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Exegesis: Funkadelic's "Maggot Brain"

George Clinton's masterpiece of semi-Satanic psychedelic Afro-futurism

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In Exegesis posts, I project my own ideas onto popular art—mainly fiction, music, and film—with little regard for the artist’s intentions. Past subjects include Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Future subjects will include Octavia Butler’s Earthseed Series, the music of Dan Deacon, and TV’s Adventure Time.

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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.

—Opening lines of Maggot Brain

Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain is one of those rare albums that expanded the boundaries of the word “music”. Its loose, genre-bending style has influenced groups as wide-ranging as Outkast, Audioslave, and Ween. Despite an initially lukewarm reception, it’s become a regular on “best albums of all-time” lists.

Thematically, the album is an unflinching examination of death, darkness, violence, and fear. There are spiritual and political overtones, underlined by the inclusion of a long rant from a controversial cult in the liner notes (reproduced in part below).

Led by the legendary George Clinton, Funkadelic—an all-Black, psychedelic-fueled band living in 1970s America—saw life through an understandably dark lens. While White folks on acid were churning out frivolities like Sugar Magnolia and Strawberry Fields Forever, Funkadelic stared straight into the abyss.

Outline

Your Mother’s Death

In these seven songs, you can hear Funkadelic attempting to make sense of the turmoil of the times, as they express the euphoria and anguish of being born and dying in the most extraordinary ways.

—Dave Segal, in his review for Pitchfork

Maggot Brain opens with what is arguably one of the greatest guitar solos of all time—recorded in one take by an LSD-fueled Eddie Hazel, with a genius prompt from George Clinton:

Eddie and I were in the studio, tripping like crazy but also trying to focus our emotions. I told him to play like his mother had died, to picture that day, what he would feel, how he would make sense of his life, how he would take a measure of everything that was inside him.

I knew immediately that he understood what I meant. I could see the guitar notes stretching out like a silver web. When he played the solo back, I knew that it was good beyond good, not only a virtuoso display of musicianship but also an almost unprecedented moment of emotion in pop music.

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