Graded on a Curve:
Grand Funk Railroad, Greatest Hits

Sure, this is meat and potatoes rock—but just what kind of meat are we talking about? My high school cafeteria served up what we called “mystery meat,” and that about says it all. That said, the longhairs ate this shit up. And I find that simply unpalatable. What exactly was it in the Grand Funk Railroad musical recipe that attracted millions of devoted fans?

It’s hard to know from the vantage point of 2017, when the mass popularity of Grand Funk seems utterly inexplicable. They were heavy, sure, but unlike such Midwestern bands as the Stooges and the MC5, Grand Funk had no edge whatsoever. They’re certainly not hip now, and I have a hard time believing anybody thought they were hip then. And nobody, and I mean nobody, ever accused “the Funk” of being smart.

No, trying to explain the phenomenal success of Grand Funk Railroad is like trying to explain the goings-on in the Bermuda Triangle—both induce the vertigo that accompanies any attempt to parse the uncanny. Me, I simply mumble something about how “We’re an American Band” is an absolutely brilliant song and then lapse into an uncomfortable silence. Ah, but if you listen carefully—although I’ll be damned if I know why you’d want to—to 2006’s Greatest Hits, you’ll catch brief glimpses of what might—might!—have made Grand Funk Railroad one of the biggest arena acts of the benighted seventies.

It’s not there in “Time Machine”—a truly vapid Cream rip if ever there was one—or in the too limpid by far “Rock’n’Roll Soul,” an invitation to a party you’d have to be insane to want to attend. And you won’t find it in “Take Me”—which evokes the funky spirit of the Doobie Brothers, god help us—either. And it’s certainly not in evidence on the brain-dead live take of “Mean Mistreater” that has crawled onto the LP to breathe its last. No, you don’t hear it until “Heartbreaker,” an echoing and bluesy number that almost—but doesn’t quite—break through the wall that separates Grand Funk Railroad from greatness.

Not even the epic “I’m Your Captain/Closer to Home”—that long-stemmed staple of FM radio that constitutes Grand Funk’s sole stab at high-seriousness—justifies the band’s existence. No, the closer you get to home, the more you want to ask our furry freak forbearers, “Just what was it you saw in these cavemen, brothers and sisters?” (The Funk’s long and rather ham-fisted take on Eric Burdon’s “Inside Looking Out” doesn’t hold out any real clues either; Mark Farner’s almost inspired vocal performance aside, it’s a workmanlike take on the blues at best.)

Which leaves us with… what, exactly? I’ll tell you. Pop music. That’s right. Pop music. Turns out the hard-rocking Grand Funk Railroad’s real contribution to Western Civilization resided in its covers of “The Loco-Motion” (they’re better than Gary Glitter! And that guitar solo is totally out of control!) and the bona fide soulful “Some Kind of Wonderful” (finally, Grand brings the Funk! And Farner scores big time on the vocals!). Both songs sounded great on the radio—albeit not as great as Don Brewer’s utterly inspired “We’re an American Band”—as did “Bad Time,” which sounds like a girl group cover but isn’t, which is quite the compliment indeed.

And let us not forget the galloping and organ-driven “Footstompin’ Music,” which may not be a song for the ages but is guaranteed to make you stomp at least one foot, if not both of them. And Farner plays some mean guitar to boot. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention “Shinin’ On,” which sounds like the bastard child of “Stranglehold” and “Frankenstein” and features Farner barking out the lyrics in some kind of weird sonic echo chamber. It’s catchy as hell, “Shinin’ On,” and one Grand Funk Railroad song I wish I had heard on the radio back in the day.

Some bands—the Velvet Underground being the most famous—are appreciated only in posterity. Then there is the opposite phenomenon; I’m talking of course about those bands, renowned and wowed in their time if not by the critics then at least by the fans, that make us shake our heads in bewilderment and ask why. It’s what I call the Three Dog Night perplex. That few people “got” Iggy and the Stooges during their heyday makes sense; they were an evolutionary leap both forwards and backwards, and who was ready to wrap their mind around that? But Grand Funk Railroad drew ‘em in like flies, and I demand an explanation.

Perhaps Robert Christgau was right when he praised their schlock appeal. But he was the same guy who said of 1973’s We’re an American Band, “If it takes me three months to decide this is a listenable hard rock record, just how listenable can it be?” In conclusion I can only suggest that Grand Funk Railroad satisfied some atavistic need, one since better forgotten by all of us. They were the vestigial tail of hippie culture, one that its descendants were more than happy to slough off and would just as soon not think about.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B-

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  • Bulletholes

    Really, it was pretty simple. It gave white folks their first and only excuse to use the word “Funk”. Before Grand Funk, kids could only say stuff like “i liked the beat”, or “Its got a snazzy melody”.
    Suddenly, Mark Don and Mel introduced funk to the white folks lexicon.

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