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Grand Funk Railroad

Along with fellow heavyweight US combos STEPPENWOLF, MOUNTAIN, BLUE CHEER, JAMES GANG, et al, the mighty GRAND FUNK RAILROAD formulated their own brand of populist proto-hard rock with an emphasis on simplistic riffs and extreme volume. Spearheaded by the often-underrated songwriter Mark Farner (from an outsider point of view), the hard-grafting GFR nailed a succession of high-end Top 30 LPs and a plethora of home-soil hits, none more rewarding than the patriotic and proud No.1 signature single, `We’re An American Band’.
Merging together in 1968 from the ashes of TERRY KNIGHT & THE PACK, drummer Don Brewer and the aforesaid guitarist/frontman Farner, had a need to give their home city of Flint, Michigan, another injection of boogie and rock’n’roll. Along with bassist Mel Schacher (ex-? & THE MYSTERIANS) – with Knight taking up the position of manager/producer – their given moniker was derived from their locally-known Grand Trunk (Western) Railroad.
Having signed to Capitol Records on the strength of their free Atlanta Pop Festival appearance, GRAND FUNK RAILROAD almost immediately made an impact with the Top 50 single, `Time Machine’, one of the highlights spawned from their soon-to-be debut Top 30 album, ON TIME (1969) {*6}. Probably closer to Brits DEEP PURPLE and CREAM, rather than any aforesaid Stateside standouts, some critics aimed their remarks at how amateurish and cliched their lyrics seemed, although for fans of `Are You Ready’, `Anybody’s Answer’, `Heartbreaker’ and `Into The Sun’, it was a case of heads down, no nonsense boogie.
From that point on, GFR proceeded to enjoy increasing and extremely profitable popularity with each successive release, despite regular critical derision. Highly prolific, they turned out an album approximately every six months; the American public never tiring of their formulaic loose blues approach on GRAND FUNK (1969) {*7} – featuring the cocky `Mr. Limousine Driver’ and a cover of The ANIMALS’ `Inside Looking Out’ – and CLOSER TO HOME (1970) {*7}. The latter Top 10 LP was notable for showcasing moody live favourite `Mean Mistreater’ and the Top 30 title track, re-branded and confusingly cut from the epic finale, `I’m Your Captain’.
Only three studio sets into their career, the double LIVE ALBUM (1970) {*6} proved GFR were no flash in the pan. A jam-friendly exercise in the art of the boogie, testament to the band’s grandeur was when, in June ‘71, they broke The BEATLES’ box-office record, selling out New York’s Shea Stadium. SURVIVAL (1971) {*6} was already knocking on the door of the Top 5, although Capitol mystifyingly chose not to single out `Country Road’ and `Comfort Me’, but slightly inferior modest hit renditions of TRAFFIC’s `Feelin’ Alright’ and The ROLLING STONES’ `Gimme Shelter’.
E PLURIBUS FUNK (1971) {*5} was far from satisfactory in their quick-fire attempt to cash-in on their sell-out shows. A cover depicting a silver coin dated 1972 riled critics but alienated none of their large loyal fanbase and, in semi-major hit `Footstompin’ Music’, plus the not so joyous `Upsetter’, the rambunctious Farner and Co continued to spread their message. Within the confines of a socially-conscious US of A, GFR could consider themselves part of the anti-Nixon brigade on `People, Let’s Stop The War’ and `Save The Land’, while their move into grandiose terrain complied with a symphony orchestra-addled closing epic, `Loneliness’.
By spring ‘72, the trio had split from the management of Knight, hiring John Eastman (brother-in-law of PAUL McCARTNEY) to control their future finances. A title that aspired to suggest that they’d risen from the ashes, the Top 10 PHOENIX {*5} fell a little short on critical appraisal, but then that was part and parcel for a band loved by a plethora of rock fans. Shaping up with 4th member Craig Frost (on organ), GRAND FUNK – as they were now billed – only concluding GFR track `Rock ‘N Roll Soul’ was welcomed in the pop charts; their maturity stretching to include a groovy `Flight Of The Phoenix’ instrumental, a bona fide ballad `Someone’ and Farner’s introspective/Jesus songs `So You Won’t Have To’ and `Freedom Is For Children’.
The following year, GRAND FUNK enjoyed their finest three minutes on Planet Earth with the aforementioned effervescent, `We’re An American Band’. Produced by the innovative “wizard/true star” TODD RUNDGREN, the autobiographical track – penned and brusquely sung incidentally by sticksman Brewer – opened up their platinum-selling WE’RE AN AMERICAN BAND (1973) {*8}, a set that struck a cord with their fist-pumping audience.
Frost had now joined full-time, adding credence and confidence to soaring sharp-as-a-razor street songs, `Creepin’, `Black Licorice’, `Stop Lookin’ Back’ and other Top 20 smash, `Walk Like A Man’ (not to be confused with The FOUR SEASONS hit).
