Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Hell With Concept Albums! Parliament Did a Concept Series

In the post-Sgt. Pepper era of popular music, the conversation regarding the most pivotal concept albums usually directs itself to the arena of classic rock bands, such as The Who’s Tommy and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon.

Overlooked in that same conversation are R&B and Soul masterpieces such as Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On? and Sly & the Family Stone’s Stand. While musicians such as Stevie Wonder and Curtis Mayfield would also further the conceptual aspect on vinyl, no artist took the thematic approach as far as George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic in the second half of the 1970’s.

Developing a concept alongside an ever-evolving, intergalactic storyline, the P-Funk crew fueled the imagination much in the same way that the revolutionary instrumentation of Bootsy Collins, Bernie Worrell, Garry Shider, Jerome Brailey, and the recently departed Junie Morrison fed our quest for rhythmic liberation.

This analysis of the Parliament albums released between 1975 and 1980 attempts to shine the Flash Light on the grand, far-reaching concepts that made these albums the untouchable landmarks that they are today. 

Chocolate City (1975)

Parliament’s conceptual approach begins with their second release for Casablanca Records, the label that the band signed with a year earlier. Portraying African-Americans in situations that white folks would least expect (a through-line in all subsequent Parliament albums), Chocolate City envisions black folks in all facets of the U.S. government. From the White House on down.

While only the title track embraces the overall concept, the idea informs for the remaining eight tracks, energetically and emotionally. Imagine if you will, Muhammad Ali welcoming all visitors (who possess a James Brown pass), Reverend Ike as Secretary of the Treasury, Richard Pryor as Minister of Education, and Aretha Franklin as the First Lady.

It’s a far-reaching vision powered by the ridiculous grooves of Collins, Worrell and the rest of the Funk Mob. Did someone slip this album to Barack Obama in his eighth grade social studies class? You decide. 

Mothership Connection (1975)

Originally titled Landing In The GhettoMothership Connection descended upon the planet in December of 1975 and launched Parliament’s cosmic mythology. George Clinton now transports Black folks to outer space while embarking on the mission - relayed through the slick talking interplanetary representative Star Child the long haired sucker - to drop THE BOMB on a Funkless existence.

But unlike previous P-Funk albums, this particular project would be bolstered by a live stage extravaganza that represented uncharted territory for an African-American band. The grand visual spectacle would include the landing of one the greatest stage props in rock history: The Mothership.

Designed by renowned lighting/stage designer Jules Fisher (who performed similar magic for Kiss, David Bowie, and The Rolling Stones), this theatrical innovation combined with the band’s first million selling single “Give Up The Funk (Tear The Roof Off The Sucker)” propelled this album to platinum status. 

The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein (1976)

Released during the fall of 1976 (while Mothership Connection was still on the album charts), the follow-up introduces the outer-wordly Dr. Funkenstein to the Parliament mythos. A cool ghoul with a bump transplant, Star Child’s father is a disco fiend with a monster sound, poised to Funkatize this galaxy and beyond, aided and abetted by his Children of Production.

This project also sports one of the most bizarre album covers ever released by a platinum selling Black musical act, showcasing all of the doctor’s clones within the Mothership itself, thoroughly proving that everything is on the one when your Funkin’ for fun! Ya dig!? 

Funkentelechy Vs. The Placebo Syndrome (1977)

 Another grand stocking-stuffer for Funkateers worldwide, Funkentelechy encapsulates the narrative in just six songs that take the entire Funk genre in a completely fresh direction. Enter the arch nemesis Sir Nose D’Voidoffunk, an un-funky wallflower who will never dance, the physical embodiment of the con job perpetuated by the Placebo Syndrome, which Sir Nose spreads throughout the galaxy. It is because of this intergalactic threat that Dr. Funkenstein arms Star Child with a state-of-the-art weapon: THE BOP GUN!!!

Shooting Sir Nose with the Bop Gun results in our archenemy giving up the Funk in a Flash of Light, in turn spawning the smash hit “Flash Light”. This chapter is thoroughly explained in an 8-page comic illustrated by in house P-Funk illustrator Overton Loyd who also drew the poster of Sir Nose that is included with the album. 

