If you were a music fan growing up in the early to mid-1970s, it's a good bet that Grand Funk Railroad is well represented on your classic rock playlist. Hits like “Footstompin’ Music,” “Rock & Roll Soul,” “The Loco-Motion,” “Some Kind of Wonderful,” “I'm Your Captain / Closer to Home,” “Bad Time,” “Shinin’ On,” and “We're An American Band” are among Grand Funk Railroad’s 19 charted singles (including eight Top-40 hits and two number one singles). Those songs helped account for 13 gold and 10 platinum records, which in total have sold over 25 million copies worldwide.
For several years in its heyday, the Flint, Michigan-based trio of Mark Farner (guitar and vocals), Don Brewer (drums and vocals), and Mel Schacher (bass and backing vocals) was by far the most popular touring rock band in the world. Grand Funk Railroad (named after the Grand Trunk Western Railroad that ran through Flint), or Grand Funk for short, sold out New York’s Shea Stadium in 72 hours – a feat it took the Beatles seven weeks to accomplish. The band was picked to open for Led Zeppelin on its 1970 North American tour, but received such an overwhelming reception from fans that Led Zeppelin’s manager Peter Grant feared his band was being overshadowed and had Grand Funk kicked off the tour after only two shows.
“It was certainly a rock and roll fantasy at times,” Brewer said in a telephone interview from his Jupiter, Florida home last week. “I took it all in. It was work and then it got exciting, then it went back to work, and then it got exciting again. It was a great way to come up. We were really fortunate to be there at that time period.”
The band broke up in 1976. Over the years, the original trio reunited in various incarnations, most recently from 1996 to 1998, during which time they recorded the live album “Bosnia,” released in 1997. After touring successfully for three years, Farner left the band in 1998 to pursue a solo career.
Two years later, Brewer and Schacher decided to re-establish Grand Funk Railroad as a touring band. They recruited three veteran star players to round out the band – lead vocalist Max Carl (.38 Special, Jack Mack and the Heart Attack), lead guitarist Bruce Kulick (KISS, Michael Bolton), and keyboardist Tim Cashion (Bob Seger, Robert Palmer). That five-piece version of Grand Funk Railroad has been together for 14 years, longer than any previous incarnation of the group.
Celebrating the 45th anniversary of the band, Grand Funk Railroad will play Atlantic City’s House of Blues at the Showboat Casino Hotel this Friday, March 21. Leslie West (Mountain) opens the 8 p.m. show. Tickets are $25, $35, and $45, and are available by calling (800) 745-3000.
Looking back over Grand Funk’s career, Brewer said that in addition to the Shea Stadium and Led Zeppelin shows, there were numerous memorable concerts in the band’s history. The first was the 1969 Atlanta Pop Festival, which led to their signing to Capitol Records. Brewer says it was a matter of luck and timing – Grand Funk’s booking agent happened to know the person who was scheduling the acts for the Atlanta Pop Festival, a massive July 4th weekend outdoor concert that would include acts like Led Zeppelin, Janis Joplin, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Joe Cocker. It was agreed that Grand Funk could open the first day of the festival if they would agree to play for free.
“Nobody knew who we were,” Brewer says. “It was one of those moments where you ask yourself, ‘Are we really doing this?’ But it was also like, ‘Okay, we can do this.’ You had to have that confidence. We got out there and started playing and when people in the crowd got on their feet, it was like, ‘Yeah, all right! Here we go!’”
Although no one in the band had yet celebrated his 21st birthday, Brewer said the band's confidence was bolstered by the fact that other Michigan-based bands were being signed at the time.
“You had something to shoot for all the time,” he says. “You could see other bands getting their songs on the air. The Amboy Dukes with Ted Nugent, Brownsville Station, the MC5, Iggy Pop – you could see other bands getting exposure and you knew it was doable.”
Grand Funk Railroad was signed to Capitol records from 1969 to 1976. In that seven year period, the group released 10 studio albums, two live albums, and hit the road for at least two major tours each year.
“That was in the record contract,” Brewer says. “You didn't have the luxury of spending 10 years working on a record. You had a contract to do two albums and a tour to support each album every year. Sometimes you only had a few weeks to write and record an album. It really burnt us out. The funny thing is, when I listen to those early albums today, considering how they were recorded, they still sound pretty damn good.”
At the height of their popularity, Brewer wrote and sang lead on grand Funk Railroad's signature song – “We're An American Band.” The song is a time capsule chronicling the sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle of a rock band on the road in the early 70s.
“It sounds a lot crazier than it really was,” Brewer says. “We did our share of partying, but I've read about some of the things that other bands had done, and we were pure amateurs compared to what those other guys were doing at the time.
“The truth is, we were pretty down to earth,” he says. “We stayed in Flint – we didn't move off to New York or Los Angeles, and we didn't wind up in rehab. It's a good thing. We turned out to be family people and we still are family people. I can't speak for the other guys, but I would see other musicians getting involved with stuff and it would scare me. I would see them shooting heroine and hanging out with the type of people that they were hanging out with, and I thought, ‘I don't want to die.’”
While Grand Funk Railroad has always enjoyed a large and loyal fan base, the band was never embraced by critics, especially in the early days.
“It used to frustrate us,” Brewer says. “I remember reading reviews where you could tell the guy wasn't even there. But what are you going to do? It's 45 years later and we're still here. A lot of it was really the result of [former manager] Terry Knight, who was putting out the idea that we were a Monkees kind of band that he had put together and that he was telling us what to do. Some critics didn't like us because they bought into that. They thought we were this dumb, loud band from Michigan. The funny thing was, shortly after we fired Terry we played Madison Square Garden. Rolling Stone magazine sent a writer out to review the show and all of a sudden the guy said, ‘Hey, this band is good!’ The only thing that changed was that Terry Knight was gone.”
If anything, the ridicule from critics only made the devotion of Grand Funk Railroad's fans that much stronger. Brewer says the band reciprocates that devotion and appreciates its fans, both old and new. Those who come to the House of Blues show in Atlantic City can expect to hear all of their favorite Grand Funk Railroad hits.
“We could do a set of songs that nobody has ever heard, or that nobody remembers,” Brewer says. “But it's the audience we’re playing for, and we play the songs they want to hear. I think that's our job. Our job is to go out and make that audience happy every night. Everybody in the band has this real love of R&B and rock – and that's what Grand Funk is, a combination of R&B and rock. All the guys in the band really love that music and we get out on stage and do that music every night.”