Cover StoryStill in a Grand Funk
It’s a sunny spring morning in the Motor City but the wind whipping across the Detroit River makes it feel a lot more like winter. Not that the huge mass of people shuffling and milling about in the arena parking lot care; they’re stoked on adrenaline and anticipation. When a bored-looking ticket-seller in the Cobo box-office booth flips the sign from “Closed” to “Open” at exactly 9 a.m., the surge of bodies raises temperatures even higher.
Before even two hours have elapsed, every ticket is gone. Phhhhtt! The box-office sign is hastily flipped back to “Closed.” Several thousand would-be ticket purchasers now find their adrenaline mixing with frustration, then anger. Suddenly there’s a second forward surge. The sounds of angry voices, fists slamming against doors, bottles breaking. Around at the rear of the venue a window is smashed, followed by another, then another …
Luckless parents of ’N Sync fans, crazed by the realization that they’ll be facing the wrath of their little brats? A mob of Red Bull-swilling mooks shut out from an upcoming nu-metal show and employing the Durst Directive to “break stuff”?
Hardly. We’re back in 1971, and 12,000 tickets for Grand Funk Railroad’s April 30 Cobo Hall concert have just been snapped up in record time. Nobody can recall an event ever selling out that fast before in Detroit. The local media, never given to understatement, labels it a riot.
And, speaking of understatement, Grand Funk’s ’71 tour is shaping up to be quite interesting. It opened at the L.A. Forum on Feb. 27 and 28; a hysterical crowd at the latter show forced an unplanned, additional encore. A few months after the Detroit incident, a free concert held in London’s Hyde Park drew 100,000 people, more than twice the original estimate. And when tickets went on sale for the July 9 show at New York’s Shea Stadium, an unbelievable 21,000 fans turned out to snap up all 55,000 seats in record time, demolishing the Beatles’ old record. By the end of the year Grand Funk — guitarist/vocalist Mark Farner, drummer Don Brewer and bassist Mel Schacher — will be the hottest ticket on the planet. Not bad for a little garage band from Flint.
Brewer and Farner still recall the period with undisguised awe.
“I remember getting off the plane the first time we went to Japan,” says Brewer, a chuckle rising quickly in his throat, “and here’s all these screaming fans at the Tokyo airport — it was just like watching a Beatles movie! That’s what it felt like! It was all coming and going so fast I can’t even really remember specific shows a lot now. But coming out of Flint, Michigan, seeing the Beatles or seeing the Dave Clark 5 or these other acts get this kind of response, then all of a sudden you’re there, it’s like, ‘Yeah!’ That’s what you wanted. That’s what you’d always strived for.”
“Yeah, we were definitely into it,” Farner agrees, also laughing at the memories. “Loving it! I didn’t let it go to my head, ultimately, but I did at the time. I was a young kid — shit, I couldn’t find a hat that would fit my head! We didn’t want to believe it wasn’t real. I had no idea we’d attain the level of success that we did, of course. But in retrospect — no one does. There’s no way of knowing. Period.”
Talking to Brewer and Farner now, their recollections are, unfortunately, tainted by lingering ego clashes and business disputes.
Happier times. These days neither Brewer nor Farner will even enter the same room — hence separate interviews — with lawyers handling any communication. Since his last performance with Grand Funk in November 1998, having reunited with his former bandmates for the first time in 20 years in 1996, Farner has kept busy with his solo career. Brewer and Schacher still tour as Grand Funk Railroad with three additional members.
Farner, who lays composer’s claim to roughly 90 percent of original Grand Funk compositions, isn’t enamored of his erstwhile bandmates’ current career arc, saying it deceives fans. Brewer, who also contributed material to GFR, including its biggest hit, “We’re An American Band,” contends otherwise, citing an obligation to fans to keep the Funk flag flying.
Both men’s arguments have their merits, but the impasse is a shame, really. Particularly in light of what is gearing up to be a significant GFR resurgence. A previously unreleased concert album, Live: The 1971 Tour, was issued by Capitol Records on July 3, followed shortly after by the new Classic Masters best-of CD. Aug. 13 saw the rerelease of the first four Grand Funk albums (1969’s On Time and Grand Funk, 1970’s Closer to Home and Live Album), complete with 24-bit remastering, bonus tracks and new liner notes. By early 2003, the rest of the band’s Capitol catalog should be in the stores with similar treatments.
