Listening to Funkadelic’s first two albums always gives me the feeling that something’s missing. That they aren’t quite there yet. It’s not that they’re bad by any means – in fact, both the R&B-inflicted grooves of the debut and the psych guitar freak-outs of Free Your Mind… are essential for anybody with an interest in the whole P-Funk movement of the early 70s. It’s just that it feels like the album to take all these elements and perfect them, and do so in a consistent, no-filler manner, was still about to be delivered. And that’s exactly what Maggot Brain did one year later.
Right from the start our minds are blown by the lengthy guitar monster that is the title track – and again, it’s not like Eddie Hazel’s mastering of the instrument was not evident before in similarly epic jams such as “Good Old Music” or “Friday Night, August 14th.” Here though the chaos is more controlled – the rhythm section takes a step back, the build-ups are more dramatic, the playing much more emotional. The story about how George Clinton told Hazel to play as if he learned that his mother had just died has been told many times before, but many seem to omit one important detail – he was told to play not only as if she died, but also as if he then found out that wasn’t true. There’s not just grief in those solos, but rather a cocktail of feelings – I hear euphoria at times, anger and sorrow at others, bursts of triumph too. It’s right up there with Neil Young’s “Like a Hurricane” in that the emotion in the playing is nearly palpable.
The shorter songs don’t aim to quite the same heights but are just as impressive. “You and Your Folks, Me and My Folks” both accuses (“The rich got a big piece of this and that/The poor got a big piece of roaches and rats”) and offers the solution (“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”); darkness and light dancing with each other on an irresistible groove. “Super Stupid” is the heaviest they’ve ever rocked – those guitar riffs are so damn metallic and aggressive that you can almost feel the deceased protagonist’s ghost coming back to seek vengeance. And “Hit It and Quit It” is just quintessentially Funkadelic – wah-wah guitar, catchy harmonies, inviting message, and a party atmosphere all around.
Another aspect that really makes Maggot Brain stand out is the sheer scope. Most of the songs come with messages of peace and love and sharing among the people, and they tie and build up in such a way that it nearly gives the impression that you’re listening to a concept album. Nowhere is this more evident than in the closing track, a grand, proper finale, albeit a noisy and cacophonous one. Why does the album end with a sonic representation of the apocalypse? I’ll be damned if I know, but it somehow works so well. Were “Wars of Armageddon” part of any other album, it probably wouldn’t make much sense. Here, it just adds to the strangeness and intrigue of this mighty unique experience of an album whose impact is still felt to this day (and if you don’t believe me on that one just take a listen to Childish Gambino’s latest record).
Photo Credit: George Clinton y Isaac Brekken/Getty Images for Michael Jordan Celebrity Invitational)
PS. You might also enjoy rediscovering some other great albums in our posts Joni Mitchell’s “Hejira”: An Underappreciated Masterpiece, Paul McCartney’s “Ram” Reconsidered, and Forty (!) Years Later, “Songs In The Key of Life” Is As Fresh As Ever.