GRAND FUNK RAILROAD: the story of the ultimate sh*tkicking American rock band
Originally published in Classic Rock Magazine, issue 85, October 2005
Before Purple, Zeppelin and Sabbath there was… GRAND FUNK RAILROAD. The mighty Michigan trio who sold out New York’s 50,000 Shea Stadium and headlined Hyde Park. So why are they all but written out of rock history?
Words: Peter Makowski
Who the hell are Grand Funk Railroad? More to the point, why should we even care who they are? These are pertinent questions for any self-respecting Classic Rock fan under the age of, let’s say, the big four-oh. Well, trust me on this one when I tell you that, for a large part of the early 70s, Grand Funk were the biggest motherfuckin’ heavy rock band in the world. Forget your Deep Purples, Led Zeppelins and Black Sabbaths, they overshadowed these behemoths by miles.
Watching the recent Live 8 event in London, no one could fail to be impressed by its size and magnitude. Untold thousands of people congregated in the auspicious grounds of Hyde Park. But what if I told you that almost a quarter of a century ago I saw Grand Funk play the same venue to a hysterical, capacity crowd? It’s hard to believe that a band who once sold out New York’s Shea Stadium faster than The Beatles, and who were also the first US rock band to have 10 platinum discs in a row, have now almost been erased from memory, their music consigned to the bins of heavy metal history.
So, what happened to this powerhouse trio who once ruled the world? Where did they come from and where have they gone? Let’s begin to answer those questions by outlining the three vital ingredients in Grand Funk’s story.
1. The band, of course: Mark Farner (guitar/vocals), Mel Schacher (bass) and Don Brewer (drums/vocals). For the original Grand Funk Railroad, look no further than the above trio, and disregard the watered-down AOR outfit they developed into in later years. In their prime, Grand Funk were a bludgeoning riff machine that brought you such subtly titled gems as TNUC (read it backwards), Sin’s A Good Man’s Brother and Inside Looking Out. At the start of the 70s the band took over the US chart with a succession of million-selling, classic rock albums: On Time , Grand Funk, Closer To Home, Live, Survival and E Pluribus Funk… Which, for me, is where their story ends.
2. The band’s original manager/svengali, Terry Knight. Formerly known as Terence Knapp, Knight was a crass cabaret singer and master bullshitter. In the mid-60s he managed to blag his way into a job as a DJ on a Michigan radio station by convincing his future employers he was a close friend of The Rolling Stones. Constantly reinventing himself, Knight was an old-school huckster in the style of Elvis Presley’s mentor, Colonel Tom Parker.
3. Grand Funk’s home city: Flint, Michigan. Flint was, and remains, violent, downtrodden and resolutely working class. Grand Funk played R&B loud and with lashings of feedback, and the people of Flint – a close neighbour of Detroit – loved their local band with a vengeance. The seeds of Grand Funk were sown in the early 60s with The Jazz Masters, an above-average bar band that featured Don Brewer, a drummer with a wild Afro hairdo. Playing covers to an audience who demanded all the latest hits, the band found themselves going around in ever-decreasing circles until one night DJ/blagger Terry Knight came across them, in unusual circumstances.
“A fellow disc jockey had bet me that if I went to see The Jazz Masters, I would like them,” Knight recalled. “I hated local bands worse than anything in the world. But I went to see them and lost the bet – I thought they were fantastic.”
Knight convinced the band they needed him as their lead singer and frontman to propel them to success, and The Jazz Masters were renamed Terry & The Pack. Mark Farner was then recruited, initially as a bass player, Knight being impressed by Farner because of his resemblance to Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones. The band achieved minor chart success with their interpretation of the schmaltzy standard I Who Have Nothing. But a combination of weak follow-ups and internal conflict led to Knight’s dismissal.
The band rechristened themselves The Pack and voted in Farner as vocalist and guitarist. While Knight moved to New York and built up a successful career in music production, The Pack proceeded to go down the tubes rapidly. The 60s were coming to an end, and the loved-up hippy ethos was being replaced by a bitter atmosphere of anger, war, race riots and ever-harder drugs. Out of touch with the times and sounding dated, The Pack found themselves stranded in Cape Cod, Massachusetts on the promise of a live residency booking that never existed.
“We were starving,” said Farner. “It was during the worst snowstorm of the century. We were stuck in a summer cottage with a gas heater, melting down snow to drink and to allow us to shave. Plus I had the worst case of crabs in the world.” On the insistence of Brewer, the band decided to reach out to their old lead singer for advice. But even in these desperate straits Farner was still apprehensive.
