Monday, June 6, 2011

We Want The Funk!

"You kids don't know Grand Funk?  The wild shirtless lyrics of Mark Farner?  The bong-rattling bass of Mel Schacher?  The competent drumwork of Don Brewer?  Oh, man!"—H.J. Simpson, 1996

Homer, my good friend, Mr. Brewer’s drumming was WAY more than competent.  And he once sported the greatest white-man afro of all-time…

I haven’t done a band tribute in ages here, but since I recently read Billy James’ biography An American Band-The Story of Grand Funk Railroad, now’s as good a time as any.  James was/is a longtime fan of the band and sought to get their story told, and overall, he did a pretty fair job in chronicling their history.  One downside to the book is it was published in 1999, so it doesn’t cover the more recent history of GFR, which includes guitarist Mark Farner’s (apparently acrimonious) departure and subsequent replacement by former Kiss axe-man Bruce Kulick on guitar and vocalist Max Carl, who once was ever-so-briefly the lead singer for .38 Special in the late ‘80s.  The other downside is how Mr. James is a tad biased!  At times he puffed up the band to be way better than they really were!  And his overuse of exclamation points where they weren’t appropriate throughout the book was more than a little annoying!  (Sorry, couldn’t resist…)

The first Grand Funk song I ever recall hearing on the radio was “Footstompin’ Music” in 1972, which I thought was pretty cool, but the one that made me a fan for life was “We’re An American Band” the following summer.  Even though I was only nine and didn’t know what a Chiquita from Omaha was (let alone who Sweet Sweet Connie or Freddie King were), I fell in love with that song from the get-go, from the cowbell intro to Farner’s opening riff to Craig Frost’s rhythmic organ figure to Mel Schacher’s rumbling bass to Don Brewer’s powerful lead vocals.  GFR churned out plenty more hits over the next couple years and sounded great even on AM Top 40 radio.  They were also one of the hottest concert attractions of the ‘70s, breaking house records at numerous venues and even selling out New York’s Shea Stadium in 1972 for the first time since The Beatles played there in ‘65.  The band’s success was all the more impressive because early on they got virtually no support from the press or Rock radio—it was all pretty much via word-of-mouth that the Funk built up its extremely loyal fan base.  The band’s success also confounded and rankled music critics no end—in particular the elitist know-it-alls at Rolling Stone—and the Railroad was often the target of unfair and biased (not to mention scathing) album and concert reviews.

For the longest time, I never understood why the critics loathed this band so much.  However, after reading all about it, so to speak, and recently pirating their early CDs from the library and giving them a good long listening-to, I can now kinda see why they had issues with Grand Funk—to a point, anyway.  Apart from the majestic 10-minute opus that was “I’m Your Captain/Closer To Home” in 1970, the bulk of Grand Funk’s output from their first four studio albums (On Time, Grand Funk, Closer To Home and Survival), sounded rather sloppy and amateur-ish to me.  I struggle with a lot of GFR’s early stuff just as much as the critics did—I just don’t groove to their long, mopey “My-baby-done-left-me” bluesy jams like “Heartbreaker”, “Paranoid” (not to be confused with the Black Sabbath classic of the same name), “Mean Mistreater”, et al.  The Book Of Rock Lists once ranked Grand Funk’s first live album (the cleverly-titled Live Album) as one of the Worst Live Albums of All-time, and for good reason—it was just a travesty of noise.  Control-freak producer/money-laundering-schmuck manager Terry Knight’s constant hyping of the band didn’t exactly endear them to the Rock press either, thus their understandable disdain for the group.  More on moron Knight later…

