“Nobody knows the band Grand Funk? The wild, shirtless lyrics of Mark Farner? The bong-rattling bass of Mel Schacher? The competent drum work of Don Brewer? Oh, man!”—Homer Simpson (The Simpsons)
Even prior to the Simpson family patriarch’s craven retconning as being a fan of whatever radio bullshit was popular at least ten years previous to any given episode, and before the television series’ own reenactment of an archetypal classic rock band’s descent into diminished returns and grim self-parody, few public figures advocated for the music of Grand Funk Railroad with more vigor than Homer J. Simpson.
But as illustrated in season seven, episode 24, Homerpalooza, even that great man’s praise came with some caveats. By the airing of the 1996 episode, any media praise of the Flint, Michigan band (who had, just twenty years before, been awarded thirteen gold albums, ten of of which were certified platinum, and who had famously sold out Shea Stadium in less time than it took for the Beatles to do the same) was hard to come by.
Nowadays though, in a time when the most mediocre art has a revisionist fan base devoted to it and no single moment of cultural detritus is allowed to be forgotten, even a joke about Grand Funk’s obscurity requires an explainer. Under normal circumstances, the cliche of Andy Warhol’s dictum, regarding everyone being famous for fifteen minutes, would be avoided, but Grand Funk Railroad were not averse to cliche. So it’s fair to note that the band, in the end, averaged less than a minute an album, famewise.
So what happened? Why does Led Zeppelin still warrant six hundred page biographies? Why do the Stooges rate a legendary status that is wildly incommensurate to their success at the time, while the band that was, for nearly a decade, as big as (or arguably bigger than) any of 'em, consigned to the punchline junkheap of rock 'n' roll history? Why are the surviving members of Grand Funk currently touring, first of three, with Kid Rock? And playing before Foreigner?
Why are the surviving members of Grand Funk currently touring, first of three, with Kid Rock? And playing before Foreigner?
There has actually been a fair amount of literature devoted to this question. Most of it focussing on their former manager Terry Knight’s adversarial relationship with the music press of the time. After reading voluminous amounts of Classic Rock copy, I… still don’t know. I’m not even sure I believe the premise of the question (we’ll get to that). But, as Mark Farner would be the first to tell you, not knowing something has never stopped a rock critic before. So let’s discuss.
High Falootin’ Woman (and critics)
Warhol, to be clear, was talking about an “everybody” that exists outside of traditional star making machinations, not archetypal '70s stadium acts. That said, Grand Funk Railroad was about as “everybody” as a rock band gets. They were regular guys, playing music for regular joes and regular jodies. Not for effete and impudent Velvet Underground fans. Not for Grammy voters. Not for future Rock and Roll Hall of Fame voters.
Grand Funk was regularly dismissed; Rolling Stone compared them (negatively) to the television western Bonanza. To this day, the term “rudimentary” has been applied to their musical chops. (And not the good kind of rudimentary that was applied to fellow transcendents of competence like Blue Cheer, Stooges, or the Shaggs.) In short: critics hated them then and critics hate them now (if they’re old enough to recognize the name at all).
Well, NOT ALL CRITICS.
They were regular guys, playing music for regular joes and regular jodies
In the November 1971 issue of CREEM, Lenny Kaye (who would eventually make the undoubtedly lateral move from being an esteemed rock critic to being one of the most beloved guitarists of the punk/post-punk era) wrote an essay on Grand Funk Railroad’s performance at Shea Stadium. It begins as critique, shifts into appreciation, and ends as a full throated (if still wry) celebration of the band and its fanbase. Before even praising the ostensible subjects of his essay, Kaye starts off with some respect granted to Terry Knight, who, in 1969, helped form Grand Funk and whose business savvy (and nack for outsized publicity) was credited for the band’s initial fame. In fact, Kaye, Patti Smith’s future sideman, presages the “gotta hand it to 'em” meme by saying repeatedly (in line one, paragraph twenty-nine, and as finale), “You gotta hand it to Terry Knight.”
Crediting the Grand Funk manager for his Machiavellian impulses, Kaye documents the spectacle of the Shea Stadium concert, the use of 2001: A Space Odyssey 's theme as orchestral buildup, multiple DJs playing the hits of 1971 between sets, a tribute to the recently 27-clubbed Jimmy Morrison, an interminable opening set by Humble Pie, and an immaculately timed arrival of the black Grand Funk limousine. Kaye does so without indulging the knee jerk dismay at mass hypnosis that one expects from the man who’d go on to produce “Piss Factory.” Instead he shows a generosity to popular taste and, you know, letting people enjoy things (which probably came in handy when it was time to let Sammy Hagar cover “Free Money.”)
Kaye acknowledges the value of popular joy with less of an air of critical noblesse oblige than an enthusiastic admission of critical blind spots. At one point, he writes, “Grand Funk isn’t a rock ’n' roll band: They’re a big fan club. The best fuckin’ fan club in the world. And why not? Grand Funk never disappoints, unless you happen to be looking for things that just aren’t there.”
