Another Word: The Depth of Sci-Fi Funk in the '70s
At the start of the 1970s, two forms of popular culture were on the rise: science fiction and funk. Sci-fi had a huge breakthrough in 1968 with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey; at the same time, funk architects like James Brown and Sly Stone were forcing the music to progress at an exhilarating rate. As the ’70s developed, these parallel arcs turned and merged. The result was sci-fi funk. Pairing the rhythmic and thematic innovations of funk with the conceptual evolution of science fiction, sci-fi funk expanded in the ’70s—catalyzed in part by the phenomenon of Star Wars—to become, by decade’s end, instantly recognizable. It also became the most visible face of Afrofuturism, which had been fostered in rock and jazz by artists such as Jimi Hendrix and Sun Ra.
Any discussion of sci-fi funk from the ’70s rightly begins with Parliament-Funkadelic. Led by founder George Clinton and emblemized by bassist Bootsy Collins, the collective of musicians fused science fiction, Black consciousness, and the emerging complexity of funk, beginning in earnest with Parliament’s 1975 album The Mothership Connection.
But the discussion of sci-fi funk in the ’70s usually ends with P-Funk as well, despite the fact that Clinton and crew were not the first, let alone only, funk artists of the decade who tapped into the concepts and aesthetic of sci-fi. In doing so, they further developed the ideas and visibility of Afrofuturism throughout popular culture.
In the early ’70s, funk singles such as “Space Travel” by Mugo, “Space Monster” by Lunar Funk, and “UFO” by Mickey & Them dipped their toes in science fiction, although most came across as novelty songs. But a little-known band from New Jersey may have recorded the first fully-realized sci-fi funk song. The Continental Four’s 1972 single, “Escape from Planet Earth” features a long, spoken-word intro complete with rocket-launch sound effects and a scenario where the crew of a spaceship must leave Earth to establish a new civilization on a distant planet. Parliament-Funkadelic were dabbling in cosmic themes by 1972, but they were still more in line with the vague mysticism of the post-psychedelic era. The Continental Four not only envisioned a utopian Black future among the stars, they did so through a compelling, cohesive sci-fi narrative.
While The Continental Four sang about space colonies, a dance craze called The Robot flourished here on Earth, as evidenced by a handful of songs including “Do the Robot” by The Family, “Funky Robot” by Dave “Baby” Cortez, and “Funky Robot” (a different song) by the king of R&B dance crazes, Rufus Thomas. In a 1973 episode of the TV show Black Omnibus, Thomas even demonstrated the Funky Robot to an amused James Earl Jones—who had no idea that he’d soon become one of sci-fi’s greatest icons as the voice of Darth Vader. The Robot hit its peak the same year, when The Jackson 5 performed their latest single, “Dancing Machine,” for a national audience on Soul Train. During this appearance, Michael Jackson offered a stunning display of the android-mimicking dance, which meshed with the song’s sci-fi vision of an “automatic, systematic” dance partner “filled with space-age design.”
Labelle shot to fame in 1974 with the success of “Lady Marmalade,” but it’s the B-side of that single that expressed the group’s sci-fi passion. “Space Children” is a plea for global togetherness draped in elegant funk—an inclusive view of the human race from a celestial perspective. One of the trio, Nona Hendryx, shared her love of science fiction with her cousin Jimi, and it seeped into Labelle’s increasingly cosmic lyrical content. Labelle also tapped into the emerging glam-rock movement led by sci-fi rocker David Bowie; they dressed themselves in ornate, glittery outfits that reimagined astronauts’ spacesuits. The costumes were created by designer Larry LaGaspi, who also made similar stage attire for Kiss and Parliament—the latter of whom were about to make a quantum leap to the top of the sci-fi funk field.
