It's easy to forget now just how huge Grand Funk Railroad was during its '70s heyday. Critics may have dismissed the band's brand of meat-and-potatoes hard rock, seeing it as nothing more than soundtrack fodder for suburban-basement bong blowouts. But countless sold-out stadiums and ten consecutive platinum releases speak otherwise. It's worth noting that Rod Stewart once described the Michigan power trio's music as "all-time loud white noise," and that the group sold out its Shea Stadium visit faster than the Beatles.
But despite such career highlights and a cache of oft-played singles on classic rock radio, the legacy of the Funk is rather weak when measured against the more acclaimed imports of its era. Yet, if rowdy Englanders Cream are the granddaddies of heavy rock and Led Zeppelin are its surrogate fathers, then Grand Funk Railroad are, at the very least, favored uncles. Few bands better demonstrate the often vast gulf between critical acclaim and popular appeal. This year, the band might finally get its just due with an all-out PR assault that includes a 30th-anniversary concert tour, heavy promotion of the 1997 GFR live release, Bosnia, the reissuing of most of their back catalog and the release of a four-CD box set.
"It just seemed like the right time for us to get back together," says lead singer/guitarist Mark Farner. "When the three of us first started playing together again [in 1996], we weren't optimistic at all. But after three days, [drummer Don] Brewer stood up and screamed, 'We could do a show right now!' It all came back together."
After a reunion tour that summer, GFR's then-manager approached the group about doing a benefit show for the victims of the Bosnian conflict. Two shows in front of a Michigan crowd and with a full orchestra were scheduled, and a live recording featuring Funk staples such as "I'm Your Captain" and "We're an American Band" was the result. Agreeing to do those shows, says Farner, was an easy call.
"We just didn't want to throw money at the problem, we wanted to bring some awareness to it too," he says. "The whole thing turned out wonderfully."
The beginnings of Grand Funk Railroad go back 33 years to a Flint, Michigan, group called the Jazz Masters, which featured Brewer on drums. After a popular Detroit DJ named Terry Knight signed on as lead singer, the group rechristened itself Terry Knight and the Pack, adding Farner on guitar. Singles for several labels failed to make a significant dent, though a 1966 cover of "I (Who Have Nothing)" was a minor hit. But Knight left the fold the following year, and the band -- now called simply The Pack -- limped along until disbanding in 1968.
Dead broke, Farner and Brewer were resigned to forming a new band with a much heavier sound (a la Cream) and a heavy dose of white-boy soul. After recruiting bassist Mel Schacher, they re-established contact with Knight, who became their manager (a relationship that would later dissolve amid numerous lawsuits). The new unit called itself Grand Funk Railroad, the name a play on Michigan's real-life Grand Trunk Railroad. A searing performance at 1969's Atlanta Pop Festival led to a deal with Capitol Records. During its tenure there, the trio was a songwriting machine, and singles like "Time Machine," "Mean Mistreater," "Footstompin' Music," "Rock and Roll Soul" and, of course, "I'm Your Captain/Closer to Home" poured forth copiously. Live, Grand Funk was hardly a band of virtuosos, with no one member dominating the spotlight.
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In 1972, GFR added keyboardist Craig Frost. The next year brought the band's commercial apex with the Todd Rundgren-produced We're an American Band. The title track, written and sung by Brewer, eventually went to number one. While more hits would follow, the Funk train ground to a stop in 1976 with the Frank Zappa-produced Good Singin' Good Playin'. The band broke up in 1977; Brewer, Schacher and Frost continued together as Flint, recording one album, while the Mark Farner Band released two efforts of its own. Grand Funk briefly reunited in 1981 to record "Queen Bee" for the soundtrack to the animated feature film Heavy Metal, but two subsequent GFR releases featuring Farner and Brewer bombed. When the band found itself opening for a pre-MTV ZZ Top, they called it quits once again.
After that second demise, the Funk's membership followed wildly divergent paths: Schacher opened a record store and became a building contractor; Brewer went to college, earned a business degree and briefly attended law school. Frost, meanwhile, joined Bob Seger's band, of which he's still a member. But it was Farner who went through the most drastic change, becoming a born-again Christian and recording several gospel-oriented releases.
Befitting his new, more forgiving outlook, Farner doesn't hold a grudge against Grand Funk's many critics. "Right here in the U.S. is where rock and roll got its heart and soul," he says. "Then it went to the rest of the world and they [sold] it back to us. But as for the Grand Funk Railroad sound, it's our recipe. Hell, I'm just proud to be sucking air today, much less singing these songs in the key we originally recorded them."
Grand Funk Railroad performs at 8 p.m. Thursday, March 19, at the Aerial Theater at Bayou Place, 520 Texas Avenue. Tickets are $15 to $40. For info, call 629-3700.