I’m sure most of us have done stupid things at ‘kick ons’ or ‘the sesh’ or whatever the kids are calling it these days. I know I have. But picture this…
After the release of Maggot Brain in 1971, Funkadelic drummer Tawl Ross and bassist, ‘Billy Bass’ Nelson, found themselves sitting around restless. Perhaps in celebration of their latest release, or maybe just because they were a sporting pair, the duo engaged in an acid eating contest. The rules? To eat as much acid as possible until one competitor taps out.
It started with one, then two – this was ‘70s acid, potent shit. Three became five, at which point Billy Tapped out. But Ross, he kept going, all the way to twelve. It’s rumoured that at this point, the reigning champion saw his dead mother reach out to him from a coffin. All in a night’s work, really.
These early days of P-Funk were defined by a creative recklessness; a desire to find the limits of creativity, music, and human mind, then push outwards. It sounds like chaos, because it was, and there was only one man on the planet who could rein it in – George Clinton.
So as Clinton prepares to board the mothership for his final ever Australian tour with Parliament-Funkadelic, we look back at the album, born out of what could only be described as funky-psychedelic chaos.
According to P-Funk mythology, ‘The Funk’ came from outer-space. It flew through the cosmos for years until it chose Earth to descend upon, and shared its cosmic secrets.
How to Grow Maggots
Funkadelic had pushed out two albums in 1970, which were great in their own right, but didn’t have the focus and finesse of their successor. The writing, mixing and mastering were completed quickly, rushed even, and the recording – well, according to Clinton, Free Your Mind was recorded in a day while the whole band was tripping balls and jamming in the studio.
When 1971 rolled around, the band pulled together a bit more focus. They took months to finish recording Maggot Brain, wanting to make sure every track counted. But they were still experimenting like crazy with substances (as you may have guessed by now, this was a trend for Funkadelic’s first rendition).
Clinton even says he produced the record while on acid:
“I just got in there and turned the knobs. It was such a vibe. I didn’t know any better — you can only do that stuff when you don’t know any better.”
It could be taken for modesty, but Clinton didn’t hide the fact that LSD was his secret ingredient and he would get the band tripping on any whim. His aim was to inspire Funkadelic to try new things and express their rawest, most primal emotions.
“It changed my mind about a lot of things to the positive”, he recalled in an interview with Rolling Stone, “helped me get out of the mentality of clawing and scratching and fighting over everything, jealous of everything. It helped us try new things that we wouldn’t have ever tried before.”
On board for the album was a number of guest musicians, including United Soul’s Gary Shider, female vocalists from Isaac Hayes’ backing group, and McKinley Jackson, who was the skilled trombonist from the Politicians. Add the usual talented Parliament-Funkadelic arsenal plus a glug of cynical politicism to the mix, and you’ve got yourself Maggot food.
Invertebrate Brain Spawn
“Mother Earth is pregnant for the third time, y’all have knocked her up. I have tasted the maggots in the mind of the universe and I was not offended, though I knew I had to rise above it all or drown in my own shit.”
Maggot Brain was a lot darker than most psychedelic albums of its day. Not Black Sabbath dark; the album covered themes such as death and decay, political unrest and chaos, but did so with a cheeky spark in the eye. A glimmer that could only be described as dark satire.
The concept of the ‘Maggot Brain’ refers to a darker state of mind, something that could have tremendous consequences if not cleaned out or disinfected. This concept can be applied to a lot of the album’s themes, from the band’s drug-fuelled escapades, to civil rights or the Vietnam War.
The seven tracks on the album blend funk, crunchy rock riffs, even gospel and acoustic folk. Funkadelic were not afraid to take chances, in fact, they binged on them.
Can You Get to That starts with a rolling acoustic lick, which ascends into a mid-tempo funk, outlined by Ross’ guitar and Bernie Worrel’s organ work. It’s unlike any other Funkadelic song, no wah-wah hooks! The chorus harks back to Clinton’s doo-wop days, with a female choir calling “can you get to that?” before a deep baritone male voice responds with “I want to know.”
Hit It and Quit It is more quintessentially Funkadelic. Worrel’s organ and Hazel’s fuzzy hooks follow each other in a typical fashion, forming one huge fat, funky riff. All the meanwhile, Fullwood employs a solid breakbeat to perfectly pin the track down (as he does on most of the album’s songs, for that matter).
You and Your Folks, Me and My Folks is a definitive nod to Sly and the Family Stone, bringing down the tempo for one of the album’s more definitive protests. It talks about the struggle of the poor and the need for equality between the classes. The song is a cry for unity and peace, with Nelson pleading “Hey! You want peace, I want peace, They want peace, And the kids need peace.”
