One Track Mind: Funkadelic "Maggot Brain" (1971)

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Next to Sly and the Family Stone and James Brown there might not be another act as influential to funk music than P-Funk, the shorthand name for George Clinton’s twin ensembles Parliament (horns) and Funkadelic (no horns). In fact, they were cited in my last OTM as an influence to Jamiroquai, but they’re likely to have directly or indirectly inspired most every funk-inclined outfit who followed them.

While One Nation Under a Groove from 1978 is often pimped as the high water mark for Funkadelic, I like the early stuff better. Not just because it’s the more organic kind of funk with more rock thrown in, but it’s got a lot more of Eddie Hazel in it.

Hazel was part of a group of talented guitarists from Duane Allman to Robin Trower who were tagged “the next Hendrix” in the wake of Jimi’s death. Like those others, Eddie started with solid foundation in the blues, but injected a funk element to it; he might have been the first true funk guitarist. And nowhere was his wizardry on display better than on “Maggot Brain.”

The title track that kicks off Funkadelic’s 1971 classic third album begins with one of Clinton’s characteristic apocalyptic voice declaring that “Mother Earth is pregnant for the third time, for y’all have knocked her up,” but after about thirty seconds of his proclamations, he gives way to Hazel.

The music that follows is nothing more than a four-chord blues and there’s the most minimal of backup instrumentation: drums, bass, and a barely-noticeable rhythm guitar—and all low in the mix. Clinton originally planned for more, but reportedly opted to give Hazel as much space as possible. But his most important move to enhance the song is the instructions he gave Hazel: “play like your momma had just died.”

The next nine and a half minutes is a showcase for some of the most soulful, lonely, inspired psychedelic electric guitar playing ever laid to wax. It may not be so gently, but his guitar weeps. This tour de force might rank as the all time best solo for only a few, but as a eulogy expressed on a guitar, it’s unsurpassed.

Barely 21 at the time he crafted his signature performance, Hazel seemed to be poised for greater heights. But like Hendrix, drug abuse cut him off at the pass. He did live on for another 21 years but couldn’t stick in Clinton’s band long enough to make much of an impact anymore; Clinton was forced to use other guitarists full time, although Hazel performed and even recorded again with the band here and there.

But his mark was already made, and what a mark it was. It’s hard to imagine what Hazel might have coaxed out of his axe that day had his momma died for real.

Listen: Funkadelic “Maggot Brain”

Purchase: Funkadelic Maggot Brain

“One Track Mind” is a more-or-less weekly drool over a single song selected on a whim and a short thesis on why you should be drooling over it, too.

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