Similar archival campaigns have helped salve old wounds and kick start reunions for other bands. Since forming in 1969, Grand Funk has broken up and gotten back together on two separate occasions. Is a third time in the cards?
“I’ll tell you what made Grand Funk Railroad special to the youth of America,” says Billy James, author of the 1999 biography An American Band: The Story of Grand Funk Railroad. “At the time, most of the ‘hard rock’ groups of the day were coming out of Europe, particularly in England. In 1970 to 1974, the heavy rockers were Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Uriah Heep, Yes, Pink Floyd … the list goes on. Who did we have in that time frame? Grand Funk, Alice Cooper Group, Johnny Winter, Mountain and only a few others. So I think the raw energy of the band was appealing.”
James, who has also written books on Todd Rundgren, Frank Zappa, Michael Bruce (Alice Cooper Group), Zoot Horn Rollo (Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band) and Peter Banks (Yes), recalls being turned on by a best friend to Grand Funk in ’71 and subsequently nurturing a lifelong passion for the band’s music. After seeing the band, undiminished by time, on its ’96 reunion tour, he was inspired to do his book: “This was an important band in America’s musical history, and their story needed to be preserved.”
The GFR saga, meticulously researched and rendered by James, is a classic American rock-to-riches story. Brewer, now 53, was raised in Swartz Creek (near Flint) and initially hooked up in the mid-’60s with Farner (also 53, from Flint) in the popular regional R&B/pop group, Terry Knight & The Pack. After Knight’s departure, The Pack (aka The Fabulous Pack) mutated through several lineups; by early ’69 it had whittled down to Brewer, Farner and new bassist Mel Schacher (now 51 and also from Flint, he was plucked from ? and the Mysterians). Embarking upon a more underground/psychedelic direction, with Knight resurfacing in the role of manager-producer, Grand Funk Railroad left the station.
Brewer and Farner look back on their formative years with affection, Brewer in particular pinpointing their melting-pot roots as key to the hybrid style that would manifest itself in Grand Funk’s sound:
“A lot of people from the South moved up to work in the [Detroit area] factories, and along with them they brought a lot of their blues influences to music — and R&B especially — when they got there and Motown happened. It just really fed into music; we all grew up listening to black music on the radio stations. We’d listen to the Top 40 stuff, but it wasn’t as cool. That really had a lot to do with it. I know Bob Seger was really influenced by it. You couldn’t help it! But then there’s this raw edge that would come out of there, in the Michigan thing, and I think that’s that factory-worker thing — the tough guy thing, so it’s not just sweet R&B, it’s hard.”
Hard indeed. Heavy, even. Signing to Capitol Records, and with Knight clearing the tracks with his in-your-face promotional hand (such as a massive Times Square billboard, unheard of at the time for a rock band), Farner, Brewer and Schacher steamed through the first three years. Six top-selling records were released during this time, while concert sellouts became the norm. Doubtless the success tasted all the sweeter whenever the band touched down on home turf.
From the May 17, 1970, Detroit Free Press: “Grand Funk is the biggest rock act out of the fertile fields of Detroit. Ironically, their hometown has yet to discover them. The guys live here but the $1 million they’ll earn in 1970 will be for music made everywhere in the world but Michigan. The trio … were full of pride about being from Michigan and being able to take Michigan music and show it to other parts of the world …. Trade magazines like Billboard, Record World and Cash Box praised their recordings and show. But at home, nothing good. Creem magazine, a Detroit-based national rock publication, has twice slammed Grand Funk and its members, artistically and otherwise.”
Recalls Brewer, “The Detroit music scene always kind of looked at us like, ‘Oh. It’s Grand Funk.’ And I don’t know whether it was because we were from Flint. We weren’t really a ‘Detroit band.’ You know, because of all the years that we were The Pack, that was the hard thing we had breaking out. The old local agents and promoters were just, ‘Oh, Grand Funk, it’s just The Pack.’ And then we left and made it in Georgia, Florida, New York and all these other places. And suddenly those guys are, ‘Oh, yeah! Grand Funk — they’re from HERE!’ [laughing] And I don’t hold that against anybody. I just think it’s funny.”
