1971, Westbound Records. Producer: George Clinton.
In My Collection: Spotify, 2015.
IN A NUTSHELL: Maggot Brain is a 70s hard rock jam fest, and it’s got all the stuff I love from a rock band from that era: big drums, strong grooves, and searing guitar solos. With just enough funk to keep my butt shaking, it’s the love child of Black Sabbath and Stevie Wonder. Eddie Hazel’s guitar is the hero of the day, and Tiki Fulwood’s drumming is astounding. Its quick seven songs really pack a wallop.
THEORETICAL PLACE IN A FUTURE TOP 100 LIST I’LL NEVER WRITE: Top 60.
Way, way back, 100 years ago, in 2017, when I wrote about my 37th Favorite Album, The Who’s Who’s Next, I noted that rock fans of the 70s and 80s (like me) often harbored animosity against other forms of music. Bigotry was a large component of that animosity. Growing up in a narrow-minded place and time, I was subtly taught by otherwise good people around me to disdain non-whites. I learned to camouflage it with performative tolerance, but I vigilantly maintained an identity for the white people around me. Among some of these white music fans, listening to the wrong style of music could dent my rock bona fides.
I heard many of them use an ugly term for some off-limits music, and even though I never used the phrase, I knew it meant anything by a Black artist who wasn’t Jimi Hendrix. So I missed out on some awesome music, probably the least important consequence of that cultural education. I don’t necessarily mean pop and R&B – styles that, whatever the artist’s ethnicity, didn’t connect with me. But a lot of music that I might have really loved eluded me, and Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain is a case-in-point. As a teen-ager who loved music with a screaming guitar and a great big beat, and who didn’t give a shit about lyrics, I would have found a lot to love on it!
George Clinton, the leader of Funkadelic, is the kind of flamboyant musician I might have loved, too. He’s better known as the leader of Parliament-Funkadelic, or P-Funk, and it took years for me to figure out that it’s two different bands: Parliament and Funkadelic. (They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997 as “Parliament-Funkadelic.”) In the early 90s I picked up the Greatest Hits record “Uncut Funk,” seemingly attributed to P-Funk, and loved it. It turns out it’s actually Parliament’s Greatest Hits, and has no music from Funkadelic. (As an aside, the Parliament song “Flashlight” is the song my wife and I consider to be “our song.”)
Parliament was R&B-oriented, whereas Funkadelic was psychedelic rock. And as a testament to Funkadelic’s modus operandi, they intentionally cut the album Free Your Mind … And Your Ass Will Follow to see what happened when everyone involved in its creation was tripping on LSD during the process. Other albums included The Electric Spanking of War Babies, America Eats Its Young, Cosmic Slop, and Hardcore Jollies. (Click that link and listen to “Hardcore Jollies” – it’s like Grand Funk Railroad, if they actually played funk.)
Everything about the band’s albums screams “whacked out on mind-altering drugs:” the artwork, the titles, the production. When I first encountered the Maggot Brain album cover (which, yes, appears to be a screaming woman’s head emerging from a pile of maggot-infested dirt) in my friend’s collection, I asked what it sounded like. “A bunch of Black funk-rockers on acid,” he replied. I can’t say he wasn’t accurate.
The title track is a virtuoso guitar solo by Eddie Hazel, and it’s an epic sonic journey, the type of track that rarely opens a record. But Funkadelic does things their own way, so why not? (In case you’re wondering whether psychedelics were ingested during the recording of this album, the answer is “yes.” The proof is in the opening spoken word section …)
This song shows up on all kinds of best-guitar-solos-ever lists. Hazel’s guitar has an amazing tone, and it’s placed at the forefront of the mix. Other instruments reverberate in the background, as Hazel channels Hendrix and anticipates Eddie Van Halen. The solo bounces between speakers, delayed and distorted, and the experience of listening, particularly on headphones, is pleasantly disorienting. If you hang on, it’ll take you places.
There’s nothing at all “funky” about the song “Maggot Brain.” The funk remains muted on the next track, “Can You Get to That,” a slow groove that sounds a bit like something from The Band, even down to the shambling, homespun lyrics.
George Clinton started his career as a doo-wop artist, and the vocal arrangement here definitely harkens back to it. His original doo-wop buddy, bass “Sting Ray” Davis, sings a sticky “I wanna know,” while backing vocalists Patsy Lewis, Diane Lewis and Rose Williams share lead vocal duties (kind of). The next number, “Hit It and Quit It,” sounds like it could almost be a Lynyrd Skynyrd demo. It’s built on a Hazel riff and calliope-esque organ from Bernie Worell, and at 2:50 has a soaring guitar solo. The lyrics express a desire for some mama to undertake the effort to “hit it” and then, in direct fashion, “quit it.” They also allow for said mama to “shake it” in a bidirectional fashion, perhaps even for dinner, and then to spread it all around. That’s about the extent of it.
But the lyrics on Maggot Brain can be meaningful, as on the social commentary number “You and Your Folks, Me and My Folks.” It’s about two people from different backgrounds falling in love. The sound reverberates strangely, but it’s an infectious groove driven by Worrell’s piano. The chorus melody is really catchy, which is always a plus for me, and it may be my favorite on the record.
Then again, there’s a lot to be said for “Super Stupid.”.
The intro solo from Hazel is very much in an Eddie Van Halen vein, and in fact the entire song could be a DLR-era Van Halen number. The brief lyrics, about the foolishness of street drugs (believe it or not), have the thrown-together feel of that band. Hazel is also the vocalist1, and his bark-don’t-sing approach is very much in the David Lee Roth style. Tiki Fulwood’s drums, particularly the syncopated bass drum, sound like they come directly from Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham. But the hero here is Hazel, who plays unbelievable solos at 1:35, and again at 2:42. It’s actually one long solo that ends the song with crafty pyrotechnics.
After that sonic wonder, the simplicity of “Back In Our Minds” is like a mid-meal sorbet. It’s another loose, Band-ish jam with boings and jaw harp, and its lyrics seem to advocate NOT using drugs. As a former trombonist in my high school marching band, I must point out the excellent trombone solo by McKinley Jackson that ends the number.
The closing number of the short masterpiece that is Maggot Brain is “Wars of Armageddon,” a psychedelic freak-out that – to be honest – probably would’ve scared the teenaged me, regardless of the band’s racial makeup. It’s a straight-up riff-based jam, with guitar and organ solos, and more incredible drums from Fulwood. There are strange noises – babies, cuckoo clocks, TV shows, flatulence – and they could’ve been pulled from a Pink Floyd song (except for the farts.) It sort of has lyrics, but they’re really just more snippets of noise. But I’ll tell you what: if this is what the Wars of Armageddon will sound like, I’m showing up to listen.
Maggot Brain is excellent. There’s so much going on in those seven songs that it requires multiple listenings. It’s a record that will please any guitar rock fan, regardless of where or when or how they grew up.