Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today, we revisit a monument of psychedelic funk, a defining document of Black rock music in the early ’70s.
Inside the gatefold of vinyl copies of Maggot Brain is an excerpt from an article about the concept of fear, published in a magazine by the Process Church of the Final Judgment, a religious sect founded in England in the mid-’60s. Its thesis: “Fear is at the root of man’s destruction of himself…. Do we know the extent to which we are at war with one another—on every level from personal to world wide [sic]—because we are afraid?” That’s some heavy shit for a funk band to be dropping on folks, but Funkadelic mastermind George Clinton harbored an iconoclastic streak. While his fledgling ’60s band the Parliaments tried to adapt to Motown Records impresario Berry Gordy’s preference for matching suits, synchronized dances, and well-crafted vocal harmonies, they failed to make the cut. In his 2014 autobiography, Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain’t That Funkin’ Kind of Hard on You?, Clinton observed that Gordy deemed the Parliaments as too similar to Motown artists the Temptations and the Contours, and their wildly varying heights struck the label boss as too odd. Ultimately, this rejection was for the best, as Clinton’s imagination was sprouting in ways too strange for Motown, as manifested in Funkadelic’s first three albums.
With the freedom afforded by Armen Boladian’s Westbound Records, Clinton proceeded to create a sonic and lyrical universe that placed equal importance on moving minds and bodies in unprecedented ways. If that meant immersing listeners in unconventional thoughts about fear or triggering meditations about world destruction, then the headstrong bandleader had enough faith in his audience to handle his bold blend of the pleasure principle with eschatological matters.
Though the Process Church dogma took up a quarter of the gatefold’s layout and imbued the record with a gravity, it wasn’t necessarily essential for analyzing and enjoying Maggot Brain’s merits. In fact, in a 2006 interview with Wax Poetics, Funkadelic bassist Billy Nelson said that he held no truck with the religion’s allegedly Satanic doctrines—nor, for that matter, with the grotesque cover art featuring a screaming Black woman buried in a mound of maggot-laden dirt, with the back cover revealing simply a skull. “That’s George [Clinton] sabotaging us again,” Nelson lamented. Defending the Process Church in Brothas, Clinton described its ethos as “a form of self-actualization.” He would delve further into its thinking on Maggot Brain’s 1972 follow-up, America Eats Its Young. But this was an ephemeral phase in Clinton’s artistic life, and secondary to the revolutionary sounds he and his bandmates were creating.
Funkadelic’s self-titled debut LP (1970) and the same year’s Free Your Mind And Your Ass Will Follow proved that Clinton and company were adept at penning hook-laden soul nuggets, “wayback yonder funk,” gully blues-rock, sinister gospeldelia, and freak-flag-flying jams. By the time they entered Detroit’s United Sound Systems in late 1970 to record their third full-length, Maggot Brain, they’d honed their myriad styles to a raw-nerved peak. For a group rumored to record while zonked out of their minds, Funkadelic really held it together on Maggot Brain. They may not have been as tight as James Brown’s backing band the J.B.’s, but Clinton, Nelson, keyboardist Bernie Worrell, guitarists Eddie Hazel and Tawl Ross, and drummer Tiki Fulwood had cohered into a fearsome unit.
Perhaps the most distinctive thing about Maggot Brain is its incomparable bookends: The opener “Maggot Brain” and closer “Wars of Armageddon” are the most evocative expressions of birth and annihilation ever put on record. In the former, Funkadelic plunges into the dank throes of an existential quandary, as Clinton intones, “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.” Clinton really knew how to rivet attention and prep you for the journey of a lifetime.
