Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain

George Clinton formed The Parliaments and made pretty standard vocal group soul music until he and his mates, allegedly, took LSD, saw the light and got their freak flags out. The Parliaments became simply Parliament and that mutated into the almost alter ego Funkadelic, originally just the backing band, and Clinton was off and running in the rock influenced Seventies street funk sweepstakes with possibly the most outrageous collective of them all.

Parliament was defined as the horn driven vocal group and Funkadelic was the guitar based funk rock band. The two bands shared personnel and live shows showcased songs from both groups, hence the appellation of Parliafunkadelicment Thang.

In 1978, amidst the post punk New Wave frenzy of the English music scene, Funkadelic had its biggest hit in Britain with "One Nation Under A Groove"' a long, lazy funk tune with a catchy sing-a-long chorus.

The NME was my first and only source of information about the P-funk because this music was not being played on Radio 5 even if it were a disco station at the time, because Funkadelic did not fit into the disco mould despite being at least as outrageous as the Village People.

The records were also not available in Stellenbosch. The American music scene of the time was full of street funk bands, much like rap is the biggest thing today, and many of those, like Brass Construction, Tower of Power, the LTD band, Fat Larry's Band, Earth Wind & Fire, and so on, were available, but Parliafunkadelicment Thang was unknown.

This changed for me on a visit to the Silverstones discount store in the Picbel Parkade in central Cape Town, somewhere between 1979 and the end of 1981 when I found three Funkadelic albums at once: Hard Core Jollies (1976), One Nation Under A Groove (1978) and Uncle Jam (1979).

Hard Core Jollies was on the whole more of a psychedelic guitar rock album than I had been expecting from the NME's articles. The other two were closer to the disco that was so overwhelmingly prevalent at the time although I would guess that it would be typified as simply freaky funk.

Of course I was prepared to like all of it simply because it came endorsed by the NME yet I was not always convinced by the silliness that accompanied the more interesting stuff. Both One Nation Under A Groove and Uncle Jam seemed like albums of mostly jokey filler with a couple of monster dance grooves. One Nation Under A Groove also came with a bonus EP with two funk tracks and a live version of "Maggot Brain", the title track of an album released in 1971. These albums were confusing. Was Funkadelic a rock band or was it a funk band?

The answer, kind of, came in the shape of Funkadelic: The Best Of The Early Years, Volume One, on Westbound Records. This album contained a bunch of funky, tough, soul rock tracks. This was what I wanted to hear! The disco sounding stuff was mostly absent; the rock and roll was very much present. "I Bet You", "Can You Get To That" "Funky Dollar Bill", "No Compute" and "Philmore" were standout tracks that sounded like a collection of hit singles and probably were in some alternative universe and were completely at odds with my perception of Black music from the Seventies, which was all about The Jackson Five, The Temptations ("Papa Was A Rolling Stone"), Stevie Wonder, Billy Paul, Bill Withers and The O'Jays. These acts were all over South African radio. Funkadelic certainly was not.

That was where my Funkadelic acquisitions rested for many years. I did buy a couple of Parliament albums along the way, as well, but no more Funkadelic, and even when I later acquired some CD compilations they tended to be of the greatest hits of Parliament.

In 2005 and from a street vendor in London I bought a DVD of a concert the P-funk collective played at Houston circa 1975, at the time when George Clinton was very much into the Mothership myth and the songs in the set comprise the early greatest hits of both bands, well before "One Nation Under A Groove". It is a great concert, full of the energy and weirdness for which Parliafunkadelicment Thang became famous or notorious.

On just about every visit to the UK since 2005 I've eyed the Funkadelic and Parliament sections of whatever HMV store I visited and yet never bought any of the albums, partly because they were not as cheap as my budget required and partly because there were so many albums I had difficulty making a selection. Ideally I should have started from the debut releases and then worked my way forward but it seemed to be too much of a daunting task and I did not have the patience.

On my 2012 UK holiday I went into a bit of a CD buying frenzy and bought at least double the maximum I'd previously bought, perhaps far too many albums, and one of them was Maggot Brain, the 1971 release, their third on Westbound Records. The CD release is the original album plus three bonus tracks. The previously known tracks were "Maggot Brain", "Super Stupid" and "Can You Get To That."

Some of this album is highly reminiscent of the solid groove funk the Isley Brothers produced on albums like The Brothers: Isley (1969) and Get Into Something (1970) where the Isleys married vocal trio harmonies, stoned soul and funk to produce a heavier sound than the old-fashioned Stax type of deep soul of, say, Otis Redding. The Isleys were still traditional enough, though, and kind of country going by some of the lyrics. George Clinton must have been paying attention to the sound and the attitude but with his much more lysergic insight into what makes a good song a truly terrific one gave us a whole new thing.

The interesting, and great, proposition of a Funkadelic album is that the music is quite varied in style, and not just hard funk.

"Maggot Brain" is a Hendrix-inspired and influenced lead guitar storm with a typically Clinton spoken word intro that sounds mythic yet is actually just a stone joke. Eddie Hazell plays the shit out of his Strat and his inspiration seems to be Electric Ladyland and Cry Of Love, rather than the early psychedelic rock Hendrix style.

"Can You Get To That" is a funky pop rumination on relationships. This tune shoulda been a hit, a palpable hit, on all kinds of commercial radio stations. Basso profundo counterpoint to chick singers gives us that old-time soul appeal with a song that makes a serious point wittily.

"Hit It And Quit it" has a keyboard led heavy rock base with shouty, somewhat unintelligible vocals and a greasy, great wah wah guitar solo.

Sly & The Family Stone supply the roots for "You And Your Folks, Me And My Folks" with bottom heavy, solid, grinding bass, jazzy piano and call and response vocal exchanges between the guys and gals. Sounds like a call for toleration and peace between humans.

The Jon Lord-style keyboards, heavy riffing and Hendrixoid screaming guitar solo turn "Super Stupid" into an anthemic hard rock classic.

With "Back In Our Minds" the band reverts to the stoned, loping funk reveries that characterised the P-funk for so long and differentiated it from its more staid competitors. A lazy trombone solo allows the track to take off into the realm of late Seventies reggae session guy, Rico.

The 9 minutes plus intense, rhythmic workout on "Wars of Armageddon" sounds a lot like the kind of hard funk jams on Miles Davis' On The Corner and I can imagine Davis must have taken a long, hard musical look at the new street funk styles epitomised by Funkadelic for his new direction.

These tracks were on the original vinyl release. The bonus tracks on the CD re-issue are interesting but not particularly vital except for those, like me, who truly want to hear as much P-funk as possible, in all its variations. Maggot Brain may not be a work of genius but it sure is a work of strangeness combined with groovy funk, heavy rock and a seriously skewed take on the USA of its time.

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