Grand Funk Railroad

Ah, Grand Funk.  The wild, shirtless lyrics of Mark Farner.  The Bone-rattling bass of Mel Schacher.   The competent drum-work of Don Brewer.

More people should remember Grand Funk Railroad though, so… you know… consult your school library.

I first got into this band when I started listening to classic rock radio (so nicely parodied by that Simpsons clip) back in the early 90s.  But I only ever heard two of their songs – We’re an American Band and Some Kind of Wonderful.  Seriously, that’s all the fucking shitty station ever played.  But I think I’ve complained about how shitty radio stations are before, so I won’t go into that rant again.

Back in 2006, I was working at a place where I could bring in my own CDs and listen to them.  So I used to bring in some old stuff, like Deep Purple, Jimi Hendrix, Joe Walsh, and some really obscure stuff that I’d been transferring off vinyl, like some classic era swing and jazz.  One of the guys I worked with started asking me where I got that music, and when I told him I transferred it from vinyl, he asked me to do him a big favour.

It turns out he was a massive fan of Grand Funk Railroad.  So the next day, he brought me damn near every album they ever put out and asked me to get them transferred onto CD for him.  I said sure, because I do love that early 70s rock.

So I did.  It took a while, but he got some of his favourite records digitized and I got some great music out of it.

Recently, I was thinking about GFR again.  I hadn’t actually listened to them in a while, so I went looking through a backup hard drive and took a listen.  I immediately realized I could do a much better job cleaning up and improving the sound of the vinyl transfers I did back then.  So that’s what I’ve spent the last week or so doing.

And because I’ve done that, I’ve listened to them all again, and here’s what I think of Grand Funk Railroad and their music.

1974 Monumental Funk

I have to start with this one, even though it is neither a Grand Funk album, nor an official release.  This was released in 1974 by Terry Knight, who was GFR’s (by then) former manager.  This was only released to capitalize on the success of Grand Funk, and you’ll notice that nowhere is the name “Grand Funk” actually on the album.  But that’s Mark Farner and Don Brewer on the cover.  Also, there is nothing monumental about this, nor is there any funk to be found here.

The 30 minutes of audio on the album are from the band they were in before they formed Grand Funk Railroad.  That band was called The Pack, and you can read up about their history with Terry Knight to get a better understanding of that band’s history.

So, how’s the music?  Well, it’s not much like what Grand Funk Railroad would be playing and recording.  These recordings are (I think) from 1968, and have a very generic “’60s” feel to them.  They’re also pretty boring for the most part.  The band playing here sounds like a local band that you might hire for a high school dance or something.  If you’re interested in the sound that Grand Funk had going for them at any point in their career, you’re not going to find any of that here.

1969 On Time

Grand Funk Railroad was formed when Mark Farner and Don Brewer of The Pack wanted to simplify their musical approach and do a “Power Trio” kind of thing, like the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Cream were doing.  So they hooked up with the incredibly talented bass player Mel Schacher and started jamming.

They then tried to get gigs around Flint where they were from, but they couldn’t get many because nobody wanted to hire The Pack any more.  Knowing how different Grand Funk Railroad sounded from The Pack, I think that’s really unfair.  But that’s what they were facing.  So they got their manager (former leader of The Pack) to get them work outside Flint and the surrounding area where nobody knew them.  Their first big gig was at the Atlanta International Pop Festival in July 1969.  They were unknowns, and played there for free among already established bands, but they became a national sensation overnight.

Their debut album On Time was released a month later.  As far as debut albums go, it’s outstanding.  The songs and the playing style here laid the foundation of what they’d be doing for their next five albums.  This is straight ahead, no frills rock and roll.  Don’t take that as a bad thing, because this is powerful stuff.

The only parts that really kind of drag are the drum solo in T.N.U.C. and the song Heartbreaker.  This album is actually very long for a vinyl release from that era – clocking in at over 50 minutes.  It’s their longest single album release.

And speaking of stuff you just have to sit through… the lyrics.  Grand Funk Railroad were no poet laureates.  Some of the lyrics found on these albums are just the dumbest shit I’ve ever heard, actually.  But the music is often spectacular.  So I can enjoy that.

1969 Grand Funk

Ho Lee Shit.  Now this is an album.  This isn’t just a can of whoop-ass, this is a motherfucking six pack.  If you want to buy just one Grand Funk album, buy this one.  The Red Album.  There are no bad songs on this album.  This will kick your ass front to back, and sideways too.

There ain’t no sophomore slump here.  This album is both more cohesive and more focused than the first album, which was pretty damn cohesive and focused in its own way.  And the sound… good lord that sound!  Paranoid has got to be my all-time favourite GFR song.  It’s glorious, brooding and chaotic.

And you probably won’t be surprised to find that as much as audiences and record buyers loved Grand Funk Railroad, critics hated them.  Record critics have always been either deaf or stupid… maybe both.

But this album sets the high mark for the early half of Grand Funk Railroad’s career, as far as I’m concerned, though their commercial breakthrough is just around the corner.

1970 Closer to Home

This is the album that made Grand Funk Railroad one of the biggest bands in America.  And it’s a great album too, but I have to call out two really nasty, bad, bad aspects of it.

First is the production.  This is a gripe I have with almost all the GFR albums, actually.  The production is tinny and full of hiss.  I fixed this with my audio editor, and this has probably been improved with remasters, but it still brings down the enjoyment a tad.

The second complaint I have about this album is on two songs – Get it Together and Hooked on Love.  Normally, I really like the sound of Mark Farner’s and Don Brewer’s singing.  But when they try to sing up in a way-too-high register… and really loud… and with that tinny production… oh Lord Jesus make it stop!

Other than those two songs, one of their best albums.

1970 Live Album

Now there’s a creative title.  This is a double album that was mostly recorded in Jacksonville on June 23, 1970.  It was (by the sound of it) one hell of a show.  And knowing what I know about the history of this band, their manager Terry Knight was raking in all kinds of cash by this point.  The question is – why did he not spend the money on a proper recording setup?

This album sounds like shit.  I’m talking about audio quality here, not performance quality.  Even with all my advanced audio trickery at my disposal, I can still just barely get this album up to “listenable”, when usually I can get a live recorded performance up to “incredible” in the audio department.  This is bootleg-level sound.  The only officially released live album I can think of with worse audio quality is Earthbound.

But if you’re willing to listen through all the noise, you’ll hear exactly why this band was so popular.

One funny story about this album – when I was a kid and still living under the “no popular music” law enforced by my strict religious parents, I found one record of this double album set under a tree in my front yard.  Someone had probably thrown it out of a moving vehicle.  I still have that record.

Okay, that story isn’t funny.

1971 Survival

That cover is in response to some critic calling their music “cave man music”, I believe.  Pretty clever.

This album is a bit of a mixed bag, and not as satisfying as the three albums that had come before.  I’d say it’s about half great and half kind of meh.  I do like the gospel-influenced I Can Feel Him in the Morning, but I think their version of Gimmie Shelter is just weak and, well, wrong.

I wouldn’t say that there’s anything here that’s “essential” GFR except maybe Country Roads.  And the drums sound weird too.  Apparently Terry Knight insisted that Don Brewer cover his drum heads with tea towels to dampen the sound.  Weird.

1971 E Pluribus Funk

Ho Lee Fuck.  Now this is an album. I mentioned a six pack of whoop ass… this is a keg of whoop-ass.  Well, side one is whoop-ass, side two is a steak dinner and a glass of fine wine.  But yeah, Ho Lee Fuck!  If you only have money in your budget for two Grand Funk Albums, this is the other one you need.

If it wasn’t for a little bit of slowdown in pace and inconsistency in side two, then this would be my favourite of these albums because side 1 has got to be one of the most amazing things I’ve ever heard.  It’s jaw-dropping.

Where the Red Album had raw energy and enthusiasm carrying it through, this one has some impressive and at times astonishing skill from all players pushing it over the edge.  Just glancing at the “professional” album ratings that this has, it confirms my suspicion that “professional” record critics have no idea what they’re doing.  I once saw an album comprised almost entirely of hooks described as being almost devoid of hooks.  Damn.

Anyway, you might be wondering about the shape of that album.  Yes, the original releases were cut round to be in the shape of a coin.