“Listen,” pleaded Brewer, “we all know that Terry Knight has these contacts in the music business. I think he could give us a good shot if he believes in our music.” “Terry’s a chameleon,” was Farner’s response. “He’s a turd – a con man. I don’t trust him. He’ll take advantage of us.” Nevertheless, Brewer wrote a begging letter and Knight agreed to meet up to see what the band were up to. Impressed with Farner and Brewer’s relentless energy and inspired by up-and-coming acts such as Cream, Jimi Hendrix and Blue Cheer, Knight told them to go back to Michigan and find a bass player, rehearse and write some new songs. But the warning bells should have rung loud and clear when Knight told them he would only help them on the condition that he was allowed complete control as “manager, producer, press spokesman and musical mentor”.
The band returned to Flint and proceeded to rehearse a selection of material, mainly old Pack tunes and some cover versions. They soon found their bassist when they came across Farner’s old schoolfriend Mel Schacher (pronounced Shuckah), who was playing the chicken-in-the-basket circuit with ? And The Mysterians, the band who had struck lucky in the US charts in 1966 with their No.1 single 96 Tears (which, contrary to legend, Schacher didn’t play on). Schacher jumped at the opportunity to play with Farner and Brewer.
So people wouldn’t think that this was just a newly revived version of The Pack, a new name was needed. Farner: “The title of the band came from Terry Knight who had written a song called Grand Funk Railroad. It’s a play-off on an existing railway that ran through the States called the Grand Trunk & Western Railway.”
The band and Knight knew they had to, to paraphrase Bob Seger, ‘get out of Detroit’ to have any chance of nationwide success.
Brewer: “Everybody in Michigan was saying Grand Funk are just The Pack trying to trade off under another name. There was no way we would have made it there. People were sick of the sight of us. A few years later we returned as home-town heroes… but that’s another story.” Grand Funk played a couple of small shows to test their chops, and then Knight was offered a slot on the prestigious Atlanta Pop Festival which had a star-studded bill including Janis Joplin, Joe Cocker and Led Zeppelin. Mistakenly introduced as ‘Grand Frank Railway’, the band – who were used to playing the hard-ass club circuit of the Motor City – quickly managed to gain the attention of the crowd.
Farner: “Most of the songs we played were originals. We purposely left out some of the more soulful covers like In The Midnight Hour. I didn’t think that soul music would go over too well with the hippies.”
With a set that had the ferocious visual energy of a James Brown Soul Revue (the muscular Farner ripping off his shirt halfway through) mixed with raw, uneducated hard rock, 45 minutes later the band had the crowd in the palm of their hand. They received a standing ovation and played several encores.
Farner: “I turned round to Mel and said: ‘Do you believe this?! We’re a garage band from Flint, we’re 20 years old, this cannot be happening.’” Brewer: “We just went on and blew them away. We were shocked. And because we blew them away we were invited to play the next two shows.” By the last day the band were headlining. Through pure showmanship and word of mouth, Grand Funk Railroad had become overnight sensations.
From the beginning Terry Knight promoted Grand Funk as if they were a supergroup and a champion of the people. A trailer-trash Malcolm McLaren, Knight quickly realised the Funk’s basic, high-energy, Neanderthal stomp would never get aired on the radio. The band’s only chance to get heard was to tour constantly until they could get their message through to the record companies – all of which, bar none, had rejected their demo.
The press was certainly not on Grand Funk’s side. This was, in fact, the beginning of a vehement hate/hate relationship. A typical review at the start of the band’s career read: ‘[Grand Funk are] one of the most simplistic, talentless, one-dimensional, unmusical groups of the year. Absolutely unbelievable.’ It got worse.
Why were Grand Funk Railroad so universally hated by the new pop literati? Classic Rock spoke to Don Brewer recently and asked him that very question. “My basic theory is that we came about – snap! – just like that. We started out with the Atlanta Pop Festival, and everything we did from then on was in front of big audiences. It was like one day Grand Funk wasn’t there and like the next day it was. Maybe the critics felt we were being shoved down their throats. All of a sudden we went from being nobodies to being somebodies.” Brewer said the scathing criticism was hard to deal with: “It really hurt a lot. The audience would be going crazy, but you’d read reviews of the shows you played and the critics would slam you like they weren’t even there. I also think the critics hated us because they thought, through Terry Knight, that we were a created, commercial piece of crap.”
