For funk fans, there was no greater spectacle than the landing of the Mothership during Parliament-Funkadelic’s legendary 1976 P-Funk Earth Tour. Its outlandish amalgamation of sci-fi fantasy, Blaxploitation grit, glam rock, gospel furor and sweat-inducing funk helped propel Parliament-Funkadelic to the furthest reaches of creativity.
The P-Funk Earth Tour became a new artistic bench mark for live performance, with its use of thematic narrative and wild costumes. At the time, it was the most expensive extravaganza for a black group; Casablanca Records granted an unheard-of $275,000 budget, according to Rickey Vincent’s fantastic book, Funk.
But for all the pioneering gaud of the concert, which was recently released as a DVD, Parliament-Funkadelic Live 1976: The Mothership Connection (Shout Factory), it doesn’t offer the same adrenaline-pumping velocity and pizzazz of today’s concerts by Beyoncé or Kanye West. The documentary crawls at a Stanley Kubrick pace and is saddled with awkward interludes, sophomoric camera shots and poor stage lighting.
Still, the DVD is worth revisiting at this moment in history, as America is on its own fantastic voyage. A black-man-as-president is the type of improbability P-Funk’s mad genius and leader, George Clinton, loved to riff on. A year before the 1976 tour, Parliament’s Chocolate City imagines Muhammad Ali at the White House, his cabinet filled with the likes of Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder and the Rev. Ike . Or, “put niggers in places that you don’t usually see ’em,” Clinton explained to writer John Corbett. So that’s why on the cover art of Mothership Connection we see a silver-clad Clinton in knee-high boots, legs spread salaciously apart, leaping out of a spaceship. The LP’s back cover shows him just cold chillin’ outside his spacecraft in the middle of some asphalt jungle.
Part of the fun of listening to P-Funk’s music is deciphering the serious from the silly. A clever trickster, Clinton’s subversive wordplay marries absurd themes with pointed socio-political commentary. When the Mothership landed, the messianic Dr. Funkenstein emerged donning a pimped-out white fur coat, large sunglasses and a long wig. After the ebullient performance of “Mothership Connection (Starchild),” the DVD downshifts into a funky retooling of the black gospel chestnut, “Swing Down, Sweet Chariot.”
At that point, the concert takes on the furor of a Pentecostal church revival as the group sings of themes of deliverance and the redemptive power of the funk. This is the emotional centerpiece of the funk opera. As the singing reaches a boiling point, a silver, pyramid-looking spacecraft soars above the stage and then lands.
Despite the recurring themes of deliverance, there is little moralizing in the concert. It opens with the sobering classic, “Cosmic Slop,” a brooding song about a struggling mother whoring herself through the ghetto to provide food for her kids. Then it concludes with an encore performance of Parliament’s “Funkin’ For Fun,” which oddly touches on family values. In between those two songs are hedonistic celebrations of unbridled sexuality. Singer Fuzzy Haskins gestures some wicked masturbatory moves with a microphone stand as he renders Funkadelic’s “Standing on the Verge of Getting It On.” During the limerick-heavy “Let’s Take it to the Stage,” Clinton espouses the pleasures of undinism .The closest Clinton came to a sermon was something along the lines of “free your mind and your ass will follow.”
Given our own magical real-life political journey, the idea of putting black people “in places that you don’t usually see ’em” actually seems kind of quaint. Thankfully, those kinds of fantasies are quickly looking like relics of a bygone era.
John Murph is a regular contributor to The Root.