On more than three dozen virtuoso and genre-scrambling studio albums released from 1970 to 1982, George Clinton and members of his jolly collective Parliament-Funkadelic shaped the backbone and rocked the booty of modern groove. Formed by singers in the orbit of a New Jersey barbershop in 1955, the band started out as Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers-style doo-wop before delving into Detroit soul. In the end, they absorbed the culture of the late 60s like sponges.
Parliaments have transformed from an aspiring Motown-style vocal group, matched with a tie and handkerchief, to stumbled hippies in bell bottoms, headdresses and the occasional layers with the American flag. They were turned on by psychedelic rockers like Jimi Hendrix and Cream; they hung out with punks like the MC5 and the Stooges; they enjoyed Black Power, free love, and underground comics. “Free your mind and your ass will follow,” they famously sang. “The kingdom of heaven is within. “
However, Funkadelic’s third album, “Maggot Brain”, was not a Technicolor game. It was the sound of the delayed Woodstock dream. The group came out screaming from the shadows cast by Vietnam, racial uprisings in their old New Jersey home and their new home in Detroit, a heroin epidemic, poverty, Kent State and death of Hendrix himself, whose death was loaded with symbolism.
The album arrived 50 years ago, in July 1971, during a summer marked by the release of two other ambitious masterpieces of Protestant soul: the introspective reportage of “What’s Going On” by Marvin. Gaye and the brooding disillusionment of Sly and the Family Stone “There is a riot going on. But” Maggot Brain “exists in another astral plane. It is unleashed and refracted through the lens of LSD: 36 minutes of swirling jams , apocalyptic sound effects, heavy metal riffs, hard funk and lyrical mixes from the Beatles and Martin Luther King Jr. The album cover is provocative – a screaming Black woman outside the gatefold, and inside, text of the Process Church of the Final Judgment, the religious group is said to have ties to Charles Manson.
The work Clinton and his band released over the next decade would transform the basis of modern hip-hop: You couldn’t turn on a radio in the ’90s without hearing a slow rap song built on a sample of P- Funk. But “Maggot Brain” occupies a unique place of influence among rock bands, R&B songwriters and jazz artists with its darker than Sabbath atmospheres and transcendent solos. In 2021, his legacy is felt even stronger, in the ever-evolving protest music of artists like Kendrick Lamar, D’Angelo, Solange and Brittany Howard.
Here’s an audio guide of the album’s seven songs, plus what came before and what came after.
All musical samples and full tracks provided by