Or as Farner points out, “We didn’t play Michigan for the first couple of years as Grand Funk. Then when we got back [after national success], it was really good for us. It was almost like we had to go prove to the rest of the world who we were and then we would be accepted in our hometown.”
As is often the case, however, after success hit, discontent set in. In ’72 Grand Funk sued manager Knight over perceived accounting irregularities, spawning a countersuit from Knight and resulting in a bitter divorce that played out endlessly in the national press. The expensive legal case was eventually settled, Grand Funk permanently severing ties with Knight and going on to even greater commercial success during the next several years. (Knight, who was not available to be interviewed for this article, won ownership of all the group’s early publishing, a fact that still rankles Farner, who gets no royalties from his songwriting: “Terry told me I had to publish all my songs through his company. Publishing still goes to Terry ... a skunk in my book.”)
Between ’72 and ’76, Grand Funk issued six more albums on Capitol and, having signed on keyboardist Craig Frost to help flesh out what was becoming a more AOR/pop-oriented sound, spawned such hits as “Some Kind of Wonderful,” “Bad Time,” “The Loco-Motion” and, of course, the ultimate rock party anthem, “We’re An American Band.” By 1976, however, the well was running dry. A move to MCA for the Frank Zappa-produced Good Singin’ Good Playin’ failed to ignite the charts. This time around it was lack of success that brewed discontent, and the band called it quits, Farner going solo, and Brewer and Schacher forming the combo Flint. A Schacher-less reunion took place in the early ’80s that yielded a pair of spotty albums, and Grand Funk was ultimately laid to rest once again.
Fans, of course, have long memories when it comes to their favorite bands, and Grand Funk fans are no exception. Until now the general consensus has been that Capitol’s treatment of the band’s back catalog during the CD era has been shoddy at best: poorly mastered, thin-sounding CDs; the second album, Grand Funk, never earning a proper release in the United States (a Canadian-based label licensed it); an atrociously edited version of the live Caught in the Act; and titles drifting in and out of print, frequently as expensive import editions.
There is perhaps no bigger GFR devotee on the planet than David Tedds, producer and compiler of the 1999 box set anthology Thirty Years of Funk 1969–1999, who is currently aiming to put things right by heading up the archival campaign for Capitol.
Says Tedds, “Capitol had sort of been balking [at doing remastered editions]. I kept pounding on doors there; finally they decided to go ahead with it and I started formulating plans. Prior to that, I’d thought that doing the box set would be a good way to draw attention, we’d have some unreleased stuff on it, and then we’d do the catalog. So my pitch to them was, ‘Well, obviously, several years down the line we’ve lost any momentum that the box set had given us.’ So we needed something to get people excited all over again. In the research I’d done, I’d listened to these tapes from a section of the ’71 tour and said we ought to do this live album to get people interested.”
While neither Farner nor Brewer was directly involved, both offer high marks for Tedds’ exhaustive efforts. (Farner remains ambivalent toward Capitol due to an incident where the label reneged on a promise to give him some music for his own record label, Lissmark, which has reissued his solo material as well as the two ’80s-era Grand Funk albums.) Brewer, citing numerous mixing and EQ flaws in prior CD editions, says, “I told David, ‘Just make them true to the albums — and make sure you’re not having some engineer who happens to like certain frequencies!’ But he has a great ear, and he’s very meticulous. He would call me and say, ‘Go and see what you can find.’ So I’d call Mel and we’d look through everything, come up with a few things — but David, going through the Capitol vaults, would find better stuff by digging.” [See accompanying story.]
In 1972, Fusion scribe (and future Angry Samoan) Mike Saunders observed that, when at its best, GFR tapped into the same rock vein that nourished outfits such as the MC5, Stooges and Flamin’ Groovies. Hailing sixth album E Pluribus Funk a masterpiece, he wrote, “I’d frame it next to Here’s Little Richard. Simply because it’s that brand of raw, 100 percent rock and roll that penetrates to the bone. No compromises.”
More recently, noted pop critic Homer S. Simpson was heard chiding nonbelievers thusly: “You guys don’t know Grand Funk? The wild shirtless lyrics of Mark Farner? The bone-rattling bass of Mel Schacher? The competent drumwork of Don Brewer?”
