Psych album of the week: Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain (1971)

The album’s trippy production touches include heavily treated percussion, extended Hendrix-style, fuzz drenched, wah-guitar solos, and strange atonal vocalizations

funkadelic-maggot

The front and back covers of Funkadelic's classic 1971 LP, Maggot Brain.

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Funk icon George Clinton’s albums always sound like a party.  Lots of vocalists, lots of players, and a big communal atmosphere. Sometimes the party is dark and twisted, sometimes a guest or two should not have been invited, but they are never dull affairs. And we are still talking about these parties decades later. 

His first “do”, as a teenage leader of the Parliaments, was in 1956 and his most recent event was a 2019 collaboration with hip-hop producer Flying Lotus. 

Diverse artists hail the North Carolina-born Clinton’s work as enormously influential, from the Doobie Brothers to Dr. Dre. 

For many familiar with Clinton’s career, images of dreadlocks of many colours and flying saucers on stage come to mind easily. It would be a mistake, however, to focus on the wild trappings and pass over the music at the heart of his oeuvre. 

His musical protectorate, the Parliament-Funkadelic (aka P-Funk) collective has released an extensive catalogue of funk-based eccentricities. Few, though, are more notable than Funkadelic’s first high point, 1971’s Maggot Brain

Funkadelic’s defining moment

Pitchfork has called the album “a monument of psychedelic funk” and “a defining document of black rock music in the early ’70s.” It also contains a legendary and lengthy guitar solo (more on this to come) and showcases two outstanding musicians in Clinton’s stable at the time: guitarist Eddie Hazel and keyboardist Bernie Worrell. 

The album features trippy production touches including heavily treated percussion, extended Hendrix-style, fuzz drenched, wah-guitar solos, and strange atonal vocalizations. The two strongest numbers bookend the album. The five songs in between tell tales of the heart and put forward the social commentary that took place at this particular Clinton affair. 

“Maggot Brain” kicks things off with a suitably “out there” intonation from Clinton: “I have tasted the maggots in the mind of the universe”. This leads into gentle guitar arpeggios and far-off snare echoes. 

At 1:15 Eddie Hazel and his guitar take over. 

His filthy bends, expressive, balls-out lead lines and subtle finger-style scrabbles ebb and flow and carry the number for the remaining nine minutes. 

“One of the greatest solos of all time”

Critical endorsements of this solo are numerous and vociferous: “one of the greatest solos of all time on any instrument”, “a tour de force, challenging the late Jimi Hendrix (one of the few recordings ever to do so) as one of the great guitar solos of all time”, “[t]he entire spectrum of human emotion can be heard in ‘Maggot Brain'”. It is difficult to argue with these assessments once you come to the end of the track. 

With both men tripping on LSD in the studio, Clinton asked Hazel to play as though he had just found out his mother had died. So powerful was Hazel’s playing that Clinton largely stripped away the rest of Funkadelic’s full-band performance. He pulled down the faders on drums, percussion, bass and keyboards, leaving only Hazel’s shredding and Tawl Ross’s guitar accompaniment. These parts were then subjected to further studio treatment. 

The deluxe reissue of the album includes a full-band mix for comparison.  There is no question Clinton made the right call. He knew a good thing when he heard it. So he removed all distractions to properly focus the listener on Hazel’s outpouring of emotion.    

Switching things up

“Can You Get to That” switches things up sonically. After a down-home acoustic guitar intro, it proceeds at a languid pace as Clinton says a sardonic good-bye to a former flame. 

“Hit It and Quit It” is a riff-based hymn to remaining unattached. It features a nifty organ solo by Worrell and a tight outro lead by Hazel. 

“You and Your Folks, Me and My Folks” is a class-conscious groove with some trippy phasing effects on Tiki Fulwood’s drums.

“Super Stupid” rocks hard with Hazel raging away throughout the cautionary tale. “Super stupid bought a five cent bag/He thought it was coke but it was scag/Super stupid took a one and one/Then his eyes begin to bug and his nose begin to run.”

Closing track “Wars Of Armageddon” begins Santana-style with bubbling congas, cowbell, and syncopated organ stabs. Random airport PA announcements appear and disappear. These add to the chaos while fiery organ and guitar solos slash and burn. At 5:15, the mix strips down to little more than quarter notes on a cowbell. These are so heavily treated they jackhammer right through your skull. Things build up again before Clinton’s revolutionary plans for social change are finally revealed: “More power to the people/More pussy to the power/More pussy to the people/More power to the pussy”. 

Funkadelic continued to release albums at a torrid pace throughout the ’70s before dissolving in the early ’80s. Clinton rebranded his entourage George Clinton and the P-Funk All-Stars. He continued touring and making music, albeit less frequently, well into the 2000s.

Canadian connection

Clinton lived in Toronto in 1994 while filming frat-comedy PCU. He has since declared that “Toronto had the best weed around”. Take that, British Columbia. 

He has been vocal about his support for the legalization of cannabis over the years. He now credits his weed vape pen as helping keep all illegal drugs at bay after a long history of substance abuse. 

Trippiest lyrics

Mother Earth is pregnant for the third time/For y’all have knocked her up/I have tasted the maggots in the mind of the universe/I was not offended/For I knew I had to rise above it all/Or drown in my own shit” (“Maggot Brain”)

In their own words

“Oh, it helped me get rid of my crack habit [laughs]. It’s the best medicine to alleviate it.  I mean, it takes care of all of it—medicinal, mental, recreational — it takes care of the steps you need for well being. It’s a whole thing you got, medically, psychologically and just plain havin’ fun.”  (George Clinton on cannabis)

“I could see the guitar notes stretching out like a silver web. When he played the solo back, I knew that it was good beyond good, not only a virtuoso display of musicianship but also an almost unprecedented moment of emotion in pop music.”  (George Clinton on the “Maggot Brain” guitar solo)

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