The mythos surrounding this 10-minute epic is extraordinary. Clinton claimed that he and Hazel were tripping hard, and then the bandleader told his guitarist to play like his mother had died. Realizing that Eddie had executed a world-historical solo, Clinton decided to excise most of the other players’ contributions from the track and then “Echoplexed everything back on itself four or five times,” as he noted in Brothas. “I could see the guitar notes stretch out like a silver web.” (An alternate take with all the instruments intact appears as a bonus track on a 2005 CD reissue of Maggot Brain, and in retrospect, you can’t argue with Clinton’s decision. The keyboards, bass, and drums are fine, but they impinge enough on Hazel’s wizardry to be distracting.)
This solo—with its solarized, distraught wails, smooth dive bombs, and shattered-crystal grace notes—occupies the loftiest perch in the guitar-hero pantheon. How can something so mournful fill you with so much life? It was perverse of Clinton to place such an elegiac show-stopper at the beginning, but in the early ’70s, perversity was the man’s lifeblood. Conventional wisdom in those days involved starting albums with the most instantly appealing song; instead, Clinton opened with amplified and warped chewing sounds and a lysergic monologue about planetary impregnation and cranial infestation. Out of such grotesque imagery, Clinton and Hazel alchemized heavenly beauty.
If “Maggot Brain,” is the album’s yin, “Wars of Armageddon” is its yang. Right from the start, Funkadelic unfurl a maelstrom of angst: explosions, crying baby, grouchy dad, protesters chanting for freedom—all of it accompanied by a surfeit of cowbell, bongos, and organ. The track’s chthonic thrust and swagger foreshadowed Miles Davis’ later fusion masterpieces On the Corner and Dark Magus. As it turned out, Miles so loved the drumming here that he temporarily stole Fulwood from Clinton.
Clinton may have been an avid druggie in Funkadelic’s early years, but his mind was highly attuned to the outré music, anti-war sentiments, class struggles, and free-love mores of the time. All of his thoughts and feelings cohered to a potent degree in “Wars of Armageddon.” In the song’s final third, we hear more chants (“More power to the people/More pussy to the power/More pussy to the people”) and some nasty animal and bodily function sounds as the music continues to wildly carom. This is Funkadelic’s ultimate freakout experience, their “Sister Ray” and their “Helter Skelter” rolled into an acid-rock/musique concrète journey to the center of a blown mind. Toward the end, Clinton mutters, “Goddamn/Look at that pollution!/It’s a fat funky person” amid the sound of distant explosions. The music may signify end times, but he can’t help facing catastrophe with a prankster’s devil-may-care blitheness.
Between these towering extremes, Funkadelic wheeled out the sort of soulful funk-rock that could fuel world-class parties. It would be hard to name a hotter five-song streak in the Clinton canon than that which flows from “Can You Get to That” to “Back in Our Minds Again.” The former is actually a remake of the Parliaments’ “What You Been Growing,” and when this ditty ambles into earshot after the desolate “Maggot Brain,” it feels as if your entire extended family’s swarming you with good vibes at your surprise birthday party. Funkadelic lay down sun-fatigued funk with intricate female/male vocal interplay, including Ray Davis’ basso profundo interjections and the harmonizing of Isaac Hayes’ backing singers Pat Lewis, Dianne Lewis, and Rose Williams. In Brothas, Clinton claims that the metaphor of “When you base your love on credit/…insufficient funds” for troubled social or romantic relationships was lifted from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. It was a new twist on an old sentiment, one that would be further manipulated by time and genre in Sleigh Bells’ “Rill Rill.”
Sleigh Bells’ sample was not the only example of Funkadelic’s early material resonating with white artists from the ’80s to the ’00s; musicians as diverse as the Balancing Act, Mike Watt and J. Mascis, and Red Hot Chili Peppers, among others, have covered Funkadelic songs. In Brothas, Clinton noted that in their early years Funkadelic were too Black for most rock kids and too white for most funk and soul aficionados. But it was exactly this in-between-ness that generated the essential friction of their music, the X-factor that lent it its heady allure and unusual durability.
