Motor Booty Affair embodies everything that Parliament did best. The album is weird, high-concept, consistent, and remarkably funky. The group, fronted by George Clinton and made up of what seemed like a cast of thousands (or at least dozens), knew how to build worlds within their music that made perfect sense within the confines of the album, but would otherwise seem like the product of LSD-induced hallucinations (which they probably were) when viewed from the outside.
But for all the dirty jokes, the bizarre imagery, and the hyper-detailed cartoons in their albums' artwork, Parliament always viewed music as a way to bring people together. Released 40 years ago, Motor Booty Affair is one of Parliament's best and most cohesive projects, and one that exemplifies the philosophy that the power of music can conquer anything.
Motor Booty Affair was released during the period when the sounds of the "separate" bands Parliament and Funkadelic were starting to coalesce around a singular, more dance-inspired aesthetic. Just months earlier, Funkadelic released One Nation Under a Groove, its biggest hit to date, built around the idea that funk as a force was taking over the globe. It marked a more militant direction for the normally blues and rock inspired Funkadelic, and in a way, Motor Booty Affair reflected the adjustment in approach for their counterparts.
Motor Booty Affair was apparently inspired by Clinton's love of fishing. Clinton has said that he loves fishing almost as much as he loves making music, and frequently took prolonged, drug-fueled expeditions in the waters off the coast of Miami. Clinton's substance-addled mind crafted the idea about creating an entire album about the residents of the city of Atlantis. He reimagined it as a Utopia where its residents lived and danced free, much to the chagrin of the establishment and, in particular, P-Funk nemesis Sir Nose D'Voidoffunk and his dastardly companions. And like most other Parliament albums, Clinton stresses that Atlantis is where people are free to dance, possessing the ability to "dance underwater and not wet."
One thing about Parliament is that they knew how to commit to a bit. And boy, do they commit to the underwater motif of Motor Booty Affair. More so than even the group's other "concept" albums. Nearly every song is filled to the brim with water-based lyrics and puns. Some are incredibly obvious, like jokes about the "motion of the ocean" or how "the best stroke is the breast stroke." Others are a bit more obscure, like references to Biminy Road, a rock formation located near the Bahamas "discovered" shortly before this album was released. The rocks look like a wall/street, causing speculation that it was man-made. Regardless, the water-related wordplay helps establish Motor Booty Affair as simultaneously juvenile and brilliant.
Musically, Parliament albums always felt like a grand undertaking, and Motor City Affair feels like a bigger production than the group's other endeavors, in terms of sheer numbers of personnel enlisted to make the album work. Some are Parliament mainstays, like Bernie Worrell, Maceo Parker, and Fred Wesley. Some, like the brothers William "Bootsy" and Phelps "Catfish" Collins, had started contributing to the collective the year before. The massive cast of players and singers makes the project seem even denser than the group's previous entries.
One of the new and more prominent contributors to the Parliament-Funkadelic collective for this time out is Walter "Junie" Morrison. The former keyboardist for the Ohio Players had hooked up with Clinton in 1977 and became a "musical director" for Parliament-Funkadelic during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Morrison was central to developing the sound for both One Nation... and Motor Booty Affair, and played on this album under the pseudonym J.S. Theracon to avoid legal entanglements. I've always credited the brilliant keyboard/synth playing on Motor Booty Affair to musical genius Worrell, but I must allow that probably some of the work I've given Bernie credit for was played by Morrison.
Given the grandiosity of Motor Booty Affair's ambition and production, "Mr. Wiggles" at first seems like an odd choice to open the album with. Parliament is not known for its restraint; they're one of the most boisterous and bombastic groups ever. However, "Mr. Wiggles" is practically understated. Clinton assumes the role of the nominal "slithering idiot," scatting his way through the song as the bass plays a jazz-like groove, educating the listeners about how life unfolds in downtown Atlantis. The keyboards, synths, and horns are mixed as such so the sound is nearly faint in the background, bubbling up from the depths to the surface. Layers of vocals and whispers bounce in and out, chanting limerick-like refrains, but not in an overwhelming fashion.