Motor Booty Affair (1978)

Emerging from the aquatic depths on Nov. 20, 1978, MBA takes Parliament in a new direction: the undersea world of Atlantis, a world now populated by … you guessed … black folks, and poised to be raised to the surface. Sir Nose now states that he can’t swim (and won’t sweat for that matter), since he remains D’Voidoffunk. He has now teamed up with the Bumpnoxious Rumpofsteelskin to once again, sydromize the planet.

In retaliation, Dr. Funkenstein commands Star Child to gather the baddest master-Funkers from throughout the galaxy, dancing down Bimini Road to the Emerald City doing the Aqua Boogie. Easily the most fully realized concept album in the Parliament discography, this album sports one of the most elaborate packaging efforts of the era, featuring a gatefold that contains a pop up display of Atlantis along with stand-up cut-outs of MBA characters such as Mr. Wiggles, Octave Pussy, Rita Mermaid, and Howard Codsell. Also released in picture disc format. 

Gloryhallastoopid (1979)

 The last Parliament album of the 1970s sees Mr. Wiggles from the Motor Booty Affair using the rhythms of Pyschoalphadiscobetabioaquadoloop to rearrange the molecular structure of Rumpofsteelskin’s “Don’t Try It!” megatons. Sounds a bit convoluted? Ridiculous? Preposterous? Yes, it does. Even by P-Funk standards. That’s because Dr. Funkenstein is now taking credit for the original Big Bang (you know … the one that started the universe!).

This latest installment also sees Sir Nose organizing a nefarious collection of intergalactic villains known as the Unfunkables. Their objective? To turn Star Child into an ass (literally) in front of all the Party People currently throwing down at the Jam Station by way of the Black Hole. A nonsensical Funk fantasy that has everything: assendectomies, flea powder, bootleg T-shirts, P.C.P., alien burgers, and even a guest appearance by Robin Williams. In the end, however, all that fuss was us! 

Trombipulation (1980)

The Parliament saga surprisingly comes to a quiet end with the arrival of a new decade as Sir Nose fulfills his ultimate dream - taking over the Funk Mob. New revelations are revealed in the New Doo Review, combining a clever mix of Egyptology, Congolese-inspired hairstyles, cro-nasal sapiens, and physical manipulation of elephant trunks. Have we encountered the missing link or the missing stink? After you finish dancing to this climatic party platter, you’ll have to figure that out by yourself.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Pink Floyd Adapts George Orwell’s Animal Farm into Their 1977 Concept Album, Animals (a Critique of Late Capitalism, Not Stalin)

by , Open Culture:

Pink Floyd will always be known for their massively successful concept albums, and David Gilmour and Roger Waters’ tense, and personally explosive, dynamic on albums like Dark Side of the Moon seems reminiscent of another masterful songwriting duo known for rock high concepts.

Indeed, “there would have been no Dark Side of the Moon, and no dragons-and-warlocks-themed prog-rock epics,” writes Jody Rosen at Slate, “had the Beatles not decided to don epaulets for their lark of an album cover and impersonate a vaudeville band.”

But where The Beatles’ loose conceptual masterpieces had their stormy and sad moments, they generally kept things chipper on albums like Sgt. Pepper’s. Pink Floyd seemed determined to do precisely the opposite, setting a template for entire genres of metal to follow.

1977’s Animals especially reminds me of nothing so much as an album by Megadeth or Mastodon. Musical and thematic similarities abound: epic, booming, doomy songs with lyrics completely uninterested in charming their listeners. “Sheep,” for example, contains a modified version of the 23rd Psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd. He maketh me to hang on hooks in high places and coverteth me to lamb cutlets.”

As the brutish title alerts us, Animals is an adaptation of George’s Orwell’s Animal Farm (and the origin of Pink Floyd’s giant inflatable pig). The schematic allegory of Orwell’s book lends a high degree of coherence to Waters’ extended songs - only five in total. But he supplies his own characteristic bile (he famously spit on a fan during one tour, an incident that inspired The Wall). It couldn’t be more appropriate.

Where Orwell’s novel is a transparent attack on Stalinism, Waters adapts his critique to “the economic and ideological systems within late-twentieth century liberal democracies.” So argues Phil Rose in an in-depth study of Waters’ lyrical ideas. The album’s “primary concern … is to reveal the effects that technocratic capitalist relations have on the nature of human beings and the evident divisions that undemocratic structures of power create among us as individuals.”

