10.000 Songs: Funkadelic - Maggot Brain

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10.000 Songs: Funkadelic - Maggot Brain

Post by Rob » Sun Dec 24, 2017 6:57 pm

This topic is part of the weekly 10.000 songs, 10.000 opinions. In this, every week another song from the Acclaimed Music song top 10.000 is selected for discussion. The song is chosen completely at random, through random.org, making the selections hopefully very varied. The only other rule in this is that after an artist has had a turn, he can’t appear for another ten weeks. The idea for this topic came to me because I wanted to think of a way to engage more actively with the very large top 10.000 songs that Henrik has compiled for us, while still keeping it accessible and free of any game elements. Yes, that’s right, no game elements. You are free to rate the song each week, but I’ll do nothing with this rating. I want it to be about people’s personal reviews and hopefully discussions. So in reverse to other topics on this site I say: “Please comment on this song, rating is optional”.
Earlier entries of this series can be found here: http://www.acclaimedmusic.net/forums/vi ... ive#p45337


“I have tasted the maggots in the mind of the universe”


103. Funkadelic – Maggot Brain

The facts:
Year: 1971.
Genre: Psychedelic rock.
Country: United States of America.
Album: Maggot Brain.
Acclaimed Music ranking: #1333.
Song ranking on Acclaimed Music in the artist’s discography: 4th.
Ranks higher than Cissy Strut by The Meters, but lower than Hot Stuff by Donna Summer.
Place in the Acclaimed Music Song Poll 2015: #224.

The people:
Produced by George Clinton.
Written by George Clinton & Eddie Hazel.
Vocals by George Clinton.
Lead guitar by Eddie Hazel.
Rhythm guitar by Tawl Ross.
Drums by Tiki Fullwood.

The opinion:
It is perhaps a testament to the mad genius of Parliament-Funkadelic leader George Clinton that he could deliver a short spoken word intro to a 10+ minute instrumental track that would generate as much discussion as the guitar solo that is the main attraction. This is what Clinton says at the beginning:

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

A lot has been made of this. Mostly it is seen as a metaphor for the Vietnam war; a metaphor that is so farfetched and silly that I don’t want to waste precious review space on it. It might also be based on the beliefs of The Process Church of the Final Judgement, a off-shoot religion of Scientology. George Clinton flirted with this religion in the past and because he quoted from it in earlier songs a link is established to these lines, even though it is certainly not a quote from the religion.

I feel very little temptation of going into this stuff. These opening lines work for me because they are weird, grandiose and ominous in a offhand way. At the same time they sound completely absurd to me. They are psychedelic in a way that fits the time and since Clinton himself used LSD at around this period it might very well have no deeper meaning. It works and it is cool. But this is an instrumental track through and through, so lets talk about that.

This song belongs to guitar player Eddie Hazel, one those much respected individuals who gets a lot of praise when the opportunity arises, but sadly those opportunities rise up very rarely. Some people call him the true heir to Jimi Hendrix and that might be just. The problem is that when you are mostly seen as an heir to someone, you are always standing in direct comparison with your predecessor. Only strong individuality will get you out of someone’s shadow. Hazel seemed to be comfortable enough to be a Jimi Hendrix 2.0 though. He was a big fan who made no secret that he wanted to be just like his hero.

Hendrix had died a year before Maggot Brain was recorded and the song could just as well be a tribute to him, as it contains a lot of Hendrix’ tricks. It especially resembles such lengthy tracks as Voodoo Child and Machine Gun, while it also takes a lot from Hendrix’ improvisation based rendition of Star Spangled Banner (about which I wrote an earlier entry in this series). Personally, my first association was with Neil Young’s work with Crazy Horse on the album Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, specifically the track Down by the River, but that’s mostly because that album and song introduced me to this type of free style guitar playing many years ago. Neil Young doesn’t seem to be a reference point for Parliament-Funkadelic though, so let’s stay with Hendrix.

The actual inception of the song has spawned a legend of sorts. It is said that George Clinton, heavily under the influence of some sort of mind expanding substance, told Hazel to play as if he heard that his mother just died, only to find out later she was still alive. That’s some direction you can give to your player. I say this is a legend because it doesn’t seem to come from a clear source. Unless I have missed it there is no interview with Clinton, Hazel or another band member that started this tale. Most sources refer to this the same way as I do, as a legend.

