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In Maryland, George Clinton, Parliament-Funkadelic and a missing Mothership
Throughout the '70s, Clinton and his bandmates blurred the line between escapism and empowerment with a glut of albums that have been endlessly sampled, imitated and analyzed. Look at the decades of funk, rock, techno, go-go, Prince hits and jam bands that came in P-Funk's imaginative wake -- "influential" doesn't quite cut it. Without Parliament-Funkadelic, Lady Gaga would not wear ridiculous outfits and hip-hop might not exist.
Onstage, the band was a living, breathing, panting comic book -- Clinton in his stringy blond wigs, bassist Bootsy Collins in his star-shaped shades, Shider in nothing but angel wings, combat boots and Pampers. It was expressive, subversive, brilliant.
"They were celebrating the intellectual breadth of the black experience and giving people a grand space to celebrate all that they had become," says California author and funk historian Rickey Vincent. "Sly Stone said, 'I Want to Take You Higher.' George Clinton said, 'Yeah, and I got the Mothership to take you there.' In a sense, he was doing what black folks had wanted to do for generations: Take themselves up."
Clinton, his 68-year-old voice rasping over the phone from Los Angeles, agrees: "We were higher than anyone else!" (He and the current iteration of the band are scheduled to play the 9:30 club on Monday.)
Before the Mothership was built, it was a concept. Parliament released "Mothership Connection" in 1975, an album with a title track about hitchhiking to cosmic transcendence: "Swing down, sweet chariot. Stop and let me ride." Clinton started dreaming up a tour to match. After watching the Who's 1969 rock opera "Tommy," he asked himself: "How do you do a funk opera? What about [black people] in space?"
He called upon David Bowie's tour producer, Jules Fisher, to help bring the Mothership to life. "This was theater. This was drama," says Fisher, a renowned Broadway lighting designer. "Current shows like U2 and the Stones -- they don't provide this narrative arc."
The Mothership was assembled in Manhattan and made its first descent in New Orleans from the rafters of Municipal Auditorium on Oct. 27, 1976.
Minds were blown.
"That first night was really huge for us," Clinton says. "But we made one mistake." The band unveiled the Mothership at the beginning of the show -- an impossible stunt to follow. The next night, in Baton Rouge, the ship didn't land until much later in the set.
Keyboardist Bernie Worrell remembers being unable to look away. "It was phenomenal, man. You couldn't describe it," he says. "I can play and not look at the keys. I watched it every time it would come down."
'Whole different love'
Washingtonians greeted the Mothership with unparalleled fervor. The nation's capital had long been a stronghold for the band and in 1975, Parliament released the "Chocolate City" album, a supremely funky mash note that popularized the nickname Washington had earned for its majority-black population.
When radio personality Donnie Simpson first moved to the area, he saw P-Funk stoking a unique dialogue with the community. "As hot as I thought they were in Detroit, when I came here, it was a whole different love," he says. "A whole different appreciation for the funk."