Saunders’ and Simpson’s kudos aside, however, over the years pointy-headed rock critics have mostly treated GFR like a bad musical punch line, eschewing genuine discourse in favor of blatant mudslinging. In his An American Band bio, James offers this routine sample, taken from a ’70 review of Closer to Home: “Grand Funk has continued to be an unprecedented phenomena despite the utter worthlessness of its music. And it isn’t so much that the group is that bad (which it is), but it’s so incredibly boring.”
Why the character assassination? Good question. Determined, journeymen rockers lucky enough to strike gold, Grand Funk initially employed a nonvirtuoso, brawny, blues-based, soul/funk-informed power-trio approach. Critics who previously had given the likes of Cream a free pass on the same format deemed Grand Funk’s version “simplistic.” Too, Farner’s “wild shirtless lyrics” about parties, politics and populism steered clear of the sort of drug-addled hooey and cosmic Moody Bluesian ruminations that passed for “deep” among the literati (no “newspaper taxis appear on the shore” for Farner). And by tapping the teenage zeitgeist, rapidly selling a lot of records and being promoted in classic Colonel Parker fashion by manager Knight, GFR was perceived as overhyped and deficient in the dues-paying department. Not to mention that the image of this blue-collar “people’s band” was anything but exotic — nary a Limey accent among ’em.
“That’s exactly right,” observes Brewer now. “The number-one thing was that we were American. Just local guys. And for the English guys, the press was like, ‘Oh, they’re great! They’re from England!’ That was the thing. But here’s these American guys, from Flint, Michigan, no less, causing a stir. I think a lot of the critics were just frustrated musicians, or for some reason you’re not up to their standard, so they like to rake you over the coals. And yet I’ll always admit it — and we always did admit it! — we weren’t some great bunch of musicians. We were a garage band, and we liked being a garage band. Just guys out in the Midwest wanting to play music. But just because we weren’t technically great musicians didn’t mean we didn’t know how to play from the heart and from the soul and put together something that people liked. That’s what [the critics] didn’t get.
“And on top of that our manager just loved shoving everything down the reporters’ throats. He was a firm believer in ‘There’s no such thing as bad publicity.’ If they don’t love you, make ’em hate you and they’ll write about you just as much. That attitude kinda pissed off the guys in the press, and so they would come after us. It became a personal rub, and Terry loved to rub it in their faces too. He actually took out an ad in Billboard one Christmas giving everybody the finger! At the same time, it really hurt us. I’d read a review and go, ‘God, was this guy even there last night? He couldn’t have possibly seen that audience and seen this band play and give us a bad review!’”
On April 26, 1996, the three original members of Grand Funk, who hadn’t been onstage together in 20 years, accepted the Lifetime Achievement Award at the annual Motor City Music Awards, held at Detroit’s State Theatre. And they got up to play.
Farner’s authorized biography From Grand Funk to Grace — written with Farner’s involvement by journalist Kristofer Engelhardt and published in 2001— tells the Grand Funk story through the guitarist’s eyes, additionally recounting his lengthy solo career and personal saga as a born-again Christian. Farner proudly recalled that evening, saying, “What an honor it was to be recognized with an award by people from our home state. We performed ‘Some Kind of Wonderful.’ It was such a hoot being up on stage with them all.”
As it turns out, Farner, Brewer and Schacher had already convened, on a lark, for some informal jamming — only to discover, as Farner said in his book, that “the magic and chemistry were intact.” And so throughout 1996-98 a reunited Grand Funk toured (taking the place of Craig Frost on keyboards was Howard Eddy, from Farner’s Christian band The God Rockers). One key highlight during this period came in early ’97: a series of benefit concerts held in New York, LA and Detroit to raise funds for Bosnia-Herzegovina orphans, featuring GFR backed by a Paul Schaffer-conducted symphony orchestra (the Detroit show was released as the two-disc Bosnia). The band also recorded a handful of new songs that would appear on Thirty Years of Funk, and around the same time as the anthology’s release, a VH1 “Behind the Music” installment on the band was aired.
