I Once Had A Life, Or Rather Life Had Me: Maggot Brain Turns 50

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Funkadelic – Maggot Brain

Released July 12th, 1971 on Westbound Records

Produced by George Clinton

Peaked at #108 U.S.

Singles:

You And Your Folks, Me And My Folks” (#91 U.S.)

Can You Get To That” (#93 U.S.)

Hit It And Quit It

Funkadelic began life as the backing band for The Parliaments. That was George Clinton’s doo wop project that formed in the 1950s out of a barbershop in Plainsview, New Jersey. After a few years of getting their legs under them, Clinton put together a backing band to let them take the act out on tour. This backing band was comprised of the teenaged employee of the barber shop, bassist Billy Nelson. Along with Nelson came his friend Eddie Hazel, who played a mean guitar. After these two came Tawl Ross on rhythm guitar and Tiki Fulwood on drums. This group, plus the singers led by George Clinton, moved to Detroit and then fell into legal troubles over previous contracts. In 1968, barred from using the name The Parliaments, Clinton signed the group to Westbound Records as Funkadelic.

They were, between 1968 and 1971, a funk band through the convenience of categorization only. Maggot Brain is the perfect example of what I mean by this. There are funk moments. “Hit It And Quit It” is very much a funk song – one solid, squelching groove, an ear worm of a refrain, and even Eddie Hazel’s ripping post-Hendrix guitar solo fits into that overwhelming groove. Consider the other parts of this record, though. “Maggot Brain” is a blistering solo work, easily one of the finest pure guitar moments ever committed to the permanent record; it’s bookended by warped, LSD-fueled George Clinton scene setting. “You And Your Folks, Me And My Folks” and “Super Stupid” are blistering Seventies hard rock, with the latter going toe to toe with the best headbanging moments of contemporary Zeppelin and Sabbath records and coming out ahead. “Can You Get To That” and the freak-out closer “Wars of Armageddon” bring in large amounts of psychedelic rock and touches of folk music, although the focus is clearly on letting the acid take the lead. The former was sampled famously on Sleigh Bells’ “Rill Rill” but is a bop in its own right, an ass-shaker even in a catalog of ass-shakers. The latter was the mirror of “Maggot Brain”, showing off the rhythmic prowess of Tiki Fulwood; Miles Davis was impressed enough to pinch him for his own work in 1972, although the Fulwood’s drug problems and frustration with some of George Clinton’s musical choices played a role in his brief departure from the group.

So while they were a funk band of sorts they were closer to being a psychedelic, death-obsessed hard rock band. The lyrical references on the record can be quite disturbing if you’re in a certain frame of mind. The liner notes are in part courtesy of the Process Church of the Final Judgement, a weird American millenarian religious movement founded by a couple of people who were tossed out of Scientology in the Sixties and which featured rumoured ties to Charles Manson. George Clinton, tripping balls, told Eddie Hazel (also tripping balls) to play the solo on the title track as though “he learned that someone he loved had died, and then found out that they hadn’t died at all.” Hazel remarked that the request was “fucked up” but did it anyway. The title (and the line “I have seen the maggots in the brain of the universe”) is rumoured to be a reference to the time Clinton found his brother dead in a Chicago apartment, rotted after several days and the crack in the back of his head wide open. Pop Matters has a whole essay on the influence and celebration of death in Funkadelic’s early work, but it’s enough to say here that the harder, more rock ‘n’ roll noises being made on Maggot Brain are surrounded by the spectre of death.

Honestly, it’s a good lesson for the Anthropocene. Death is inevitable – for you and your folks, me and my folks – and the more of a celebration you can make out of it, the more you’ll be able to groove.

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