"Rumpofsteelskin," one of the group's most popular singles, is the album's most conventional dance track. The song also relies on the least of the omnipresent aquatic imagery. The horn-heavy song introduces the new and treacherous minion of Sir Nose. In this Case, Rumpofsteelskin is particularly dangerous because "he's got dynamite sticks by the megatons in his butt" and is determined to use them to blow up Atlantis. Here Clinton brings back the character of Starchild, again ready to battle the funkless, who remain unaware that they're destined to lose. Its plucky bassline is reminiscent of Graham Central Station's hit song "Water," and I imagine that's not a coincidence.
No matter how out there Parliament gets, the group always includes a ballad on each project, and the surrealistic "You're a Fish and I'm a Water Sign" is a fine inclusion for Motor Booty Affair. Arguably the best song about "a liquid love affair" between a dolphin and a mermaid ever recorded, the track slowly churns like the tide. The song swirls with keyboards, synths, guitars, horns, and what seems like a half a dozen layers of overlapping vocals. Trying to catch all the details can be entertaining, especially with the chorus of funkateers crooning such outlandish ad-libs as "Wait a minute, check out my seaweed!" and "You got anything against dolphins, baby?"
Unlike their previous album Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome, where Starchild battles his enemies at the end of the album, the residents of Atlantis vanquish Sir Nose D'Voidoffunk roughly at the midway point of Motor Booty affair, with "Aqua Boogie (A Psychoalphadiscobetabioaquadoloop)." One of their most successful singles, the song exposes Sir Nose's greatest fear beyond dancing: getting wet. Once transported to Atlantis, he succumbs to both the water and the funk. The track features a powerful groove, built by pianos and chirping and squealing synthesizers, punctuated by gurgling wailing and vocals.
The rest of Motor Booty Affair unfolds like an extended party, as the residents of Atlantis celebrate their freedom through dancing. The function begins with "One of Those Funky Things," a rollicking jam centered on soaring horns, pulsing key, and loads of whistles and percussion. "Liquid Sunshine" is the fasted paced song on the album, filled with mostly repetitive exhortations and borderline nonsensical lyrics as drums and synths bound away with manic energy.
The album's title track is my personal favorite on Motor Booty Affair, and one of my favorite songs that Parliament ever recorded. The song takes place in an exclusive ocean-wide, star-studded event, with Morrison assuming the character of "Howard Codsell," who's acting as the Joan Rivers-esque stand-in, pointing up toward the multitude of sea-faring celebrities. The vocal work on the song is some of the group's best, as the narrator tries to hook the woman who he meets on the underwater dance floor. Furthermore, the keyboard-work on the song is some of the strongest I've ever heard. I have no idea if it's Morrison or Worrell who's tickling the proverbial ivory, but whoever it is (and it may be both), puts on an absolute clinic.
Motor Booty Affair ends with "Deep," one of Parliament's most overtly political songs. The nine-minute epic juxtaposes the corruption and banality of land-locked leaders and more-compromised politicians with enlightened residents of Atlantis. Clinton suggests that while democracy is for sale on dry land, people need to be more like his fictional residents of Atlantis, ready to unite to take each other to a higher place spiritually. Musically, "Deep" sports one of the group's most distinctive horn lines, just one part of the jumble of instrumentation and vocals that makes the song a full-fledged exercise in sensory overload. As the song progresses, the call for freedom through music becomes dominant, as the group sings, "We've got to raise Atlantis from the bottom of the sea / Dancing till we bring it to the top / We've got to keep on searching 'til we're totally free / But in the meantime let's say that we're deep."
Though Parliament-Funkadelic seemed to be at the peak of its popularity with Motor Booty Affair and One Nation Under a Groove, the collective wouldn't last much longer. Parliament released two albums, the very good GloryHallaStoopid (1979) and Trombipulation (1980), before the collective began to dissolve in a bit of a mess.
But before things got ugly, Motor Booty Affair showed the world how beautiful Parliament's music could be. Despite the thick musical presentation, the group's vision remained clear-eyed and straightforward, and remarkably optimistic. Defeating hate and greed through dance and music may seem corny now, but during less cynical times it was positively inspirational.