People talk all the time about the genius of Frank Zappa, how he created a musical universe that was all his own, how he was a master of satire, how prolific he was. These exact claims can easily be made for George Clinton, a man who single-handedly created music for black listeners that was as clever, outrageous, and richly imagined as anything in Zappa’s oeuvre. The sci-fi component of Clinton’s mythology was instrumental in providing some grand theater to his core urban audience and has taken flower in the work of some electronica and rap musicians, notably the turntablist DJ Spooky. Plus, absolutely everything Clinton did was danceable, which was one reason his music was a crossover smash.
1976’s Mothership Connection is one of the best albums Clinton released under the Parliament banner in the five years between 1975 and 1980. During that period the group released an incredible nine records (no greatest hits or live sets, either) and toured relentlessly. When not busy with Parliament, Clinton was busy supervising recording by his other group, Funkadelic, or the P-Funk All Stars, Bootsy Collins, the Brides of Funkenstein, Bernie Worrell, or Zapp. What is incredible is the high quality of all this music. To say, then, that Mothership Connection stands out among the work of this period is high praise indeed.
The band opens with the slinky, hilarious, and very funky “P. Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up)” on which Parliament takes control of the local airwaves and we all emerge the better for it. We meet the Lollipop Man (alias the Long Haired Sucker), who resembles the alien from the track “EXP” on Hendrix’s Axis: Bold As Love. Then Bootsy Collins, jester extraordinaire with the bass chops of the Gods, steps in to tell us about, among other things, wearing sunglasses and the lameness of David Bowie’s white plastic funk (“It was cool … but can you imagine Dooby-in’ your funk?”). All of this is punctuated by the chorus (“I want the bomb / I want the P-Funk / I wants to get funked up”) and then, suddenly, there is Maceo Parker blowing an alto solo over Bernie Worrell’s tasty piano punctuations and some sinister synth washes. It’s almost sensory overload on the very first track!
We are booted right into the next track, “Mothership Connection (Star Child)”, which unfolds like a medium-tempo James Brown groove with a horn section from heaven and a beat and chorus melody that evokes Steely Dan’s “Black Cow” (Becker and Fagin are well-known for “borrowing” certain riffs or rhythms). Writing in the liner notes about the song, Tom Vickers notes that “Pfunk concerts took on a spiritual fervor, especially when singer-guitarist Glenn Goins went into the ‘Swing down sweet chariot’ refrain during ‘Mothership Connection.'” And he’s right. It’s like a church where you can dance (a completely foreign concept to some ethnic groups).
Next comes a strafing by the “Unfunky UFO” (“Give us the funk, you punk”), and the more laid back groove of “Supergroovalisticprosifunkstication.” It’s incredible to hear elements of practically every modern musical genre in here — jazz, funk, R&B, jive, rock, what would be called disco, fusion — it’s all here. Dave Marsh noted in a Rolling Stone review: “Clinton has taken [Parliament] into a nether world of black rock & roll.” Clinton has been very influential in rock ‘n’ roll, but that is seldom mentioned (though he and the members of Parliament have been induced into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame), as though the presence of a dance beat negated the power rock that he sometimes layered on top, and his music is seldom included in ’70s and ’80s-format radio stations’ playlists. It took the marrying of rock and funk by such white bands as the Red Hot Chili Peppers to call explicit attention to the rock in the funk and the funk in the rock.
If there is a weak track here, it is probably “Handcuffs”, which, despite some sexual wordplay, never quite gets off the ground. No matter, because the one-two punch of the final tracks, “Tear the Roof off the Sucker (Give Up the Funk)” and “Night of the Thumpasorus Peoples” bring the listener to new heights. It’s impossible to forget the scene from Slums of Beverly Hills in which Marissa Tomei and Natasha Lyonne dance provocatively with a vibrator while “Give up the Funk” plays on the radio. That scene is an apt metaphor for the freedom that Clinton’s music afforded all listeners, regardless of race or class. “Night of the Thumpasorus Peoples”, essentially a jam, has a groove and bass line that could be repeated for days without becoming tiresome.
If anything is missing from this remastered version of the classic album, it is more bonus tracks. The one that is included (the radio edit of “Mothership Connection”), demonstrates clearly what was lost by truncating a Parliament track: at 3’08”, the edit never has a chance to develop the near-mystic fervor of the original album track. In any case, Mothership Connection is prime evidence of the genius of George Clinton.