Orwell showed the effects of “undemocratic structures” by reducing individuals to animal types, and so does Waters, simplifying the classes further into three (and leaving out humans altogether): the ruling pigs, praetorian and aspiring capitalist dogs, and the sheep, the mindless masses.

The opener, “Pigs on the Wing (Part One)” (top), an urgent acoustic strummer that gets picked up at the end of the album in a strangely upbeat reprise, sets a dystopian tone with images that may now seem old hat (bear in mind Animals debuted five years before Blade Runner).
If you didn’t care what happened to me,
And I didn’t care for you,
We would zig zag our way through the boredom and pain
Occasionally glancing up through the rain.
Wondering which of the buggers to blame
And watching for pigs on the wing.
Most of the songs began their lives as a rough collection that came together after Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here. Waters insisted on the literary conceit, against Gilmour’s objections, but the themes had already been very much on his mind. “Dogs,” above, was once a sardonic rant called “You’ve Gotta Be Crazy,” and one of its bleakest stanzas survives from that earlier track:
You gotta keep one eye looking over your shoulder.
You know it’s going to get harder, and harder, and harder as you
get older.
And in the end you’ll pack up and fly down south,
Hide your head in the sand,
Just another sad old man,
All alone and dying of cancer.
There may be no sharper an antithesis to “When I’m 64.” The image is made all the more devastating by the homicidal paranoia surrounding it. Not all of the Orwell overlay works so well, but when it does, it does so with devastating force. Consider these lines from “Sheep,” as terrifying as any late Medieval judgement scene, and more effective for an age that may not believe in hell but has seen the slaughterhouses:
What do you get for pretending the danger’s not real.
Meek and obedient you follow the leader
Down well trodden corridors into the valley of steel.
What a surprise!
A look of terminal shock in your eyes.
Now things are really what they seem.
The band’s “bleakest studio album,” argues Brice Ezell at Consequence of Sound, “feels eerily relevant in these grave times.” I can’t help but agree. Pink Floyd greatly inspired much of the heavy music to follow, doing as much as Black Sabbath or Led Zeppelin, I’d argue, to engage the imaginations of metalheads and prog-rock storytellers.

Much of the music that followed them sounds very dated, but forty years after its release, their gloomiest record - which is saying a lot - seems more relevant than ever. Animals ends on an ambivalent note, hopeful but wary. The pigs are still on the wing, and the only remedy at hand, Waters suggests in the last few lines, may be to “know that I care what happens to you / And I know that you care for me.” 

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Hear Lost Recording of Pink Floyd Playing with Jazz Violinist Stéphane Grappelli on “Wish You Were Here”

by , Open Culture:

Those of you deeply into both jazz violin and progressive rock no doubt jumped right on the play button above. Quite a few more will listen - so experience has taught me - purely out of interest in anything and everything Pink Floyd has done.

But on the level of music history, the track above, a version of the cerebral English rock band’s Pink Floyd’s well-known 1975 song “With You Were Here” prominently featuring a solo from the French “Grandfather of Jazz Violinists” Stéphane Grappelli, should fascinate just about anyone.

It speaks to the particular kind of high-profile musical experimentalism that thrived in that era, at least in some quarters - or, rather, in some studios. In this case, the Grappelli and the Floyd boys found themselves recording in adjacent ones. Why would the latter invite the former, already an elder statesman of jazz and a collaborator with the likes of Django Reinhardt, to sit in on a session? (Watch Django and Grappelli play together in the 1938 film, Jazz Hot here.) Well … why not? They needed something impressive to follow Dark Side of the Moon, after all.

Still, for all the richness of the result you hear here and all the fan-hours spent listening to Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here album in the 35 years after it came out, the public never got to hear Grappelli’s playing foregrounded until Immersion reissued it three years ago.

This long-lost but rediscovered mix of the title track marks, to the mind of Pink Floyd founding member Nick Mason, a marked improvement over the version on the original album. “I think that was the jewel in that particular crown,” he said to Sonic Reality. “It was something that I assumed had been lost forever. I thought we’d recorded over it. [ … ] I can’t imagine why we didn’t use it at the time.”

In the one they did use at the time, what remains of Grappelli’s playing came out so inaudible that the album’s credits didn’t even name the violinist. I’d like to chalk up another point for the cultural revision made possible by our technological age, but alas, I doubt any sort of rediscovery will break true Floyd acolytes of their adherence to the canon. 

Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.