The Parliament-Funkadelic world is rather fond of it’s myths, not only through its concepts of Afrofuturism which turn up more clearly on later albums, but also in much of its music creation stories. There is an aura of mysticism that surrounds much of this group and that clashes intriguingly with their comic book aesthetics, political stance and party mentality. How many groups contain so many ingredients? Another good example of how P-Funk has created its own alternative world even in its real-life deeds is the explanation of the title Maggot Brain. Clinton himself has stated that it is a free state of mind (a brain filled with maggots doesn’t sound free to me, but we are talking about George Clinton here and he is clearly not interested in obvious metaphors). Despite this, there is a far more famous explanation: George Clinton was said to have found the body of his dead brother one day and out of it’s smashed brain crawled maggots. One day someone is going to write a great book that traces the creation myths surrounding P-funk to its wacky roots.

All these stories could just have been a bunch of nonsensical fairy tales that help to dress Parliament-Funkadelic’s into some mystic fashion, but what makes it so resonant is that it all this can be reflected into the music of Maggot Brain itself. Listening to the piece you could imagine finding a dead man’s decaying body, you can feel the death of your mother and perhaps even taste the maggot’s in the mind of the universe that will keep from drowning in your own shit. For all the debt this song has to Jimi Hendrix, there is something more to it. The song evokes some unsettling feeling that doesn’t let itself be explained easily.

So what do we hear? It is the Eddie Hazel show through and through. There is a Tawl Ross rhythm track supporting him, lending some sense of unity to the whole song, but I doubt it is the element people pay attention to. I let out the names of bass player Billy Bass Nelson and keyboardist Bernie Worrell on the people’s list above, but they were originally credited on the album as playing on the song. They did play on it, but while listening to the song Clinton thought Hazel’s solo was so powerful that he decided to remove Nelson and Worrell out of the mix, so you can’t hear them on the finished piece. Drummer Tiki Fulwood was also supposed to be edited out, but attentive listeners can still hear him pop up every now and then. There is an alternative cut of the song that features all the instruments.

Eddie Hazel lets his guitar go through several moods. It starts quiet and simple, even gentle. Before long the playing becomes rougher. It’s hard and perhaps unhelpful to describe the changes the song goes through. Suffice to say that Hazel makes his guitar cry in what seems to be despair, only to calm it down as if to console it. There are also outburst that aren’t quite loud, but seem to give you a sense of tough triumph; but it might be anguish too. As a whole Maggot Brain sounds surprisingly quiet, in a way that silent waters run deep.

There is studio trickery going on too. A lot of the time it sounds as if there are two Eddie Hazels playing. This is because Clinton decided to copy parts of the song and add them as a sort of echo to the original playing. Hazel himself was a fan of then-popular tools like the Cry Wah pedal and the fuzzbox, which helped change the frequency and tone of the instruments. Clinton also added some delay. The sound feels somewhat distant, or perhaps like it is played in a hollow room, like a church (or a bathroom if you like). All these effects help to create an otherworldly sound. They amplify the cry of Hazel.

The song speaks volumes, no matter what subject you want to bring to it. Some people claim that this is the one and only track in which Hazel surpasses Jimi Hendrix himself and that might be true. The rest of Hazel’s career is mostly viewed through the lens of Maggot Brain as if he could never best it. On his few solo records he basically copied the Maggot Brain template and opinions vary as to whether that was a success. That nothing had the impact of the breakthrough is all too clear, although especially his take on California Dreaming has its admirers. Eddie Hazel needs some more credit though. Just listen to the complete Maggot Brain album and notice his playing in support of more classic songs. Especially Hit It and Quit It gets an edge through Hazel’s playing and is perhaps an underappreciated masterpiece. Of course, the album ends with Wars of Armageddon, another mostly instrumental freak-out, although more a collaborative effort than Maggot Brain.

This song now stands in a weird place in the Parliament-Funkadelic pantheon. It is indisputably one of their key tracks, but it doesn’t signify what they are mostly known for. It isn’t a funk song, obviously and doesn’t seem to be referred to as much as their classics from that genre, like Give Up the Funk, One Nation Under the Groove and Flashlight. The group was originally meant to be both funk and rock, but after a few years they definitely became a funk band. This was also not a sound that was continued by others around the time. Maybe some King Crimson sounds a bit like this. Besides that, Maggot Brain is one of those songs that stands somewhat alone in the post-Hendrix music world, risen above it all.

Further reading:
Here is a superb article on the song, written by Adam Brent Houghtaling for Fender.com: https://www.fender.com/articles/artists ... ggot-brain

Other versions:
There are a lot of songs that claim to be covers of Maggot Brain, but are they really? Many of the songs here seem more to be inspired by the song than being new versions of it. Most of them start with the same, calm first chords, but than progress into different directions. They keep the basics, but it is not the same tune. Maybe all these artists took the supposed instruction by Clinton to heart and played as if their mother died. So yeah, all these long, long songs share the spirit of Eddie Hazel, though few are as eerie as him. Most of them contain other instrumentals and the sound effects are missing. It makes a real difference.