Having said all that, however, it’s no small coincidence that Grand Funk Railroad’s records improved immensely after they fired Knight in ’72 and began working with more experienced and dynamic producers like Todd Rundgren, Jimmy Ienner and Frank Zappa (yes, THAT Frank Zappa).  They went for a cleaner and more commercial sound with shorter tracks, added old friend Craig Frost on keyboards to give more color to their music and Mark Farner reigned in his voice a bit and actually sang instead of half-shouting/half-singing like on the early records.  Drummer Don Brewer also became more prominent by writing and/or singing lead on more songs than before, most notably on hit singles like “American Band”, “Shinin’ On” and “Some Kind Of Wonderful” (trading off with Farner on the latter), and frankly, I think his voice is far more interesting and superior than Farner’s anyway.  But, by the time GFR’s albums became more polished and sophisticated, the critics had all pretty much closed their minds to anything GFR put out, regardless of its quality, thus the unjustified critical flogging continued unabated until the band broke up in 1977.  No doubt those critics mourned the loss of their “whipping-band” back then in much the same way stand-up comedians were crying in their beer when the Dubya Administration ended.

Another facet of the band that may have rubbed the critics the wrong way was how Knight tried to spin Grand Funk Railroad as the new “spokesmen for America’s youth” as soon as the band hit the big-time, not to mention Farner’s outspoken political views, especially about protecting the environment, energy conservation, religion, et al.  While he’s certainly entitled to say/do what he wants, I get so turned-off when people in the entertainment industry—especially Rock musicians—go on these “save-the-world” crusades simply because they suddenly have everyone’s attention.  This same pretentiousness/ arrogance turned me off to people like U2, Jackson Browne, Neil Young and Don Henley (and even John Lennon, to a certain extent) for many many years.  Sorry dudes, but you’re STILL just a Rock band/musician, and you’re na├»ve as hell if you think you’re going to change the world just because you have a microphone and/or a guitar in your hand.  I don’t listen to music or attend concerts to hear some lecture/guilt trip about “stryofoam boxes for the ozone layer” or my fossil fuel-burning vehicle polluting the air, etc., and to be brutally honest, I don’t really give a rip about the rain forests, either.  Sorry, Sting...

In spite of their on-going popularity, by our country’s Bicentennial, the “American Band”, ironically was running on fumes.  Basically, they’d had it all/done it all by the Summer of ’76, and everyone in the group was pretty well burned-out, especially Farner.  Perfectly understandable, though—almost constant touring and producing 11 studio albums and two live albums in roughly 6.5 years would do that to most any band, and Grand Funk quietly ceased to be in 1977 after releasing just one album for MCA.  Messers. Frost, Brewer and Schacher (pronounced ‘shocker’) tried forming another band called Flint (as in their hometown in Michigan) in the late ‘70s, but little came of that venture.  Craig Frost subsequently joined Bob Seger’s Silver Bullet Band in the ‘80s, as did Don Brewer for a brief time (that’s DB playing on Seger’s live take on CCR’s “Fortunate Son” on the Like A Rock album).  A Grand Funk reunion (without Schacher or Frost) in the early ‘80s was a monumental flop and another one (with Schacher, but still without Frost) in 1996 was a semi-success, resulting in a benefit live recording called Bosnia, and a VH-1 “Behind The Music” appearance in 1999, but evidently the renewed good will didn’t last long amongst Mark, Don and Mel, and Farner returned to his farming/environmentalist/American Indian concerns and Christian music career while Don and Mel carried on with the aforementioned Kulick and Carl (and keyboardist Tim Cashion) as the current touring version of Grand Funk Railroad.