From the start, CREEM had a soft spot for their fellow Michiganders. Whether out of contrarianism, working class solidarity, or a genuine fondness for the band’s meat and potatoes enthusiasm, esteemed in-house writers like Jaan Uhelszki would later write fair, funny, and generally kind profiles of Grand Funk. Even Lester Bangs treated them with (by his standards) kid gloves; calling the band members dim, the music “monotonous.” Still, he concluded that Grand Funk’s impact was significant, and that history had proven, in their valuation of giving the kids more than they ever tried to give the music intelligentsia, Farner, Brewer, and Schacher had won. The power trio knew something important that the critics failed to grasp.
In November 1971, Lenny Kaye was already hip to the future. Without possibly knowing that, a couple years later, Grand Funk would have their biggest hit, the Todd Rundgren produced “We’re an American Band,” and go on to be produced by Frank Zappa, Kaye wrote, “They haven’t hit their peak yet.” This, considering the band was playing Shea Stadium, might be taken as a safe bet of hyperbole. But then Kaye goes on to write, “Or, and here’s a choice from the other side, maybe they don’t do anything. Maybe they stay in the same spot and keep on repeating where they’ve been, falling backwards as the stream of time moves on.” It’s here that Lenny Kaye proves himself to be a real rock prophet. Because, even if it took another decade, that stream of time proved to be a motherfucker.
Love is Dyin’
In 1972, Grand Funk Railroad fired Terry Knight. In turn, their manager repossessed the band’s instruments and countersued. The legal battles would go on for two years, with Knight being the financial victor. The band got to keep the name and Terry Knight got the oil. The band wouldn’t speak to their co-founder for thirty years, at which time the conflict became moot, with Knight’s 2006 murder at the hands of his teenage daughter’s abusive boyfriend. Grand Funk broke up in 1976, reunited with a new line up in the early '80s, broke up in the early '80s, and reformed in 1996.
While an iteration of Grand Funk currently exists, there has been no Netflix-style Grand Funk documentary, just an old episode of VH1’s Behind The Music. Outside of music sites specifically devoted to scraping the barrels of boomer studio trivia, there’s been no coverage of the band. No new artists, outside of Kid Rock, cite them as an influence. There’s not even been an entry into the Rock and Roll of Fame, an institution that’s devoted to an aesthetic standard best described as, “Eh, fuck it. Why not?”
Unlike the Stooges, unlike Cheap Trick, unlike Dio, unlike the Shaggs, the Grand Funk Railroad revival remains pending, with no critical/cultural reassessment in sight. It’s hard to think of any other top 10 rock band, of any era, that’s been as erased from the annals of taste as Brewer & Co. Why?
First: it’s entirely possible that somehow snobbery and classist gatekeeping managed, despite critics generally having no cultural sway, to exclude Grand Funk Railroad from the canon. And to an extent that even Led Zeppelin fans were shamed, and hid their well worn copies of All The Girls In The World Beware!!! under their mattresses like back issues of Leg Show.
Certainly I, while being fond enough of “American Band” to have once unironically covered the song, still find it near impossible to get all the way through any of the first four Grand Funk albums without some aggressive fast-forwarding. The songs are too long by weeks. The riffs often seem lifted from a slop bucket used for the Stevie Ray Vaughan autopsy. Most of the lyrics resemble refrigerator magnet poetry consisting of words found scrawled on the bathroom stall of an Eric Clapton concert, and every studio album features a hi-hat sound that most closely approximates the sonic qualities of over-tilled soil being panned for gold through sheets of aluminum foil. Over the course of multiple albums, competent blues rock reigns, and wears a soul down.
The songs are too long by weeks. The riffs often seem lifted from a slop bucket used for the Stevie Ray Vaughan autopsy
As for the band’s vaunted cover choices, a few of which (like “The Loco-motion” and “Some Kind of Wonderful”) provided the band with some of their biggest hits? Well, results vary. A couple are at least half as fun as the original versions. But, collectively, the covers are so haphazard in their execution that I was two minutes into a 1969 Grand Funk song called “Paranoid” before I realized it was not a tetchy cover of the Black Sabbath song, just an original composition with an overlong, discursive intro.
So maybe the critics were so correct that their truth was incontrovertible. True enough to even change opinions outside of whatever the ‘80s equivalent of Twitter was; so true that the revengless nerds and new wave homosexuals of the various coastal Village Voices somehow changed the listening habits of the Children of the Corn-esque pan-deities, feral Denver Bronco cheerleaders, and Red Dawn-addled Cabbage Patch cretins that populated the rolling butter fields of Reagan’s middle America. It’s possible. Though, if that’s what happened, it's hard not to wish that the critical illuminati hadn’t blown their one moment of influence on a band that, as my CREEM ancestors knew, and despite nearly everything I’ve written up to this point, had some very fine qualities.