But the fact that the media played absolutely no part in Grand Funk’s success turned out to be a major selling point to their audience. Critic/documentary maker, native of Detroit and bona fide Funk fan Michael Moore once said: “People loved this band because some record company didn’t concoct it; image consultants didn’t choreograph it. This was a people’s band that just wanted to rock. A hard-driving, industrial rock’n’roll band that related to the average hard-working American.” Indeed. There was a huge, ignored and uncatered-for audience in the US Midwest who worked nine to five, paid their taxes and every weekend partied their brains out on a mixture of ripple wine, grass and barbiturates. While the middle classes had the privilege to protest about Vietnam, these poor bastards were actually being shipped out there to fight. This was a pissed-off generation who simply wanted to rock’n’roll. Grand Funk came to the rescue.
Brewer: “I remember seeing a lot of big groups who thought they were so cool. They’d turn their backs on the audience and play to themselves. I felt insulted. An audience is there to be entertained. They paid for a show, not to see a jam.” By the time Grand Funk finished their first tour, record companies were queuing to sign them. But there was an obstacle in the way: Terry Knight. The labels had to strike a deal with Knight who virtually owned the band, lock, stock and over a barrel.
Farner, Brewer and Schacher were employees of Grand Funk Railroad Enterprises, and Knight had shares of their songwriting royalties and public performances. “We were friends and everybody was happy,” reflected Brewer. “Terry was taking on the manager/producer role. At that time it was all about the hippy movement. Everybody was your brother; we were really into that. He got us gigs, a record label – things were good. We let our guard down, we were stupid.”
Finally Capitol agreed to meet Knight’s stringent demands and Grand Funk Railroad made their vinyl debut with On Time in the summer of ’69. Recorded in three days and on sale almost before the ink on their Capitol contract had dried, the album was a mishmash of reworked Pack material plus a few new songs that were – in true Van Halen tradition – whacked out on the spot. Music first, then the lyrics.
During an interview at the time Brewer admitted that studio recordings were not a priority: “Our on-stage performances are really the thing. Recordings, I have to say, are not as important. We want them to come out well, don’t get me wrong, but we really don’t care about that so much.”
On Time was produced by Terry Knight and engineered by Kenneth Hamann, who later went on to work with acts as diverse as Pere Ubu, Joe Walsh and Wild Cherry (of Play That Funky Music White Boy fame). This was the team who worked on the first six, definitive albums of Grand Funk’s career.
Technically each of these half-dozen releases was a disaster to professional ears. On Time sounded dry, lifeless and could almost be mistaken for a set of demos. The cover, with the band holding clocks and various artefacts, was laughable. But somehow through this fog of crass and rank amateurism Grand Funk sounded exciting, intriguing and new. More rhythm and blues than heavy metal, the band proved to be an antidote to the self-indulgent prog noodlings and blatant bubblegum pop of the time. But nothing would ever capture the power of their live shows…
“There was a rawness,” agrees Brewer. “The pure excitement and energy that we felt on stage went right to the audience. When I listen to the early recordings, you just hear this innocence. Our audience connected with it, but the journalists couldn’t feel it.” With non-stop touring and a quick-fire series of album releases, Grand Funk’s fanbase grew so fast they were thrown off every support slot and soon found themselves headlining. Concerts ended in riots, with police storming the venues. When they played Detroit they sold out a 30,000-seat arena in two hours, 15 minutes. Previously it had taken The Rolling Stones five weeks, Elvis Presley nine days and The Beatles two days to sell out the same venue.
Knight: “Even if the shows were sold out, the fans didn’t really care. They stormed the doors; they pushed the windows in. They turned police cars over in the street.
As the Railroad laid their freshly smelted tracks across the States, creating chaos and carnage along the way, they also managed to release another album, Grand Funk. With a striking red cover it probably came the closest to capturing the live dynamics of the band. Schacher: “I liked the Grand Funk album the best, because I think it represented what we were really all about musically.”
Off the back of this the band released their only UK chart single – a double A-side featuring a rousing cover of The Animals’ Inside Looking Out and Paranoid (not the Black Sabbath classic). Grand Funk came over to the UK for a sold-out performance at London’s Royal Albert Hall in January 1971 followed by the aforementioned Hyde Park mega-gig in the summer.
