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Funkadelic's 'Maggot Brain' At 50: R&B, Psychedelic Rock And A Black Guitarist's Cry

Jul 22, 2021
Originally published on July 22, 2021 6:14 am

They may be two of the most influential notes in funk-rock history: the soaring, plaintive start to guitarist Eddie Hazel's legendary solo in Funkadelic's "Maggot Brain."

The song, an audacious, emotive 10-minute-long bluesy ballad kicked off by a brief, eccentric poem from leader George Clinton, is centered on Hazel's expansive fretwork. Clinton pulls the bass guitar and drums mostly out of the mix, leaving the sonic field free for sparse backing chords on rhythm guitar and a fiery workout by Hazel fed through a boatload of echo effects.

Westbound Records Inc. / YouTube

Both the song and the album that shares its title were released 50 years ago, in July 1971. Clinton celebrates his own 80th birthday today, July 22.

And while there are many music fans out there who might not recognize the song or Hazel's name, artists ranging from the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Widespread Panic and Childish Gambino have acknowledged how Funkadelic's magnum opus inspired their own artistic work.

"It's [an] indelible statement for the ages," says Vernon Reid, lead guitarist for Grammy-winning rockers Living Colour. "It's a piece of music to evoke the ghosts of the past. It evokes the suffering. It evokes the joy. It's a masterwork."

Cultural critic and author Greg Tate, a founding member of the Black Rock Coalition, compares "Maggot Brain" to iconic jazz saxophonist John Coltrane's A Love Supreme: a towering artistic statement that had a significant impact on a generation of players.

"Eddie has this thing that just comes out of his own kinda anguish and sorrow that he translates," Tate says. "There's a cry in every note."

Clinton, the great granddaddy of funk rock himself, says he told Hazel just before recording "Maggot Brain" to play as if someone had told him his mother died.

"All of it is feeling," Clinton says. "Eddie is playing all the feeling in the world. He's sensitive to no end... just a big ball of sensitivity. My mother used to call him 'Ol' Cryin' Eddie.' He could cry so good [on guitar], it was pretty."

Clinton says the enduring nature of Maggot Brain was all part of his plan; passing up pop singles to focus on creating a song and album that fans might return to decades later.

But how did a group that started as a Motown-style R&B outfit unleash one of the most important guitar anthems of the decade?

Moving Away From Motown's Style

The journey towards Maggot Brain reaches back to 1967, when a different group led by Clinton called The Parliaments had a hit with an uptempo dance number called "(I Wanna) Testify."

The Parliaments were a Temptations-style singing group; "Testify" was a typical midtempo groove about a man in love. But Clinton, who had enlisted a teenage Eddie Hazel to back the Parliaments on tour, was increasingly drawn to blending psychedelic rock sounds with funk grooves—especially when The Parliaments went on tour with hard rock bands.

"Vanilla Fudge was one of the groups we went out with," Clinton says. "But we didn't have no instruments, so we borrowed the Vanilla Fudge's instruments. That stuff was so loud. But we realized, right then, this is what it is that made them sound like that."

Vernon Reid says Clinton once told him that the psychedelic era and Summer of Love were life-changing experiences.

"He spoke about how it's the first time he met white people who were genuinely kind and genuinely nice," Reid recalls. "He felt the people he met back then would literally give you the shirt off their backs."

The Parliaments backing band evolved into a rock-edged group called Funkadelic. And they emerged at a pivotal time in music.

Virtuoso rock star Jimi Hendrix died in 1970, leaving legions of guitarists – especially Black musicians like guitar phenom Eddie Hazel – wondering how to take up and extend his legacy.

At the same time, R&B stars like Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and the Temptations were looking to break the straitjacket of their traditional approaches and experiment with new sounds.

As Funkadelic made its early records, Clinton noticed white rock bands – and their audiences — were focused on blues artists his mother liked from years ago. He reasoned: If he could take an old blues groove and modernize it, maybe he could create something audiences would also come back to 15 years later.

"Maggot Brain was the epitome of that era," Clinton says. "Us flirting with psychedelic...I call it 'loud R&B.' So we called it Funkadelic."

Anthony Barboza / Getty Images

Building the Sound of "Maggot Brain"

Clinton came up with a 10-minute ballad where he unleashed Hazel, who had been listening to records he gave him by Hendrix, Sly Stone and Cream. The whole band played with Hazel in the studio, but Clinton pulled most of the bass and drums out of the sound mix, leaving room to layer even more echo effects on the guitar.

The result was an inspirational tour de force.

"It was a movement," Greg Tate says. "Basically, what everyone learned from Sly and Jimi was that you didn't have to have a lead singer. You just needed to have a great band."

DeWayne "Blackbyrd" McKnight joined Clinton's revolving door of P-Funk musicians and bands in 1978. He says when he heard "Maggot Brain" – well before he would wind up playing the song onstage with Eddie Hazel — it meant something to see a Black man stepping up as a rock guitar hero.

"It was inspiring...a different form of rock 'n' roll that I was identifying with," McKnight adds. "It gave me an avenue to go ahead and explore things I was already playing."

Hazel died in 1992. And although funk-rock fans may know the guitarist's name, Reid says Black guitar heroes like Hazel and Ernie Isley from The Isley Brothers were often overlooked — left off the cover of music magazines by a white-dominated music establishment that didn't quite accept them.

"They were denied their rightful place: no two ways about it," says Reid, who has landed on some of those magazine covers himself. "I feel very grateful. I wouldn't exist without these brothers that did their thing. But it was wild to me... that guitar was such a polarized area."

