While 1971 was a fine vintage for prog, the retrospective round-ups rarely mention one of the year’s best releases – and indeed the blackest prog album of all time – Maggot Brain by Funkadelic. Though it may seem several galaxies and a couple of topographical oceans removed from those albums we hold dear, the evidence suggests otherwise. Here is the yang to prog’s yin.
Somewhere in the vast middle ground between the classical, folk and hard rock-loving British bands and George Clinton’s sci-fi funk crew sat a well of blues, jazz and psychedelia from which both camps drew nourishment. Once an out-and-out soul outfit, The Parliaments, Clinton’s posse had abandoned their matching straight suits and slick dos after opening for Vanilla Fudge and catching a blast from their psychedelic Marshall stacks. From then on they were the loudest funk band on the planet and hoovered up new influences fast.
Put Maggot Brain alongside the freewheeling and funk-addled In The Court Of The Crimson King and the comparisons are there to hear. Both are clearly influenced by acts as different as Sun Ra and Cream, and both take the blues and proto-funk, stick a rocket up their respective asses and then send them into space to explode across the cosmos in a visionary display of musicianship.
Maggot Brain was entirely the making of former Parliament man Clinton, and followed 1970’s deliciously-named, LSD-driven Free Your Mind... And Your Ass Will Follow. Its follow-up then was the shimmering, head-fracturing comedown. Opening with the words ‘Mother Earth is pregnant for the third time/For y’all have knocked her up!’, the opening title track saw Eddie Hazel’s shimmering, spectral guitar work out-Hendrix the recently-departed man himself and scorch a hole through Santana’s burgeoning career. “Play like your mama just died,” was Clinton’s advice, and the result’s so stunning it made the rest of the band – described by their leader as “four baby junkies” – sound bad by comparison, so he faded them out. A 10-minute guitar solo without accompaniment as an album opener is utterly prog.
Elsewhere straight-up grooves are contorted into new shapes that are in turn economical and epic, celebratory and disturbing. The syncopated Hit It And Quit It thrusts and writhes and has a keyboard solo that sounds like Rick Wakeman being dumped in the ghetto at midnight and told to play for this life, while Wars Of Armageddon is an exotic 10-minute tribal wig-out complete with – what musicologists term – fart noises. Drugs, it should be noted, played a significant part in the creation of Maggot Brain, a multi-faceted album that exists in its own weird world of dark voodoo and dazzling musicality. It’s up there with any more obviously traditional prog release.
This article originally appeared in Prog 38.