Maggot Brain – Funkadelic is the Funk Classic We Need in Our Lives
Maggot Brain is the seminal album from Funk pioneers Funkadelic, the George Clinton-led collective was massively influential across a broad spectrum of musicians and genres. Maggot Brain laid the foundation for Prince, Red Hot Chilli Peppers and along with James Brown, provided most of the ammunition for Rap’s sampling heyday.
Funkadelic are a criminally underrated band, who don’t get the credit for their Rock chops, creative concepts and some of the most imaginative mythology music history. Later releases by the band and sister project Parliament would expand upon their varied cast of characters.
Formed by George Clinton in the late 1960s the amorphous Parliament-Funkadelic collective released a string of ground-breaking projects throughout the 1970s and 1980s. 1971’s Maggot Brain was Funkadelic’s third album and the last with the original line-up. This fascinating journey dripped with acid-inspired madness, complimented surprisingly well with earnest politics. Their previous album Free Your Mind… and Your Ass Will Follow was recorded over the space of a single entire acid trip, and really shows.
Maggot Brain’s title supposedly came from George Clinton who discovered his decomposing brother with maggots crawling around his skull. Death is the central theme of the album, but unlike contemporary records about the same subject like Black Sabbath’s Paranoid, Maggot Brain remains upbeat. Just look at the cover, with an afroed woman’s head sticking out of the dirt, an expression of joy(?) across her face.
Like many classic albums, Maggot Brain received its share of poor negative reviews upon release; hilariously Rolling Stone opened their review “Who needs this shit?”
Clinton took inspiration from the Motown Golden Age, and created a Hit Factory of his own in Detroit. To put Maggot Brain into context, the early 1970s marked the true start of Detroit’s spectacular decline. Black America was shocked by the devastating race riots of the 1960s and assassinations of inspirational figures like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Meanwhile, Richard Nixon’s presidency embarked on what is now seen as a Conservative backlash against the progressive reforms of the previous administration – similar to what’s happening now with Donald Trump.
Clarence Haskins recalled being holed up in a motel during the riot while “people [were] getting their fingers, arms, wrists cut off for their jewelry”. Many blacks saw this as an uprising against the oppression they faced during daily life, the riots during the Long Hot Summer of 1967 catalysed a growing Black Power movement; Funkadelic drew on this spirit.
In the early 1970s Blues Rock was at its height, Funkadelic drew on Rock influences but moved in a new direction,
“Cream, Blue Cheer, Sgt. Pepper’s, Sly, Vanilla Fudge: That’s what we were listening to constantly. And once Eddie [Hazel] started listening to Jimi Hendrix, he found his niche. Immediately, he was like, ‘Damn, Bill, I can do that! Can you play that bass shit, muthafucka?’ I was like, ‘Hey, man, I guess I’m gonna have to.” – Billy “Bass” Nelson
Hendrix’s impact is most obvious on the opening title track, a 10 minute epic journey through LSD and grief. Inspired by the recently deceased Jimi Hendrix, Eddie Hazel’s searing guitar odyssey was inspired by Clinton’s direction, he told Hazel:
“Play like you found out your mother was dead but then you found out it wasn’t true.”
With minimal backing instruments “Maggot Brain” showcased Hazel’s legendary skills. Remarkably it was recorded in one take, the self-taught player’s work swirls and repeats builds and releases tension throughout the journey. Clinton’s minimal production along Hazel’s powerful guitar-work shine as the backing instruments gradually fade.
At the time Hazel was widely considered to be the successor to Hendrix, however Hazel was content to be a member of the team rather than frontman. His outstanding contribution to Maggot Brain shows the high level of musicianship in the original Funkadelic line-up.
Aside from the opener, Maggot Brain boasts several standout moments. “Hit It and Quit It”, recently featured on Donald Glover’s brilliant Atlanta, is one of several tracks directly responsible for Awaken My Love, the best moment of Glover’s career. As a rapper Childish Gambino is woefully derivative, but his recent transformation into a Funk / Soul powerhouse is a welcome late-career shift.
“Hit It and Quit It” provides the blueprint for Glover’s current guise, with funky organs and call and response vocals. Bernie Worrell’s organ is fundamental to the track along with another acid-soaked guitar solo from Hazel which closes out the jam. It’s Funkadelic at their most fun.
“You and Your Folks, Me and My Folks” is extremely catchy, building on the formula best heard in the group’s self-titled debut album. At three-and-a-half minutes this is one of the more conventional track lengths from the group’s early work. Hazel’s trademark fuzzy guitar creeps around the background helping set this up as pure ear candy. This is a call for unity between Blacks in overcoming adversity in which they faced.
“Super Stupid” tells the story of an unfortunate junky who made the Mia Wallace-esq mistake of mixing up cocaine and heroin. An excuse for the band to rock out with extended guitar solos and lightening tempo this is another fun high point on the album.
“Can You Get to That” features Isaac Hayes’ backing singers, who help Funkadelic deliver three-minutes of classic pop. The rapid delivery of the lyrics feels like Proto-Rap and appeals to modern ears. This track looks at Karma and the classic adage of what goes around comes around.
During the recording of Maggot Brain, several band members quit and returned before the end of the process. While detracting from the coherence of the project, it remains a landmark album in not only the Funk, but Rock genres.
Clinton’s primary role was producer and songwriter, but he angered many of the five core instrumentalists during the recording of Maggot Brain. Nelson and Bernie Worrell were dismayed to be faded out of the final mix of the title track. A year after the album Worrell remained the only original member of Funkadelic, Fulwood was given the sack as a result of his heroin addiction, fellow addict Hazel’s career entered steep decline and he went to prison for assault. He made late appearances on Parliament-Funkadelic projects.
Nelson quit over money and Tawl Ross suffered severe brain damage after engaging in an acid-eating contest. Following this Clinton replaced his entire rhythm section with defectors from James Brown’s JBs. Maggot Brain is the high point from the original Funkadelic line-up.
Maggot Brain is a classic album that has withstood the test of time and its quality grows more prescient with each coming year. George Clinton’s original Funkadelic line-up deliver a great record, dealing with important subjects of the day but with a wry smile and wink.
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