Grand Funk’s cover of the Rolling Stones’ epic, gospel-infused, summation of the love generation’s crash-and-burn, “Gimme Shelter” (arguably the only song to justify its “official end of the '60s” designation), is, like most of their covers, pretty crap. Grand Funk takes a song so full of passion and dread that it rendered “Hotel California” redundant two years before the Eagles formed. It’s not sexy or spooky, at least not in the studio version. But what Grand Funk’s version does have going for it is an ugly, burly bass tone that would sound perfectly swell on an Amphetamine Reptile Records noise rock 7”. And in that small, ugly detail is —setting aside my preference for Little Eva and Kylie Minogue’s respectively peppy versions of “Loco-motion” over Grand Funk’s stolidly submersive rendition—where at least one other useful critical truth is clear: there is no Grand Funk revival pending. Because it already happened, starting in that golden age of rehashment; the late '80s/early 1990s. And, in the endless grunge revivals and noise rock revivals that are actually part of the grand Grand Funk Railroad continuum, it continues to this day.
In their affable mid-heaviness, palid blues scrawl, and pragmatic usage of wah pedals, Grand Funk Railroad helped set a template, as much as the Stooges did, for bands like Mudhoney, Laughing Hyenas, and Surgery. While some neo-psych bands of the aughts might protest (or not!) that they were more into UFO and obscure Japanese noiseniks, bands like Comets on Fire, by dint of their uncles and older siblings being more likely to own a copy of E Pluribus Funk than a Les Rallizes Dénudés bootleg, are part of the Grand Funk family tree. Once we acknowledge that family tree, it’s impossible not to see a forest that includes artists ranging from Chat Pile to…okay, maybe that’s it for this year’s acts. We are talking about a band whose biggest album came out in 1973, after all, so one contemporary band indebted to them is pretty good.
And, if we were looking to win an argument, there’s always Grand Funk’s current tourmate, Kid Rock. But I can’t imagine any argument that requires Kid Rock as some sort of positive evidence is one worth winning. So let’s keep it to Mudhoney and Chat Pile.
It bears noting that in his 1971 review, Lenny Kaye says nothing about Grand Funk Railroad’s studio albums. One can only assume that he shared the prevalent (then and now) belief that the band’s live act was where Grand Funk was at. In that vein, it also bears noting that their 1975 live album, Caught in the Act, is great. If it was their only album, I’m tempted to posit that the band would be held in as high regard as their contemporaries. It’s sure as shit, pound for pound, far more entertaining than Led Zep’s The Song Remains the Same (though, admittedly, the addition of tommy gun toting werewolves wouldn’t exactly hurt).
But the live album wouldn’t have happened without all those years of giving the people exactly what the people wanted: that meat, potatoes, gravy, Black music soul standards performed by working class white men with beautiful locks of lucious, vaguely gesturing in a left(ish) direction, hair. For one final time (I promise), I still don’t have any idea why Kid Rock and the '90s version of Homer Simpson are the only public figures who will claim Grand Funk Railroad. If the stream of time Lenny Kaye knows about has an album rating system, the stream keeps its metrics to itself.
We’re an American Band
Theories are fun. But probably, hell, definitely the main reason that Grand Funk are lost to the zeitgeist, in name if not influence, is because they were not included on the soundtrack album for Dazed and Confused, the 1993 Richard Linklater movie that codified '70s hard rock as both artistically worthwhile and immortally romantic, for at least another half century. According to Melissa Maerz's oral history of the film, Alright, Alright, Alright, there was never any discussion of Grand Funk themselves being included, but the money people wanted a cover of “We’re an American Band” performed by the chainsaw novelty act, Jackyl. Linklater refused to have a new band, especially one with a song entitled, “She Wants My Cock,” anywhere near his film. Financial backing for the soundtrack was withdrawn and Grand Funk was left off, in every capacity, one of the best selling soundtrack albums of all time. And the far lesser art of Ted Nugent was granted another three decades of undeserved relevance.
In a 2021 interview about their exclusion from the Rock Hall of Fame, Mark Farner said, “I don't need to be in a Rock Hall. 'Cause without the people's opinion, it's fake. It's politicized, and, brother, it just ain't real." Which is true. Though, if we needed to apply a spectrum of realness, graded from “some sort of essential higher truth” to “the oppressive un-reality under which we all toil,” I’m inclined to place Grand Funk Railroad’s best songs and Homer J. Simpson in The Simpsons’ seasons 1-9 close enough to one end, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Kid Rock, and “the people’s opinions” far away on the other.
(The center of the spectrum of realness is Lenny Kaye’s morally disinterested/truth agnostic stream of time, and the Grand Funk 1997 double live album with an orchestra conducted by Paul Shafer.)
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