During the 1970s and early 1980s, George Clinton—the flamboyant singer, songwriter and mastermind behind the funk, soul and rock collective Parliament-Funkadelic—launched dozens of chart-topping songs, including "Flash Light," "One Nation Under a Groove" and "Atomic Dog." However, his greatest hit was perhaps the P-Funk Mothership, a life-size, alien spacecraft stage prop that whizzed over screaming crowds at his stadium concerts and played a central role in cementing Clinton’s legacy as one of music’s most eccentric—and trailblazing—artists.
The Mothership landed at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2011 after Kevin Strait, project historian for the museum, acquired it to anchor the museum’s inaugural “Musical Crossroads” exhibition. Under the direction of Bernie Walden, a former stage and lighting designer for Parliament-Funkadelic, the Mothership was recently reassembled and videotaped in all of its galactic glory.
The Smithsonian's Mothership is a clone of the original, which was scrapped and sold by the band for cash in 1983 amid a tumultuous period of disagreement and debt. Built in the mid-1990s, its younger twin was featured in a series of large-scale shows, and was last seen by concertgoers at Woodstock '99. The extraterrestrial vessel was stowed away in a Washington, D.C. storage unit. However, Clinton and his crew soon discovered that the ship was still partying like it was 1999—even if the band wasn't.
"We found out [the storage facility] was using it like a discotheque club. They'd turn [on the Mothership] on the weekends, and people would come and dance around—land it up and down all night long," says Clinton.
Clinton sent for the ship, and stored the spacecraft in his recording studio in Tallahassee, Florida, where it remained until the museum's Strait came to view it three years ago.
"They had carved out part of the ceiling so that [the ship's] crown could be on," laughs Strait. "It extended past the roof."
The Mothership, says Strait, will be one of many objects that will help viewers trace African-American music from its origins to present-day. “It’s the most iconic stage prop in African-American musical history, maybe even musical history of the past 40 years,” says Strait. “I really can’t think of anything that matches it in terms of its size and overall scope. It’s not necessarily the first thing that people think about when they think about the history of African-American music but that’s one of the things that we’re trying to show here—that the shows’ pageantry was a central part of getting people to know, feel and understand the music.”
Legions of funk fans—including a particularly robust bastion in Washington, D.C., which Parliament spotlighted in the 1975 album "Chocolate City"—are looking forward to seeing the Mothership when the museum opens its doors in 2016. “I think that some people are in disbelief that this thing that they saw cascading down from [stadium] rafters is actually now in our possession," says Strait.
Clinton’s own response to his donation was a mixture of nostalgia and pride. On the day the Mothership left Clinton's home, he was "crying like a baby,” says Bernie Walden, a longtime friend of the musician. “But they were happy tears. Tears of joy.”
“He didn’t want to see it go. It was such a central part of his legacy,” agrees Strait. “It’s at these moments when you realize that these aren’t just objects.”
But rest assured, there’s no Mothership-sized hole in Clinton’s heart. He’s already planning a third alien craft for his upcoming tours—although he envisons this one as a laser holograph that takes up a little less room on his computer hard drive than the aluminum model did in his house. And while the singer might miss his spaceship, he thinks it's claimed its rightful place in history at the Smithsonian. The two, he says, "are a match made in heaven. We're proud and happy."