FUNKADELIC Maggot Brain (Westbound)

“Maggot Brain”, the George Clinton-led collective’s third album, originally issued in 1971 and allegedly recorded in a single, acid-fried day, opens with a barrage of machine gun fire and the dire proclamation “Mother Earth is pregnant for the third time, for y’all have knocked her up”. Following this portentous beginning proceedings only get heavier. The ten minute title track is effectively a solo vehicle for Funkadelic guitarist Eddie Hazel, whom Clinton had instructed to play as if he’d heard that his mother had died. He responded with a sustained, eloquent outpouring of grief and disbelief that takes the electric guitar to places even Hendrix barely touched upon.

If that awesome opener inevitably dwarfs everything that follows there’s still a load of hot fun to be had. The more conventional fare of “Can You Get To That” and “Hit It And Quit It” easily out-slinks Sly Stone, and I’d also suggest that the frantic polyrhythms of Talking Heads’ “Remain In Light” were seeded here (although, on reflection, there’s probably a whole dusty shelf of funk records that observation could be made about). Perhaps not coincidentally, Funkadelic keyboardist Bernie Worrell later toured with David Byrne’s outfit.

“We’ve got a thing/And it’s a very good thing”, they modestly but correctly proclaim during “You And Your Folks, Me And My Folks”, their message of positivity served up on a bed of bouncy reverbed drums with a distant, wailing guitar parked out back. It brings to mind the eccentricity of arrangement demonstrated by Prince at the peak of his purple powers. The deeper into the album you travel the more it becomes apparent that Funkadelic were the precursors of so much we take for granted in modern music, yet they still sound like a funktified Jefferson Airplane, commercial as ants. The mean and swirling electroshock riffage of “Super Stupid”, for example, could more than hold its own against close contemporaries such as Led Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker”.

The album closes with another ten minutes of near-instrumental. “Wars Of Armageddon” is a Santana-scorching cauldron of unquiet, its filtered found sound and snatched dialogue suggesting Godspeed You Black Emperor! and even “Dark Side Of The Moon”, although though it lacks as strong a conceptual focus. (It’s got a cuckoo clock, though. And explosions. And a heartbeat. Hmmm.)

“Maggot Brain” is an awesome album, laced with turmoil and experimentation as much as funk, rock, jazz, psychedelia and soul. Aside from the facts that the British vinyl pressing is direct metal mastered from digital tapes, questionable practices both, and the chocolate-coloured sleevenotes are near-illegible, its excellence is unassailable.

FUNKADELIC Motor City Madness: The Ultimate Funkadelic Compilation (Westbound)

Motor City Madness” is a huge 2½-hour splurge through the Westbound catalogue of George Clinton’s many-headed funk hydra, a band that dovetailed Sly & The Family Stone grooves with Zappa-esque protest and humour. Perhaps the perfect example of their art is the opener, “Free Your Mind And Your Ass Will Follow”: the lyrics don’t evolve much further than the titular chant, and the music sounds like an armour-plated, soul-powered “Kashmir”. But what more do you need?

Much of the booty gathered here seems to oscillate between gigantic space funk epics and concise three-minute single sides. Monster but limber jams such as “Standing On The Verge Of Getting It On” provided the template for Prince’s better work (for example “Sign ‘O’ The Times”’ live track “It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night”), and the astonishing “Maggot Brain” surely influenced his guitar work on “Purple Rain”. With its smooth, near-falsetto vocals, “Cosmic Slop” suggests a psychedelicised Curtis Mayfield, but “Better By The Pound”, with all its banging on about “our jet age generation”, can’t help but sound a bit quaint. The x-rated limericks paraded on “Take Your Dead Ass Home” rapidly become tiresome, though,as does “Loose Booty”’s exposé of the drug problems of various nursery rhyme characters.

