Anyone who has read about Funkadelic’s third album Maggot Brain and the almost universally glowing reviews that have been written might naturally assume this to be their very own Dark Side of the Moon. Why the LP is rated so highly is a mystery to me. Not that it is in any way a horrible record. In fact, most of it is excellent, and finds this acidelic outfit stretching the envelope in ways that would influence the likes of the MC5, The Stooges, and in later decades, Living Colour, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. And what about that album cover, where we see a screaming African-American woman buried up to her neck in the earth? Personally it reminds me of one of those Hammer Horror films from the early ‘70s – on the one hand shocking, but on the other clichéd and corny.
Now whether Hazel’s guitar solo on the title track is one of the greatest ever captured on tape is a matter for debate, because I’m in two minds about this one. First, Hazel certainly isn’t Hendrix, regardless of how hard he tries. Sure, his playing is atmospheric and emotional, but ultimately the sort of thing Hendrix was knocking off nearly every night in the recording studio only to forget about the next day. Mind you, there are some magnificent moments to be had, enough to hold the listener’s attention throughout, and over ten minutes that would normally be pushing the patience of even the most ardent of dope smokers.
“Can You Get To That” is almost country-funk, and harkens back to the old Parliament days, with doo-wop and gospel vocals that lift the song to a level it might not have been capable of reaching otherwise. “Hit It And Quit It” has some wonderful interaction between band members, though it’s more of a jam than a song per se, in the manner of James Brown. I can easily imagine the group having extended this one out for twenty minutes or more during their live sets, while Hazel takes his instrument into the funk-rock cosmos with a searing guitar solo.
George Clinton gets all Sly Stone on us on “You And Your Folks, Me And My Folks”, a song that doesn’t really go anywhere, despite its positive social message. The band breaks out into a sweat on “Super Stupid”, where the highlight is (once again) Hazel, who rips it up and pulls out all the stops, to the extent that I don’t know what Funkadelic would have done without him and his fluid incendiary flourishes. The woozy acid-drenched “Back In Our Minds” is an enjoyable little romp, replete with chimes and horns, before “Wars Of Armageddon” comes in, full of irate voices, public announcements, a train crossing, cows mooing, a cuckoo clock, along with some other mangled extraneous dialogue, and what sounds to me like flatulence. Now if Clinton’s line “More power to the pussy” was meant as some sort of feminist statement, and support for feminism in general you’d have to ask him. I certainly know what my wife would say (and she’s a feminist!). “Armageddon” is essentially a mess, but an inventive mess all the same, in a way reminding me of a black Pink Floyd.
The remastered version has three bonus tracks tacked on, none of which really add anything to the overall experience, unless one is keen on hearing an alternate mix of “Maggot Brain” (which I’m not), and a couple of songs that were originally issued as B-sides.
From the icy, stalactite forming opener, through to the experimental drug-fuelled closer, George Clinton and his band of merry men and women were unquestionably possessed of a unique vision. And whether words such as “Mother Earth is pregnant for the third time, for y’all have knocked her up” will ever get around to replacing the opening verse of the King James Bible only time will tell. Because Maggot Brain is no Book of Genesis, in spite of what Clinton might be preaching. Still, one thing’s for sure, the man was something of a black Apostle, sermonising from on high and delivering his own brand of funk-rock in the process. But ultimately it is Hazel who shines brightest, someone who could not only play like his mother just died, yet invoke a spirit that was obviously built on Hendrix, capable of escaping earth’s gravity every now and then in order to see what was going on in the nearest regions of our solar system. For that alone, I’d say it’s worth exploring.