Going to the bogs down south and finding ‘Maggot Brain’



Going to the bogs down south and finding ‘Maggot Brain’

A bi-weekly vinyl review

Andrew Donaldson

You have to love the cover, which must have knocked ’em dead when it first appeared in 1979. But the 12 tracks on Swampland Jewels (Goldband Records, reissued by Yep Roc in 2017) were even better: classic mid-20th century Cajun, zydeco, rock ’n’ roll and rhythm and blues from East Texas and Southwest Louisiana by the likes of Jo-El Sonnier, Boozoo Chavis, Cleveland Crochet, Shorty LeBlanc and Iry LeJune Jr, among others. This is what a Saturday night would have sounded like in Lafayette, Louisiana, at a crab boil hoedown – in the years before Creedence Clearwater Revival discovered the swamps.
He was, as they say, in a good space when it happened: “Swamp Fox” Tony Joe White, who died in his sleep last week, had just released to critical acclaim a new album, Bad Mouthin’ (Yep Roc), which included interpretations of the blues songs that had inspired the 75-year-old guitarist and singer-songwriter as a youth.
One of those songs is the Elvis Presley co-written Heartbreak Hotel, which in a sense represents an appropriate coda for White’s career; Presley had included White’s Polk Salad Annie, his first single and only Top 10 hit, in his early 1970s live repertoire. Presley’s version of the song, which would be released on six different Elvis albums and compilations, would introduce White’s work to new audiences the world over (and earn him a fair whack in royalties).
To Presley, the part-Cherokee White was a kindred spirit. He was born into a poor farming family in a small Louisiana town and grew up harvesting cotton and corn. His interest in music was sparked by the blues his African-American neighbours played. After graduating from high school he began working the honkytonks and bars in Texas as a country singer, but got nowhere.
He was working as a garbage truck driver in 1967 when he heard Bobbie Gentry’s groundbreaking Ode to Billie Joe, which inspired him to start writing songs about southern life as he knew it. Polk Salad Annie was one of the first. White reckoned he had something, and drove to Nashville where he was promptly signed by Monument Records. His first two albums for the label, Black and White and …Continued, quickly established the White imprimatur: wry accounts of the idiosyncrasies of the backwoods and bayous of the south delivered in a warm, growling drawl over lazy, almost humid bluesy guitar riffs. When it came to swamp rock, a genre more usually associated with Creedence, here was the real thing. On stage his down-home personality came to the fore, and he’d treat each concert, no matter how grand, as if it were a performance on the back porch.
White scored another huge hit with Rainy Night in Georgia off … Continued. His own version was largely ignored, but Brook Benton’s 1970 cover was a worldwide smash, and would be followed over the years with popular versions from Randy Crawford, Ray Charles and Rod Stewart, among others.
After that his career more or less nosedived. In the US his albums failed to sell for the familiar reasons: he was too white for black radio, too black for white radio. He was, much like that other maverick, JJ Cale, a genre-of-one. In 1988, however, he was sought out by Mark Knopfler to work on a Tina Turner album he was producing, Foreign Affair. Turner would include four of White’s songs on the record, including the title track, and the album’s raunchy opener, Steamy Windows.
The success of Foreign Affair provided a much-needed boost for White’s career, and after launching his own label, Swamp Records, released a slew of average to good albums in the decades that followed. At times it seemed as if he was treading water, such was the ease with which he tossed them out. Career retrospectives followed. In 2013 he signed with Yep Roc, releasing the Hoodoo and Rain Crow albums before Bad Mouthin’. His earliest recordings, reissued on Rhino/Music on vinyl, remain the most compelling.
BURIED TREASURE Now for something completely different. Like the name suggests, Funkadelic saw funk as a redemptive force and the ultimate transcendental experience. As the title of their second album suggested, Free Your Mind And Your Ass Will Follow (Westbound). Indeed. The group’s philosophy would raise conservative eyebrows. When told that he couldn’t do “that sorta thing on a record”, band leader George Clinton would respond, “You bet yo’ ass I can!”
That sorta thing reached its creative height with Maggot Brain, their third album and a frazzled marriage of psychedelic rock and whacked-out soul groove centred on black consciousness and LSD-inspired liberation. Little is remembered of the recording sessions and Clinton happily admits to tripping on acid when he produced the album. “I just got in there and turned the knobs,” he said. “It was such a vibe. I didn’t know any better – you can only do that stuff when you don’t know any better.”
Somehow, and in spite of this anarchic approach to production, Maggot Brain managed to successfully mix political comment with gospel music and cosmic funk rock stomps, tackling both racism and the horrors of the war in Vietnam. So far, so good. But its crowning achievement was the title track, which was one of 1971’s most powerful and bizarre songs and remains so decades later.
Starting with a crackle of feedback bouncing across the channels, a voice intones, “Mother Earth is pregnant for the third time, for y’all have knocked her up …” before expressing a need to “rise above it all or drown in my own shit …” Rumour has it that Clinton had discovered his brother’s decomposing body in a Chicago apartment with a cracked skull (hence the title) and he’d then locked guitarist Eddie Hazel alone in the studio with the instruction: “Play like your mother just died.”
The resulting solo, a haunting evocation of melancholy and sorrow, has been described as being better than anything Jimi Hendrix had done. It’s laid over another, more gentle guitar figure, and the end result is an emotional stunner, anguished and fragile but all the more powerful for it.
The album is regularly featured in “best of ...” and “all-time favourites”. The hip San Fransisco label, 4 Men With Beards, have been reissuing Maggot Brain since 2008 in various coloured vinyl formats, including chocolate brown, purple, blue and orange.

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