Graded on a Curve:
Funkadelic,
Maggot Brain

A decade or so ago my friend D., a borderline sociopath jailhouse-type individual, suggested we go rock climbing. Without ropes. Idiot that I am, I said sure. I was some 20 feet off the ground—a frightful distance when you looked down—when I found myself unable to go forward or retreat. Suddenly my left leg began to violently shudder. D. looked over (I think I was whimpering for help) and mirthfully cried, “You’ve got Disco Leg!” That’s when I fell, breaking my ankle and cracking my skull.

That “Disco Leg!” never fails to crack me up, and for some reason always brings to mind Funkadelic, the greatest funk-rock band of ‘em all. And of all their LPs, my all-time fav-o-reet has always been 1971’s Maggot Brain. (Yeah, I know, 1978’s One Nation Under a Groove is brilliant, fantastic, blah blah blah, but I’ve made up my mind, and I’m too dumb to change it.) I would say you can thank guitar svengali Eddie Hazel for making Maggot Brain my most treasured slice of P-Funk, but it would only be partly true—some of the tunes on Maggot Brain barely feature Hazel at all, and I still love them every bit as much as my Black Power Fist Afro pick.

Maggot Brain features one of the more unfortunate covers in music history, with its front cover depicting a black woman buried up to her neck screaming in agony and back cover showing the same woman’s head, now become a skull. Why, it’s almost as creepy as the cover of Herbie Mann’s Push Push, on which Herbie shows off his ghastly lubed-up chest pelt for reasons I don’t care to speculate about. And the same goes for Maggot Brain. Then again, what do you expect from a band that entitles an LP Maggot Brain in the first place? P-Funk was a crazy-eyed crew of acid-gobbling freaks, and on LSD everything seems like a grand idea.

Some brief history: George Clinton’s Parliament was founded in the late 1950s in Plainfield, New Jersey as a doo wop group called the Parliaments. But then psychedelics hit town and the Parliaments became Parliament, and morphed from played doo wop to do wot?, by which I mean they went funky berserk. Funkadelic began its career as the backing band for Parliament, but by the early seventies Parliament and Funkadelic were separate entities with different sounds but utilizing most of the same musicians. Funkadelic was the freakier of the two outfits, a funk-rock monolith that melded psychedelia, big honking guitar riffs, Bible-belt blues, James “Soul Brother No. 1” Brown’s flaming funk, Frank Zappa’s absurdist humor, and Sun Ra’s astral plane crash jazz, to cite just some of their influences.

At the time Maggot Brain—Funkadelic’s third LP—came out, the band consisted of Eddie Hazel on lead guitar, Tawl Ross on rhythm guitar, Bernie Worrell on keyboards, Billy “Bass” Nelson on (duh?) bass, Tiki Fulwood on drums, and a whole shitload of vocalists, including Parliament’s George Clinton, Fuzzy Haskins (who also played drums), Calvin Simon, Grady Thomas, and Ray Davis, along with Worrell, Ross, Hazel, Nelson, Garry “Diaper Man” Shider, Rose Williams, and Pat and Diane Lewis. Toss in a trombone (McKinley Jackson), bongos (Eddie “Bongo” Brown), and jaw harp (James W. Jackson), and we’re talking a band with a population almost as big as my hometown, whose solitary claim to fame is that George Armstrong Custer spent the dullest night of his life there.

What else can I say about Funkadelic besides you’d have to be super stoopid not to love them? Well, when Eddie Hazel first came to the attention of George Clinton he was only 17, and Clinton and Billy Nelson had a whale of a time (it might as well have been a sitcom called The Courtship of Eddie’s Mother) cajoling Hazel’s recalcitrant moms—who I can almost see frowning dubiously and saying, “Uh huh, uh huh,” then, “If any harm comes to my baby I will personally tear your arms off”—into letting him run off with a bunch of church-ducking, dope-taking, no-account musicians.

But let’s get to the album, shall we?

