MR PORTER Musical Primers: Space Disco
Detail from Parliament’s album artwork for Mothership Connection, 1975.
A brief history of cosmic funk – from Mr George Clinton to Jamiroquai – to take you to infinity and beyond.
Before the marathon-running astronaut Mr Tim Peake jetted off on his six-month sojourn aboard the International Space Station in December 2015, he created a Spotify playlist as part of his competition #spacerocks, to get him (and everyone else on the planet) in the mood. And what a selection it was: Queen, Def Leppard, Foreigner, Nickelback, Bon Jovi… every middle-of-the-road soft-rock poodle was accounted for. Unbelievable, really. Just imagine hurtling towards the ISS atop a missile full of petrol with Adele’s “Skyfall” blasting into your helmet, swiftly followed by Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway To Heaven”. It’s enough to make anyone go a bit HAL 9000. If Nasa had come to us for sonic advice, we would have recommended that, instead of such earthly fare, Mr Peake packed a trunkful of Parliament, Sylvester and Lakeside instead – what’s the cosmos, after all, without cosmic funk? Or space without space disco?
The relationship between funk, disco and the outer limits has been going strong since Parliament released Mothership Connection in 1975. Looking for a novel way to escape the injustices of earth and transport their audience to a galaxy far, far away, their frontman Mr George Clinton decided to use intergalactic themes to describe the urban black experience. “We had put black people in situations nobody ever thought they would be in, like the White House,” he told Mr Robert Hicks for Cleveland Scene decades later in 2006. “I figured another place you wouldn't think black people would be was in outer space. I was a big fan of Star Trek, so we did a thing with a pimp sitting in a spaceship shaped like a Cadillac, and we did all these James Brown-type grooves, but with street talk and ghetto slang.” Clinton created a “semi-serious funk mythology”, and transformed Parliament’s stages into huge UFOs cloaked in neverending clouds of dry ice. They also reappropriated the glam rock costumes popularised by Mr David Bowie, with Mr Clinton even creating his own Ziggy Stardust-esque alter ego, Starchild.
Mr George Clinton on stage at a Parliament show, 1978. Photograph by Mr Kevin Cummins/Getty Images
Parliament kick-started a cosmic funk space race. In 1976, Ms Asha Puthli, an Indian singer who worked on Mr Ornette Coleman’s classic Science Fiction jazz LP, released her album The Devil is Loose. On the track “Space Talk”, she compared the planets to a lover: “Taking a space walk / Still looking for love/ Venus please help me/ SOS planet, I need someone right now/ Strange, you give me strange thoughts/ Space, give me some space.” Artists like Lakeside, War, Messrs Marvin Gaye, Norman Connors, Lonnie Liston Smith and Dexter Wansel, and Atmosfear were also quick to use their lyrics, music and artwork to encourage citizens of the universe to leave behind their nine-to-fives and rocket into a world of satellites, Barbarellas and fantastic voyages. Rarely clocking in under six minutes, these songs were epic in every sense.
In the 1980s, cosmic funk morphed into space and Italo disco, with artists like Bumblebee Unlimited, Extra T’s, Cerrone and Sheila & B Devotion focusing more on the machines to provide the narrative. Using synthesizers and vocoders, they produced a less-emotional vision of the future, one that was more in line with the tech-heavy plots of Star Wars, Dr Who and the novels by Messrs Arthur C Clarke and Brian Aldiss. When socialist governments in Eastern Europe began clamping down on “inappropriately” dressed artists, many groups began performing at free festivals to circumnavigate the restrictions. Slowly, the genre itself became largely instrumental and orchestral in nature.
Cosmic funk had a brief resurgence in 1994, when Jamiroquai released The Return of the Space Cowboy. Borrowing heavily on the blueprint created by Parliament and Mr Marvin Gaye on tracks “Light Years”, “Mr Moon” and “Space Cowboy”, it went on to sell four million copies. While his credibility may have taken a battering in the years since, Jay Kay’s stoned adventures have still proved influential, with hip-hoppers including Timbaland, Missy Elliot, Chance The Rapper and Madlib sampling his wares.
Now, with the sun blazing high in the sky and Mr Tim Peake safely back on terra firma, it’s the perfect time for everyone to rediscover this quirky little musical niche. To get you started, we've put together a playlist of the most out-of-this-world cosmic tunes. So open up the window and let the space funk out.