Contemporaries working in similar modes such as Sly & the Family Stone, the Chambers Brothers, and War—all of whom were multiracial groups—had found the key to crossover success. But as an all-Black rock unit, Funkadelic struggled to achieve more than cult status in their heyday, even if some of their releases scraped the lower reaches of the charts. Upon its release, Maggot Brain was too strange for most music consumers to grasp. Even in their Detroit homebase, Funkadelic couldn’t catch a break with the city’s AOR radio outlets. Over the decades, however, the album’s guitar heroics, relentless grooves, and cavalier hooks have infiltrated their way into more receptive minds.
Listening to the staccato “Hit It and Quit It,” you can understand why those early-’70s listeners would be perplexed. Keyboard prodigy Worrell unfurls Keith Emersonian burbles and proggy flourishes alien to the funk genre at the time. Revealing Funkadelic’s democratic nature with regard to singers (a ploy that may have hindered their ability to break through commercially, as there was no dedicated frontman), Clinton allowed Worrell to sing his skinny ass off amid a libidinous landslide of guitar riffs and basslines. “Hit It” ranks as one of the filthiest lust songs ever to stoke a libido.
Another example of Funkadelic’s egalitarian microphone policy, “You and Your Folks, Me and My Folks” is sung by Billy Nelson; the track exudes the air of a communal Sly & the Family Stone anthem, but imbued with the menace of the Manson Family, with the bass/drums groove ranking as one of the most lethal in the Funkadelic canon. Despite the sinister aura, the song is a plea for equality and understanding among all people. For what it’s worth, “You and Your Folks” is the most-sampled track on Maggot Brain (11 times), and Alabama Shakes singer-songwriter Brittany Howard covered it on 2020’s Spotify Singles.
In a 1985 issue of Spin, P-Funk professor emeritus Greg Tate dubbed “Super Stupid” a “heavy-metal hydrogen bomb test”; it’s no wonder heavies such as Audioslave and Big Chief took stabs at it. This is mercilessly vicious rock that attracted the attention and respect of British rock royalty when Funkadelic first toured England. Clinton claims David Bowie, Rod Stewart, and members of Cream, the Beatles and Led Zeppelin checked them out on that jaunt. “Super Stupid”’s metallic guitar avalanche is tempered by Worrell’s circus-y keyboard effusions, but the real star is Hazel, who is on fire in extremis, both on ax and vox. “Super Stupid” warns of the foolishness of drug abuse (Worrell claimed in Wax Poetics that band members were snorting heroin) while, incidentally, making you want to take drugs.
Following the release of Maggot Brain, Hazel and Nelson split to work for the vastly more popular Motown act the Temptations, reportedly due to dissatisfaction with Clinton’s handling of the band’s financial situation. Fulwood also was disgruntled about pay and left Funkadelic. Although Clinton doesn’t mention this issue in Brothas, the Wax Poetics interviews feature complaints about George’s stinginess. Ross, too, departed, after alleged misadventures with either LSD or speed. These painful losses were ameliorated by the additions of Bootsy and Catfish Collins, Garry Shider, and Boogie Mosson—all world-class funkateers. Nevertheless, Funkadelic never again released an album as laden with genius as Maggot Brain. It was the culmination of their first phase’s most outrageous and ingenious sonic ideas, establishing a new precedent for how Black musicians would exist in a rock context, juxtaposing metal, gospel, prog, funk, blues, and jazz fusion with nonchalant virtuosity. It’s the epitome of their extravagant virtues and vices.
Summarizing the LP in Brothas, Clinton wrote, “Maggot Brain was going places that Black groups hadn’t gone, into questions about whether America was still on the right path or whether the promise of the late ’60s had completely evaporated.” In these seven songs, you can hear Funkadelic attempting to make sense of the turmoil of the times, as they express the euphoria and anguish of being born and dying in the most extraordinary ways.
Buy: Rough Trade
(Pitchfork earns a commission from purchases made through affiliate links on our site.)