Super Stupid is a straight-up, hard rocking banger. Hazel is the star here, singing lead vocals and striking a heavy guitar riff that simply put, doesn’t fuck around. His solo is pure Hendrix, and probably a homage, as the late guitarist actually passed away a few months before the album’s recording began. The song’s thematics, perhaps fittingly, speak about overdose; the protagonist ‘Super Stupid’ is said to have a ‘Maggot Brain’ for snorting heroin after mistaking it for cocaine. It was actually inspired by a friend of the band.
The album’s finishing track Wars of Armageddon is pure chaos, by far the least disciplined song on the album, but in no way out of place. It’s a loose and funky jam, yet layered over it are various samples, seemingly anything Clinton could get his hands on. With a baby crying, cuckoo clocks, sirens, farts, cowbells and cows all added to the mix, the jam is closer to a sonic collage than anything else.
However, underneath the nonsensical sounds are protest chants such as, “what do we want – freedom! When do we want it – now” and “Power to the people!” These calls could have been pulled straight from the streets of Detroit and give the otherwise goofy track a powerful undercurrent.
Play Like Your Momma Just Died
A comprehensive Maggot Brain run-down just wouldn’t be complete without telling the tale of the title track, now would it?
The album’s opener is arguably the most memorable. It has nothing to do with funk, instead it’s a 10-minute guitar solo, a passage that’s amongst the greatest of all time. Hazel’s work here is absolute bliss.
The track starts with an arpeggio, slow and subtle. The lead comes in, building in melancholic phrases and moody motifs, before a bit of feedback is introduced, emphasised by Hazel rocking his wah. Through the cacophony of emotion, it feels like Hazel is only just on top of his fingers, only just in control. The guitar takes a dive and diminishes into the shadows, before rising again, this time less moody and emotional. Like a final cry to the heavens.
The now mythological tale starts with Hazel and Clinton in the studio together, out of their brains on Yellow Sunshine LSD, no surprises there. As chaotic as the pair’s thoughts were, Clinton was trying to help Hazel channel his emotion into the session – his instruction was to tell Hazel to play as if he had just learnt of his mother’s death. Clinton told him to relish in the pain, wallow in it, express how his life would change and how he would feel.
But then, do a complete backflip. Play as if his mother came back to life, remarkably pulled from the grips of the void.
Whatever trippy babble they were talking, it sure worked. You can actually hear Clinton’s instructions in the passage. Hazel, armed with his Stratocaster, Fuzzface and Wah-Wah, laid down one of the most cosmically explorative guitar tracks ever recorded.
Clinton processed the track multiple times with an Echoplex tape-delay after recording, which added a unique spacial dimension to the sound. It was recorded with a drum and bass section, but Clinton threw these in the bin, deciding to let the guitar speak for itself. Fair enough, really.
The Defusion of The Funk
Maggot Brain was the last effort with Funkadelic in their original lineup. Clinton’s main role was as producer and songwriter, but he was also the main instigator in much of the band’s zany antics. Tensions frayed at times, and Nelson and Worrell were particularly salty for not making the cut on the title track.
But it wasn’t just that. A year after the album was released, Worrell remained the only member of Funkadelic. Drummer Tiki Fulwood was given the sack for being a flake, a result of his heroin addiction – though he would rejoin the band a few years down the track.
Hazel was also using heroin and his addiction began spiralling out of control. To make things worse, he was charged with assault and possession after smoking PCP on an airplane and attacking a stewardess. He spent a year in jail and rejoined the band for later records, but never to the same extent.
Nelson had perhaps the least impressive exit, quitting over money quarrels with Clinton. But the most impressive? Well you know that one already, that goes to poor Tawl Ross and his acid-eating contest. Mind broken, for years years he would wander the streets muttering nonsense, probably something about “maggots in the mind of the universe.”
Following this, Clinton replaced his entire rhythm section with defectors from James Brown’s own band, including the legendary Bootsy Collins, who would go on to create a new direction for Funkadelic. However without the original rag-tag group of psychedelic warlocks, the band would never be quite the same again.
Of the original lineup’s three albums recorded in two short years, Maggot Brain is by far the standout, a distillation of everything that made Funkadelic great. It’s a product of political cynicism, some truly fucked up antics, and at least 30,000, very hedonistic micrograms.
George Clinton is embarking on his final ever tour of Australia next April, centred around a performance at Bluesfest 2019. Grab all the details below.
Also appearing at Byron Bay Bluesfest: 18-22 April 2019. Tickets here.