Category Archives: Funk

Album Review: Maggot Brain / Mothership Connection

George Clinton will undoubtedly go down as one of the foremost innovators in the history of pop music, if he hasn’t already. From the year 1970 almost through the end of the decade, Clinton and his two bands—Parliament and Funkadelic—embarked on an album run any self-respecting artist would be jealous of. Not only that, but he established himself in multiple genres at once, conquering rock & psychedelia with Funkadelic while simultaneously dominating the funk scene with Parliament.

Not to give Clinton all the credit, of course—the reason these bands were so great was because they were bands, unmistakably. In terms of group chemistry, Funkadelic could rock out with the best of them, and Parliament’s playful but eminently tight grooves stem from the sort of interplay it normally takes years to perfect.

To reduce either band’s lengthy career to its most cherished album would be to do them a huge disservice. That said, because we on this site are monsters, that’s what we’ll be doing here. For Funkadelic, that album is Maggot Brain (some might argue One Nation Under A Groove, but they’re in the minority). For Parliament, it’s Mothership Connection. We’ll take a look at the two pinnacles of George Clinton’s decades-spanning, genre-defining musical project, and see just what about each of them makes it so great.


 

"Come on, Maggot Brain..."
“…I have tasted the maggots in the mind of the universe…”

 

To the many accolades Funkadelic has (rightfully) received, you can add the fact that they hit the ground running. 1970’s self-titled debut was weird, dirty, and messy in the way that signifies a true classic—and what’s more, spelled out the collective’s mission statement from the get-go. Free Your Mind And Your Ass Will Follow, released the same year, was more of the same, but built on the formula enough to distinguish itself as a great album of its own. Still, it wasn’t until 1971 that the group left our dimension entirely, and Maggot Brain was the result.

This is one of those albums whose reputation is defined almost entirely by a single song. The title track, which opens the album, has become so legendary in certain circles that it tends to overshadow everything else. It’s not hard to see why: from that first burst of feedback, to the moment that Eddie Hazel’s guitar first rises from the abyss, “Maggot Brain” is the sort of song that can’t help but inspire awe. To this day, it remains genuinely transcendental, and I can only describe it as a kaleidoscopic odyssey unto itself.

And there are still six tracks left to go.

Those remaining songs never reach the level of “Maggot Brain,” but they don’t need to—Funkadelic’s already kicked open the doors of your mind, now they’re doing whatever they damn well please. The closet the album ever comes to straight funk is the soaring, keyboard-driven “Hit It And Quit It”, and even then, they can’t resist throwing in some chirpy backing vocals for good measure.

The rest of Maggot Brain is spent proving that Funkadelic weren’t just a great rock band; they were a versatile one. George Clinton et al. sound equally at home on acoustic jingle-pop (“Can You Get To That”), pop soul (“You And Your Folks, Me And My Folks”), proto-metal (“Super Stupid”) and bouncy psychedelia (“Back In Our Minds”). The album closes with the sort of studio freak out that would do Frank Zappa proud—it’s easily the funkiest apocalypse ever laid to tape, and an appropriate bookend to the unearthliness of the title track.

This album is probably Funkadelic’s most diverse, showcasing their poppiest instincts back-to-back with some of their weirdest (sometimes literally, as with the first two tracks). It’s the work of a band bursting at the seams with ideas, and as a result can come across as a little scattershot. This is an album that follows up its most unapologetically hedonistic song with its most class-conscious, and if you’re prone to experiencing mood whiplash, this is probably not for you. If there’s one thing beyond criticism, though, it’s the songs, which are across-the-board great (I will defend “Back In Our Minds” to my dying breath). Maggot Brain can be catchy when it wants to be, heavy, funky, or freaky, and it says something about how unique Funkadelic were—and remain—that few bands before or since have been able to claim the same.

Essential Listening: Maggot Brain, Can You Get To That, Super Stupid


 

"Kick back, dig, while we do it to you in your eardrums..."
“…kick back, dig, while we do it to you in your eardrums…”

 

Parliament’s Mothership Connection is a horse of a very different color. But then, that’s not much of a surprise: Clinton’s bands followed different trajectories from the start. Parliament was always intended as the more commercial project—even on early albums, where it bore more than a passing similarity to its sister act, Clinton generally kept the songs shorter and the hooks funkier. Where Funkadelic’s music was often dark, chaotic, or overtly experimental, Parliament largely contented itself with laying out a good groove and letting the vibes flow freely.

Parliament technically debuted in 1970, with the psychedelia-flavored Osmium, but it wasn’t until 1974, and their second studio album, that the band hit its stride. In that time, the collective acquired two major players that would help to define Parliament’s revamped sound: bassist Bootsy Collins and horn section The Horny Horns (you can’t make this stuff up). With their help, the band released 1974’s Up For The Down Stroke, an upbeat, sing-songy slice of cosmic funk that set Parliament on its new course—first to Washington, D.C., on 1975’s Chocolate City, then straight to the stars.

Mothership Connection was Parliament’s breakout album, by just about any measurable standard; a bona fide smash hit, it propelled P-Funk into the mainstream, and established George Clinton as one of the leading innovators in black music. From the unapologetically goofy cover art, to the wall-to-wall funk of its seven tracks, to the massive success of single “Give Up The Funk (Tear The Roof Off The Sucker)”, this was the sound of everything coming together. Parliament became honest-to-God rock stars, achieving the kind of commercial success Funkadelic had often skirted the edge of but never quite achieved.

