Sunday, December 12, 2010

December 12: Funkadelic, "Maggot Brain"

Artist: Funkadelic
Song: "Maggot Brain
Album: Maggot Brain
Year: 1971

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Though it is perhaps the most rare occurrence in the entire history of recorded music, there are a few cases where a song is able to completely eclipse a band.  In every one of these cases, the band in question has a number of other songs that are well known, yet this single song becomes so iconic, so special, that nearly every music fan knows the song, many are not aware of the band by which it is performed.  Add in the fact that in at least one of these cases, the band in question was being overshadowed by one of the band members' other projects, and the uniquely mythical status that is the band Funkadelic was born.  Without question, Funkadelic represented the pinnacle of psychedelic funk, yet for a majority of the years they recorded, they were almost seen as "secondary" to George Clinton's other project, Parliament.  The bands had Clinton and a revolutionary approach to funk music in common, yet while Parliament was more upbeat, it was Funkadelic that explored the deeper, often more somber sounds.  Though Funkadelic released a number of brilliant albums, it is impossible to argue any of their records as more significant than their landmark 1971 album, Maggot Brain.  Completely destroying every norm and notion as to what could be achieved through the sounds of rock, funk, and psychedelia, there is not another song in history that can compare to the majesty that one finds in Funkadelic's 1971 classic, "Maggot Brain."

While a number of bands had attempted to bridge funk and psychedelia before this recording, such as Jimi Hendrix's "Machine Gun" and Frank Zappa's, "Black Napkins," neither come close to the perfection that Funkadelic achieves on "Maggot Brain."  The impact of the song simply cannot be measured, and there are many critics who have compared the song on many levels to John Coltrane's A Love Supreme.  While such accolades may seem a bit much, "Maggot Brain" is worthy of such comparisons, as it begins as an odd spoken piece from Clinton, followed by a rather unassuming, reflective bass progression from Billy "Bass" Nelson.   The bassline rarely deviates during the ten-plus minute run of the song, and yet it somehow manages to get deeper and deeper as "Maggot Brain" progresses.  There are also light touches that can be heard from drummer Tiki Fulwood, but they are mixed perfectly so as not to detract from the unparalleled mood and tension that defines the song.  Truth be told, during the session in which the song was recorded, the entire band contributed parts, but after hearing the interplay between the guitar and bass, Clinton mixed the other tracks mostly or completely out of the song, leaving the stripped down, yet absolutely stunning musical landscape that "is" "Maggot Brain."

Instantly cementing his name as one of the greatest guitarists in history, there is no other performance ever recorded that even comes close to the brilliance that Eddie Hazel displays on "Maggot Brain."  As stated, the song was originally meant to be played by the entire band, but Hazel's performance was so moving and emotive, that it demanded the complete spotlight for the entire run of the song.  Recorded in a single take, legend has it that Clinton told Hazel to "play like yo’ mama just died" in hopes of being able to capture the strong emotion on the song without having to speak a word on the track.  Clearly, Hazel achieved this goal and then some, as the song stands today as one of the most iconic and most highly revered pieces of guitar work in history.  Hazel works the entire fret-board with stunning precision, and it is clear that he is simply letting the music guide him, as opposed to following a previously decided musical path.  This manner in which he lets the music completely control him is the sign of true musical brilliance, and it embodies the idea of how powerful a song can be, even without a vocal track.  Often working in double and triple time to the tempo set by the rhythm section, Hazel uses few effects on the track, featuring only a bit of wah pedal and fuzz from time to time.  Hazel never lets the listener go at any point during the ten-plus minutes of the song, and the way in which he is able to give a complete musical journey through his guitar is what makes both him and the song absolute legends.

Though it did not "start" the psychedelic-funk sound, there is no arguing that it was "Maggot Brain" which set the standard for what could be achieved through the style.  Pulling elements from a number of artists, as well as other George Clinton projects, the song is sad and soulful in a way unlike any other recording in history.  As Eddie Hazel's finest moment, he fuses together this psychedelic-funk sound with elements of blues, jazz, and even heavy metal, resulting in what is arguably the greatest guitar performance in music history.  Through the raw, honest performance Hazel delivers, "Maggot Brain" was able to transcend all musical boundaries, as any fan of any type of music cannot help but stand in awe of this extraordinary display of talent.  Furthermore, the fact that the song found regular radio rotation even at nearly four times the "standard" song length serves as a testament to the undeniable majesty that the song provides.  Yet there is one aspect of the song that remains a question nearly four decades later, and that is from where the song title was derived.  While some claim that "Maggot Brain" was Eddie Hazel's nickname, there are others who argue that the title was taken from when Clinton found his brothers' dead body in a Chicago apartment.  Regardless of the songs' source, it has gone on to completely define guitar greatness and in many ways, part of the counter-culture of the time, and to this day, no song can even come close to the overall impact and presence that is Funkadelic's monumental 1971 recording, "Maggot Brain."

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