Good evening, 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. Welcome to station W.E. F.U.N.K., better known as We-Funk, or deeper still, the Mothership Connection, home of the extraterrestrial brothers, dealers of funky music. P.Funk, uncut funk, the bomb.
Coming you directly from the Mothership, top of the chocolate milky way. 500,000 kilowatts of P.Funk power, so kick back, ya’dig, while we do it to you in your eardrums. Who me, I’m known as Lollipop Man, alias The Long Haired Sucker, my motto is…
At the age of 5, I had heard something I had never heard before. My young life existed by listening to records on the radio but this was the very first time I had ever heard the radio on a record. As someone who fell in love with the means of communication through on-air announcer and listener, my first job was not wanting to be a police officer, astronaut, or a fireman. I wanted to be a disc jockey, the idea of playing music for anyone willing to listen was the ultimate goal, so to hear these peculiar aliens broadcasting from an unknown radio station felt like I was entering a secret club house. At 5 years old, I may not have known the reality of this club but I certainly wanted to live there forever.
Mothership Connection was Parliament’s fourth full length album, their third album for Casablanca Records. They were a group founded by George Clinton, who originally started them as a vocal group called The Parliaments, named after a popular cigarette brand. When Clinton found The Parliaments concept a bit boring, he formed Funkadelic, a cross section of what was psychedelic and funky, a loud mixture of rock and hard soul. The core of Funkadelic were the musicians but they had a team of singers, including Clinton. Those singers were the core of what was The Parliaments, who decided to simplify and call themselves Parliament. In time, Clinton found himself not running two different bands, but the same band who used two different names for the sake of trying to be like Ike Turner and James Brown by milking the system for all that it could be worth. In other words, if one group could make a set of money, why not two, even if they’re one and the same? Originally, the musical vibe of both Parliament and Funkadelic were pretty much one and the same but by the mid-70’s, Clinton realized Funkadelic could rely on the grit and dirtiness of the music while Parliament could be designed with a sense of polish not unlike the mechanics of James Brown and his bands. In time, Parliament and Funkadelic would be known to describe a united movement: P.Funk, or a Parliafunkadelicment Thang. Once you heard the code words, you could not mistake them for anyone else, and it got bigger and weirder when there were more subsidiary bands making themselves known, be it Parlet, Bootsy’s Rubber Band, or The Brides Of Funkenstein. For the sake of wanting to make this article basic, I will limit the discussion to just Parliament/Funkadelic and this album.
By five, I had already been a fan of Earth, Wind & Fire and War, along with groups like El Chicano, Santana, Black Sabbath, and Led Zeppelin. I was slowly developing musical tastes from my parents, along with an uncle who had lived next door, so it was not only about discovering new songs and artists, but to sit in front of the phonograph and carrying the album cover, looking at it and wondering what was going on. What I saw on the cover of Mothership Connection was weird and peculiar: a smiling black man with make-up on his face, wearing shiny silver boots, spreading his legs in laughter while riding in an open-door UFO in space. Who was this man, and why is he so happy?
From the moment I heard these fictitious radio DJ’s in “P-Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up)”, I couldn’t stop listening. I had never heard a radio show recreated in song, and this voice speaking from the unknown was a place I wanted to visit, it sounded like someone I could trust. There were three characters in the song: the unknown mellow man, the high-speed voice known as Lollipop Man (a/k/a The Long Haired Sucker), and the laid back man who dominates the song talking about doing it to you in your earhole and discovering people in the southern part of the United States lived bands like the Doobie Brothers, Blue Magic, and David Bowie. Being a kid, I could only understand what I had known so when he said ” but can you imagine Doobie in your funk?”, I knew what he was hinting at. My dad smoked, so when I heard him talking about a doobie, it wasn’t something from one of my dad’s Cheech & Chong records. Someone else talked about marijuana cigarettes, the world I experienced was not exclusive. Outside of hearing about Lollipop Man, “P. Funk” introduces another character to the Parliament empire, someone named Starchild, and we were tuned to stick around and “tune in”, to wait and see what this Starchild was about.
The title track to Mothership Connection began and it too was a mock radio show, and as I’m looking at the album cover, I could only imagine this guy with silver boots going around in outer space, looking around for good music and good times while listening to the best music around. Starchild introduced himself to the citizens of the universe, but he could easily be referring himself as a citizen as well, making the world he spoke to not focused on one, but for all. However, he was also getting a bit social and cultural by saying “We have returned to claim the pyramids”. At the time, I had no idea what that meant or why this cool martial was talking about pyramids but through learning about the world and people around me, it would become clearer.
One thing I would realize later was that the first two songs on the album are not really proper songs, neither of them are verse/chorus/verse or even casually traditional. They were a bit like being in a car, finding a radio station that had music you liked and just kept it there for the duration, taking in whatever the DJ talked about to absorb the community he was speaking to. What made the song interest were the other references such as mentioning the Bermuda Triangle and Easter Island, along with the biblical reference “when Gabriel’s horn blows, you’d better be ready to go.” These were new things to me and again, not knowing what he was saying made the world described much more interesting, a need to figure out if he was speaking in code or would I eventually learn about why he talked about these things.
