Grand Funk Railroad
Grand Funk Railroad
Although a number of critics dismissed the heavy metal assault of Grand Funk Railroad, legions of fans filled stadiums to hear them. The band defied the early 1970s trend toward keyboards, complex arrangements, and poetic lyrics, opting for straightforward rock ‘n’ roll. “Bypassing the ruling elite of ‘progressive’ rock’s tastemakers and scene-dwellers,” wrote Lenny Kaye of The Marshall Cavendish Illustrated History of Popular Music, “they took their music directly to the concert stages of all 50 United States….” While it took the Beatles three weeks to sell out Shea Stadium, Grand Funk accomplished the same feat in three days. Despite management upheavals and the derision of critics, Grand Funk Railroad became one of the most popular bands of the 1970s.
Early in 1969 drummer Don Brewer, bassist Mel Schacher, and singer/guitarist Mark Farner contemplated their future as a band. Known as the Fabulous Pack, the Michigan-based group found itself stranded in Massachusetts one winter with no prospects in sight. They were considering selling their instruments when former bandmate, Terry Knight, entered the picture. Knight had been a deejay and had played in a number of bands with only moderate success. He made the
Members include Dennis Bellinger (joined group, 1981), bass; Don Brewer, drums; Mark Farner, guitar, vocals; Craig Frost (joined group, 1972), keyboards; Mel Schacher, bass.
Group formed in Flint, MI, 1969; received attention for a free performance at the Atlanta Pop Festival, 1969; signed recording contract with Capitol Records; released eight albums between 1969-72, including Grand Funk and Closer to Home, 1970, and E Pluribus Funk, 1971; sold out Shea Stadium in 72 hours, July 1971; recorded We’re an American Band with producer Todd Rundgren, 1973; charted with a new version Little Eva’s hit, “Locomotion,” 1974, and with “Some Kind of Wonderful,” 1975; group disbanded, 1977; reformed in 1981, 1997.
Addresses: Record company —Capitol Records, 1750 North Vine St., Hollywood, CA 90028-5274, phone: (323) 462-6252, website: http://www.hollywoodandvine.com. Website —Grand Funk Railroad Official Website: http://www.grandfunkrailroad.com.
group an offer: he would manage them if they would agree to follow all of his instructions. “With no other prospects,” noted Kaye, “the soon-to-be Grand Funk Railroad signed on.”
At first Grand Funk Railroad, named after the famous Grand Trunk railroad line, failed to find a footing. Knight borrowed $500 so the band could record “Heartbreaker” and “High on a Horse,” but record labels showed little interest in the group. Their breakthrough came when Knight arranged a free performance at the Atlanta Pop Festival in July of 1969. “The first Atlanta Pop Festival is the most memorable experience in Grand Funk for me…,” Farner told Billy James in An American Band: The Story of Grand Funk Railroad, “the first time around 200,000 people got a look at the group and showed appreciation like that.” A warm reception and standing ovation by the crowd led to the band being signed by Capitol Records.
In the studio, Grand Funk Railroad recorded their debut album On Time in the summer of 1969, featuring songs like “Are You Ready” and “Into the Sun.” Reviewers were unimpressed, however. “On Time received a unanimous thumbs-down from the rock ‘n’ roll press,” wrote James, “and achieved little or no airplay.” De-spite this, by November the album had reached number 27 on the charts. Grand Funk Railroad opened shows for Led Zeppelin in Detroit and Cleveland during the summer and played before 120,000 at the Texas International Pop Festival. Everywhere they traveled, the group from Flint, Michigan, dubbed “the people’s band,” received an enthusiastic response.
The band released Grand Funk at the end of 1969 and on January 9, 1970, kicked off their first American tour. They performed between 18 and 22 days per month throughout that year, delivering their brand of hard rock through a 4,000-watt system to as many as 30,000 fans per concert. There was little surprise, then, when Grand Funk reached number eleven on the charts in March of 1970. In June the group spent $100,000 to buy billboard space in Times Square to announce the upcoming release of Closer to Home. It ultimately reached number six on the charts and was the third Grand Funk Railroad album to be certified gold.
