Graded on a Curve:
Grand Funk,
We’re An American Band

Jesus Funkin’ Christ, Grand Funk. Where does one even begin? Homer Simpson’s immortal description of the band’s members is as good a place as any: “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!”

Grand Funk was one of the biggest arena acts of the 1970s, but nowadays you’d be hard pressed to find anyone besides Homer Simpson who will admit to liking them. I’ve never heard a single rocker cite Grand Funk as an influence, and unlike their Michigan brethren the MC5 and Iggy and the Stooges, Grand Funk scored a big zero when it came to hipness factor. Their talk of revolution was transparently empty jive, they didn’t have a proto-punk bone in their bodies, and in general all they did was fill arenas—something the far cooler MC5 and the anarchic Stooges never came close to doing—and make the people in those arenas (and their bongs) happy.

Of course filling arenas doesn’t prove much, except that it’s impossible to overestimate the ignorance of the American public, but still it’s intriguing—what did all those pothead on reds at all those Grand Funk shows hear that we simply can’t hear in 2014? Did people back then have an extra Grand Funk ear? That closed up around the time of 1976’s Born to Die, which marked the band’s downward slide following seven consecutive LPs in the Top Ten?

That’s right: seven consecutive LPs in the Top Ten. How they managed this feat, given their lackluster body of work, remains a mystery, like what became of Amelia Earhart or how Pittsburgh Pirates’ pitcher Dock Ellis managed to throw a no-hitter while tripping his balls off. It is possible people really did come to hear the shirtless lyrics of Mark Farner? Or were they truly that hard-up for entertainment in the Dark Ages of the early to mid-seventies, when rock had become empty entertainment, with the talk of music changing the world having become passé on one side and the soon-to-come (and equally unsuccessful punk revolution the other. Never having seen Grand Funk—they were well into their precipitous fall from superstardom when I started attending concerts, I can’t say.

Almost as ham-fisted as their northern brethren in Bachman Turner Overdrive, Grand Funk was a blunt instrument, and rock’s equivalent to a can of Spam. You’ll eat it, Grand Spam Railroad, but only if there’s nothing better around. But there was always something better around, or your record collection sucked, and big time. Really, about all they had going for them was their cool logo.

Terry Knight and the Pack alumni Mark Farner (guitar, vocals) and Don Brewer (drums, vocals) formed Grand Funk Railroad along with Question Mark & the Mysterians’ Mel Schacher (bass) in 1969. A glorified garage band, their manager Terry Knight pulled out all the stops—he paid 100,000 for a giant billboard in Times Square, for example—to make them stars, and he succeeded to the extent that Grand Funk beat the Fab Four’s long-standing record by selling out Shea Stadium in 72 hours. By 1970’s Closer to Home they were bona fide superstars. In 1972 they added Mark Frost on keyboards and tried to recruit Peter Frampton. But lucky for Peter he had other paths to follow.

I like Grand Funk for one reason and one reason only; they’re they guys who produced the iconic “We’re an American Band,” which came off the LP of the same name, the band’s seventh. I’m not ashamed to say I love the song, dumb as it is. A classic chronicle of the life of a band on tour, it opens with one of rock’s great cowbells, features one of the most recognizable guitar riffs of all time, and name checks Freddy King. And then there’s that chorus, which everybody knows, including the aging Nazi Rudolf Hess, who dug Grand Funk in Spandau Prison and played it as loud as possible until his death. Throw in a keyboard riff that plays throughout the song, and a cool guitar solo, and what’s not to like?

The lyrics make Grand Funk sound like the Who, which I doubt they were: “Feelin’ good, feelin’ right, it’s Saturday night/The hotel detective, he was outta sight/Now these fine ladies, they had a plan/They was out to meet the boys in the band/They said, “Come on dudes, let’s get it on”/And we proceeded to tear that hotel down.” Dollars to donuts the extent of the band’s destruction was limited to a broken chair, which a visiting Leslie “He ain’t heavy, He’s downright obese” West broke by plopping himself down on it. But who knows? Mebbe the guys were America’s answer to the Who, although I’ve never heard anything about it.

Unfortunately, most albums have more than one song on them, and the Todd Rundgren-produced We’re An American Band, which was released in 1973, has eight. I’ll say one thing for We’re An American Band; it doesn’t include a single terrible cover like their take on Little Eva’s “The Loco-Motion” or the Soul Brothers Six’ “Some Kind of Wonderful,” both of which induce nausea in this listener. What it does include is the cool Brewer and Farner tune “Walk Like a Man,” which possesses the same sonic thrust as “American Band,” features the great vocals and competent drumming of Don Brewer. The mid-section’s a bit dull until Farner plays a truly wild solo, shirtless most likely, then the drum and bass take brief solos, and the song builds to a great climax.

“Stop Lookin’ Back” features lots of organ and opens on an almost jazz-like note, and everything is kinda buried except the organ, which takes a great solo followed by a brief solo by Farner. Brewer’s vocals are excellent, as is his drumming, and this one has authentic punch, especially when the organ and guitar fight it out for supremacy and Brewer sings, “Stuck in the county jail/Nobody here gonna’ pay my bail/Thirty days with a smelly drunk/A turn-key callin’ me a dirty punk/I got to pick myself up, and stop lookin’ back/And I’ve got to move straight ahead, stop lookin’ back.” Hey, watch out what you’re saying about smelly drunks, seeing as how I used to be one. You probably didn’t smell that great either, hippie.