A hard act to follow, the quartet still managed to come up trumps with a desperately dodgy, but nonetheless, chart-scaling cover of GOFFIN & KING’s `The Loco-Motion’ (reviving LITTLE EVA’s #1 from ’62). Spawned from GRAND FUNK’s sprawling 8th studio set, SHININ’ ON (1974) {*5}, retaining an over-stretched RUNDGREN seemed to have an adverse effect which would assume the group wanted to derail on a rollercoaster ride to rock heaven. But for the interplanetary and cosmic `Carry Me Through’ and the stomping, near Top 10 title track, only their most staunch disciples would think this was worth the price tag.
Dropping Todd for the power-pop-centric Jimmy Ienner (responsible for The RASPBERRIES and THREE DOG NIGHT sets), ALL THE GIRLS IN THE WORLD BEWARE!!! (1974) {*4} was aimed directly at the mainstream guard. For lovers of high-gloss pop-rock music, it worked on a few levels, the few being Top 5 smash hits `Some Kind Of Wonderful’ (a soul song from the 60s) and `Bad Time’, although hard-rock fans were reeling in its sell-out aspirations. Ditto Ragovoy & Shuman’s `Look At Granny Run Run’. Superimposing the Funk four’s faces on to the muscle-flexing bods of Schwarzenegger and Co, only the hard-driving `Life’ and the ZAPPA-esque `Good And Evil’ drew comparisons to the GFR of old.
It was indeed time to get back to their roots and, with live double album, CAUGHT IN THE ACT (1975) {*7}, fans could once again appreciate just how turbo-charged GRAND FUNK RAILROAD had been. Okay, the set still contained the infectious pop covers, but played live, barnstorming showmen Farner, Brewer, Schacher and Frost could turn the amps up to 11 and pit the earworms alongside aforesaid stage favourites (including prog-lengthed encores `Inside Looking Out’ and `Gimme Shelter’) and monster hits.
Pity then for Ienner’s final association with the band, BORN TO DIE (1976) {*4}, a low-performing Top 50 set, interesting only in the fact that Farner penned the title track for his cousin who died in a motorbike crash, and for modest #69 hit, `Sally’, for his actress girlfriend at the time, Sally Kellerman. A gloom-laden LP dealing with death and depression, the counterbalance of other minor hit, the hard-driving `Take Me’ (featuring Farner on harmonica), was its only saving grace.
If breaking up was hard to do (thankfully not the name of a scheduled cover), it was made even harder when the maverick FRANK ZAPPA offered to produce GRAND FUNK RAILROAD’s final statement, GOOD SINGIN’ GOOD PLAYIN’ (1976) {*6}. Not at all bad in the context of this bizarre liaison (check out `Goin’ For The Pastor’), the man at the controls kept it tight and simple, leaving the four to explore hard-rock by way of harmonies and boisterous ballad boogies. Frank, himself, could be heard contributing signature backing vocals on the closing `Rubberneck’ piece (and gutsy guitar licks on `Out To Get You’), but the need to pop out with a cover of Tamla track `Can You Dig It’ (their swansong Top 50 hit), was, in afterthought, their downfall.
This record finally saw the group hitting the buffers at the end of the commercial line; all but Farner forming Flint. Christian Mark subsequently took off on a solo sojourn, although reconvening GFR in the new decade – alongside Brewer, bassist Dennis Bellinger and, initially, keys/synths man Lance Duncan Ong – with some further below par examples of GFR material. 1981’s GRAND FUNK LIVES {*4} – highlighting a cover of Mann-Weil staple `We Gotta Get Out Of This Place’ – and the Cliff Davies-produced WHAT’S FUNK? (1983) {*3} – featuring renditions of JAMES BROWN’s `It’s A Man’s World’ and Holland-Dozier-Holland’s `Nowhere To Run’ – had little consolation to flagging fans, who’d long since given up the ghost.
Encouraging the relatively busy Farner, Brewer and Schafer to come out of semi-retirement to play a benefit concert, 1997’s BOSNIA {*7} – recorded at Auburn Hills. Michigan – proved that the trio had lost none of their hard-rockin’ edge. Adding a spot on keyboards for Howard Eddy Jr. and roping in guest guitarist PETER FRAMPTON, saxophonist Alto Reed and a symphony orchestra conducted by Paul Shaffer, one could almost taste the 70s in their drive to be the greatest ever “American Band”.
GRAND FUNK RAILROAD continued to work within the hard-rock perimeters, until Farner departed in ‘98. Inevitably, a few years on, Brewer and Schacher found a replacement in Max Carl and, with Bruce Kulick (guitars) and Tim Cashion (keyboards), they re-surfaced from time to time as a tour-only 5-piece unit, as of 2014.
On a sad footnote, Terry Knight died on November 1, 2004, murdered by his daughter’s boyfriend, who was said to be high on methamphetamine; the culprit Donald A. Fair was duly sentenced to life imprisonment.
© MC Strong 1994-2001/GRD // rev-up MCS Jan2016

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