James Law discusses exactly why the iconic funk outfit’s third record deserves recognition as one of the twentieth century’s most influential releases
George Clinton. One of the most influential figures in music and one of the most sampled artists ever. He has recorded and produced art that has shaken the entire landscape to the core. It isn’t hyperbole to say that this man has done an inconceivable amount to shape the music scene as we know it today, so I’m going to take a look at what many would see as his 1971 magnum opus: Maggot Brain. But before I begin, a brief bit of background.
After failing to break into Motown, Clinton and his band The Parliaments, with whom he’d been performing since 1957, changed their focus. The Beatles and Rolling Stones had been invading the US charts, and Clinton had to go in his own direction. The band began combining the do-wop style they’d been performing as The Parliaments with elements of psychedelic rock (hence the name, ‘Funkadelic’), soul and blues, gathering inspiration from greats like Jimi Hendrix and James Brown and elevating the genre of funk to the next level. The Parliaments became Parliament-Funkadelic, and developed separate sounds under those two different names – Parliament for more standard funky stuff (see Mothership Connection), and Funkadelic for the psychedelic funk-rock side of things.
Maggot Brain is Funkadelic’s third album after their self-titled effort and the heavily intoxicating Free Your Mind… And Your Ass Will Follow. It represents the culmination and confirmation of their sound. Most notable members of the ever-evolving P-Funk roster in Maggot Brain are Clinton, Guitarist Eddie Hazel, Keyboardist Bernie Worrell, and the creatively nicknamed William ‘Billy Bass’ Nelson. He played the bass.
They combined to write, produce and perform music stemming from many types of sound, particularly in the hip-hop scene, but reaching out to R&B and rock. So many different styles exist in this transcendent masterpiece, that its influence, even through nearly 50 years, can still be seen in a huge amount of the music world, from DOOM to Prince to Talking Heads.
I can’t talk about Maggot Brain without mentioning the title track. It’s a 10-minute guitar solo. Clinton surrounded Hazel with amplifiers, everyone in the room on LSD, and told him to play. He told him to ‘play as if your mama just died.’ What followed is a journey through psychedelia and the mind of a virtuoso. The quote at the top of this article is George talking about surpassing reality. He has to deal with the grim state of the world and the people on it the best way he knows how, and this sentiment is illustrated through Eddie Hazel’s emotive and intricate-yet-chaotic playing.
They embrace the more bluesy mood in ‘Can You Get To That’ and ‘Hit It And Quit It’. After ‘Maggot Brain’, it’s an enormous leap of styles. These tracks satisfy those of us who want more of the Parliament-style of acoustic guitar funky goodness, with that little bit of weirdness that you always see in P-Funk that makes it that much more engaging and fun to listen to.
‘You And Your Folks, Me And My Folks’ follows a similar pattern, invoking a simple, groovy bassline, simple yet impactful lyrics with overriding themes of class conflict. Lines such as ‘The rich got a big piece of this and that / The poor got a big piece of roaches and rats’ may seem on-the-nose to some but it concisely communicates Nelson’s anguish and desires for the poor to unite in solidarity. The verse ‘But if in our fears, we don’t learn to trust each other / And if in our tears, we don’t learn to share with your brother / You know that hate is gonna keep on multiplying / And you know that man is gonna keep right on dying’. I quite like the philosophical differences these lines have compared to Clinton’s sentiment at the beginning of ‘Maggot Brain’ – Nelson cries for unity, whilst Clinton seems more nonchalant and jaded, having to ‘rise above it all’.
‘Super Stupid’, the first track on the B side, is one that very strongly shows influence from Jimi Hendrix. With only a few lines of lyrics discussing substance abuse and how ‘the winner is fear’, most of the song’s talking is done through the instrumentals. Hazel’s frantic, anxious, distorted and shaky guitar played slightly ahead of the beat, along with the fast-but-stable beat give the listener the feeling of being on-edge and off-balance, as the guitar track is slightly jarring as well as mesmerising when played alongside the rhythm section.
‘Back in our Minds’ is a far more level-headed track, putting together the confused message and living up to the title of the song. This is something of a recovery from the constantly changing tone of the album, and has more of a gospel inspiration behind it. This track is the one in which the band are literally back in their minds, and the lyrics suggest that it isn’t the state in which they want to be. They feel slightly defeatist: ‘We don’t fight no more / We done close that door / This time for sure / We can’t stand no more.’
This defeatism is intensified in ‘Wars if Armageddon’. It plays like a hysterical individual, fearing for their future. Frenzied and disturbed in its delivery, the vocals shout for ‘Freedom / Now!’, bemoaning that ‘I gotta go to work / What kind of shit is this,’ continuing the all-encompassing class battle felt by Clinton and the band, fighting racism and poverty through their unashamedly individual music – through the lyrics and to a greater extent, the new sonic combinations that hadn’t been made before, as well as their outrageous live performances. Also, there are a lot of fart sounds at 7:31. I’m sure this has a metaphorical meaning, but farts are inherently amusing and I will not grow up.
Maggot Brain may not be the most sampled of George Clinton’s work – partly because he was deliberately distancing himself from the mainstream at this point in his career, the pre-Bootsy Collins years – but it laid all of the groundwork for the future of P-Funk and the music world. For that, all I can do is thank the band for all they’ve done for the music I, and millions of others, love.