“Play Like Yer Grandma Died”:
The Legend that is Maggot Brain
“…mother earth is pregnant for the third time/ for y’all have knocked her up / I have tasted the maggots in the mind of the universe / I was not offended / for I knew I had to rise above it all / or drown in my own shit…”
There aren’t a lot of recordings that are as mythical, transcendental and just downright spooky as Maggot Brain, a 10 minute melancholic guitar freak-out by Funkadelic guitarist Eddie Hazel recorded for the group’s 1971 album of the same name. The song is so steeped in rock n roll folklore, from conception to recording; everything about the song make it seem as if it’s from another world, another space-time continuum.
The legend of Maggot Brain begins with George Clinton, the band leader, the warped mind and grandmaster of the Parliament/Funkadelic musical collective, pioneers of the classic 70s funk era.
P-Funk took the rhythms and nuances of funky soul, as created by James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone and the Memphis Stax record label, and, inspired by the classic hard rock motifs of Hendrix, Cream and the improv traditions of free jazz, added a rougher, more dangerous and undeniably psychedelic edge to funk music.
The P-Funk sound was a novel mix of long tangential journeys containing dirty guitars, ballsy brass, bizarre vocal phrasings, science fiction imagery and wailing electronic manipulations, all set to typically upbeat syncopated soul-funk rhythms. At the helm was Clinton, whose innovative production techniques brought it all together with some sort of cohesive but messy order. The P-Funk sound enjoyed a sustainable critical and commercial success in an era of hard and prog rock superfluity, where no idea was too strange and no cost spared in realising extravagant otherworldliness. The group’s music sits comfortably next to the symphonies of Emerson, Lake and Palmer or the musical indulgences of Zappa and Led Zeppelin’s live performance, while still maintaining a strong and proud black identity with the downright dancebility of soul music.
The live P-Funk band were themselves legendary, numbering up to twenty or more on stage at a time, including funk music visionaries like bassist Bootsy Collins, keyboard avant-gardist Bernie Worrell and guitarist Blackbyrd McKnight, playing three-hour plus shows that not only featured giant flying saucer sets, grown men in diapers (don’t ask) but some great music, elongated, extended and deeply and skilfully delved into.
Another of these P-Funk innovators was Eddie Hazel, not only an extraordinary guitarist, but also legendary international man of excess. Half Hendrix, half Keith Moon, with a smidge of that clichéd soulman sexual prowess, Hazel’s iconic place in P-Funk lore was cemented with the creation of Maggot Brain.
In studio, Clinton had the idea – some say inspired by a little too much LSD – to have Hazel play one long guitar solo over a simple, repeated musical phrase. Clinton told him: ‘play like you just found out your grandma died (some say ‘mother’, each tale is different)…and then to end, play like you just found out she’s still alive.’ Aided by fuzzbox and wah effects pedals and some high emotion, the trick seemed to work, Hazel went to town for ten minutes with Clinton running the tape.
The original song, as heard of the Maggot Brain album, is that first take, and apart from a few production embellishments – including Clinton’s introductory oration, which no one has ever understood – the improvised, frantic and poignant soloing by Eddie Hazel is a magical moment captured in a genie’s lamp. So struck by the playing, Clinton actually fades out the rest of the musical accompaniment half way through the song, as Hazel’s playing slowly builds into a one-man feedback orchestra.
The song is now an immortal musical artefact, a perfect example of the marriage between funk soul and rock n roll. The song has since been acknowledged as one of the greatest guitar solos of all time (Rolling Stone Magazine has it at number 60, Guitar World at 71), and it’s influence can be felt in the music and guitar playing of Prince, Lenny Kravitz and Buckethead, amongst many others.
The song itself has been recreated by numerous diverse groups, including:
Sons of Maggot Brain:
Post-punk bass legend Mike Watt with Bernie Worrell (who played on the original) and Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis on Hazel-duty (from the Watt solo album Bull-Hog or Tugboat?)
Psychedelic industrial innovators Psychic TV also do an interesting version:
Violinist Lili Haydn even tried giving it a classical treatment, and ends up sounding a whole lot cooler than some of those other Babes Go Baroque “music” groups that seem to be popular over the last few years.
Pearl Jam did a great live version in 1995, rightfully coupling the song with Jimi Hendrix’s Little Wing. PJ guitarist Mike McCready noticeably relishing the opportunity to perform the song, with some great expressive playing.
Last but not least, is not a cover of Maggot Brain, but a tribute to the song by Red Hot Chili Peppers’ John Frusciante – who by the very oddness and improvised nature of his distinctly post-modern solo work, not to mention his impeccable funk chops, can be considered a true heir to Eddie Hazel – from his 2009 The Empyrean solo album.
Postscript: Hazel, plagued by the usual rock n roll excesses of sex, drugs and alcohol, as well as a financial dispute over song writing royalties with Clinton, eventually left the P-Funk collective soon after the Maggot Brain album. Though he did record with the group occasionally after that, he went on to record solos albums that were, while incredibly funky, somewhat underwhelming.
There were some inspired moments of his old self:
Eddie Hazel passed on to that Great Mothership In The Sky in 1992, but will always be remembered for giving the world the ultimate funk rock record, that eternal anthem of “emotional apocalypse”. Appropriately, Maggot Brain was played at his funeral.
“Go on Maggot Brain”