Meanwhile, Terry Knight kept the hype machine well-oiled, pushing Grand Funk as spokesmen of the new generation while at the same time keeping the press well away from his inarticulate charges. He made sure his band were permanently on the road or in the studio and not within sniffing distance of their bank statements. As Knight said at the time: “Everything is planned. It all has to follow a pattern and fall into place. There haven’t been any major mistakes with Grand Funk. I made a lot of major mistakes early in my life and I learned from them.” One cannot overstate how much Grand Funk Railroad were vilified by the rock cognoscenti, and this hatred still resonates today. In truth, the band weren’t particularly offensive or controversial, they were just considered to be musically dumb – spelt D-U-M-B – and that’s why people disliked them so much. It was music that your older brother would ask you to turn down. To the wizened elders the band were nothing more than a hairy teenyboppers with loud amplifiers.
But there was no stopping the Grand Funk express. They released their third album, Closer To Home, in summer 1970. The anthemic I’m Your Captain/Closer To Home became the theme song for US troops in Vietnam and is still embraced by soldiers in overseas conflicts today. Closer To Home, plus a spectacular double live album released at the beginning of ’71, would capture the band at the peak of their game. Knight’s egomaniacal hold on Grand Funk would soon reach crisis point. But he achieved his coup de grâce by putting up a 60-feet high, block-long billboard in New York’s Times Square to advertise Closer To Home. By a stroke of luck the local union went on strike and the billboard stayed up there for three months, rent-free.
Still breaking box office attendances Grand Funk took their brand of Motor City madness across the Atlantic in ’71, and were met with the hysterical responses in both Europe and Asia. In Japan the normally reserved fans went crazy and smashed the doors of a sold-out show, using telephone poles as battering rams. On their return to the US the band played their biggest show yet, at New York’s legendary Shea Stadium. Fifty-five thousand seats sold out in 72 hours. Incredible.
As Michael Moore said: “Living in Flint in the 70s was like a non-stop Grand Funk soundtrack. The band’s music was blasting everywhere. Still today Grand Funk represents that rock’n’roll truly is the people’s music and it is open to anyone. It says that anyone can come out of a garage and end up in Shea Stadium.” To celebrate the Shea Stadium triumph, Knight held a press conference. He invited 150 people but only six showed up. Knight, in typically melodramatic style, called it the “grossest case of non-recognition in music business history”. You reap what you sow.
When the Shea Stadium gig was announced, a headline in Rolling Stone said: ‘The world’s biggest transistor radio to play NY’. In response, Knight took out a full-page advertisement featuring a photo of himself giving Rolling Stone the finger. Dream on, Axl Rose.
Shea Stadium was an unprecedented success. The Maysles brothers, who were responsible for another epic, The Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter, filmed the show for posterity. Peter Frampton was a member of support band Humble Pie (indeed, he was once mooted as GFR’s second guitarist). Frampton remembered: “The Funk were a great stadium band that really knew how to work an audience. They certainly taught us a whole lot. It was arena rock at its best.”
Now the only way to go was down.
It was the old chestnut: Grand Funk began to believe their own hype. Mark Farner had become a talisman to the band’s collection of fans – chiefly doped-up adolescents and working-class Midwesterners – and he was now beginning to develop his own political agenda. Much to the angst of his boss, Terry Knight.
Farner: “I’d write some ecology songs about pollution and play them to Terry. He’d say: ‘Well it ain’t Grand Funk, you can’t do that!’”
Then there was the money. Grand Funk had made an astounding six albums in a little over two years (after the live album there came Survival and E Pluribus Funk). Together with sell-out tours, that should’ve resulted in truckloads of cash and a luxurious lifestyle for the band. But this wasn’t the case. By the time of the recording of E Pluribus Funk, they were at an all-time low. They confronted Knight.
Brewer: “We wanted to hear what was happening with the money and Terry didn’t give us the right answers. He gave us the runaround.” Suddenly the band discovered they were earning minuscule royalties and had also lost a pile of cash in bad investments. Other resentments began to surface involving Knight’s abilities as a producer, and there was a punch-up between Knight and Schacher. The censoring of Farner’s political beliefs became a major bugbear. The barbs began to fly in the public arena, and suddenly the press became interested.
Farner: “For the first two years we were on a salary of $350 a week. We didn’t realise the amount of money we were making. Then finally we started getting some record royalties and put two and two together.” But as far as Knight was concerned, they were coming up with five: “They began to believe their own press. They began believing the absurdity of the statement that they had sold $120 million worth of records. They started to believe my hype.”
Knight claimed the band hadn’t actually sold out Shea Stadium, although the promoter disagreed. But one thing was certain: the whole scenario was rapidly beginning to turn into a shit sandwich, without the bread. Brewer: “All of a sudden this rock’n’roll fantasy was a nightmare. It was your worst dream from Hell.” Grand Funk decided that they wanted out straightaway and initiated legal action. Knight: “They thought I had the lion’s share [of the money]. I’m the one who got them the record contract, I’m the one who put up the investments, and I’m the one who battled from day one to put them where they were. Here’s a group I fought for, I spilled blood for, and I had gone to war for!” Knight proceeded to counter-sue Grand Funk for $57 million dollars for breach of contract. Ironically if the band had waited three months before taking action they would have been out of their contract with Knight anyway. D-U-M-B or what?
Knight: “In the end Grand Funk gave me all the money they had and all of their investments to me in payment for wrongfully walking out on their contract, three months early. How stupid is that?” Knight also kept the rights to the publishing of the band’s songs recorded thus far and sold them back the rights to use the Grand Funk name.
Classic Rock asked Brewer if he felt he had learned anything positive from his time with Knight. “After that we became very savvy, very fast. Understanding how everything works. Remember before that we were just kids kind of being led along by the attorneys. We discovered really quickly that our signatures on a piece of paper were sealing our fate. If you sign a piece of paper that’s wrong, you get to live with it for the rest of your life.”
And how did Knight reflect on his Grand Funk experience? “The media painted me as the guy wearing the black hat. It doesn’t bother me. As long as I can wear the black hat to the bank every day I don’t feel bad about that at all.” Brewer adds philosophically: “I think after our experience with Terry a lot of bands suddenly thought: ‘Why don’t we take a closer look at what our manager is doing?’ Things did change after that, it was a turning point.”
Penniless and debilitated by series of courtroom battles, it was time for Grand Funk to return to the arena. Their former manager was still harassing them, however. “All of these lawsuits were absolutely ridiculous,” said Brewer. “Why was Knight suing us? We had nothing.” The band put their former tour manager, Andy Cavaliere, in charge, employed the services of former Pack organist Craig Frost, and proceeded to record the appropriately titled Phoenix .
Brewer: “This was 1972 and FM radio was just playing Top 40 music. We had to start making a transition to be more hit-oriented if we wanted to get on the radio. Phoenix wasn’t a great success but we got one hit single, Rock’N’Roll Soul, which got us back on our feet.”
How did this one-time underground phenomenon feel about going commercial? “We had to for survival,” says Brewer. “We were coming out of a huge lawsuit from a man who was trying to destroy us and prevent us from playing again. The only way we could fight that was by keeping the name alive and being successful.”
In reality after leaving Knight the band went on to achieve more success with a series of hit albums and singles including the much-covered We’re An American Band, proving that they were more than just a heavy metal version of The Monkees. Working with producers such as Todd Rundgren, Jimmy Iovine and Frank Zappa, the Funk found themselves being accepted by the critics at last. Back on their feet again, they regained their status and won a new-found credibility. Sweet or what?
Brewer: “This was the best revenge that you can imagine. Terry Knight had us down, the critics had us down, everybody had us pegged as the biggest loser band in the world – and man, we were back and were making hits.”
But for me, Grand Funk’s story ended with Knight’s involvement. The idea of Grand Funk writing proper songs, using legitimate producers and playing their instruments competently just didn’t sit right. The picture was all wrong. Suddenly the edge was gone and everything after E Pluribus Funk sounded like a million other bands.
After the initial successes Grand Funk found it hard keeping up with the times and made some shambolic attempts at cashing in on the disco scene. Finally, in 1977, they called it a day. As Brewer remembers: “It just drifted apart. We weren’t mentally or spiritually capable of putting it back together.” While Farner embraced a fresh faith in Christianity, Brewer and keyboard player Craig Frost went on to play with Bob Seger while Schacher opened a chain of record stores and set up an automobile restoring business. At one time Farner was also making a living selling spare tractor parts. A true case of the mighty having fallen.
Still, there’s no doubt that during one brief period in the early 70s this heavy metal triumvirate ruled the world. Grand Funk Railroad left a legacy that even today attracts a legion of followers who, like me, are old enough to know better, but who don’t give a fuck.
Read about more shitkicking American Rock in the new issue of Classic Rock featuring Bob Seger, Steve Miller Band, J, Geils Band, Cactus, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The James Gang, ZZ Top, Aerosmith and more. Buy the print edition from all good newsagents or direct from www.myfavouritemagazines.co.uk.
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Listen to Grand Funk Railroad: 30 Years Of Funk: The Anthology