Sunday, 9 September 2018

Mothership Connection - Parliament

Provenance: Not entirely sure. Unless my memory is playing tricks on me, I seem to recall somebody telling me that this is the best funk album ever recorded. That's worth a punt, isn't it?

I know I definitely owned this before I went to university, because I once saw a dude on campus wearing a Mothership Connection t-shirt. I tried to engage him on the subject (viz: the best funk album ever recorded) but he nixed it, saying that he just liked the design and hadn't ever heard the album. Right there and then, my friends, I wanted to cuff some sense into that mooncalf.

Review: To the gauzy wraith of my memory who told me about Mothership Connection, I doff my cap to you. In the grand scheme of things I haven't listened to a great deal of funk (though I've enjoyed spasmodic funk flaps when a friend, colleague or acquaintance has hepped me to something, including the time where my father-in-law ran me through the Ohio Players discography) so I don't feel qualified to bestow any laurels upon on particular platter or another. That being said, I come back to Mothership Connection again and again and again, so it's doing something right.

Sitting squarely in the middle of an Afrofuturist musical pantheon that spans the Sun Ra Arkestra to Janelle Monae is George Clinton's outrageous Parliament-Funkadelic collective. The history is not altogether straightforward, but Clinton conceived Funkadelic to be the raw, psych-heavy outfit, bringing Eddie Hazel's swirling, hypnotic guitar work to the fore. Meanwhile, Parliament were the more R&B orientated group, a groove machine which pushed Bernie Worrell's keyboards and, on Mothership Connection, an elite horn section front and centre. In fact the personnel assembled here, pound-for-pound, possibly constitute the most dazzling array of funk musicians captured on magnetic tape.

Folks, it's a wild ride. Cold open to an imagined radio station (maybe being beamed in from outer space?) called WEFUNK, which is a device I've enjoyed in 1970s cinema (Vanishing Point, The Warriors). The putative DJs riff on the medicinal qualities of funk and jib off artists who aren't quite up to their standards (including, amusingly, David Bowie and the Doobie Brothers); this goes on for almost eight minutes, and aside from periodically busting out into a monstrous chorus it remains a nervy, tentative trip. Not at all what I had imagined - and yet it's infectious, weird, funny and absolutely addictive all at once.

However, one 'P Funk (Wants To Get Funked Up)' is done, we're into a world - no, a galaxy - of groove. It's difficult to tag a true MVP when everybody is absolutely cooking with gas, but Bootsy Collins certainly earned his fucking corn on this bad boy. It's hard to describe exactly what he's doing, but it's some of the most rubbery, audaciously groovy bass you're likely to hear. Even at low volumes it seems to punch you in the chest, and in my car's souped-up sound system it turns my humble Peugeot 207 into a veritable low-rider. And just as I once claimed that Judas Priest's Painkiller doesn't let up with the metal madness, by the same token it could be claimed that Mothership Connection couldn't stop being funky even if it tried. Even the start of 'Unfunky UFO', which is merely a finicky little syncopated guitar and bass drum, is sublime. People talk about John Bonham's right foot, but this is (perhaps quite literally) a kick from another galaxy.

None of this should suggest to you that Mothership Connection doesn't shift around in terms of mood or style at all. The coda to 'Mothership Connection (Star Child)' is built around 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot', which is strangely poignant; a spiritual about liberation from earthly pains transmogrified into the context of an imagined African-American-extraterrestrial realm. Then there's the most old-school R&B track of the bunch, 'Handcuffs', an absurd and humorous meditation on male possessiveness. Parliament actually had its roots in doo-wop (as The Parliaments), and it's on 'Handcuffs' where this is most obvious, with all five(?) vocalists stepping up to deliver featured spots. For the finale, the general lightness of the album is nudged out in favour of a laser-focused intensity on the largely instrumental 'Night of the Thumpasorus Peoples'. This track rides atop the most outrageous groove on the whole album, and it is sticky - hell, Worrell's scuzzy synthesizers sound as if they're on the verge of collapsing in on themselves, and you the listener feel almost as if you're about to be sucked into this dark star of pure rhythm.

One thing about Mothership Connection that is abundantly clear to even the most casual enjoyer of hip-hop is how very alive the music is to the present day. To suggest it's an influence on the genre would be gross understatement; just have a look at how many times it is estimated that Parliament have been sampled. Stick 'em up there with James Brown, Kraftwerk and the 'Amen Break'. Parliament, and Mothership Connection in particular, pumps through the arteries of so much b(B)lack music, from Kool and the Gang to Charles Hamilton to Dr Dre and beyond. It's the single coolest, slickest, catchiest and unruliest goddamn funk album I've ever heard, and I'll probably spin it again once I'm done listening. Plus, who wouldn't want an album that contains a track called 'Supergroovalisticprosifunkstication'? It almost puts Isaac Hayes to shame!

My own personal coda: thanks to being turned on to Parliament at a young age, once ensconced at university I was one of a few students who knew the name Maceo Parker (saxophone; also played with James Brown and Prince, which isn't too shabby). So when his band rolled into town I was THERE and - goodness me - it was transformative. I dance like Theresa May but, just like the Prime Minister whenever she steps foot on African soil, the pull was irresistible. He's still out there touring - catch him if you can.

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