In 1974, riding on a crest of a wave of commercial popularity, Grand Funk Railroad played a gig in Los Angeles that was filmed and is now available on YouTube.
This is the four piece Grand Funk with long haired Mark Farner, bare chested and wearing high-waisted loon pants; Mel Schacher with a curly bubble perm and wearing a lime coloured leisure suit, looking very cheesy indeed, Don Brewer with an enormous Afro and in a shirt with puffy sleeves normally seen only on Cuban conga players at low rent hotels. Craig Frost is on the side of the stage behind his keyboards and not very visible.
The band opens with “Footstomping Music” and Farner plays a bit of keyboards in tandem with Frost, dances all over the stage and plays the big time American rocker to the hilt. “Rock & Roll Soul” is the second party anthem before the band does a fave from the early days, “Heartbreaker,” where Mark Farner’s voice actually suits the material. It is one of the more tuneful songs the three piece had recorded and probably deserves anthemic status. Fanrer then announces that the band are going to do a couple of numbers from their current hit album, Shinin On, including the title track and the current hit single “The Loco-Motion” aided and abetted by various members of support band, Southern rockers Wet Willie. “Loco-Motion” represents the late period commercial angel Grand Funk was mining, with a kind of rock and soul groove, and also includes future hits singles “Some Kind of Wonderful” and “Bad Time.", none of them sound like the Grand Funk Railroad that took the Atlanta Pop; Festival by storm in 1969 when they were the people’s band, with huge ponderous riffs, terrible lyrics and Mark Farner’s over excited yelp.
There is an odd interlude, a visual montage interspersed with snatches of “We’re An American Band,” that look like home movies of the various band members at leisure. Farner rides a horse and shows off his outdoors skills. Don Brewer water skis, Mel Schacher rides a motorcycle and Craig Frost drives his muscle car. These snipes must have been designed to show us the human face between the badass rockers form Grand Funk and though the activates are extremely banal in their normality, it is kind of touching.
The live version of “We’re An American Band” follows. It is a great rocker, about life on the road, with pounding riff and pop hooks. Back in the day it was quite important for even a heavy band to be able to place singles high on the pop charts. The recording industry was and is a business and a business is about making money, as much as possible and even if Mark Farner may have been an anti-capitalist, libertarian he had to obey the imperatives of the industry that fed him. Never mind that though. “We’re An American Band” is a classic and one of the 100 best hard rock tunes of the Seventies.
I do not think it is an overstatement to say that the early Grand Funk songs had some of the worst, simplistic and basic lyrics ever. Perhaps whoever wrote the words was simply trying to write simple understandable lyrics or perhaps, as is often the case, the words were just tacked on as an afterword because the band was not about to release a record of instrumentals. Perhaps the lyricists were just somewhat pretentious and overweening and did not understand that their abilities were not up to the philosophies the band might have espoused.. by and large, also, the music was pretty rudimentary and stodgy.
Mark Farner seems to have had strong anti-establishment, libertarian views and also, for Grand Funk’s last album of the Seventies before the band broke up, he wrote a song that seems to advocate gun rights, which is kind of libertarian on the one hand and on the other hand smacks of the very conservatism he used to rail against when the bad started out. Don Brewer, the singing drummer, was the other main songwriter in the band, and from the evidence it seems to me that he was the better songwriter of the two, especially when it came to writing decent songs with a good chorus and some catchy lyrics, where Farner wrote simple, straightforward, often kind of dumb, lyrics and had no tunes to speak of but even that is too simplistic a dichotomy between the two songwriters.
On the first couple of Grand Funk albums, before Craig Frost joined, there was usually a combination of some strong tunes, with anthemic qualities, mixed in with some dross. The strong tunes became live staples and the rest were abandoned. The odd thing is that one expects that the best songs made it to the record, on the assumption that more were written, and if some of these lame ducks represent the best of the bunch, the band really struggled to write decent material.
By Survival (1970) Farner had added heavy gospel and portentous keyboard riffs to his arsenal and the band recorded an album that sounded a lot different to the first two releases. The singing is as shrill as ever and the lyrics somewhat dumber than before in a pretentious way, but it is a record I have a fondness for, perhaps because of that very weird pretentiousness and high seriousness of purpose. And the absurd record cover with the band in Stone Age costume and dirty faces. The band does a truly killer heavy version of “Gimme Shelter” too.
It is probably not coincidental that the band took a more commercial direction after Craig Frost joined to thicken out the sound and to add some variation on the basic guitar, bass and drums sludge. First there was Don Brewer’s “We’re An American Band.” Which he sang quite toughly and in marked contrast to the Farner yelp, and then the more tuneful, pop oriented material such as “Shinin On,” “The Loco-Motion,” “Some Kind of Wonderful” and “Bad Time.” These were the radio hits in South Africa that typified Grand Funk Railroad for me. These songs made them sound like a typical FM radio friendly hard rock band that could be counted in the same company as Boston, Foreigner, Kiss and various others. It was only after the band’s demise that I became aware, because I bought On Time and Grand Funk, both released in 1969, that the band originally sounded a lot more basic and grungy than the radio hits would have suggested. To a degree the band of, say, “heartbreaker,” could be understood as being the same band as “We’re An American Band” but songs like “Mr Limousine Driver” seem to be from another group altogether, the poor cousins.
It is somewhat odd that Grand Funk elected to make a commercial stand with old soul songs but it was an astute move because the tunes were good and making them heavier did not detract. There was an obvious intent to do well with the renditions. “Some Kind of Wonderful” is probably still one of my favourite Grand Funk performances. It was a long rime before I heard the original version of it. Ironically the other very good version of this soul classic I know, is the performance of Huey Lewis & The News on their Motown pop and soul covers album, Four Chords & Several Years Ago (1994.) Grand Funk was no soul band, and neither was Huey Lewis & The News and the heavy rockers kind of beat the shit out of the pop rockers for sheer gonzo appeal.
With Good Singing, Good Playing (1976) Grand Funk went out as dumb as they came in, albeit as four piece and with much higher production values yet the songs are far worse than the tunes from On Time or anything the band released between 1973 an 1974. It is a real pity that a once great band lost so much momentum and energy that it rolled over and died as pathetically as that.
When Grand Funk Railroad was good, the band was really good and deserves a prominent place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, not because it was innovative or groundbreaking but because Grand Funk made dumb rock ‘n roll a huge pleasure to listen to.