Oh yes, this Terry Knight character, aka Richard Terence Knapp.  Grand Funk Railroad history actually began in the late ‘60s as Terry Knight & The Pack, which included Farner and Brewer at various times, and gained a regional following in the Michigan-Ohio area in particular. TK&TP recorded a few minor hit singles, including “I (Who Have Nothing)” on the Cameo-Parkway label in its dying days, where they were label-mates of one young Bob Seger, as well.  Knight couldn’t carry a tune with a handle, so he got more into the production side of the music business, working with acts like ? And The Mysterians, whose latter-day touring band included Mel Schacher, whom Farner and Brewer snapped up in a heartbeat when they searched for a bass player.  After getting Grand Funk Railroad rolling down the tracks, Knight also produced their rather infamous Capitol label-mates Bloodrock, whose 1971 post-plane crash death dirge “D.O.A.” is a macabre classic of its own kind.  TK also found he was well-suited to work the business side of music as well—a little too well, one might say.  And what a charming gentleman he seemed to be, based on his interview bytes on “BTM” and unrepentant attitude about his management practices with GFR, saying:  “The media have always looked at Terry Knight as wearing the black hat.  That doesn’t bother me as long as I can wear the black hat to the bank every week.”  In reality, he swindled the band out of millions of dollars between 1969-72, and screwed them over in some investment deals as well.  When he was fired by the band in 1972 once they realized how much he was skimming from the top, Knight showed his true colors by morphing into a litigation whore, suing Mark, Don and Mel left and right for every little transgression.  Then he pissed away all the money he made off GFR on drugs, booze and women.  On top of that, his musical acumen was limited at best, hence the often sparse production values on the early Grand Funk albums.  Terry Knight was murdered in 2004 while trying to defend his daughter from a knife attack by her estranged boyfriend.  Apparently he at least still had SOME chivalry left in him, but he came across to me as a real asshole.

10) Gimme Shelter (1971)  Serviceable remake of the Stones’ classic from a couple years before and one of Don Brewer’s first lead vocals with GFR.  The track would’ve sounded better without Knight’s pedestrian watered-down productions, especially the drums, which sound really timid here.
9) Pass It Around (1976)  Wonderful track that I recently discovered off the Good Singin’, Good Playin’ album, on which they worked with Mr. Zappa.  What a pleasant surprise this record was—it certainly lived up to its title, but was totally overlooked by both radio and critics alike, and this sadly was more or less the end of the line for the Railroad (pun intended).  “Pass It Around” features great vocals from Brewer, and I love the overall attitude and feel of it, thus it went straight to my iPod after one listen.  For a band that was supposedly in total burnout mode at the time, they sure sounded rejuvenated here.
8) Rock ‘N’ Roll Soul (1973)  Great song in spite of lame lyrics like “It’s kinda funky like an old-time movie…”  Are old-time movies really all that funky?
7) Bad Time (1975)  This one might have been a tad too Pop-sounding for hardcore Funk fans, but I always liked it.  Mark Farner’s vocals had really matured by this point and he sounded so much better here than he did on the early records.  No one realized it at the time, but this was GFR’s final sniff of the Top 40.
6) The Loco-Motion (1974)  GFR took a bit of a chance by doing this one, and some die-hard fans did look upon them as sellouts, but you can’t argue with success.  Grand Funk managed to cover this song and make it their own without sounding schmaltzy.
5) Shinin’ On (1974)  Lots of echo here, and a very underrated track. Don Brewer’s growing confidence as a vocalist is quite evident too.
4) Footstompin’ Music (1972)  Craig Frost’s recorded debut with Grand Funk, “Footstompin’” actually started off as just a jam and morphed into a hit single.  I was always partial to the “Does ev-ar-ee-body want to?” part.
3) Walk Like A Man (1974)  The ONLY Top 40 song I can think of with the word “cock” in it!  I truly hope Don Brewer lives another 36 years so we can see if he still truly can “strut like a cock” until he's 99.
2) Some Kind Of Wonderful (1975)  Have to admit I got kinda burned-out on this one for a while because it got played to death on Classic Rock radio, but it’s still a great track.  I always like exaggerating the high-pitched “My baby!  My baby!” bits while singing along with Farner during the “Can I get a witness?” section.
1) We’re An American Band (1973)/I’m Your Captain/Closer To Home (1970) [Tie]  I can’t choose between these two, so it’s a flat-footed tie.  These two are such favorites of mine that they’d both easily land in the higher reaches of my Top 100 Songs of All-Time list, if I ever get around to compiling them.  I already discussed “American Band” above—Rock ‘N’ Roll 101, without question. As for “Captain”/”Home”, oddly enough, I didn’t really discover this absolute masterpiece until the early ‘80s, but I want this sucker played at my funeral—if I actually DO die, that is!