George Clinton is back, and career retrospectives and reappraisals are being rewritten with relish. He has undoubtedly been one of music’s most colourfully charismatic and anarchic performers over the past 60 years. Yes, that’s right, sixty. A true eccentric to rival those other freakish musical mavericks, Lee Perry and Sun Ra, Clinton’s influence on the evolution of popular music has been incalculable. So, in assessing the relative merit of his oeuvre of recordings, where should you begin? One might stake a claim for Parliament’s P-Funk bomb ‘The Mothership Connection’ or Funkadelic’s acid-fuelled eponymous debut or it’s insane follow up ‘Free Your Mind…And Your Ass Will Follow’. Perhaps even the later sorely under-rated ‘Cosmic Slop’ could come into contention. Parliament’s ‘Motor Booty Affair’ is also worth a mention. In the NME’s recent ‘500 Greatest Albums of All-Time’ list, the 213th greatest album ever made was reckoned to be Funkadelic’s ‘One Nation Under A Groove’. The inclusion of that album may have been designed to offset a peculiar exercise in bad taste which managed to find room for Green Day, Pearl Jam and Whitney Houston, while simultaneously overlooking the tour de force of psychedelic stoner funk that is Funkadelic’s third album ‘Maggot Brain’. To my mind, even the noblest of record collections is incomplete without it.
‘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.’
Along with the mischievous black humour of Clinton’s lyrics, ‘Maggot Brain’ is most often remembered for the guitar solo of its title track. If, like me, you hit your teenage years at some point after 1977, you probably grew up during an era when the legacy of punk dictated that there was no legitimate place for the guitar solo in music. This was on the whole a good thing. There may have been space for the jagged interplay of Verlaine and Lloyd, but their dazzling art-punk virtuosity stood in stark contrast to the supercilious phallic extension building of the Jurassic ‘guitar heroes’. The Buzzcocks’ sardonic piss-take of the guitar solo on ‘Boredom’ was a bona fide punk statement of intent if ever there was one. Be as well outlawing the guitar solo right there and then. [During these years, I recall one of my TNPC colleagues and I smuggling ‘Led Zeppelin III’ home to listen to, as if it were contraband material fit only for a brown paper bag hidden under a trench coat]
So, it is important to state that ‘Maggot Brain’ is not simply about that guitar solo. And it has more in common with punk – if not aesthetically then certainly attitudinally – than you might think. Punkadelic? Well, that would be stretching the truth, but it’s fair to say that Funkadelic were punk in their own inimitable way. Not only did they occasionally share the stage with Detroit’s finest proto-punks The MC5 and The Stooges, but ingenuously, they kept sufficiently aloof from the prevailing musical and political trends to cultivate an attitude that may have been construed as nihilistic. Although it was a time of increasingly radical political consciousness for African-Americans, for Clinton & Co. there were darker energies at work, as exemplified by the inclusion in the sleeve notes of extracts of literature from The Process-Church of The Final Judgement with their bizarre syntheses of Satanism and Christianity. And the band shunned the Motor City’s premier hit-making factory, preferring instead to forge their own unique path. Times were changing of course and even Gordy’s Motown marionettes were embracing the new zeitgeist, casting off the oppressive shackles of the two and a half minute pop single to venture out into uncharted musical terrain, this new expressionism pitched against the backdrop of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights / Black Power movement.
There is no sharp suited foursome instructed to smile into the camera for this album sleeve. Instead, we have a picture of a woman’s head emerging from the earth, which is either screaming in agony or laughing maniacally? Inside, there is an image of the band, standing on a bit of spare ground, looking menacingly hip, no doubt tripping on acid. They did a lot of that at the time. Those smiles may not be friendly ones…
There is a macabre myth associated with the inspiration for the album title: that George Clinton’s brother’s corpse had been lying for such a length of time that maggots were found to be found crawling through the eye sockets of his empty skull when his dead body was finally discovered. And death seemed very much on everyone’s minds during the recording sessions for the album. Consider for example, the title track, the album’s most celebrated moment. If this brain-scrambling finger-blistering slice of melancholia is a cathartic experience for the listener, just imagine how it may have felt for its protagonist Eddie Hazel. It is well documented that Clinton instructed him to ‘Play it as if your momma just died.’ Some claim that Hazel only discovered his mother hadn’t died after the recording finished. Whatever the truth, and the bulk of personnel involved in the recording have very little recollection of the event, the result was something extraordinary. An impassioned slow burning guitar that cries, weeps and wails its sorrowful eulogy, is only slowly and gradually released from its agony after a gruelling ten minutes. While Hazel sounds on his knees his guitar knocks asteroids off their courses. I imagine the walls of the recording studio sweating blood by the end, the guitar shrivelled up like a piece of dead fruit after it’s exertions. Stylistically, the track could be interpreted as an homage to Hendrix who had died shortly before recording sessions for the album began, but the moment belongs to Eddie Hazel. When Hazel died in 1992, fittingly the song provided the soundtrack at his funeral.
While Hazel was digging Hendrix, there were other influences that shaped the band’s sound, most obviously the rhythmic funk of James Brown and Sly Stone. Listen to ‘Can You Get To That’ or ‘Hit It And Quit It’ where the positive Family Stone influence is at its most bold and infectious, if made even more flamboyant by Bernie Worrell’s intensified keyboard work. On ‘Super Stupid’ Hazel amplifies the decibels with an even heavier sound – George referred to it as ‘a louder Temptations, The Temptations on acid’ – on a song that tells the story of a fatality caused by mistaking heroin for cocaine.
The ten minute finale, ‘Wars of Armageddon’ is the strangest of trips – percussive anarchy, frenzied axe-grinding, bubbling organ, screaming, freedom chants, airport announcements and ridiculously crude lyrics merge together in what sounds like one big Parliafunkadelicment orgy. One can divine its influence in the abstract Afro-funk of the title track to Miles Davis’ fabulous ‘On The Corner’, released the following year. It also anticipates the real party to come, aboard that Mothership…
Has there ever been a more fitting name for a band than Funkadelic? Says it all really. Perhaps if Roxy Music had been called Glam Art Trip or if Kraftwerk had simply been dubbed The Robots. In the evolutionary development of Parliament-Funkadelic, and indeed of the music of the period, the album serves as a missing link – both musically and chronologically – between Jimi’s ‘Electric Ladyland’ and Parliament’s aforementioned ‘The Mothership Connection’. There are lots of stopping-off points along the way of course, not just in the Parliament-Funkadelic canon, but this evolution was paralleled elsewhere: in jazz (the post ‘Bitches Brew’ fusion explosion) and in soul [Ernie Isley’s guitar work with The Isley Brothers for example]. Into that melting pot came Clinton and Funkadelic. They partied, preached and pounded, and alongside their monumental guitar solos, they funked it up like nobody else. (JJ)