I have listened to the whole playlist, but frankly it is still too much to take in so I can hardly describe all the differences between each and every solo. Let me point you to the most interesting takes. My favourite is a semi-classical version with violins and hip hop production, by Lili Haydn and the daKAH Hip Hop Orchestra as it goes a little further in reinventing the song. John Frusciante has always claimed that Maggot Brain was a huge influence on him and when he went solo he recorded Before the Beginning, a tribute. So while it is not strictly a cover, it is perhaps the one closest in feel. The jokesters from Ween got serious once and did something similar to Frusciante, recording a tribute to Maggot Brain, called A Tear for Eddie. Sure, the musicianship is not up to par to the hero here, but it is surprisingly moving. Finally, this year a project was released by several Detroit DJ’s, where they all remixed a P-Funk classic. BMG was brave enough to go with the not obvious choice of Maggot Brain and he tried to make it danceable. I’m not too impressed with it, but it needs to be mentioned.

Parliament-Funkadelic kept the song alive for years on stage, so there are a lot of live recordings. What’s interesting here is that they are mostly done without Hazel, who was a bit of an on-off band member after Maggot Brain. There is great variation in these live tracks and they are worth seeking out. There is also a version by Hazel without the P-Funk group.

Like a lot of P-Funk, the song has also been sampled frequently. An odd choice, but it sometimes works well. To be fair, sometimes only the opening words by Clinton are used, but there is some real magic too. Rachel Claudio made a track named Maggot Brain (Fingerpainting on the Mona Lisa) and it is quite the achievement. Psychic TV actually use the song partly as a backing track for a sung song and that works reasonably well too. Other samples aren’t quite as successful or creative.

The playlist:

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Re: 10.000 Songs: Funkadelic - Maggot Brain

Post by Depeche Mode » Mon Dec 25, 2017 3:49 pm

Maggot Brain is my favorite song of all-time, many thanks for the write-up and the playlist! :music-guitarred:

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Re: 10.000 Songs: Funkadelic - Maggot Brain

Post by jamieW » Mon Dec 25, 2017 6:01 pm

Fascinating review, Rob - so many facts and legends about this great song that I'd never heard before. A 10/10 indeed!

I've also always liked the Lili Haydn version, but then I'm a big fan of hers. A few friends of mine went to a Jimmy Page/Robert Plant concert in the '90's and she was the opening act. They said afterwards that she was the best thing about the entire show, which is how I discovered her.

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Re: 10.000 Songs: Funkadelic - Maggot Brain

Post by bootsy » Tue Dec 26, 2017 2:36 pm

Great choice. I first listened to this song a couple of years ago and was immediately mesmerized by it's brilliance and creativity. I'm usually not a big fan of songs longer than 5 minutes but this song I couldn't stop or skip to the next track. It's also interesting about it maybe being a tribute to Hendrix. Never thought of or heard of that.

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Re: 10.000 Songs: Funkadelic - Maggot Brain

Post by Depeche Mode » Tue Dec 26, 2017 7:08 pm

Maybe an unpopular opinion but nothing I've heard from Hendrix comes even close to this track. Haven't listened to the Machine Gun track yet to be fair.

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Re: 10.000 Songs: Funkadelic - Maggot Brain

Post by bootsy » Tue Dec 26, 2017 7:10 pm

Depeche Mode wrote:Maybe an unpopular opinion but nothing I've heard from Hendrix comes even close to this track. Haven't listened to the Machine Gun track yet to be fair.
It's controversial for sure but it's your opinion, that's why we have them.

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Re: 10.000 Songs: Funkadelic - Maggot Brain

Post by Honorio » Fri Jan 05, 2018 5:39 pm

An excellent essay (again) about an exceptional song. I just wanted to point to three wonderful covers on the playlist that could end being overlooked since only the first one is mentioned in the essay:
1. Psychic TV turned the mostly instrumental track into a sung song with new lyrics quite brilliantly and structured the song as a series of crescendos loud-quiet-loud style.
2. Mike Watt made in my opinion the best cover, counting with two very special guests, Bernie Worrell from Funkadelic on organ (he played on the original version but, as Rob pointed, his part was erased on the final mix) and –especially– J Mascis from Dinosaur Jr. on lead guitar that played here a wild guitar part in some middle point of Neil Young and Eddie Hazel but adding a lot of feeling.
3. Bardo Pond recorded a cover with an even slower tempo than the original and injected to it Post-Rock flavours making with that a mesmerizing tour-de-force of more than 21 minutes.

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