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CD Review: Maggot Brain by Funkadelic

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Maggot Brain from 1971 is definitely the entry point to the world of George Clinton for rock guitar fans. In the theoretical Clinton universe, Funkadelic was supposed to be the experimental rock band where Parliament was the more nominally commercial dance band. That distinction tended to get blurred as they progress, but on this early album you can see more what that idea was supposed to be.

Primarily, the reputation of this album is based on the title track. They start with an echoey beat and a few lyrics from Clinton, but that all fades away. Essentially this is a 10 minute unaccompanied guitar solo by Eddie Hazel. Being but a humble remedial George Clinton student, I have heard the name but been unfamiliar with the work of the late Mr Hazel. This track in particular is striking enough to have put Mr Hazel on my map. I mean, holy crap.

Supposedly, this track was set up as simply as Clinton telling Hazel to play as if he had just heard that his mother had died. Also, it is said that Clinton decided to fade out the backing instruments midway because they just sucked compared to Hazel’s guitar playing. Whereas, my guess would be that they would just have been judged unnecessary. Hazel was saying so much with his guitar that anything else was extraneous, and would only detract.

Some have compared this track to Jimi Hendrix, but that doesn’t really do much for me. You might broadly say that Hazel was playing something like psychedelic blues, but it doesn’t sound much like Hendrix stylistically or emotionally. That just seems more like laziness, lumping him in with the obvious big black rock guitarist. Plus, “Maggot Brain” is a more impressive act of guitar expression than about anything by Jim Hendrix- and Hendrix was, you know, pretty handy with a guitar.

It makes more sense to me to think of this as an extended jazz piece. It feels like advanced improvisatory jazz. In those terms, the reflective sadness of it reminds me a bit of Miles Davis with Kind of Blue.

For another frame of reference, the guitar sounds like a stylistic ancestor to the song “Purple Rain.” Now, Prince did some fine guitar playing on that track, but this is ten times stronger guitar medicine- yet considerably more subdued in the effect. Perhaps you should think of “Maggot Brain” as a cross between Kind of Blue and “Purple Rain.”

Stretching the point a bit, the moody dynamics might be compared to Pink Floyd, though this is certainly more impressive guitar heroics than I ever heard from David Gilmour. I once saw a revelatory performance of Gilmour playing “Purple Rain,” which made surprising sense and needed little adjusting to fit his style. That’s where I got this connection. But I digress.

Anyway, this track gets better and better the more times you listen to it, which I have certainly not found to be the case with most Clinton records. The first time I heard “Maggot Brain” it sounded cool. Hey, that’s some fancy guitar playing! But after a couple dozen listens, the emotional depth, dynamics and quiet nuances continue to emerge. I usually don’t care that much about extended guitar solo stuff, but this surely ranks as one of the greatest guitar statements of the rock era.

But I don’t want to shortchange the rest of a fine record by focusing entirely on the monster of a title track. Pretty much everything on this album rates pretty high.

I have criticized Clinton’s work for being weak in the critical aspect of songwriting. These are quite a bit better short form compositions than a lot of the one-line set ups for extended jams that pass for songs on later albums. Somebody might actually want to cover “Can You Get To That” or “Hit It and Quit It.”

Some of these middle songs- particularly the low slung funky rock of “You and Your Folks, Me and My Folks” – put me in mind a bit of War, which was contemporary. The World Is a Ghetto came out a few months after this, and the title song would make good sense back to back with this on a mix CD. This is probably my other personal favorite track on the album. I don’t know if they ever happened to share a live bill, but War and Funkadelic circa 1972 would have been a mind blowing combo.

They go for a big finish with the 9:42 freaky breakdown of the “Wars of Armageddon.” For one thing, this might be a good treatment for those of you who have the kind of sickness where the only cure is more cowbell. The drummer Tiki Fulwood definitely gets him some of this, to the extent of getting his only songwriting credit on the album. The end of the world certainly gets psychedelic, particularly with the interesting layers of sampled screeching cats and sirens and such what.

This album isn’t much like what you would likely think of as George Clinton. For one thing, it’s mostly not particularly funky. It’s more a rock guitar album than a funky dance record. It’s got good beats. You certainly could dance to most of it, though I couldn’t see that with the crucial title track.

But this isn’t a fruit flavored dance album. It’s experimental in different ways, and an outstanding creative effort unlike anything else I’ve heard. It just isn’t so much overtly waving the freak flag.

This will probably sound like a bad thing to say about a George Clinton album when I completely don’t mean it to, but rather than dancing, Maggot Brain tends to make me want to sit real still so I can concentrate and listen real carefully.

The more I listen to it, the more I want to listen to it. Also, the more I listen to it, the more it sounds like Eddie Hazel’s album. It’s Eddie Hazel’s world- though I note his name on only two song credits. However the credits are parsed though, this is the strongest collection of compositions by my ear on any Clinton related album.

Overall, this is an exceptional piece of work, probably the finest album associated with George Clinton. In particular, it’s a must-hear for guitar fans.

AL’S REMEDIAL GEORGE CLINTON NOTES
MUSIC SUSTAINS THE SOUL

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  • http://www.jarretthousenorth.com/ Tim Jarrett

    OK, Al, you’ve convinced me to check this album out at long last.

    I still say, however, that Funkentelechy is the best George Clinton album, on the merit of the title track alone.

    Let the smackdowns commence.

    “You might as well pay attention, ’cause you can’t afford free speech.”

  • http://musical-guru.blogspot.com Michael J. West

    So I take it that your verdict is, “lite on ‘funk,’ heavy on ‘adelic'”?

  • http://www.morethings.com/log Al Barger

    Yes Michael, adelic as a mofo.

    Mr Jarrett, I’m all about Funkentelechy. It’s next on the agenda.

  • godoggo

    Now buy some Bootsy Collins records.