Album Shuffle 003: Parliament, MOTHERSHIP CONNECTION

Casablanca · 1975

It begins in a very familiar way. "Good evening, do not attempt to adjust your radio, we have taken control as to bring you this special show." I wonder how many albums have started out with some variation on that old Outer Limits riff. It's a convenient way to try to create an "experience," demarcate your album as being in some way more singular, weirder, and more wholly of a piece, than mere experience can possibly be.

If I bring it up here, it's because if any band didn't need to rely on cheap pop-culture references to make themselves stand out as having a singular, warped vision of a universe patterned in its own image, Parliament was that band. But then I'm much more familiar with the original four Funkadelic albums, with their opening monologues that sound less like Barry White on overnight radio and more like transmissions from an alien sex-and-boogie culture. Which is why I was so disappointed the first time I heard Parliament -- by Funkadelic standards, they sounded practically normal. Might as well be the Brothers Johnson or Rick James!

And there's no denying that Parliament, at least as far as this album is concerned (I've only heard the odd single otherwise, and yes of course "Flash Light" is a monster), is easily the more accessible end of the Parliament-Funkadelic axis. But that's only on a relative scale: the alien sex-and-boogie culture is still in full effect here, if not as gleefully scatological or forthrightly experimental as on the early Funkadelic albums (or the later solo George Clintons). Bootsy Collins is still the Intergalactic Space Pimp, Bernie Worrell is still making sounds with his keyboard that no one but Jack Kirby or maybe early Jim Starlin at his most psychedelic would be able to interpret graphically, and the songs are barely songs, just grooves and collective chants, as if Communism had found its true home not in Soviet gulags or Chinese social planning, but in freak-funk combos with an eye towards sexual, racial, and narcotic liberation.

On listening to Parliament over the course of an entire album, I began to realize what my original problem with them was, not that it was ever coherent or verbalized enough to rise to the level of a problem, just a low-level aversion: they were so sonically full, packing all the elements of their production into a single space with no room left over, I couldn't separate the parts in my head. James Brown's spare funk, with its miles and miles of empty space, and Sly & the Family Stone's harder-driving funk, with its rock-derived separation of the elements, were my touchstones, and early Funkadelic built on those templates, just headed for the stars. But Parliament was the sound of the stars landing on earth, and they were just too big to fit.

I got over it, and a silly analogy helped me through. For some time now I've thought of early Funkadelic and early Black Sabbath as roughly analogous: groove-and-jam-based outfits who didn't mind moving slow and created their own eccentric mythology around which entire subcultures were born. But if Parliament is like any white rock band, I'd analogize them to Yes: overstuffed, overfull, and oversilly, with technical brio far outweighing the flimsiness of their constructed mythologies, not that it matters because we're not here for the narrative we're here to dance/whatever it is that Yes fans do.

"Give Up The Funk (Tear The Roof Off The Sucker)," though nothing but an extended suite of repeated chants, is the album highlight, but the entire thing is a brilliant summation of black music to that point (and beyond — was anyone as startled as I was to hear the words "gangsta lean" in the first track?), with gospel, blues, and jazz influences seeping in (the latter mostly through Maceo Parker and Fred Wesley, sounding utterly revitalized away from James Brown's dictatorship). The title track is even partly constructed around a Canterbury-jazz version of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot."

Of course, all of this only matters to the chin-stroker listening on headphones (walking home through what I hesitate to call rain) — for the album's primary audience, a hot and sweaty dancefloor is its true realm, and I'm sure I'm missing a lot by not experiencing it there. Doesn't matter. I still have "Night Of The Thumpasorus Peoples" ringing in my ears, and I listened to the record last night. I don't know if it was an "experience" in the Outer Limits sense, but I'm ready to call this the best record ever to use that intro.

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