Opening track “Maggot Brain” is only perhaps the greatest guitar solo ever recorded—almost 10 minutes of Mrs. Hazel’s little boy exploring the realms of inner space using a fuzzbox and a wah pedal, accompanied by another guitar playing a simple arpeggio, whatever that is. Hazel starts quietly, then plays a few piercing notes, and from there on in it’s sheer sonic stupendousness. Legend has it Clinton dropped yellow sunshine beforehand, and had the bright idea of telling Hazel to imagine he’d just been informed his mother had died, then to imagine learning she was still very much alive. The song has been called Funkadelic’s “A Love Supreme,” and it’s just that monumental, spiritual, and lovely. I wish I could tell you more about it, but how does one describe a sinuous thing like Hazel’s solo, which weaves a web of sheer gorgeousness, twisting its way from sadness to ecstasy, and from single notes to bent notes to feedback to savage sheets of sound? All I can say is I’ll take it over anything Jimi Hendrix ever recorded, and leave it at that.

The mid-tempo and very soul-fried “Can You Get To That” is less funky than your typical P-Funk track and has a southern gospel feel to it, with the female vocalists running the show, along with Sting Ray Davis—whose bass voice is as deep as my credit card debt—and another guy who tosses in lots of falsetto cries. Garry “Diaper Man” Shider—so-called because he frequently played live wearing nothin’ but a nappy—is credited with lead vocals, but ain’t no male singing lead that I can hear. He’s either the guy throwing the falsetto, or another guy who can be heard jumping in here and there. Anyway, “Can You Get To That” opens with an acoustic guitar and Fuzzy Haskins’ drums, then the ladies come in, singing their way to the chorus, which features a multiplicity of voices singing “Can you get to that?” at which point Davis with his Marianas Trench of a voice sings, “I wanna know.” The female vocals are tres cool, but my favorite moment occurs when Davis sings, “When you base your love on credit/And your loving days are done/Checks you signed with a-love and kisses/Later come back signed ‘insufficient funds’.” It sounds like somebody taught a foghorn to sing.

“Hit It and Quit It” opens with Hazel and organist Worrell playing in tandem, then things pick up and Worrell comes in singing, “I want you to hit it/Hit it and quit it” while some females sing high-pitched nonsense. Worrel’s vocals are great, super soulful, and I’d be hard pressed to say whose voice I like better, his or Hazel’s. I particularly like the sudden but brief ecstatic passages where everything gets louder and Worrell sings “You can shake it to the East/Shake it to the West/You gotta hit it/And quit it.” And Worrell’s organ is Sun Ra great; he plays this long solo that sounds like ELP’s Keith Emerson went frothing funky ‘fro mad and hopped aboard the Soul Train. Meanwhile Hazel, who has been tossing in great fills, finally climbs to the mountaintop to play an ecstatic feedback-heavy solo (at which point somebody says “Yeah, play that guitar”) while Worrel plays organ in accompaniment to the fadeout. This is one great tune, propulsive and superfunky, and it makes me want to wave my penis in the air like I just don’t care.

“Your and Your Folks, Me and My Folks” is one nonstop groove, a mid-tempo song with no changes, just heaps of fantastic vocals and some great drums, bass, and piano to keep the thing chug-a-lugging along. Billy “Bass” Nelson provides great lead vocals, but once again it’s the female singers, repeating, “Yeah yeah yeah” and “Me and my folks” and other such phrases, who dominate the song. That said Nelson provides some great screams, and you should hear the way he stretches out “dying.” And I love the verse where he sings, “Hey!/You want peace/I want peace/They want peace/And the kids need peace,” then pauses before adding the zinger, “There won’t be no peace.” And he follows that up with “The rich got a big piece of this and that/The poor got a big piece of roaches and rats/Can you get to that/ Tell me where it’s at.” And Nelson’s great voice means Funkadelic has at least three great vocalists, just like Crosby, Stills and Nash, except Funkadelic throws down instead of sucking Joni Mitchell dick like that warbling trio of horrifying honkies.

