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Song Of The Month December 2011: “Maggot Brain” by Funkadelic

December 29, 2011

On 23rd December 1992, a man named Edward Hazel died due to internal bleeding and liver failure at the age of 42. He was an instrumental part of the shaping of what George Clinton calls “P-Funk”: a soulful hybrid of the earthiness of funk with the upper-register meanderings one would think of rock and jazz music. While it’s a genre that borders on the point of falling into the cringeworthy possibilities of self-indulgence, at its best P-Funk can be a truly encompassing sound that would have the ability to absorb its listener into its sonic capabilities.

The one track that comes to mind on the thought of Eddie Hazel is “Maggot Brain”, a track linked to him in various ways. The title track of Funkadelic’s third album, “Maggot Brain” is more known for the lead guitar part than anything else but it is useful to look at the accompaniment. Firstly, the raw lead is not the only guitar track present as it is supported by a simply arpeggio, serving as a standard form in which the lead guitar can neatly propel itself off and into the stratosphere of sound. There are some sparse drum lines and bass but they act as a footnote to the emotional lead guitar played by Mr. Hazel.

Hazel’s guitar-playing style is very much affected by Jimi Hendrix as is the same for virtually all guitarists in P-Funk and beyond. Unlike many who tried to make impressions of Hendrix, it was “Maggot Brain” which identified that Hazel had found his own voice. What resonates most with the record is the raw strength of emotion that is evident from Hazel’s inspired fretwork. There are many variants on the story but it is generally accepted that Funkadelic main-man George Clinton told Hazel to play the first part as if he had just heard that his mother had died and to play the second part as though he had discovered that she was living. The only people that really know the truth were those there but given the supposed scrambled mind of Clinton and indeed many of the Funkadelic collective, it’s no surprise that nothing is definitive.

It is all about improvisation. With the melancholic arpeggio rhythm guitar part locked, Hazel spends the bulk of the track reaching out in anguish via the medium of his guitar. Thoroughly absorbing, it seems strange that such a track opens the album. Conventionally, it would surely serve as a superb final track but it is Funkadelic.

Funkadelic came to creation due to George Clinton’s group Parliament battling with a record company. The company owned the band’s name so Clinton and co. got around it with a simple rename. There is a subtle difference in that the music of Funkadelic appeared to be freer creatively and that, while structure was important, there was an increase in improvisation. As for Hazel’s involvement with the group, “Maggot Brain” was the true highlight and the peak of his playing career. He would flit in and out of the Funkadelic picture, often playing with the group for intense periods before disappearing for a while. He also ventured out and made some solo records (Game, Dames and Guitar Thangs is worth a listen if that way inclined).

Hazel’s death at the age of 42 was sad but also came with inevitability as he had veered from extreme highs to extreme lows. A mixture of drug habits was well documented (“Maggot Brain” was a nickname that Hazel had prior to the track’s production) and there is no doubt that they certainly sped up his lifetime.

There have been other takes on the track despite the personal emotive state of the music. Bands have frequently played at least parts of Hazel’s improvisation with Pearl Jam notable performers of it. Indeed, Hazel’s replacement in Funkadelic, Michael Hampton, went as far as releasing his own take on it but the track’s association with Hazel means that it would be swept aside with many preferring to stick to the definitive original edition.

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