Things came to a halt in 2000, however, when Brewer and Schacher approached Farner about mounting another GFR tour. He informed them that he wasn’t interested, preferring to concentrate on his solo career. After much deliberation, Brewer and Schacher opted to resume touring as Grand Funk Railroad, hiring guitarist Bruce Kulick (ex-Kiss), vocalist Max Carl (Jack Mack & the Heart Attack, .38 Special) and keyboardist Tim Cashion (from Bob Seger’s band).
That lineup is what fans get when they purchase a ticket in 2002. No half-baked tribute act, GFR by all accounts puts on a high-velocity show that has recently seen new originals being eased into the set list alongside old favorites. Brewer indicates they are in the process of readying the material for a possible CD or DVD release.
Brewer is also aware that some old-school GFR fans have a tough time accepting a Farner-less Grand Funk. “A lot of it just has to do with the mind-set. Some people aren’t going to turn that corner no matter what. Then other people are more, like, ‘It’s still a good band.’ I understand that. People have their preferences, and that’s fine — I don’t have any problem with that. We really enjoy it, and it’s a great band.”
When asked to comment about the breakdown in relations between the Farner and Funk camps, Brewer remains diplomatic.
“All I know is that Mark really just kind of announced, ‘I’m going solo.’ And that was the end of it. And Mel and I were just kind of sitting there twiddling our thumbs, and here comes the anthology and here comes the VH1 special. That’s really when Capitol was poised to start doing the reissues and doing the whole deal. And we were flabbergasted. We said, ‘Well, you know, Mark, if that’s what you really want to do — then that’s what you want to do!’ Again, I’m not gonna go into the details. And I’ve read this from a lot of other bands too — there’s a privacy area that needs to remain among the band guys, and that falls within that. Other than that — and people don’t need to know all the details — the basic gist of the whole thing is that Mark chose to go solo.”
Farner, on the other hand, is as outspoken now as he was in the early days. His Web site contains a lengthy editorial on GFR, and he quickly broaches the subject now. During the 1996-98 reunion the three principals apparently formed a limited liability corporation as Grand Funk Railroad, with two-thirds majority vote sufficient for business decisions. Farner, however, says that when he signed his ownership of the GFR trademark into the corporation, he never envisioned Brewer and Schacher might go out on the road using — quite legally — the band name, and that, in effect, he was “tricked” into signing.
Explains Farner, “Initially we agreed to go out for two years. Because they wanted me to stop touring solo so there would be no competition for it, the Grand Funk dates … I continued on for an additional year and then when I said, ‘Well, I’m gonna go back and do my solo stuff now,’ they just said, ‘No, no, you’re not, man — you’re gonna play with us!’ They tried to force me: They said, ‘We are two-thirds of the corporation and WE say that you’re gonna do this.’ Well, you can’t force me to do that! … That’s the wrong button to push. [So] they voted me right out. I’m no longer an officer of the corporation even though I own a third of it!”
Contending that audiences come to see bands, not corporations, Farner continues, “For them to go out as Grand Funk Railroad is actually misleading the fans to believe that they’re gonna come see me. And I know for a fact, because I saw an ad. A fan sent me a paper from Reno that has my picture, my comments — and it’s those guys playing … I have never bothered them. Really. I just asked them to please be, ah, for the sake of the fans, be honest. Just be honest! Say it’s ‘Don and Mel of Grand Funk Railroad.’ Or ‘Grand Funk Railroad Without Mark Farner.’ Just be honest! But no, they can’t … I’m sorry that they had to stoop down there.”
Brewer was given an opportunity to respond to Farner’s allegations, but at press time he had not and presumably stands by his earlier comments.
Bands form, band break up, some bands make it. Shit happens. Initially, though, there’s always a get-in-the-van, let’s-show-the-world mentality that spawns camaraderie. For Grand Funk, the early bond among members was very real.
“I like to think of myself as a very lucky individual: a garage band that made it good,” says Farner. “We were young kids, 20 years old when Grand Funk started. Mel and I had gone to the same high school. And Brewer and I had gone through all that stuff. Deejays would come out and hire bands. We’d do dances, hops, wedding receptions. There were a lot of places for a group to play — try your stuff out, hone your skills — where we had to pass the hat to make enough money to get home on gas money. It was great, a great experience.
