in place of hair. Popping out from the middle of the bug 'fro is another woman's face, mouth agape. I can't tell if she's in rapt ecstasy or excruciating pain. The topless woman's teeth are jagged fangs, and the nipple on her left breast is a stereo volume dial. She also appears to be stoned, her eyes half-shut in possibly a heroin-induced stupor. And it looks like she has African tribal markings slashed across both cheekbones.

Additionally, an extraterrestrial creature spells out the album's title in a cosmic blast that disintegrates the woman's right shoulder, while a fetus floats in space nearby. Each letter in the album's title is made up of larval mutations, and a huge menacing horsefly hovers over the topless woman's head. In the background, there's a planet that consists mainly of a woman's butt cheeks. The cover also contains several other twisted and surrealistic images. The artwork on the album's inside cover is just as demented, with insect-faced pimps chilling with their mutant prostitutes. With this album cover, Bell created a warped parallel universe that could have only been inhabited by Funkadelic and their freakazoid acolytes. Who needs music videos when you've got someone like Bell to create amazing artwork like this for your album covers?

In all, Bell did the artwork for eight Funkadelic album covers. In addition to Cosmic Slop, he did the covers for Standing On The Verge of Getting It On; Let's Take It to the Stage; Tales of Kidd Funkadelic; Hardcore Jollies; One Nation Under a Groove; Uncle Jam Wants You (inside and back cover); and The Electric Spanking of War Babies. He also did four covers for George Clinton's solo albums, including  Computer Games, which contains the influential funk classic "Atomic Dog." In addition to Bell's cover art, he's tried his hand at animation, screenwriting, comic books as well as his own music. One of Bell's more recent creations is a portrait of jazz innovator Sun Ra (2006).

Unfortunately, I've heard that Bell had fallen on some hard times. I read that he was near destitute and in poor health and was looking to sell some of his originals. This prompted the Black Rock Coalition to sponsor a benefit concert on his behalf on January 2, 2010. P-Funk keyboard wizard Bernie Worrell, who is a good friend of Bell's, was one of the performers at the fundraiser. I hope Bell's situation has improved and that he's still producing great art. Bell deserves more respect and recognition for all the brilliant artwork he has created. His contributions to the P-Funk universe are immense, and I've always considered him an unofficial member of the Funk Mob. He's certainly earned the distinction.


Three Pedro Bell cartoons from 1988:





Bernie Worrell shares some warm words about his friend Pedro Bell at the Black Rock Coalition-sponsored benefit concert dubbed "Miracle for a Maggot" that was held early last year: