Mark Farner,
The TVD Interview

Mark Farner, the long-haired, bare-chested frontman of Grand Funk Railroad, keeps chugging along at 72, releasing a new DVD From Chile with Love this month with the band he fronts, which takes the name of one of Grand Funk’s most popular songs, Mark Farner’s American Band.

He’s also among the Michigan rockers asked to join in on Alice Cooper’s current album, Detroit Stories. And in a Covid-era that has otherwise wiped out touring schedules, Farner was one of the performers at the partisan, largely maskless New Year’s Eve party at Mar-a-Lago.

Farner still remembers the vinyl that has most inspired him, back when he was in The Pack, the Michigan-based, pre-Grand Funk group that had broken off from regional rockers Terry Knight and the Pack. “We were coming back from Nashville, Tennessee,” he tells The Vinyl District. “We had just recorded a record in this guy’s garage.” They were excited about their cover version of Bob & Earl’s “The Harlem Shuffle” and wanted to get it into the hands of Flint disc jockey Bob Dell at WTAC as soon as possible.

“We were driving fast, breaking the speed limit, trying to get to WTAC before Bob Dell went off the air, so we could hand him this acetate and see if he could play it,” Farner says. “So we come screaming into the parking lot, we all jump out and run inside the station. We say, ‘Bob, we just recorded this record, man, will you spin it?’ And he put it on the spindle and he spun our record. That’s how things got done back then.”

But as they were leaving, the disc jockey pointed to a pile of LPs by the door. “If there’s anything you want, take it, because all that stuff is going in the dumpster today,” Dell told them. Farner was taken by the striking turquoise and purple cover of Get It While You Can by someone he didn’t know, Howard Tate. “Out of all that vinyl that he was going to pitch out, that’s the only one that really caught my attention, I don’t know why. I thought, this one looks cool. I took it. And when I got home, holy crap, dude, I found out why.

“This is the guy I tried to pattern my vocals after: Howard Tate. And if you listen to that album Get it While You Can, that influenced so many people. Janis Joplin, it influenced her. It influenced Aretha Franklin. It influenced Little Stevie Wonder. The people, after years had gone by, and I had been developing my style you hear all this people in different articles, they would mention Howard Tate.

“Oh yeah, he is a badass. He made me stretch out my vocals. I wanted to get the same kind of snappy response and the same kind of flow that he had and what a great mentor that guy was for me. Not only did he sing like nobody else I ever heard, but he played that funky guitar and had some nice licks in there.”

It was the feel he tried to instill in Grand Funk Railroad, the trio that included drummer Mark Brewer from the Pack, but also bassist Mel Schacher of another legendary Michigan group, ? and the Mysterians. “I joined Terry Knight when I was 19 and I played bass with Terry Knight and the Pack,” Farner says. I had never played bass before, but he needed a bass player and I said, OK, I’ll buy one. So I went down and put my $25 down on it.”

He played on a couple of their biggest regional hits, “Better Man Than I” and “I Who Have Nothing,” before deciding to break off. “We decided Terry Knight couldn’t sing as good as Brewer or I, either one, we said, Well, why is he the front man? Brewer said, well, he’s a salesman, he’s got the gift of gab, and he can talk to the audience,” he says. “I said, we’re paying a lot for this gift of gab, we need to start our own group.”

Knight became their manager, and used his gift of gab to get the unknown trio booked into the Atlanta International Pop Festival in 1969 with Led Zeppelin, Joe Cocker, Janis Joplin, and Ten Years After, among many others. “It was due to Terry Knight’s attorneys in New York City. They were doing the legal work for this pop festival in Atlanta, and Terry asked them to work a deal with their promoter that they’d give them a break on their attorney fees, if they’d let this band, Grand Funk, open the festival and they would play for free.”

The band’s U-Haul flipped on the way down there and Farner remembers “hustling trying to put our amps back together” before they rushed to open the festival. They didn’t even realize there was a crowd estimated to be up to 150,000 before they were announced as the first to go on.

“The guy, he said Grand Frank—he never did say it right,” Farner says. “But after he announced us, and we hit it, it was ‘Are You Ready?’ It was all the songs that would be on the first album, plus we did “Land of 1,000 Dances,” Wilson Pickett style. And I’d take off my guitar and dance around the stage, and get the audience revved up, and up and dancing and they loved it, they loved that stuff.”

Farner recalls wearing a paisley polyester shirt that stuck to him in the Georgia heat that he ripped off during the Pickett cover. The audience loved it. “So that was part of the evolution of me going on shirtless, with nothing but an armband on, because it worked on that very first gig,” he says. “I thought, if it worked then I’m just going to keep it up. And that was part of my trademark.”

The raucous reaction to the unknown band got them a recording contract. In just two years, after a debut that went gold and four others that went platinum, they sold out Shea Stadium faster than The Beatles did. “The advantage of having that huge billboard in New York City sure didn’t hurt us at all,” Farner says. That was another Knight idea. “We were paying like $50,000 a month for this billboard, but it took up a whole city block in Times Square, and it just so happened the billboard workers went on strike, and we got four months out of that for free, so it was quite a stroke of luck.”

The Shea concert was filmed by the Maysles brothers, who had previously shot Gimme Shelter for the Rolling Stones, but it was never released. “It is in the hands of two members of the corporation and they don’t want to release that because I’m the star of that show and they’re trying to present a different Grand Funk, with three other members. At least I can say it took three guys to replace me,” Farner says.

“Everybody’s always saying, “When are you guys gonna get back together?’ I keep telling people, whenever they make up their mind. Because I’ve been trying to get them, the other guys, to go out. Here’s my pitch: Let’s just bury the hatchet, go back and give the fans who love us, and don’t give a shit about who’s mad at who or whatever. They don’t care about that. They just want to hear the music that we do. Why can’t we do that? For 20 years, I’ve been trying to put that together. For the life of me, I can’t figure out. They must not like money anymore.” It’s still possible, but easier said than done, he says. “It’s like two people getting a divorce—try putting those two people back together.”

Meanwhile, the four guys of Mark Farner’s American Band continue to tour when they can, expanding its audiences in places like Chile, where the new DVD was recorded. “In South America they really appreciate American rock ’n’ roll,” Farner says.” Chilean audiences are fine audiences. They sing the songs louder than the PA at certain times.”

And there are all the Grand Funk hits to sing: “We’re An American Band,” “Some Kind of Wonderful,” “Bad Time,” “The Loco-Motion.” and “I’m Your Captain (Closer to Home),” which has a special attachment to Vietnam veterans, Farner says. “I can only speculate,” he says, “If you’re in a foxhole in Vietnam, you’re pinned down by so much fire coming in, you wanna be closer to home.” Farner is donating $3 of the $14.99 DVD to the Veteran’s Support Foundation.

Though it never got critical support, Grand Funk got some big name rockers to produce their albums, including Todd Rundgren, who was behind their platinum 1973 We’re an American Band. “He was the first producer that we had worked with that got the band to actually sound like the band on vinyl,” Farner says. And there was truth to that title track, he maintains, “there were four young Chiquitas. Definitely four young Chiquitas.”

A more surprising producer may have been Frank Zappa for the 1976 Good Singin,’ Good Playin’ on which the Mothers of Invention leader also plays guitar on “Out to Get You” and backing vocals on “Rubberneck.” Farner tells the story of Zappa being skeptical of the track “Don’t Let ‘Em Take Your Gun,” until he took him out to shoot his own gun. But his claim that Zappa “became a life member of the National Rifle Association as a result of this trip to Michigan” is questioned—in part because Zappa poked fun at gun nuts in his scathing 1988 song “Jesus Thinks You’re a Jerk” and the rest of Zappa’s family had since been put on an NRA “enemies list.”

But give Farner a chance and he’s off talking about the Second Amendment, the scourge of the Federal Reserve and more recently “the scam with these computers” during a Presidential election “stacked against” Trump. It was the lame duck Trump who had invited him to that Mar-a-Lago party to perform alongside Vanilla Ice. But in the end, 45 didn’t show. “I’m a little disappointed he didn’t get to rock with us,” he says.

Farner says he’s not worried his conservatism will alienate the other two-thirds of the country. “I’m not worried about that because anybody that is that short sighted, their brain was kidnapped by the lamestream,” he says. Farner is also taking a Charlton Heston approach to his own career. “I’m thinking I’m going to draw that last breath on stage.”

From Chile With Love Live, the new DVD from Mark Farner’s American Band arrives in stores on April 6, 2021. Pre-order here.

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