“And then [following Grand Funk’s initial success] we all got raped by our manager! I mean, we all had like a vendetta, man. We wanted to show that sucker that we didn’t need him to make it. We went out and did the Phoenix album and did several albums after and had greater success. I think because [we] had gone through all that, that was the camaraderie we had, initially, as Grand Funk. But after the success, we really saw what each person was made of.”
He indicates that the likelihood of a GFR reunion is remote. Plus, he enjoys the genuine camaraderie he’s found in the Mark Farner Band (Rick Farner, Lawrence Buckner, Paul Ojibway, Hubert Crawford). “I want to be around people I enjoy. You know? Why be around people where there’s contention and there’s animosity and jealousy and all this? I don’t need that in my life. Money’s not worth it to me. I’ve gotta enjoy what I’m doing or I can’t do it.”
In addition to playing and recording with his band, Farner keeps a full calendar. This summer he toured in Alan Parsons-helmed Beatles tribute “A Walk Down Abbey Road.” His Lissmark label recently released an EP, Red White & Blue Forever!, a patriotic-themed disc (it also includes an acoustic version of GFR classic “Closer to Home”) aimed at raising funds and awareness for the USO. He’s been talking to Christopher Cross, Felix Cavaliere, Lou Gramm, Zak Starkey, Billy Preston and Jack Bruce about a collaborative project. And with an overseas label set to issue a retrospective CD of The Pack, the Farner-Curt Johnson-Bobby Caldwell-Herm Jackson lineup of the ’60s band is planning some low-key reunion shows to mark the occasion.
Brewer, for all the differences with his former bandmate, is similar in tone when reminiscing about what originally fueled Grand Funk.
Says Brewer, “It was being in the same place at the same time, having the same beliefs about music, having a strong desire to want to make it, having a strong feeling of, ‘We don’t care if people think we’re just a nobody band from Flint, Michigan — we know we’re better than that and we’re gonna prove it.’ And I think that’s the kind of thing we had as guys, and I think it happens in just about all bands. That’s what makes them go forward, that closeness between the unit. The unit becomes one; you’re not looking at this guy and what this guy wants; they’re all looking at what do we the band want for everybody. That’s what makes bands work. Because you put a bunch of people together and you get ’em all in the same frame of mind, and it’s a very powerful thing.”
Does he ever miss the old bond, the chemistry?
“Absolutely. But I think there was a breakdown in that many, many years ago, even during the time period that we were out in the reunion thing. That band that existed in the ’70s, those guys, that camaraderie, was not the same. ... They still respect each other and respect their past friendships with each other and so forth. But people grow up and they change. They go in different directions.”
“There are many reasons why the group imploded,” muses biographer James, who in his book suggested that subtle ego clashes between Farner and Brewer as well as distinctly different business approaches may have fueled conflict. “There are probably old wounds there. Hearsay and rumors and accusations flying around from other people. I think the musical paths the three have chosen is where they should be at this point in time, and I think they will have a reunion again. But until then, they continue to make music and bring light into people’s lives.”
“Will there be another reunion? Nobody would love to see that more than me, but, no, my guess is probably not,” says David Tedds. “As far as the problems that the two camps have among themselves, these guys have known each other since junior high school, and there’s so much water under the bridge there that we’re not privy to and never will be. It’s just stuff they gotta work out among themselves, and I don’t think it’s really anybody’s business but these guys’. If they can work it out, great; if they can’t, that’s the way it goes.
“It’s a drag, because when they played together some three-four years ago, it wasn’t like watching some band that was once proud and mighty do this weak-ass comeback. They were still kicking ass! And watching Mark on his last couple of [solo] tours, and watching Grand Funk too — the three principals are still playing as good as they did in their heyday. I mean, if you’d gone to see them and it was like, ‘Well, Farner just stands there and his voice isn’t what it was, Brewer can’t play half as heavy, and Mel too …’ Then it’s probably best they don’t further tarnish the legacy. But they all still play great.
“That is what the drag is — when you think that during these last three years these guys could have been putting on some slammin’ shows together.”
Be sure to read Fred Mills' Grand Funk addendum Grand Funk Railroad: Back to Cobo
Fred Mills is a freelance writer. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.