1972 Phoenix

A little background on what had happened to the group first: The three guys in the band had gradually realized that they weren’t seeing very much of the fabulous amounts of money that their band was earning.  This was agreed to be a bad situation, but was kind of caused by the contract that they had signed with Terry Knight.

Their solution was to fire Terry Knight, which turned out to be the worst thing they could have done.  Their contract was only a few months away from expiring, and he sued them for breach of contract and won.  He got something like $16 million, and even went so far as to repossess all of their gear right before they were about to go on stage.  Just fucking wow, man.

It’s hard to think of a band that got fucked over harder by their management.  CCR and Badfinger come to mind.  But Grand Funk wasn’t ready to call it quits.  In exchange for keeping the rights to their name, they relinquished all the rights to their past catalogue, and basically had to start again.  So their career has a split – pre 72 and post 72.

From this point on, they were a quartet, after hiring former The Pack keyboardist Craig Frost.  They also deliberately started changing their musical style.  They moved away from straight-ahead rock to a more pop and soul infused sound.  I much prefer their first five studio albums because of this, but there are some really outstanding songs on their later albums.

Anyway, back to this album.  It’s okay.  It’s pretty good after a few listens, but it’s not really “inspired” or flat out amazing.  Flight of the Phoenix, Someone, Gotta Find Me a Better Day, and Rock ‘N Roll Soul work very well for the new four-piece format, with that last one being a minor hit for them.

1973 We’re an American Band

You may have heard of this one.  Legendary producer Todd Rundgren came in to produce this, and this is the sound of the quartet Grand Funk firing on all cylinders.  You’ll note the name change to Grand Funk too.  It would change back eventually, don’t get mad.

But this is their best known and most enduring album.  It also has their best known and most enduring single on it, the title track.  Take that, Terry Knight!

No seriously, take that Terry Knight.  Can you imagine how these guys felt after their manager basically (and fully legally) took all their stuff that they had earned and left them with no option but to start over?  This one must have felt solid fucking gold, just like the reflective gold album sleeve it was packed in.

And it’s a great album too.  The new “sound” really gels here.  This one is worth getting too, if you can afford three albums.   I must admit though, I did get quite sick of hearing the song We’re an American Band because of the local radio station, but I’m better now.

1974 Shinin’ On

You might have noticed that some GFR album art has incorporated gimmicks into them… like the round coin look of E Pluribus Funk, or the shiny gold cover of We’re an American Band.  Well, this one uses Anaglyph 3D to give the album artwork a 3D look.  It even comes with red/blue glasses, which you can pop out of the album cover to use.  (The album art then looks like this.)

When I got this album from my coworker to transfer from vinyl, the glasses had long ago been lost.  Also, he told me a story of when (some time in the 1970s) he had accidentally left a hot metal hash lighter on top of the album after lighting up a hash pipe.  The vinyl record had, yes, a lighter-shaped indent on one spot.  It still played and transferred though, but there was a loud bass swelling sound every time the needle went over that spot, so I had to download about 4 songs to replace them.

And this is another very strong album from the band.  It moves further away from the straight-ahead loud rock sound, but the first two tracks in particular are worth the price of admission alone.  It wasn’t as big of a hit as their last album, and keep repeating that phrase from here on out.  Musical tastes were changing wildly in the mid to late ’70s, and they affected every band.

1974 All the Girls in the World Beware!!!

I have to admit, that album artwork is kind of funny.  You have to remember that this was nearly a half a century ago, before photoshop and all that jazz.  They had to physically cut and physically glue pictures of their heads onto pictures of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s and Franco Columbu’s bodies to make that album cover.

As for the music… ehhhh.  My coworker who gave me all those albums to digimify didn’t actually have this one, nor the ones that came after it.  And there’s something he said about the band that still sticks with me: “They didn’t age well.”

That’s mostly true.  GFR softened their sound, but the songwriting did for the most part improve at the same time.  But they lost the energy and spontaneity they used to have in the process.  The title track and Good & Evil are damn good songs, the latter I’d even call great, and unlike anything they’d done before, but my god, is Memories fucking terrible.  Is that their John Denver homage?  Nothing against John Denver, but Grand Funk Railroad ain’t John Fucking Denver.

And of course, this album has basically what was their last “hit”, and another song I got really sick of hearing – Some Kind of Wonderful.  It’s actually a really good song, and they do a great job of it, so there’s that.  Don’t listen to the radio.  Lesson learned.