Parliament’s The Mothership Connection, released in 1975, was the flashpoint of sci-fi funk, pulling together a disconnected trend into a consummate whole. In a parallel universe, though, Parliament’s contemporaries The Undisputed Truth became that band. Assembled in 1970 by Motown producer Norman Whitfield, The Undisputed Truth plunged into science fiction with their 1975 album Cosmic Truth and its lead single, “UFOs.” Using Whitfield’s groundbreaking psychedelic-soul sound, “UFOs” wrapped sci-fi funk in a tuneful package, complete with futuristic costumes similar to Parliament’s and Labelle’s. Despite three strong albums in this vein throughout the decade, The Undisputed Truth never caught on, having failed to develop the mythology and forward-looking innovation that put P-Funk at the forefront. Still, The Undisputed Truth’s alien-centric music remains a vital chain of sci-fi funk’s DNA.
Funk began to overlap with jazz fusion in the late ’60s—and as the ’70s progressed, so did sci-fi funk. Jazz keyboardists like Herbie Hancock and Charles Earland used funky grooves to ground the science-fiction cosmology first propagated by Sun Ra. Dexter Wansel was another such keyboardist, although his 1976 album Life on Mars—no relation to the David Bowie song of the same name—crafted a more immersive interplanetary ambience than Hancock or Earland. Using cutting-edge technology and studio techniques, he and his band, which he dubbed The Planets, created a soundscape that conjured both celestial harmony and the rhythms of some futuristic machinery. Wansel later doubled down on his infatuation with space exploration and become a science fiction novelist—one of the few sci-fi musicians of that era to do so, including Mick Farren of The Deviants and Julian Jay Savarin of Julian’s Treatment.
Singer Maxayn Lewis and her husband, keyboardist Andre Lewis, were the core of the band Maxayn, who released the space-themed single “Moonfunk” in 1974. After the group broke up, Andre went solo, assuming the guise of a robotic figure named Mandré. Wearing a metal helmet and brandishing a control panel’s worth of synthesizers, he issued three albums in the late ’70s that brought a new level of ambition to sci-fi funk. Symphonic in scope, songs such as “Solar Flight (Opus I)” grafted a funk sensibility onto the weightless, spacious sounds popularized by his classical-leaning contemporaries Vangelis and Jean-Michel Jarre. Other funk artists had a similar approach in 1977—most notably Manzel, the band behind the much-sampled single “Space Funk”—but Mandré’s virtuosity and mystique signaled a profound shift in sci-fi funk, one that would influence everything from electro to trance to Daft Punk, whose helmets bear an unmistakable resemblance to Mandré’s.
Along with synthesizers, voice modulation became a technological hallmark of sci-fi funk in the ’70s. As early as 1972—when “Do the Robot” by The Family featured deadpan baritone vocals meant to simulate the rumbling of a mechanical man—funk artists sought ways to render human speech less human. To this end, the device of choice during most of the decade was the talk box, which formed an interface between the human voice and musical instruments such as guitars. “Stellar Fungk” by Slave, released in 1978, is one of the most compelling uses of the talk box in sci-fi funk, depicting a dance across the galaxy urged on by android commands and laser noises. The song appeared the same year Battlestar Galactica hit TV screens and made popular villains of its sinister, cybernetic Cylons. The show used the more expensive vocoder to transform its actors’ voices, a device that wound up becoming ubiquitous in popular music in the ’80s and beyond. But talk-box funk like “Stellar Fungk” paved the way for the common use of robotic vocals as a way to simultaneously mock and celebrate humanity’s growing intersection with technology.
The release of Star Wars in 1977 transformed pop culture—sci-fi funk included. Meco’s platinum-selling disco version of the movie’s theme catapulted sci-fi funk into millions of homes across America. Instantly, sci-fi funk was mainstream. Dozens of artists leapt to capitalize on Star Wars, with numerous Meco knockoffs competing against a slew of songs that drew inspiration from the film rather than directly adapting John Williams’ score. Funk and disco acts such as The Droids, Boney M., Dee D. Jackson, and Sarah Brightman & Hot Gossip—many of them European and more sympathetic to Kraftwerk and Giorgio Moroder than P-Funk—got in on the Star Wars-inspired music boom. One of the most intriguing examples is “The Force” by the American vocal trio Stargard. Released in 1978, the song unabashedly borrows the central philosophical concept of Star Wars, right down to the film’s mantra “May the Force be with you.” At the same time, the lyrics carry a deeper resonance, equating the Force with spiritualism, inner strength, and empowerment.
