PHOTO: Michael Ochs Archives / Stringer / Getty Images / Fender Illustration
One-Track Mind: The Passion of Eddie Hazel and Funkadelic's 'Maggot Brain'
Hazel's Hendrix eulogy reaches the same dizzying heights his hero once achieved.
By Adam Brent Houghtaling
In the wake of the sudden and tragic passing of Jimi Hendrix at the age of 27 in September 1970 there was naturally a desire on the part of some to crown “the Next Hendrix”.
Duane Allman, Ernie Isley, Robin Trower and Johnny Winter were among the skilled players deemed worthy by the culturati, but none produced the kind of searing, emotional, fuzz-punched performance that Funkadelic’s Eddie Hazel accomplished on “Maggot Brain”, the first song on the Detroit group's groundbreaking 1971 album of the same name.
Born in Brooklyn on April 10, 1950, Hazel taught himself how to play on a guitar his brother had given him as a Christmas gift. He had been playing for years before settling into, first, the Parliaments—a successful Plainfield, New Jersey R&B act led by a young George Clinton—and later, Funkadelic.
But it wasn’t until he discovered Jimi Hendrix that Hazel truly found the sound so critical to Funkadelic's early albums. As the group's Bill “Billy Bass” Nelson recalled to author Yuval Taylor for Popmatters, “once Eddie started listening to Jimi Hendrix, he found his niche. Immediately, he was like, ‘Damn, Bill, I can do that! Can you play that bass shit, muthafucka?’ I was like, ‘Hey, man, I guess I’m gonna have to.”
The self-titled Funkadelic debut dropped in 1970. As did Free Your Mind…and Your Ass Will Follow. Maggot Brain appeared in mid-July the following year.
Motown’s influence still reigned in the Motor City in the early ‘70s—in particular the visionary, socially conscious work of Marvin Gaye, who released What’s Goin’ On just weeks before Maggot Brain hit the shelves. But it was also a hotbed for brawny rock music, which was being banged out by the explosive Wayne Kramer and MC5, Iggy Pop and the Stooges, and Ted Nugent’s Amboy Dukes. Funkadelic shared management with all three.
Both a part and apart from it all stood Eddie Hazel and Funkadelic.
Randy Jacobs, guitarist with Detroit’s Was (Not Was), once opined to Guitar World that in Detroit “during the Seventies, there were a bunch of bands that were rock but funk, too. There were some serious guitarists in those bands, but they all wanted to be Eddie Hazel.”
Not a concept album, Maggot Brain was a statement nonetheless. And a grim one at that.
The album offered an eruption of psychedelic agit-funk that blended the increasingly bleak American story—urban decay, prime time body counts from an ongoing slog through Vietnam, and front page assassinations—with the sounds of Hendrix, Motown, James Brown, Cream, Sly Stone, Blue Cheer and Vanilla Fudge.
Maggot Brain may have captured the anxiety and confusion of the era better than any other album, and no song exemplified the album quite like the title track.
It begins with the echoing, otherworldly voice of George Clinton, Prime Minister of Funk:
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
The remaining ten minutes are given over to Hazel’s explosive solo.
A devoted Stratocaster player, Hazel likely recorded the track on one—he owned at least one sun-burst model from the late 1950s and later a series of 3-bolt models from the CBS-era. Like his hero Hendrix, Hazel was also a progressive when it came to the twin pillars of late’60s/early ‘70s guitar effects—fuzz and wah—both of which are present here in large quantities.
Performed in an E-minor pentatonic scale, Hazel’s extended solo was miraculously recorded in one take and exhibits a deft emotional commitment over its full runtime.
It circles, swells, retreats and squalls and feels remarkably alive. Much of it is dark, like an exorcism, but there are also brighter, more hopeful moments, even if they are brief. At times the tone disintegrates to nothing but grit. It’s an outpouring of emotion on a cosmic scale, like a solar flare leaping away from the sun and throwing itself out to lick the universe.
George Clinton, in his 2014 memoir Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain't That Funkin' Kinda Hard On You?, recalled the recording session clearly, saying, “Eddie and I were in the studio, tripping like crazy but also trying to focus our emotions." He continues, "I told him to play like his mother had died, to picture that day, what he would feel, how he would make sense of his life, how he would take a measure of everything that was inside him and let it out thought his guitar.
“I knew immediately that he understood what I meant,” Clinton wrote. “I could see the guitar notes stretching out like a silver web. When he played the solo back, I knew that it was good beyond good, not only a virtuoso display of musicianship but also an almost unprecedented moment of emotion in pop music."
But the recording process was just the first step of the song’s evolution.
While Hazel was deep into fuzz and wah effects and experimented with phasers and flangers, most of the trippy delay and other effects threaded through his solo on “Maggot Brain” were added by Clinton in the mixdown. "When Eddie played originally it was over a more traditional slow band jam," Clinton recalls. "I took all the other instruments off the track and then I Echoplexed it back on itself three or four times. That gave the whole thing an eerie feel, both in the playing and in the sound effects. There’s a noise at the beginning of the song that’s a chattering or chewing, and people something ask if it’s the sound of maggots feasting on the brain. I can’t say that it was. I was just trying for something fucked-up and novel."
An alternate mix of "Maggot Brain" with much of the group's contributions intact.
In a 1990 Guitar World interview, Flea, bassist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers—a band with more than a light stirring of Funkadelia mixed into their brew—said, "Eddie Hazel is right up there with Jimi Hendrix.”
Flea doesn't stand alone on this count. Rickey Vincent, in his book, Funk: The Music, The People, and the Rhythm of The One, called Hazel’s performance here “a tour de force, challenging the late Jimi Hendrix (one of the few recordings ever to do so) as one of the great guitar solos of all time. Writing in his book, George Clinton & the Cosmic Odyssey of the P-Funk Empire, author Kris Needs calls the song a “stairway to hell and the closest [Hazel] got to generating the spiritual catharsis achieved by his idol Hendrix."
Though "Maggot Brain" is widely considered to be where Hazel reached his apex, it's by no means his only thrilling performance. And the list of players influenced by his virtuosic funk phantasies is long: Prince, Lenny Kravitz, Buckethead, Vernon Reid, and Mike McCready of Pearl Jam among them.
Dean Ween paid tribute to Hazel on the song “A Tear for Eddie” from Ween’s 1994 album, Chocolate and Cheese; appearing on Noisey’s Guitar Moves Ween stated plainly, “Everything I play is either a variation on ‘Maggot Brain’ or ‘Blue Sky’.” Meanwhile, Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis—another Hazel acolyte—re-interpreted the solo on a 12-minute cut from fIREHOSE bassist Mike Watt’s 1995 album, Ball-Hog or Tugboat?
*J Mascis does his best Eddie Hazel on this cover of "Maggot Brain" from Mike Watt's 1995 album, *Ball-Hog or Tugboat?**
After joining the P-Funk family in DeWayne “Blackbyrd” McKnight joined the P-Funk family in TK and had the unenviable task of recreating the solo: “Maggot Brain fucked me up”, said the P-Funk guitarist.
Like many percolating young talents before him, Hazel battled his share of demons. He became addicted to heroin and spent a year in jail after smoking angel dust and assaulting a stewardess during a flight.
He left Funkadelic in 1975 after contributing stunning work to the 1974 album, Standing on Verge of Getting It On and released the brilliant solo album, Games, Dames and Guitar Things, in 1977. He would return to later iterations of P-Funk, but never again reached the heights on his '70s output.
Eddie Hazel died at the age of 52 in 1992 from liver failure. “Maggot Brain” was played at his funeral.
He may continue to unjustly fly under the radar, but he still soars.