Saturday, June 14, 2014

Music Reviews: Hot Chocolate, Funkadelic: Maggotbrain

Hot Chocolate
Hot Chocolate was a racially integrated though mostly black British band that walked in the interstices between light funk, pop, calypso, disco, rock, soul and reggae. So they had a variety of different sounds but all of their different styles were held together by the insistent warbling tenor of bald Jamaican born primary songwriter and lead singer/front man Errol Brown. I think in the US they're probably best known for the song "You Sexy Thing", which charted as high as number 3. I don't think they ever had wild mass success in the US but they certainly did ok in the UK and Europe. Throughout the 70s and 80s they had many hits. Hot Chocolate was a band which consistently delivered the goods and got a fair amount of radio play if not critical recognition. They weren't really disco but were disco enough for some to write them off completely. Oh well you know that old Liberace line about crying all the way to the bank. I was motivated to write on them because I recently heard their hit "Everyone's a winner" on satellite radio. I hadn't heard that song for decades. It brought back some pleasant memories of times long past. "Everyone's a winner" was quite typical of much of Hot Chocolate's best work, what with the very heavy dominant bass line, low pitched drums, slightly distorted guitar (in this case a guitar synth) and triumphant group vocals. Hot Chocolate was not deep funk in the mode of James Brown or P-Funk but was reminiscent of bands like later EWF, Kool and the Gang or Tower of Power. 

Hot Chocolate wrote good songs with nice melodies and danceable rhythms. Their discography may not have any lost masterpieces that will make you rethink popular music but how many groups can really claim otherwise? 

Sometimes I wish the soloists in the group, particularly the guitarist, had been given a little more room to stretch out but apparently it wasn't that kind of band. You hear a little bit of what could have been guitar wise in the song "You Could Have Been a Lady". I LOVE that song. Groove was what Hot Chocolate brought to the table. Hot Chocolate was all about fun. I didn't know that they wrote the anti-racist song "Brother Louie". I had only heard the version by the group Stories and had no idea it was a cover. The version by Hot Chocolate makes it clear (thanks to the competing spoken word sections)  that they are condemning all forms of bigotry in all communities while the Stories version chickens out and is imo a little more self-interested. When I heard the Stories version I thought it was a just a ripoff/shout out to the Rolling Stones' "Brown Sugar". The song is also used in Louis C.K's show as intro/theme. Go figure. I like the updated blues song "Emma" and enjoy the rueful broken hearted lament of "So you win again". Brown eventually left the group to embark on a solo career which didn't do too well because (1) most people didn't know who he was outside of the group and (2) he had already mostly spent his creative muse writing for the group. It happens I guess. None or at least very few of us have limitless potential. I guess it would kind of stink to finally go out on your own and realize that you had already done your best work with people whom by that point had started to work your nerves. But that's what life is sometimes. Jorah Mormont would approve the track "Sometimes it hurts to be a friend".

Everyone's a Winner  You Sexy Thing  Brother Louie  Emma  I'll Put You Together Again
It started with a kiss  Girl Crazy  So You Win Again  Making Music
Man to Man  Rumours You Could Have Been a Lady Confetti Day
Sometimes it hurts to be a friend Heaven's In The Backseat of My Cadillac

by Funkadelic
Okay. Funkadelic is the greatest rock group of all time. Bar none. Story. End of. Some people will talk about The Rolling Stones, others will bleat about Led Zeppelin or The Ramones or blah, blah blah. Balderdash. Funkadelic did everything those groups did, did it first and did it better. And there were very few groups who could do what Funkadelic did musically. Nobody had the musical range and energy they did. Because of racist ideas about what is considered "rock" and who gets to listen to or perform "rock" music, at its creative peak Funkadelic was usually ignored by mainstream (white) rock critics or only referenced in passing when a white musician mentioned them as an influence. This has started to change somewhat in the past few decades but back in the day few people outside of a small dedicated cadre of fans in the black community or alternative rock community knew about them. Of course I am somewhat biased as Funkadelic was a Detroit group. To reduce Funkadelic to its simplest components one would have to imagine a group born from a simultaneous mind meld of Aretha Franklin, The Temptations, Blue Cheer, MC5, James Brown, John Lee Hooker, Hendrix, The Isley Brothers, Sly Stone and Cream with a little DNA of J.S. Bach, Jimmy Smith and Black Sabbath added in for taste.