When I’d get deeper into the music of Parliament and Funkadelic, that’s when I learned about the social and political side of Clinton, someone who was more than willing to speak about how he and others lived or finding a way to simply live a regular life that isn’t available to everyone on Earth. Clinton and the other members were often direct and to the point but they made it fun by throwing in slang and odd references that would make listeners go “oh, so THAT is what he’s singing about?” As the song ends with a nod to a well known gospel song, it slowly became clear what this Mothership was about and why it was called the Mothership. It was a vehicle where people from the motherland are able to ride together as one, without fear or harm, where everyone is able to find out how they are connected as a united force, whatever that force may be. “Swing down, sweet chariot stop and let me ride” was merging the hymns and metaphors of the past and bringing it to modern times in the hopes of celebrating a much better future. By asking if they could “let me ride”, it was a nice way of saying “please, I am a good person, welcome me in”. He knew if this mothership is as good natured as he had heard, he will find others within the community who is just like him. It’s a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood that many of us look to finding throughout our lives, but the idea is to keep that vibe intact.
It would take three songs before Mothership Connection has a proper song, the excellent “Unfunky UFO” and it is when we realized the unidentified flying object on the cover was not as cool as we had thought, and why? The chorus hits things accurately, without hesitation:
Unfunky kind of UFO
here from the sun
you’ve got the groove and we want some
We’re unfunky and we’re obsolete
and we’re out of time
gonna take your funk and make it mine
Why is Clinton and friends saying he’s obsolete and out of time? If Starchild is a man traveling from the future in a Doctor Who fashion, perhaps he wants to tell everyone that they have to unite for a better cause, whatever the cause may be. Some of the cause is explained in the verse, sung by Bootsy Collins and Glen Coins:
Stupidly, I forced a smile
my composure was secure
I wore a silly grin from ear to ear
a smile they saw right through
Oh, but then like a streak of lightning it came
Filling my brain with this pain
Without saying a word, this voice I heard
“Give up the funk, you punk”
The song sounds like a track to dance and get down to but the lyrics show there is a much more serious manner at stake. Combined with the horn arrangement, it could be a spirited song, which it is, but there’s much more going on than wondering why this UFO is unfunky. Or is it that the inhabitants of this unfunky UFO are looking for a means to steal the funk from a land where its riches are fully known?
Side 2 begins with “Supergroovalisticprosifunkstication (The Thumps Bump)” and while the song is not in the verse/chorus/verse format either, it is not like “P. Funk” or “Mothership Connection”, there is no radio aircheck involvement. Instead, it’s a musical call to arm of sorts. Three years later, Funkadelic released One Nation Under A Groove and asked people to “pledge a grooveallegiance to the funk of the United Funk of Funkadelica”, but you could say an early declaration for this nation was made here:
Give the people what they want when they want
and they wants it all the time
give the people what they need when they need
and the need is yours and mine
When you hear the singers say “throw-down, baby do the throw-down”, it seems they are seeking and finding what they want in order to feel that goodness throughout the existence. It’s something worth fighting for.
When I first heard “Handcuffs”, I did not like it as much as the rest of the song for it sounded forced to me, or if they were trying to say something and I wasn’t ready to understand it. The song deals with sexism in a way that perhaps the band had never done before. If people had thought it seemed weird for these guys to be doing a song so blunt about the battle of the sexes, it was co-written by a lady Clinton had made in Los Angeles, Janet McLaughlin. Or at least she was given co-songwriting for the song, which happens to be the only song in their entire catalog that she gets credit for. Upon going through the lyrics, it seems she played a very important role for while the lyrics may come off like a bitter (if not sexist) joke, it’s meant to provoke thought, not laugh at:
If I have to keep you barefoot and pregnant
to keep you here in my world
get down and take off your shoes
girl, I’m gonna do to you
what it is I’ve got to do
If we’ve been bonding like you say that we do
I think you won’t mind if I’d be possessive, now would you?
your preach about loving, you know it is to blame
that’s why I can ask you and not even feel ashamed
One day before the 40th anniversary of the album, there has been one lyric that has bugged me for most of my life. Since he is on Twitter, I decided to ask George Clinton what he was singing, since it is he who is on vocals. I always wanted to know what exactly “can go to hell”, for it was unintelligible to my ears. A few hours later, Clinton was nice enough to solve my mystery:
I don’t care about looking like a chauvinistic kinda whatever
aw, corny can go to hell
and if I find that I need some help
gonna pull out my chastity belt
what it is, I’ve got to do
In the song, the song is much stronger than originally realized, the battle of the sexes explored. As the song began to be understood a bit more, it got more soulful and funkier and showed that the perceived space travels of the front cover was more earthbound.