From the very first song, Mothership Connection establishes funk not just as a style of music, but a way of life. Nearly every chorus on the album involves The Funk in some way or another; of all Clinton’s albums, this is the one that commits to his mythology most completely. The only time it breaks character is on “Handcuffs”, and that’s forgivable, if only to give the listener some room to breathe.

On “P-Funk (Wants To Get Funked Up)”, Parliament promises you uncut funk, and that’s exactly what they deliver: the tracks on the album are more a single, evolving groove than they are songs in their own right. “Give Up the Funk” was Mothership Connection’s pop hit, but really, it’s hard to imagine any song here doing much worse—they’re all incredibly catchy, and even the lengthier tracks don’t feel a second longer than they need to be.

Of course, much of that is due to the band’s sheer charisma; vocal duties are distributed across eight different people, and it’s hard to decide who’s best: Glen Goins, with his gleefully over-the-top singing on “Unfunky UFO”, Clinton, with his seemingly improvised ramblings over “Mothership Connection (Star Child)”, or Bootsy Collins and his various interjections across the record. Parliament were always more vocal-driven than Funkadelic, and this is one of the best showcases of this that the band ever released.

Mothership Connection proved to be Parliament’s peak, both critically and commercially; they never saw the same degree of success on either front again. Still, that shouldn’t preclude any enjoyment of this album: for a little over half an hour, you can witness a band at the height of its powers, delivering immortal grooves one after the other, and proving that outlandish concepts weren’t just for rock artists anymore. Even today, it’s tantalizing to look back at a point when anyone could put a glide in their stride, a dip in their hip, and come on board the Mothership.

Essential Listening: Mothership Connection (Star Child), Unfunky UFO, Give Up The Funk (Tear The Roof Off The Sucker)


 

Maggot Brain and Mothership Connection, as great as they are, still don’t represent the full scope of Parliament-Funkadelic’s achievement. After all, part of what made both bands so great was their consistency—even when releasing multiple albums the same year, Clinton maintained a high enough level of quality control to give us one of the most fertile periods in funk history. That said, these two albums do give a sense of the project’s two extremes: Funkadelic never got weirder, and Parliament never had a bigger smash. Both albums are classics in their own right, and if you like either, rest assured that there are plenty more in that vein. That cosmic, freaked-out, eternally groovy vein.

Album Review: There’s A Riot Goin’ On

"...look at you, fooling you..."
“…look at you, fooling you…”

 

At this point, the myth of There’s A Riot Goin’ On has assumed a stature on par with the album itself. It’s a near-perfect narrative—the formerly optimistic musician, burnt out on the state of the world, holes up in the studio with nothing but his own creativity, and in a drug-fueled haze produces a masterpiece. Sly Stone would certainly fit the tortured artist archetype, and nothing makes the poppy, psychedelic soul of albums like Life stand out like seeing the Family Stone’s inner darkness poured out so thoroughly here. But reducing Riot to the role it played in Sly & The Family Stone’s artistic progression would be doing it a huge disservice. Stripped entirely of context, it’s still a great album, and one that could serve as a landmark in any band’s career.

For starters, it combines darkness and funkiness in ways few acts—then or now—could ever hope to. The sound is notoriously low-fi and murky (the tape hiss seems to be as much a player as any instrument) and it marks such a change from the clear-eyed sound of previous Family Stone albums, they barely feel like the work of the same band.

Overall, There’s A Riot Goin’ On functions less as a collection of songs and more as an extended mood piece: most songs follow traditional verse-chorus structures (with a few notable exceptions), but overall, musical elements fade in and out seemingly at random. It trades the pop and soul of previous albums for more prominent jazz and funk influences, with an improvisational feeling dominating for several of the longer tracks (“Africa Talks To You” in particular). Everything has a rough, visceral texture, from the slithering guitar lines to the bubbling drum machines, that helps to negate some of the album’s more chaotic qualities—when there are no obvious grooves to latch onto, one can simply lie back and appreciate the sound of the record.

If any aspect of Riot suffers from the poor sound quality, it’s undoubtedly the vocals. Sly sounds like he’s drowning in the instrumentation more often than not, and the album’s lead single, “Family Affair,” is one of the few in which any words can be clearly discerned. Not that the lyrics are any more cheerful than their backing music. “Time they say is the answer,” Sly croons mournfully at one point, “but I don’t believe it.”

Now, that’s not to say the album’s a slog, or not any fun. It’s perhaps the most jubilant descent into despair ever laid to tape: from the ode to drug-induced escape that kicks off the album, to the twisted “survival of the fittest” sentiments expressed in “Brave & Strong,” all the way to the cheerfully nihilistic verses of “Thank You For Talkin’ To Me, Africa,” the album remains incredibly funky, if not particularly uplifting. As far as albums made by people on drugs about being on drugs go, it’s by no means the most inaccessible out there.

In the end, Sly isn’t consigning you to the murk, merely inviting you in for a while to look around. The Family Stone’s follow-up album, Fresh, returned the group to some of their earlier, happier dynamics, but even then, it couldn’t help descending into some of the same despair as Riot. “Thank you for the party, but I could never stay,” Sly sings on the final track: back in his mind, once again.


 

Essential Listening: Luv N’ Haight, Africa Talks To You (The Asphalt Jungle), Spaced Cowboy