“Super Stupid” is one fast and hard-rocking slice of acid-fried funkadelia about a dumbass who buys the wrong drug. Hazel sings a lot like Jimi Hendrix and cranks out some crazy distorted guitar, the best guitar in fact since the ones on Miles Davis’ Miles of Bile LP, which mostly consists of the infamously moody Prince of Darkness calling his hired hands “motherfuckers.” But I wouldn’t spend too much time looking for Miles of Bile since I just made it up. Anyway, in between Hazel’s epic bouts of guitar slinging there are short, slower passages featuring Worrell’s organ and percussion. But this is Hazel’s tune, and his guitar playing is even more frantic than on “Maggot Brain,” especially towards the end, when he partakes in some real set your hair on fire pyrokinetic hoodoo voodoo.

“Back In Our Minds” is a friendly, upbeat number, sung by Clinton and Tawl Ross to the accompaniment of bongos, jaw harp, piano, and a great trombone that sounds like it was recorded in the next county. The jaw harp opens the song, and then Clinton and Ross, who come to think of it also sound like they’re phoning it in from the next county, sing the great melody, which is happy-go-lucky and catchy as flypaper, thanks in large part to the rolling piano and that freaky jaw harp and the song’s theme of reconciliation, although when Clinton and Ross repeat the line, “We are back in our minds again” they could just as soon be singing about having come down from an epic LSD trip. As far away as everything on “Back In Our Minds” sounds, it’ll hit you close to home, especially when McKinley Jackson socks you with that trombone of his right on the happy bone.

“Wars of Armageddon” is a psychedelic collage of weird sounds (a baby wailing, or a guitar that sounds like a baby wailing; a guy crying, “I gotta go to work/Stop that goddamn kid from crying/What kind of shit is this/Goddamn it!”; a cuckoo clock; a cow mooing; a sounding train signal; an owl or a monkey hooting; other distant voices crying, “What do we want? Freedom! Now! NOW!”; somebody intoning the words “Flight 101” (very cryptic, that); and variations along the lines of “More power to the pussy/More pussy to the power/More power to the peter/More peter to the pussy/Right on!!”) But instead of being gormless and formless like something off an early P. Floyd album, all this craziness is held together by a tight and funky rhythm featuring lots of bongos, a cowbell, and organ. Hazel plays one mind-melting guitar, during which he produces noises I’ve never heard produced by the instrument, while Worrel’s organ and Tawl Ross’ tight rhythm guitar keep the whole shebang shake, rattle, and rolling. This shit reminds me of DC Go-go, but it’s like no Go-go you’ve ever heard before. It ends with a long exploding sound that could be the apocalypse or a thunderstorm, while a voice calls, “Goddamn/Look at that pollution!/It’s a fat funky person.”

“It’s a fat funky person” is a wonderful way to end any album, especially Maggot Brain, which is one fantastic LP without a single weak track on it. Unfortunately, Hazel and Nelson both split due to financial issues following the LP’s release, and Ross dropped out after suffering what was either a bad LSD trip or a speed overdose. I say unfortunately because I love this line-up of the band, but lots of people would have it (and it’s hard to disagree) that Hazel, Nelson, and Ross’ replacement by members of James Brown’s backing band (including Bootsy Collins) was the best thing that could have happened to Funkadelic.

Fortunately Hazel returned to the P-Funk fold on a peripatetic basis after playing briefly with Nelson for the Temptations, and is credited with helping make 1974’s Standing on the Verge of Getting It On a classic. But he had problems, whether mental or related to drug abuse I can’t say, and in 1974 was indicted for assaulting a waitress in the sky. Hazel is nowhere to be found on masterpiece One Nation Under a Groove, and either played a very minor role or shared lead guitar duties with Garry Shider and Michael Hampton on several other Funkadelic LPs. Hazel made his final recorded P-Funk appearance on 1979’s Uncle Jam Wants You, and died in 1992 from internal bleeding and liver failure. “Maggot Brain” was played at his funeral. If you haven’t heard the song, definitely check it out. Just make sure you’re not clinging to a sheer cliff face when you do. It’s guaranteed to give you a case of Disco Leg.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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  • LenWalker

    Just for the record, it’s a “Jew”s Harp”, not jaw harp.

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