Farner’s “Creepin’” is a slowish and organ-dominated protest song about something, presumably a revolution that is never going to happen because “Too many people sittin’ dead on their ass/Ain’t got no class/People this time must pass.” Personally I don’t see why, because a good Quaalude or two beats revolution any day, as the latter generally involves getting put up against a wall and shot and besides, all revolutions are a futile waste of time. Farner knows he’s not free, and doesn’t “want to be their fool no more,” and this one is a lyrical third-rater compared to Neil Young’s “Tired Eyes,” which not only conveys the same message but implicitly implies that the odds of the “People” opening their eyes is nil.

“Black Licorice” opens with a “Whoooeee!” followed by some bass, before turning into a barnburner about crossing that old color barrier, which still meant something back in 1973. Farner gives it all he’s got, and proves he’s a great rock screamer, which I would never guessed, on lines such as, “What’s up and what’s that noise?/There’s somebody at the door/It must be black licorice/She come back to make me cry some more.” Personally I’ll take “Brown Sugar” in a minute, but Farner’s over-the-top vocals really are impressive, and this would be an excellent song were it not for the long and suspiciously proggish organ interlude in the song’s middle. Who are we listening to here, the Spam and potatoes Grand Funk or some bunch of English wankers?

“The Railroad” is heavy, man, what with its doleful opening guitars and Farner’s woeful lyrics: “The work is hard in a railroad yard/Hey hey you gotta make it today to punch a time card.” It’s kinda like a song off Workingman’s Dead, only with weaker lyrics and a melody that once again veers off into organ-generated prog, and it has me thinking that signing up Fisher was the worst mistake Grand Funk ever made, besides forming in the first place. On the positive side the song descends into some anarchic bash and crash before returning to the melody, and lots of vocals that take it out. “Ain’t Got Nobody” puts the vocals first and foremost and is a catchy tune, with the rhythm section kicking ass and Farner taking a brief solo that should be longer (Todd Rundgren? The goddamn guitar solo should have been longer!) Fortunately Farner plays two more solos, and the guy sure can play guitar, just as the boys in the band have a knack for unison vocals. Good tune, should have been released as a single, says I.

“Walk Like a Man (You Can Call Me Your Man)” is cool too, catchy with a great big chorus that opens the song. Brewer proves that Homer Simpson was wrong; his drumming is more than just competent, while the long instrumental jam is great, and features lots of badass guitar playing by Farner. Then the bass plays a brief solo—which miraculously isn’t annoying—while the band goes back to singing that great chorus. And this one should have been a single too.

LP closer “Loneliest Rider” opens with Fisher on keyboards, and is the LP’s only intolerable track. A protest song about the plight of our Native American brethren, its shortcomings are two-fold. First, the lyrics are hackneyed, and second the melody is clunky, and that’s not a good combination. And it goes on and on, convincing me that singing about the less fortunate very rarely does the less fortunate any good, and I’ll bet you this tune’s average Native American listener’s reaction to this stinker was “What is this tripe?” The band even includes some clichéd Native American tom toms, and Farner spends the songs final moments repeating “The loneliest rider” before those tom toms finish the song. Next time, not that there will be a next time, leave the Native American protest songs to Redbone, who presumably know what they’re talking about.

To conclude, I’m shocked at just how many songs I like off this LP. Rolling Stone’s David Fricke once said, “You cannot talk about rock in the 1970’s without talking about Grand Funk Railroad!” I always thought that was the craziest thing I ever heard, and Fricke is currently residing in an asylum for the musically insane in South Dakota. But I have to concede that at least on We’re An American Band, they bring far more to the party than just the title track.

Even Robert Christgau, who like the old cereal spokeskid Mikey hates everything, was ambivalent about We’re An American Band, writing, “If it takes me three months to decide that this is a listenable hard rock record, just how listenable can it be? Well, Todd Rundgren has done remarkable things, that’s for sure–the drumming has real punch, the organ fills attractively, and Don Brewer’s singing is a relief. Great single, too.” Which beats his review of 1969’s Grand Funk by a Detroit mile: “This group is creating a stir, apparently because they play faster than Iron Butterfly. Which I grant is a step in the right direction. I saw them live in Detroit before I knew any of this. I enjoyed them for 15 minutes, tolerated them for five, and hated them for 40. This LP, their second, isn’t as good as that performance.”

Anyway, I will probably continue to love Grand Funk solely for “We’re An American Band,” because it’s an American icon, like “American Pie,” “American Girl,” ‘”American Woman,” “American Wedding” by F.O., American Music Club, “America’s Youth” by Black Market Baby, and The Minutemen’s “Do You Want New Wave or Do You Want the Truth,” which has nothing to do with America but I love it. Well, okay, so I also have a soft spot in my heart for Grand Funk’s “Shinin’ On” and “Talk to the People,” because it always make me crack up. If the people had only listened to Grand Funk Railroad, or so sings Grand Funk, the world might be a utopia by now. But nobody ever listened to Grand Funk, except when they sang about coming to your town, and helping you party down. Otherwise, their lyrics were, for the most part, swill.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B

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