This whimsy soon gets clouded over, however: as the album tunnels towards its core the atmosphere becomes heavier and allusively political – it’s not just a stoned soul picnic around here, you know! “Music For My Mother”’s bass-propelled paranoia was, barely credibly, the band’s first single, and the mostly wordless “America Eats Its Young” carries its message through six minutes of near-biblical wailing and gnashing of teeth. With a tune that could pass as a distant, defeated cousin of “A Change Is Gonna Come”, it’s a bleak requiem for Watergate-era America. “March To The Witch’s Castle” considers the plight of returning Vietnam veterans, sneaking in a reference to “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”. And then there’s the aforementioned “Maggot Brain”, perhaps Funkadelic’s masterpiece. This ten-minute instrumental is substantially a spindly framework supporting Eddie Hazel’s extraordinary guitar solo. “Play like your momma just died”, Clinton had allegedly instructed him, and Hazel’s response suggested the work of a hundred year-old Hendrix, fiery fretboard technique weighted by wisdom and experience. It’s not such a great leap between this and Miles Davis’ roughly contemporaneous work on “In A Silent Way”.

“Can You Get To That”, also from the “Maggot Brain” album, is Funkadelic at their most deliciously concise, but still packing a moral message. “I Wanna Know If It’s Good To You” models a lopsided groove that could be a fuzzy, distorted precursor of Robert Fripp’s “Exposure”. Unfortunately, Funkadelic’s later work – “Be My Beach” and “Undisco Kid”, for example - slides towards plastic novelty, a brittle, neon-lit approximation of the throbbing funk concepts of yore. It’s almost as if, fearing being sidelined by disco, Clinton lowered his game to compete. Fortunately, the compilation closes on a higher note, with “You And Your Folks, Me And My Folks” and “I Got A Thing, You Got A Thing, Everybody’s Got A Thing” – happy, singalong soul chants surreptitiously spreading togetherness and tolerance – and “Mommy, What’s A Funkadelic?”, a long, slow jam that might just be their “Whole Lotta Love”.

Somewhat distractingly, the overly-enthusiastic production puts everything squarely in one speaker or the other: even the panpotted guitar solos seem to teleport themselves across the space between. The packaging – despite being wrapped in a downright nasty, world’s scrattiest jewel case – is crammed with a thorough history of the band and lots of memorabilia: I particularly liked the advert for an early tour that listed such salubrious venues as the Cleethorpes Wintergardens, The Lincoln Festival and Kirklevington Country Club.

“Motor City Madness” certainly delivers a huge quantity of prime Funkadelic, but perhaps the uninitiated might be better served by heading straight for the “Maggot Brain” album itself, a less exhaustive, but also far less exhausting, introduction to this funk phenomenon.

FUNKADELIC One Nation Under A Groove (Warner Bros.)

The multi-headed funk hydra’s only UK hit, both in album and single form, “One Nation Under A Groove” presents perhaps a slicker, though certainly no less eccentric, Funkadelic than the band previously signed to the Westbound label, bringing a little extra disco discipline to their sound. Posited as a concept album of sorts, it’s a celebration of the barrier-trashing power of funk, whether it be bringing national harmony in the title track or recruiting a self-proclaimed enthusiast of Bach and Beethoven to the cause on “Cholly (Funk Getting Ready To Roll)”. Perhaps it’s a little slim on content compared to most concept albums, but really, what kind of philosophical treatise is to be expected from the scatological likes of “Promentalshitbackwashpsychosis Enema Squad (The Doodoo Chasers)”? Besides, if it’s a manifesto you’re after “Who Says A Funk Band Can’t Play Rock?!” is surely as much as you need. Over on a bonus disc (a seven inch single on American copies such as mine; the European issue was, more sensibly, packaged with a 12” mini-album also containing an additional version of the title track) ”Lunchmeataphobia (Think! It Ain’t Illegal Yet!)” offers at least grazing socio-political commentary. Almost inevitably, however, the highlight of this and any other Funkadelic album it appears on is the astonishing “Maggot Brain”, here resplendent in a live version that does nothing to dishonour the fallen funkateer Eddie Hazel’s work on the original. It’s all too rare to hear such jawdropping emotion (as opposed to technique) wrung from what is essentially a guitar solo.               

Like a vintage Mothers Of Invention album, every inch of the sleeve’s gatefold canvas seems crammed with rhetoric and myth-making, including a “Star Wars”-satirising short story charting the anti-funk antics of one Barf Vada. Whether George Clinton is the black Frank Zappa or vice versa I dunno, but of its kind “One Nation Under A Groove” is a thrilling, locked-in listen. And has any other band since The Beatles defined its sound so eloquently and completely in its name?