Music News
2:21 pm
Wed June 4, 2014

Well, All Right, Starchild, The Mothership Is Back

Originally published on Wed June 4, 2014 6:18 pm

"Do y'all want to fly this evening? Do you want to ride on the Mothership?"

It's 1976 in Houston, and a rapturous crowd is swaying back and forth to the infectious funk of Parliament-Funkadelic's "Mothership Connection." Then, suddenly, it's there. A sparkling silver spaceship appears with flashing strobe lights shining from its feet, spewing smoke as it lands on the stage. Out steps frontman George Clinton.

"It was organized chaos, that's all I could say," Parliament-Funkadelic roadie Bernie Walden says. "It was mayhem."

Walden worked with both the original Mothership in the mid-1970s and a replica that was built in the mid-1990s. He says the carbon dioxide smoke that billowed from the bottom of the ship was a bit of a problem.

"It was so much on the original one that people in the front row were passing out."

Walden just finished helping the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture put the replica back together. The original was destroyed in the 1980s after the band went into debt. But Walden told museum specialist Kevin Strait that the replica was at George Clinton's Tallahassee, Fla., home studio. Strait leaped into action to acquire it and was dazzled by his first sight of the ship.

"Part of the ceiling was carved out so that the crown part of the Mothership could fit," Strait says, laughing.

Strait says the Mothership is the most iconic stage prop in African-American musical history, partly because it provides context and perspective to the evolution of black stagecraft. He describes George Clinton's Mothership as a manifestation of the liberating power of music.

"He really developed this grand idea of envisioning African-Americans in space as a way to liberate one's mind from the shackles of racism and poverty or any other societal constraints," Strait says. "The Mothership was this symbolic mode of transporting the conscious self into this ethereal place, which was pretty funky and pretty far out, but represents the grander scope of his thinking."

George Clinton says that when he created the Mothership, he was trying to outdo everything in rock 'n' roll, including the elaborate Broadway musical Hair.

"I definitely felt we needed something to be proud of as black people," Clinton says. "We wanted to have a funk opera."

Clinton says he sees the Mothership as a monument to black music — and adds that he donated it to the museum because the ship will give pride to a lot of people.

"It's a symbol of all the music that was created from it," Clinton says. "Not only from us — Parliament, Funkadelic, Bootsy [Collins] and the media — but the people that sampled it later, which was a whole other 25 years of music."

The Mothership will be on display in the museum's Musical Crossroads gallery, according to chief of design Bryan Sieling; other items include rock 'n' roll king Chuck Berry's Cadillac. Sieling says there will also be music and concert footage of the Mothership being used on stage. The display will be spectacular, even if the ship has acquired a few bumps and bruises along the way.

"In many ways, it's a crown jewel in the museum, because just look at it," Sieling says. "It's a jewel."

Clinton says he's proud and happy that the Mothership will be on display at the Smithsonian. He's still touring, and says he'll create another one — because he definitely has to fly.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The Smithsonian Institution is bringing back the funk. The National Museum of African-American History and Culture has just reassembled the Mothership. That's the silver spaceship made famous by the legendary funk band Parliament-Funkadelic. When the museum opens in Washington next year, the Mothership will anchor a larger music history exhibition. Band members and historians alike hope it will blow the minds of visitors, just like it did when it landed on stage. Here's NPR's Allison Keyes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOTHERSHIP CONNECTION")

PARLIAMENT-FUNKADELIC: (Singing) Do y'all want to fly this evening? Do you want to ride on the Mothership?

ALLISON KEYES, BYLINE: It's 1976 in Houston and a rapturous crowd is swaying back and forth to the infectious funk of Parliament-Funkadelic's "Mothership Connection."

(SOUNDBITE OF PARLIAMENT-FUNKADELIC SONG, "MOTHERSHIP CONNECTION")

KEYES: Then suddenly, it's there. A sparkling, silver spaceship appears on the YouTube video with flashing strobe lights, lights shining from its feet and spewing smoke as it lands on the stage and out steps front man George Clinton.

GEORGE CLINTON: It was organized chaos. That's basically all I can say. It was mayhem.

KEYES: Bernie Walden was a roadie with Parliament-Funkadelic. He worked with both the original Mothership the mid-1970s and a replica that was built in the mid-1990s. He says the carbon dioxide smoke that billowed from the bottom of the ship was a bit of a problem.

BERNIE WALDEN: It was so much, on the original one, that a lot of people in the front row were passing out.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOTHERSHIP CONNECTION")

PARLIAMENT-FUNKADELIC: (Singing) Well alright, star child, citizens of the universe, recording angels. We have returned to claim the pyramids. Partying on the Mothership.

KEYES: Walden just finished helping the Smithsonian put the replica back together. The original was destroyed in the 1980's, after the band went into debt. But Walden told me museum specialist Kevin Strait, the replica was that George Clinton's Tallahassee, Florida home studio. Strait leaped into action to acquire and was dazzled by his first sight of the ship.

KEVIN STRAIT: Part of the ceiling was carved out so that the top of the Mothership, the crown, could fit.

KEYES: Strait says the Mothership is the most iconic stage prop in African American musical history, partly because it provides context and perspective to the evolution of black stagecraft. He also thinks George Clinton's Mothership is a manifestation of the liberating power of music.

STRAIT: He really developed this kind of grand idea of envisioning African Americans in space, as a way to liberate one's mind from the shackles of racism or poverty or any other sort of social or societal constraint. So the Mothership was really this kind of symbolic mode of transporting the conscious self into this ethereal place which is pretty funky and pretty far out. But that represents sort of the grander scope of his thinking.

CLINTON: I definitely thought that we needed something to be proud of as black people.

KEYES: George Clinton says when he created the Mothership, he was trying to outdo everything in rock and roll, including the elaborate Broadway musical "Hair."

CLINTON: We wanted to have a funk opera.

KEYES: Clinton says he sees the Mothership as a monument to black music. And he donated it to the museum because his ship will give pride to a lot of people.

CLINTON: It's a symbol of all - of all that music that was created from it, not only from us, you know, Parliament-Funkadelic, Bootsy and the media but the people that sampled it later, which is a whole other 25 years of music.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Welcome to station WEFUNK. Better known as We Funk or deeper still, the Mothership Connection.

KEYES: The Mothership will be on display at the National Museum of African-American History and Culture's Musical Crossroads gallery, says chief of design Brian Seiling, along with rock and roll king Chuck Berry's Cadillac.

BRIAN SEILING: The first thing you'll see is that bright, red Cadillac convertible. You'll see this in the distance behind it. Raised up as it was used on stage with its lights on.

KEYES: Seiling says there were also be music and concert footage of the Mothership being used on state. And the display will be spectacular, even if the ship has a few bumps and bruises.

CLINTON: In many ways, it's kind of a crown jewel in the museum because just look at it, it's like a jewel.

KEYES: George Clinton says he's proud and happy that the Mothership will be on display at the Smithsonian. He is still touring, and he says he'll create another one because he definitely has to fly. Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.