All over America in the late 1960s, teens were forming bands. The one started by Flint, Michigan high school friends Mark Farner (guitar/vocals), Don Brewer (drums/vocals), and Mel Schacher (bass) – Grand Funk Railroad, a pun on the Grand Trunk Western Railroad line in Michigan – managed what most other bands only dreamed of: They made it big, and they did it fast.
Within a year of forming in 1969, they were such a hit at the Atlanta International Pop Festival that Capitol Records signed them. The marketing smarts of their manager, Terry Knight, who’d been the leader of Brewer’s previous band, helped the trio make the right industry moves.
Apparently, the world was primed for an American version of the hard-rock, bluesy sound of bands like Cream. Their first album, On Time (1969), sold more than a million copies. “Time Machine” and “Heartbreaker” were the album’s singles.
Ending side A on the vinyl, “T.N.U.C.” is a nearly nine-minute track that’s believed to be about Farner catching his girlfriend cheating. (Read the title backwards.) The song settles quickly into an engaging groove thanks to Schacher’s repeating bass patterns. The complex, tight drumming of Brewer is always just this side of frantic but never over the line. Check out his solo at 2:45.
1969 was quite a year for this new band. They pushed out a second album, Grand Funk, in December, which was soon certified gold. The singles were “Mr. Limousine Driver” and “Heartbreaker.” But probably the favorite track among fans – particularly for its live version – is the cover of “Inside Looking Out,” originally recorded by The Animals.
My personal recommendation on this album is “Winter and My Soul.” The tinny production on Farner’s mournful blues guitar opening (produced by Terry Knight) calls up the image of some old fellow playing slide guitar on a porch in Mississippi. The vocals, on the other hand, are strongly reminiscent of the wandering lyric rhythms of Cream.
The next album, Closer to Home (1970), brought their total of gold albums to three in a 12-month period. While “I’m Your Captain (Closer to Home)” is the big single from this record, its B-side, “Aimless Lady,” is worthy of attention.
The rhythm section is a rumbling thrill, gritty and smart. The vocal harmonies during the chorus layer an eerie screech over Farner’s wailing melody. This is some high-octane stuff.
Survival (1971) is notable both for its silly caveman cover art and for its long tracks, even longer than usual for this band. Side B had only three tracks. The singles were each well over four minutes, with one of them, a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” clocking in at six and a half.
Side A opens with the anti-Vietnam War song “Country Road,” angry and heavy, emphasizing the contrast between the bass register – like soldiers’ plodding boots – and Farner’s high voice. Producer Knight had heard that Ringo Starr put tea towels over his drums, so he insisted Brewer do the same. Brewer never was happy with the sound.
Still going strong, GFR made industry headlines by beating the Beatles’ attendance and sell-out time at Shea stadium during their own show there in 1971. To honor that achievement, the stadium is pictured on the cover of their other 1971 album, E Pluribus Funk. But, while they were selling plenty of albums and concert tickets, they weren’t producing smash singles.
And there was another problem. Terry Knight, who was still their manager, seemed to be mishandling funds. The band felt they had no choice but to fire him in 1972. GFR took over their own production for the next record, Phoenix. Its single, “Rock & Roll Soul,” made a better showing than the previous few releases had, peaking at No. 29.
“So You Won’t Have to Die” is an interesting track, a combination of Christian rock and social commentary, taking on the issue of over-population. The extreme tempo change and introduction of the organ about two minutes in edges this song into prog rock territory.
It’s a safe bet that, if you don’t know any other GFR songs, you do know “We’re an American Band,” the huge hit single off the 1973 album of the same name. Despite endless legal entanglements with Knight, the band succeeded in rising even higher in the rock star echelon with this album, helped by the production talents of Todd Rundgren.
“Loneliest Rider” is a hard-driving rock-out with a social message. To bolster the theme of Native American civil rights, the verse’s melody uses a whole-tone scale and simple, unsyncopated rhythm to imitate Native music. Today it comes across as an unfortunate stereotype, not bothering with any real ethnomusicology, but in the 1970s other well-meaning bands, earnest about their concern for American Native tribes, used this trope (see Queen’s White Man for a much more cringeworthy example).
GFR released two albums in 1974: Shinin' On and All the Girls in the World Beware!!! From the latter, the band had a bestseller with their cover of John Ellison’s “Some Kind of Wonderful,” showing their more sensitive soul-music side. The memorable album cover features the bandmembers’ faces superimposed onto bodybuilders’ physiques.
Another nice track from that album is “Runnin’,” by Brewer and keyboardist Craig Frost. Given the party-like approach to the drum kit, it’s hardly surprising that Brewer had control of this song. It also demonstrates differences between Brewer/Frost and Farner’s songwriting: Brewer-Frost used shorter lyric phrases and harmonic motion, more in keeping with standard R&B.
The title song from Born to Die (1976) is an homage to one of Farner’s cousins, who had recently died. Overall, the themes on this record are more serious than on the previous couple of albums.
Another example of this newfound darkness is the Brewer/Frost “Dues.” Its lyric, which starts with the line “I think I’m heading for a terrible accident,” betray desperation and rage over society’s shortfalls, whereas earlier songs that criticize society seem merely puzzled and frustrated.
They put out another album in 1976 called Good Singin', Good Playin'. Although it was produced by Frank Zappa, it sold poorly. The band took a break after this, coming back together five years later for Grand Funk Lives (1981). But the lineup was significantly changed. Schacher and Frost did not return to the studio, replaced by Dennis Bellinger and Lance Duncan Ong, respectively. You’ll also notice that “Railroad” has been dropped from the band name.
Nothing on Grand Funk Lives broke the top 100. “Wait for Me,” which closes the album, demonstrates that what used to be an edgy and experimental hard rock band has gone full-out ’80s arena rock. Wave your cigarette lighters to the beat, folks.
After this, they made only one more studio album, What’s Funk?, in 1983. However, the band continues touring to this day. The current line-up includes former Kiss guitarist Bruce Kulick and 38 Special’s Max Carl on vocals (Farner left to focus on Christian music), along with Brewer, Schacher and keyboardist Tim Cashion. The Railroad keeps chuggin’ along.
Header photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Premier Talent Associates.