Grand Funk Railroad’s battle with the rock press continued. In May of 1971, 150 reporters were invited to a press conference announcing tour dates at Shea Stadium and in Japan. Only six attended. “To [the press] it was all hype,” wrote James, “and in their opinion nothing important enough to write about or report on.” It was ironic, then, that 1971 proved the band’s most successful year to date with earnings of $5 million and a sold-out European tour. Quite fittingly, their next album, E Pluribus Funk, was shaped to look like a coin.
In 1972 the band attempted to gain its independence by firing manager Knight. “Tired of seeing themselves described as non-musical puppets,” wrote Kaye, “aware of the trust and loyalty of their fans, they sued for divorce in March 1972.” A lengthy court battle ensued. Knight believed he owned the rights to the band’s name and that Grand Funk Railroad owed him a million dollars. He issued liens and injunctions against the band, and even had their equipment seized after a free show in New York. When the smoke cleared, the band bought out Knight’s interest, shortened its name to Grand Funk, and went back on the road after a nine-month hiatus.
In 1973 the band rose above the controversies when Todd Rundgren produced We’re an American Band. The title song chronicles the adventure of a rock ‘n’ roll band not unlike Grand Funk Railroad, complete with parties, groupies, and hotel-room destruction. The band lived up to that image at a posh awards ceremony at the Beverly Hills Hotel. When presented with a multitiered cake topped with Uncle Sam (for “We’re an American Band”), pandemonium ensued. “[J]ust as we were cutting it with this massive knife,” Farner told Rolling Stone, “somebody yelled ‘Food fight!,’ and we dove into that cake and started slinging it.” The press joined in, and after the frosting was cleaned from the chandeliers and velvet curtains, the damage totaled $14,000.
After topping the charts with “Locomotion” and “Some Kind of Wonderful” in the mid-1970s, and recording Good Singin’, Good Playin’ with Frank Zappa in 1976, the band decided to call it quits. “[B]ack when Grand Funk first broke up,” Farner recalled to Charles Gibson of ABC’s Good Morning America, “we didn’t want to bow our knees to the god of disco. So we just kind of bowed out of it.” The band reformed in the early 1980s and recorded Grand Funk Lives and What’s Funk? In 1996 the original members played 14 dates, then toured throughout 1997 and 1998, making appearances for the benefit of the Bosnian Relief Fund. “We will continue,” Brewer told Andy Kehe of the Bakersfield Californian, “as long as audiences want us and its (sic) viable to go out and do what we love to do.”
On Time, Capitol, 1969.
Grand Funk, Capitol, 1970.
Closer to Home, Capitol, 1970.
E Pluribus Funk, Capitol, 1971.
Survival, Capitol, 1971.
Phoenix, Capitol, 1972.
We’re an American Band, Capitol, 1973.
All the Girls in the World Beware, Capitol, 1974.
Caught in the Act, Capitol, 1975.
Grand Funk Lives, Full Moon/Warner Bros., 1981.
What’s Funk, Full Moon/Warner Bros., 1983.
Capitol Collectors Series, Capitol, 1991.
Bosnia, Capitol, 1997.
Thirty Years of Funk: 1969-1999, Capitol, 1999.
Brown, Ashley, editor, The Marshall Cavendish Illustrated History of Popular Music, Marshall Cavendish, 1990.
Graff, Gary, and Daniel Durchholz, editors, MusicHound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink Press, 1996.
James, Billy, An American Band: The Story of Grand Funk Railroad, SAF Publishing, 1999.
“Grand Funk Railroad,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (June 6, 2001).
“Pin the Tale on the Funky,” Rolling Stone.com, http://www.rollingstone.com (December 6, 2001).
Interview with Grand Funk Railroad, Good Morning America, American Broadcasting Corporation, April 11, 1997.
—Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.
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