1976 Born to Die

“Hey guys, let’s name our new album after that really great title track!  And while we’re at it, let’s take the cover photo in a funeral home!  In caskets!  It’s not like that will be an ominous portent!  It’ll be a gas!”

Yes, the band did break up after this, so yeah, this would have been the final Grand Funk Railroad album. (Note the Railroad is back in the band name.)  Many of the songs here are a little more… shall we say… downbeat in spirit.  The opening number Born to Die is, well, about mortality and about how we all have to kick the bucket some time.  But it’s a really great song.  So is Dues, and the instrumental Genevieve.  There are several other really good songs on here, and no real stinkers actually.  It kind of reminds me of the album Survival in that way.

And fuck that twit on AllMusic who rated this lower than All the Girls in the World Beware!!!  Maybe he huffs solvents before he writes reviews though, so I shouldn’t be so harsh.  He’s just solvently-abled.

But yeah, it didn’t sell well.  Remember this was 1976, when Disco was king, and people were into shit like this.


1976 Good Singin’, Good Playin’

So with Grand Funk Railroad disbanded and having exited, stage left, what force of nature could possibly bring them back together to start making music and record another album again?

That’s right, Frank Zappa.  Turns out he was… ahem… a fan.  Frank had remembered what this band could do.  Frank knew what this band was about (see album title).

So he convinced them to reform.  But it didn’t last, because while they were recording overdubs and mixing, the four band members amicably agreed to actually quit for good and go their separate ways over musical differences.  And that’s why there are no Grand Funk Railroad albums in existence after 1976.

But this one is one final kick at the can and kick in the ass for the classic quartet lineup of the band.  And it’s damn good.  I’d even say it’s great.  First of all, Frank produced it, so it sounds better than the tinny sounding albums they had released up to that point.  Second, the songs.  Damn, what a strong set of songs.

There hasn’t been such a cohesive and high quality set of songs on a Grand Funk Railroad album since We’re an American Band.  Surely this was a hit, no?

No.  The album didn’t even make the top 40 in the US, and like I mentioned, the band had broken up for the second time before it was even released.  But this is a great album, and it shouldn’t be missed.  Hell, I’d recommend it to Zappa fans just because.

Rarities or B-Sides or Outtakes or whatever

This is a collection of leftover tracks that didn’t appear on any of the above albums.  Rather than tack them onto those albums, I’ve made a collection of them that adds up to just under 29 minutes:

  1. I Can’t Get Along with Society
  2. Hooray
  3. The End
  4. Destitute and Losin’
  5. Bare Naked Woman
  6. Rubberneck

The first track is a very rough sounding (probable) demo from the Survival sessions, but it’s fucking great.  I think it should have made the album.  The second and third tracks are B sides from We’re an American Band, and just go to show how productive those sessions were.  They’re both great songs that could have easily been on that album.

Track 4 is a leftover track from Shinin’ On, and with that album being their shortest album, I think they might as well have included this song.  Track 5 is a rehearsal from the Born to Die sessions, which is pretty good for what it is.

And finally, track 6 is an interesting number about a trip to Jamaica gone wrong.  I wonder if it’s a true story.  Don Brewer sings this song about a guy going to Jamaica for the weed, but finding only thugs out to rob him instead.  It’s a really good song too.

1981 Grand Funk Lives

1983 What’s Funk?

I don’t have either of these two albums, which feature only Mark Farner and Don Brewer from the original lineup.  I’m also missing the 1975 live album Caught in the Act, and anything from the reunions that happened in the late 1990s and after.

But I will mention that late ’90s reunion.  The original three got back together and started touring again and, according to Mark Farner, everything was going great until Don Brewer and Mel Schacher made him sign another contract.  That new contract gave each of the three of them equal partnership in the band as a corporation, and then Don and Mel proceeded to vote Mark out of the corporation.  Listen to Mark Farner explain it here.

That’s some Terry Night level bullshit.  They really fucked Mark Farner over.  Reminds me of John Fogerty with CCR all over again.  I wonder if the two of them have ever thought of touring together.

So if you really like Grand Funk Railroad, and you want to support Mark Farner, I suggest buying stuff from his website.