Clinton, who later developed a more commercial sound with the funk-oriented band Parliament, still plays "Maggot Brain" in live shows, watching his theories about building an audience over generations play out in real time.

"We were too white for Black folks and too Black for white folks," he adds. "But the people that really liked us, stayed with us forever. The Grateful Dead, Widespread Panic—all of us have the same kinds of fans. The grandparents would be there with their kids. It's like going to the circus."

Somewhere, you might imagine Eddie Hazel looking down and smiling at the revolution he helped inspire.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

One of the godfathers of funk, George Clinton, celebrates his 80th birthday today. He led the bands Parliament and Funkadelic. And this month marks the 50th anniversary of one of Funkadelic's most influential songs, "Maggot Brain." NPR also celebrates five decades this year. And as part of our look at cultural classics hitting their 50th birthday, Eric Deggans caught up with Clinton himself and a few other experts to learn how a group that started as a Motown-style R&B band released one of the most important guitar anthems of the '70s.

(SOUNDBITE OF FUNKADELIC'S "MAGGOT BRAIN")

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: There are few solos in pop music more distinctive than the one unleashed by guitarist Eddie Hazel and Funkadelic's mind-melting classic "Maggot Brain."

(SOUNDBITE OF FUNKADELIC'S "MAGGOT BRAIN")

DEGGANS: And if you don't believe me, consider these experts - Vernon Reid, lead guitarist for Grammy-winning rockers Living Colour.

VERNON REID: It is a piece of music to evoke the ghosts of the past. It evokes the suffering. It evokes the joy. You know, it's a masterwork.

(SOUNDBITE OF FUNKADELIC'S "MAGGOT BRAIN")

DEGGANS: Cultural critic and author Greg Tate, a founding member of the Black Rock Coalition.

GREG TATE: Eddie has this thing that just comes out of, like, his own kind of anguish and sorrow. There's just, like, a cry in every note.

DEGGANS: And the great-granddaddy of funk rock himself, George Clinton, who says he told Hazel just before recording "Maggot Brain" to play as if someone had told him his mother died.

GEORGE CLINTON: Eddie's playing all the feeling in the world. And my mother used to call him old Crying Eddie. He could cry so good, it was pretty.

DEGGANS: Clinton says it was all part of his plan to create a song and album that fans might return to decades later. But it took a little time for Funkadelic to work up to their magnum opus. And that journey reaches all the way back to 1967 with a hit called "Testify."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANNA TESTIFY")

THE PARLIAMENTS: (Singing) And don't you know that I just want to testify...

DEGGANS: Back then, Clinton's group was called The Parliaments, a Temptation-style singing outfit. But Clinton was increasingly drawn to blending psychedelic rock and funk, especially when the Parliaments toured with classic rock bands.

CLINTON: Vanilla Fudge was one of the groups we went out with. We didn't have no, you know, instruments. So we borrowed the Vanilla Fudge's instruments. That stuff was so loud. But we realized right then, this is what it is that makes them sound like that.

DEGGANS: Clinton eventually turned the Parliaments into a rock-edged group called Funkadelic. And they emerged at a pivotal time. Jimi Hendrix died in 1970, leaving legions of guitarists - especially Black musicians like guitar phenom Eddie Hazel - wondering how to extend his legacy. Traditional R&B stars like The Temptations were experimenting with new sounds like on their 1970 hit "Psychedelic Shack."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PSYCHEDELIC SHACK")

THE TEMPTATIONS: (Singing) Psychedelic shack, that's where it's at. Psychedelic shack, that's where it's at.

DEGGANS: Clinton saw white rock bands and their audiences focused on old blues artists his mother liked. If he could modernize an old blues groove with Hendrix-level guitar, maybe audiences would come back to that 15 years later. Clinton created a 10-minute ballad to open the album, which would also be called "Maggot Brain." He unleashed Hazel, who'd been listening to artists like Hendrix, Sly Stone and Cream. The whole band played with Hazel. But Clinton pulled most of the bass and drums out of the sound mix, leaving room to layer even more echo effects on the guitar.

(SOUNDBITE OF FUNKADELIC'S "MAGGOT BRAIN")

DEGGANS: Greg Tate, the cultural critic, compares "Maggot Brain" to jazz legend John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme," a towering artistic statement that inspired countless other musicians.

TATE: Well, it was a movement. It was basically - what everybody learned from Sly and Jimmy was, like, you didn't have to have a lead singer. You just needed to have a great band.

DEGGANS: Hazel died in 1992. And although funk rock fans know his name, Living Colour's Vernon Reid says Black guitar heroes like Hazel and Ernie Isley of the Isley Brothers were often overlooked, left off the covers of music magazines by a white-dominated music establishment that didn't quite accept them.

REID: I mean, they were denied their rightful place, and no two ways about it. I feel very grateful. I wouldn't exist without these brothers that did their thing. But it's wild to me. You know, guitar is such a polarized area.

DEGGANS: Stars like Widespread Panic and Childish Gambino have paid tribute to "Maggot Brain." Clinton later developed a more commercial sound with the funk-oriented band Parliament. But he still features "Maggot Brain" in live shows, watching his theories about building an audience over generations play out in real-time.

CLINTON: We were too white for Black folks and too Black for white folks. But the people that really liked us stayed with us forever. Grateful Dead, Widespread Panic, all of us had that - those same kinds of fans that be - you know, the grandparents be there with they kids. It's like going to the circus.

DEGGANS: Somewhere, you might imagine Eddie Hazel looking down and smiling at the revolution he helped inspire.

I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF FUNKADELIC'S "MAGGOT BRAIN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.