“Give Up The Funk (Tear The Roof Off The Sucker)” became the big hit on the album and it works on a number of levels, despite it not being in the traditional verse/chorus/verse format either. It might seem like there’s a verse thrown throughout but to my ears, it comes off more like nothing but cool choruses, pieced together to make a dance proclamation. The response from the singers is made for listeners to repeat it but what really makes the song work is Collins’ bass lines, intermingling with the rest of the band, made tight by the horn section, all pulled in by the importance of Bernie Worrell’s counter-melodies. At one point, it seems like there are three or four different groups involved in the song and perhaps that’s exactly what Clinton was trying to do, not really knowing who is who or where things begin or end.
On a side note, I remember reading something somewhere that while there were a full cast of musicians on the back cover, Collins was involved into the music more than we realized, including drums and guitar work in some songs. He’s credited with everytong on the cover but in a way, despite having a cast of over 20 people on the album, it could have easily be done by a small group of six or seven. Collins will forever be known as an important bass guitarist but his time in the recording studio was much more than just limiting himself to the four string. (NOTE: Collins didn’t play bass in “Give Up The Funk”, that song was done with Cordell Mosson.)
Despite “Night of the Thumpasorus Peoples” not having any true lyrics, I always found Mothership Connection‘s closing track to be a personal favorite, not only for the groove but because the semi-instrumental had a Mini-Moog from Worrell that always reminded me of wet farts. I had never heard any song at 5 years old where someone could play a song with their ass so I’d laugh at it, thinking it was one of the greatest things to be made on a record.
Plus, the lyrics mean nothing and yet it does:
ga ga goo ga
ga ga goo ga
ga ga, goo, ga ga
Who were these thumpasorus people and do they have other lifeforms in their habitat? Ga ga goo ga, ga ga goo ga, ga ga goo ga gaow, you know?
In one way, the album does not really have a unified theme like The Clones Of Dr. Funkenstein or Funkentelechy Vs. The Placebo Syndrome do, the concept tends to fade a bit once Side 1 comes to an end. Mothership Connection begins by the listener discovering a frequency that can only be heard by a select few, only for the journeyman to head elsewhere. Or perhaps it’s the realization that the spaceman on the front cover is not in the mighty universe but as the back cover shows, he’s nothing more than a brother hanging out in a back alley somewhere with his ship held up by a piece of lumber or a plank.
In truth, the universal travels are something that, for now, can only be dreamed of and we can only think about the possibilities if we better our universe within our immediate vicinity, the connection we must seek in order for any of us to function as one, if at all possible. Perhaps in the distant future, our ancestors will be able to meet up with Sun Ra to understand why space is truly the place, a dimension where there is no limit. For now, we have to find solace in our dreams and wonder why reality can’t be as grand as the man on the cover with a shiteating grin and knee high boots.
On top of that, hearing a lot of “funk” in song was something I had never heard in my young live so I used to think they were singing naughty things. I mean, what did it mean to get “funked up” and “turn this mother out”? Maybe for some, funk was not a bad word but it sounded like they were getting away with cursing and I loved it. Sure, I read the cover and knew it was all about the funk and in a way, getting down just for the funk of it was like speaking in code, even though I couldn’t find any of my friends to speak in the same way. However, I knew if their records were available at Woolworth’s or other stores and being able to hear “Flashlight” on the radio, I knew George Clinton had to be someone to look up to. In many ways, Clinton was like a long distance funky uncle, if not a funky father and no matter where his travels went to next, he would still be there on the other side, waiting to speak in a way that comforted anyone who wished to understand the world around us.
Statistically, Mothership Connection went as high as #4 on Billboard’s R&B Album chart and #13 on Billboard’s Pop Album chart. It would be certified gold by the Recording Industrial Association of America (RIAA) four months after its release on April 26, 1976. The RIAA would raise their awards to sales of 1,000,000 and they created the platinum award in 1976. Therefore, Mothership Connection was also given a platinum award nine months after its release on September 20, 1976. On top of that, “Give Up The Funk (Tear The Roof Off The Sucker)” was released as a single and it too sold 500,000 copies, leading to the RIAA giving the band a gold record for the 45 (their first gold single) on October 19, 1976.
Two other songs from the album were also released as singles: “P. Funk” and “Mothership Connection”, both being edits with the latter being titled “Star Child”. Both did not do well on the pop charts, which is why you generally hear “Give Up The Funk” on oldies radio station more than any other Parliament song. Nonetheless, the influence of Mothership Connection and the entire P.Funk empire on hip-hop continues to grow, with fans realizing that the games and puzzles Clinton and friends introduced in song were commonly enjoyed, celebrated, and deciphered. While Parliament had existed with three albums before this, it was with Mothership Connection that started what is called the P.Funk mythology, introducing different characters that would be explored in musical adventures for the next five years. For many of us, P.Funk was the ultimate comic book fantasy and we got a chance to see and hear it, even if only in musical form. With this album, we were somehow connected as one, hoping to find access to the mothership upon its inevitable arrival.