Thanks to Star Wars, science fiction had fully infiltrated the mainstream by 1978. Suddenly, singing about space wasn’t only for novelty songs or cult artists. This sparked many funk superstars who had previously toyed with sci-fi imagery, like Earth, Wind & Fire, to delve more deeply into space travel on their 1978 single “Jupiter.” It also left a mark on huge artists not known for sci-fi themes, such as Stevie Wonder, who released the planet-gazing “Saturn” the same year. But the most ambitious song by a major funk star in the wake of Star Wars was Marvin Gaye’s “A Funky Space Reincarnation.” Over eight minutes long, it takes place in 2093 and details conquests both romantic and astronomical, referencing Star Wars by name in the process. It also dips into Afrofuturism, imagining a hopeful tomorrow where “Music won’t have no race / Only space.” Leave it to Marvin Gaye to pair sensuality with science fiction, in essence turning all of outer space into a single, infinite erogenous zone.
On first listen, “Dark Vader” by Instant Funk is just another Star Wars cash-in. But scratch the surface, and it’s fanfiction in song form. Unlike the many shallow appropriations of Star Wars set to music in the late ’70s, the song recasts Darth Vader—played in the film by the white actor David Prowse yet voiced by James Earl Jones in his stentorian bass—as Dark Vader, an explicitly Black character. In doing so, the song reclaims Darth Vader, casting him as a kind of interstellar Blaxploitation antihero—or as the lyrics describe, “a tall black man, entirely fearless.” It’s less a tribute to Star Wars and more a retelling of the story from a point of view that’s sympathetic to the villain. “Dark Vader” is to Darth Vader as the musical Wicked is to the Wicked Witch of the West.
The proliferation of sci-fi funk at the end of the ’70s left the genre ripe for self-parody. In 1979, as Parliament released its final sci-fi concept album Gloryhallastoopid, the band’s rich cosmic mythology and tongue-twisting technobabble had become widespread—to the point where fusion keyboardist George Duke recorded a loving spoof titled “The Alien Succumbs to the Macho Intergalactic Funkativity of the Funk Blasters.” It’s a title that could have come from any number of Parliament or Funkadelic records in the ’70s, and sonically, Duke was just as playfully faithful. “Underwater intergalactic jam / With folks from another space and time / Alien romancing,” he sings while coaxing disco-on-Neptune sounds from his synthesizers. “The Alien Succumbs” is the best P-Funk song that P-Funk never made—a testament to how thoroughly George Clinton’s futuristic vision, and sci-fi funk as a whole, had trickled down over the course of the decade. At the end of the ’70s, sci-fi funk was still evolving, and Parliament-Funkadelic remained the primary source. But as important as P-Funk will always be, they were not the end-all-be-all of sci-fi funk in the ’70s. They were simply the most visible peak of a deeper continuum—one that translated the hopes and fears of science fiction into a language of musical innovation, liberation, theatricality, and dance.
Jason Heller is the author of the nonfiction book Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded (Melville House). He's also a former nonfiction editor of Clarkesworld; as part of the magazine's 2012 editorial team, he received a Hugo Award. He wrote the alt-history novel Taft 2012 (Quirk Books), and his fiction has appeared in Apex Magazine, Farrago's Wainscot, Swords v. Cthulhu, and others; his nonfiction has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, Entertainment Weekly, Weird Tales, Tor.com, and Ann and Jeff VanderMeer's The Time Traveler's Almanac. He regularly reviews science fiction and fantasy novels for NPR.org, and he's the co-editor of the fiction anthologies Cyber World (with Josh Viola) and Mechanical Animals (with Selena Chambers), both for Hex Publishers. Jason lives in Denver with his wife Angie and plays in the post-punk band Weathered Statues, and he can be found on Twitter: @jason_m_heller.