Maggotbrain is the third Funkadelic album and the last with complete contributions by the original group. Unfortunately Funkadelic's business practices could be as anarchic as some of its music. After this album, much of the original band departed, fed up with lack of proper monetary or composer recognition, damaged by substance abuse issues, or just because they had other serious personal or musical issues with front man and bandleader, George Clinton. Well it happens. I always say whatever was going on behind the scenes is, certain criminal behaviors aside, rarely as important as the finished product. I judge musicians by their music. I usually don't care about their personal lives.
Maggotbrain is the definitive Funkadelic album. It combined all of their influences into a well produced release that is both wide ranging and tightly focused. This is guitar/bass/piano based funk. No horns. The title cut is, similar to what "Machine Gun",  "Eruption" or "Stairway to Heaven" would be for other musicians, a coming out party for Eddie Hazel and a redefinition of what could be done on the electric guitar. George Clinton told guitarist Eddie Hazel to play as if he had learned that his mother had died. Well that's a grim request but in "Maggotbrain" Hazel did just that, making a ten minute guitar journey that leads the listener through all the stages of grief to come out the other side. There are other uglier rumours about how the title was conceived. I think it had to do with copious consumption of LSD. Hazel's work on "Maggotbrain" shows how the greatest musicians can talk to us through their instruments. There were accompanying musicians on the track but recognizing greatness when he heard it, Clinton either cut them out completely or mixed them at very low levels. Some may argue for a Hendrix influence here but Hazel sounded like this even before Hendrix. I think it was parallel development. If you want to talk about greatest guitar solos of all time "Maggotbrain" must be on the short list.  Maggotbrain

"Can You Get To That" is a gospelly acoustic folk-song that owes a lot to both the Beatles and Sly Stone. I love singing along to this piece. A long time ago my cousins and uncles and I used to have friendly competitions as to who could sing along with the bass vocals on this song. I like singing in the low register though sadly my voice is only a modest baritone and not a real bass. I think that was Gary Shider holding down the low notes. The lyrics are suitably sardonic. "When you base your love on credit and your loving days are done/Checks you sign with love and kisses later come back signed insufficient funds.." I could really see someone like a Richard Thompson or Richie Havens doing a cover version of this. Well it's too late for Havens...  Can You Get To That
"Hit It and Quit It" is very simple lyrically as the singer details his desire for his girlfriend to shake it to the east, shake it to the west and move it all around. Quite understandable no? It's the drummer Tiki Fulwood and vocalist/keyboardist extraordinaire Bernie Worrell who really get a chance to shine here. Again this song has a lot of gospel and soul influences. If you don't shake your tailfeather upon hearing this music you might want to check what you're sitting on because it's obviously broken. Hit It and Quit It
"You and Your Folks" could be construed as a sequel to "Hit it and Quit It". If the previous song is an ode to sexual unity, "You and Your Folks" is a plea for racial/class unity. This song features the bass player, Billy "Bass" Nelson, on lead vocals. Production wise it appears that both the bass and the bass drum have been mixed a little higher than normal. Or perhaps Fulwood was just hitting the drums that hard. In any event this is a slow nasty funk song that will sonically invade your eardrums and leave funky larvae therein. Nelson is known to have very strong feelings about the proper role of bass (dominant) in funk and the proper tempo (slow) for funk. This song is an excellent example of that. If you simply just can't get enough fat bottom end in your life, this is the song for you. Hazel's reverbed guitar solo never really stops but it is mixed far below the vocals, bass and drums. You and Your Folks
"Super Stupid" provides a platform for guitarists Eddie Hazel and Tawl Ross to go off. Lyrically the song is about a drug addict who makes the mistake of snorting what he thinks is cocaine but is actually heroin. The lyrics aren't important. They are just building blocks to the glorious guitar meltdowns. This song is a little less danceable than others though for some strange reason I always imagine Godzilla doing the Charleston to this song. It's just a funky riff. Super Stupid

"Back in our Minds" and especially "Wars of Armageddon" are both freak out tracks that sound like things Zappa would later do. There's a lot going on the tracks musically but "Wars of Armageddon" is a free form jam I think might be more of interest to other musicians than us listeners. It's also a look into Clinton's id, which is not really something you necessarily want to see unfiltered. Back in Our Minds  Wars of Armageddon
I really enjoyed the mix of the various masculine (tenor, baritone, bass) and feminine (soprano, alto) voices. This is what updated soul, blues, rock, and funk sounded like in 1971. If you are at all any sort of fan of the music of that time, you already have this release. If you don't have it, I wonder why. This funk experience will leave you somber, exhilarated, exhausted, in a cold sweat begging for more.
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