[28 January 2010]
By the end of 1975 it was clear that the Parliament-Funkadelic funk mob, headed by its godfather George Clinton, was anything but an ordinary musical unit. Clinton had overseen the recording of two albums in 1975, the second of which, Funkadelic’s Let’s Take It to the Stage, was a simultaneous slap in the face and kiss on the mouth of R&B music. Featuring screaming guitars, subtle politics, and a sound that blurred the color lines, it made Funkadelic Masters of the Form, and in 1976, with the release of the classic Mothership Connection, Funkadelic’s sister-band Parliament joined them.
Clinton had playfully made fun of James Brown on the title track of Let’s Take It to the Stage, but in doing so he had done more than simply “taken him on”. He had suggested that he was the new godfather; that his was the new funk, and he utilized many of Brown’s own foot soldiers to win a funk turf war that most music fans probably never saw coming. In 1976, Parliament was a frighteningly fierce musical unit. Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker, on trombone and saxophone respectively, had joined their former JBs band mate Bootsy Collins. They helped Clinton improve upon Parliament’s previous experiment, 1975’s Chocolate City, and record Mothership Connection—a bible of groove that changed the course of black music forever.
The album details an interplanetary pursuit for the heavenly freedom provided by funk music, and put black people where they’d never been before: outer space. Clinton created larger than life characters, Starchild and Lollipop Man, to represent the quest for freedom amidst repression. It all served the greater purpose of delivering Parliament’s political message to as many people as possible. Mothership Connection is Parliament at its most political, a natural extension of the “us vs. them” philosophy of Let’s Take It to the Stage, but because the entire album seemed to be concerned with nothing but outer space and funk, because the entire album was metaphorically packaged as a comic book, it didn’t scare anybody away. With Mothership Connection, young people of any color could drop the needle onto a record and listen to a comic book that had been composed specifically for them, one that made them move while moving them to think of their current social condition. It’s one hell of a comic book to listen to, and anybody uninterested in politics still got to reap the rewards of “P-Funk, uncut funk, the bomb”.
George Clinton, aka Starchild
Mothership Connection was a collection of music that was so cool its first notes blew from the speakers like flurries of the year’s first snow. “Good evening”, the album opens, in an almost impossibly deep and inviting voice. “Do not attempt to adjust your radio, there is nothing wrong. We have taken control as to bring you this special show. We will return it to you as soon as you are grooving”. What follows is a brash declaration of greatness, almost eight minutes of tight, pristine funk detailing the virtues of Parliament’s music. “P-Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up)” is an advertisement, of the most persuasive kind, for everything that Parliament has to offer. The track is openly confrontational but, much like the metaphorical conceit of the album itself, this confrontation is slyly subtle; dressed up in clever wordplay about sunglasses, arthritis doing it to you “in your eardrums”, and improving your “interplanetary funksmanship”. Listeners are never told they have to listen to Parliament, but the group clearly details why they need to. Woven throughout the lyrics is a musical paradox, a mixture of horns (immaculately arranged by Fred Wesley and Bernie Worrell), keys and strings that seem laid back and propulsive all at the same time. It attacks listeners without ever making them feel attacked.
The title track invites listeners to “put a glide in your stride and a dip in your hip and come on up to the Mothership”, where funk is a religious experience. Accordingly, the track has strong gospel overtones to compliment the religious imagery of the lyrics. Once again, the horns are used to impressive affect, cradling the gospel vocals at the song’s end warmly, as though the horns were merely singers offering an additional background vocal. “Unfunky UFO” disposes of subtlety entirely despite the extension of the album’s outer space metaphor. Ours is a dying world, a funkless hell that can only be saved by the right groove, and the lyrics are simply a device to make the album’s point. “We’re unfunky and we’re obsolete and we’re out of time”, they state in an act of blatant finger pointing, a clear description of “us vs. them”. “We” get it. “We” are a needle playing the groove of our time. “They” are a needle being played in the groovelessness of a time gone by.
This point is relentlessly hammered home in “Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof of the Sucker)”, a violently funky call to arms. The entire song sounds like an impassioned demand made by vocals that refuse to be denied, bright horns that punctuate the vocals throughout the track, and some incredible drums that attack on the one of every measure. It is a demand for the funk to be sure, but it is also a demand made by Parliament on behalf of all of “us” for everything that we are entitled to. We deserve freedom from prejudice. We deserve equal opportunities. We deserve all that should be ours. We need it. We’ve got to have it. “We need the funk, we gotta have that funk”.
Mothership Connection was a musical game changer, a collage of slang, catch phrases, and political swipes at the establishment disguised as nothing more than a desire to hear the “funk”. At the time of its release the music was entirely new, a reinterpretation of funk and soul music in the terminology of youth. It hasn’t aged one bit, and it made Parliament Masters of the Form. Parliament was far from done staging their revolution, though, and luckily for those in need of the funk, Mothership Connection was the first part of a trilogy.