Can We Still Be Friends? Revisiting the Most Acclaimed Pop Albums of the 1970s

[Blogger’s note: In this series, I’m taking the Wayback Machine to a bygone musical era that began with the public break-up of the Beatles and ended with the first Top 40 singles by Prince. My source is Rolling Stone’s best 100 albums of the 1970s, culled from the magazine’s 500 all-time greats by an obliging Reddit user. I’ll focus on selected albums from the list and, if I may be so bold, award Test of Time Points based on how well they’ve held up over the decades, from 1 (stale as old toast) to 10 (still poppin’ fresh) in each case. Enjoy, and rock on!]

#93: Parliament – Mothership Connection (1975)

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Growing up in America in the mid-1970s, back in the pre-Spotify Stone Age, my go-to sources for new music were the three Rs: radio, record stores, and the roller rink. (Wait, is that four Rs?) Radio gave me my fix of the top pop hits of the day – “Philadelphia Freedom,” “Jive Talkin’,” etc. And as the record stores in my vicinity seemed to be staffed solely by long-haired potheads, I likely experienced my first taste of Pink Floyd and Yes in those hippie havens. But the roller rink is where I got schooled in funk and soul. Savvy ‘70s rink DJs knew that if they wanted to get us kids away from the snack bar and out onto the slick floor for an “All Skate,” they just had to drop the needle on “Getaway” by Earth, Wind & Fire, or “Love Rollercoaster” by the Ohio Players, or Parliament’s crossover smash “Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker).” I couldn’t get enough of these rousing rink faves then and I’ve held them close to my heart ever since, even though I haven’t been on eight wheels in decades.

It was at a suburban skating establishment in Nashville in the spring of ’76 that the Parliament tune first caught my ear, causing my lower limbs and hips to twitch involuntarily to its irresistible, off-kilter groove. As it blared from the rink speakers, I’m sure I attempted to execute some funky floor moves, and all I can say about that is I’m glad there were no camera phones around back then. Soon after, I purchased the 45 and proceeded to wear out the A-side on my little portable turntable at home. Eventually I flipped the single over and discovered the hilarious charms of the proto-rap B-side, “P Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up)”.  Here, Parliament’s resident mad genius George Clinton throws shade at ‘70s soul pretenders:  “I was down South and I heard some funk with some main ingredients like Blues Magic, Doobie Brothers, David Bowie. It was cool, but can you imagine Doobie in your funk?”

My paltry allowance at the time didn’t afford me the luxury of buying many full-length LPs, so a deep-dive into Mothership Connection, the album that features those two tunes, would have to wait a while. I played the LP in its entirety a few years later, while working at a record store myself, but by then I was well into my brooding new waver phase and I didn’t, um, connect with its loosey-goosey, feel-good vibe. Thankfully, the phase passed and my tastes became more inclusive. I can now appreciate Mothership as a delightfully bonkers artefact from a seminal musical era. Clinton and his collective, which includes bad-ass bassist Bootsy Collins, have influenced countless funk flame-keepers, from Prince to the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Outkast to Bruno Mars and on and on. But even Prince might have shied away from the outlandish getup Clinton sports on this album’s cover. He’s pictured busting out of a cockeyed UFO, legs splayed, clad in a loin cloth, red evening gloves and silver platform boots. No shrinking violet, our George.

So how do the songs hold up? “P Funk,” the opener, still makes me giggle like it did in ‘76. Likewise, “Give Up the Funk” transports me back to my desperately arrhythmic days on the rink floor, doing sloppy figure-8s in rented skates. The easy-groovin’ title track is another highlight and introduces Clinton’s alien alter-ego Starchild. Hosting a house party on his spacecraft, Starchild beckons listeners to “Put a glide in your stride and a dip in your hip and come on up to the Mothership.” Unfortunately, from there the fun flags. Mothership suffers from what I call “’70s album syndrome,” i.e. it has two or three great tunes and the rest is pretty much filler. There is a preponderance of middling mid-tempo jams like “Night of the Thumpasorus Peoples,” a dubious feat considering there are only seven tracks in total. Another upbeat roof-raiser or two might have kept the momentum at All Skate levels. But too much of the time Clinton and company seem to be just spinning their wheels.

Test of Time Points (out of 10): 6
Funkiness of Blogger’s Roller-Skating Moves (out of 10): minus 30

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