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Grand Funk Railroad: Is This Band Terrible?

World’s Biggest Car Radio Performs in N.Y.

Grand Funk Railroad

Photo of GRAND FUNK and GRAND FUNK RAILROAD; - Craig Frost, Mel Schacher, Don Brewer and Mark Farner, 1970

RB/Redferns/Getty

New York —– Pass the wine. What H. L. Mencken said of Bach’s music is true of Grand Funk’s as well: Alcohol is its natural solvent.

Frank’s friend Sparky from Englewood, New Jersey, took a pull on the bottle of sweet wine and passed it over. “Ahhh,” said Sparky, and wiped his lips. “Ahhh,” said Frank, who is 17. “That’s what I told her last night, man. Ahhhh. Ha. Ha.” He hit Sparky a punch in the shoulder that keeled him halfway into the next seat. I swallowed some wine –— Gallo Rose, like thousands of empty bottles scattered outside –— and looked out over the brightly lit baseball diamond, and wrote some notes about this “historic event,” as it said on our tickets —– Grand Funk’s big Americano concert at Shea Stadium.

8:50 PM. Security guards wearing bright red peace-symbol armbands form a double cordon from left field to the stage. The stage is made of rough wood and covered with little lights and looks like a fort in a road performance of The Pirates of Penzance. The stadium itself is a huge crescent full of people, who give out modest cheers when the Scoreboard spells out “Give Peace a Chance,” “Love Conquers All,” and “Get Funked.”

9:12 PM. Some of the crowd begins chanting “Grand Funk, Grand Funk” at almost exactly the tempo as the audience on the group’s Live Album. The field is separated from the stands by a triple line of wooden police barricades, manned by a continuous rank of uniformed security guards.

9:23 PM. The black limousine appears through the outfield gate and rolls toward the stage on its special balloon tires (to protect the grass). The guards stiffen and look around watchfully, but nobody shows any interest in rushing the boys. You can’t see them through the black glass of the car, but they’s in there all right –— Mark, Mel and Don, who play the instruments, and producer-manager Terry Knight, the greatest Funker of them all, who plays the whole group though he never takes the stage.

9:35 PM. On my way to the press box I see Frank for the last time. He’s coming back from the soft drink stand, grinning, with a fresh scrape on his forehead and the jug of wine unsuccessfully concealed under his jacket. I reach my seat as the lights go down and —the speakers blast out the opening chords of Strauss’ Thus Spake Zarathustra. To introduce Grand Funk Railroad.

Try to Be a Success

Who can dislike a success story? Grand Funk Railroad is the biggest American rock group in history. In less than two years they have made five albums, each of which has sold over a million copies –— the last two on the day of their release. On their most recent American tour Grand Funk played six concerts a week for seven weeks and took home an average of $50,000 each time they stepped on stage. Apparently they could sell out the crater Copernicus: They sold every seat in Madison Square Garden for two consecutive nights, played for an audience of 40,000 July 17th at World Series Baseball Stadium in Tokyo, and sold out 55,000 seats at Shea Stadium in 72 hours— – with no mail orders and no ticket outlets but the windows at Shea. As they jumped around the stage July 9th they were earning $304,000; or as Funk press release noted, “exactly $5010 per minute.” The only other group to fill Shea stadium for a non-athletic exhibition was the Beatles, in 1965.

They need help from nobody. Certainly not music critics, who almost without exception have treated the arrival of each new Grand Funk album like a kick in the shin. As the Grand Funk people write in their distinctive prose: “The Shea Stadium appearance … comes as no surprise to many who, after following the group’s phenomenal rise to become the undisputed Kings of the Rock pile, agree that this was only the next logical step in their now-famous not so logical nose-thumb to the media critics who have been consistently relentless in their outrage at the group’s soaring popularity and record sales success.”

Two years ago Grand Funk was wobbling through the heat to the Atlanta Pop Festival in a rented Volkswagen bus, and now they fly all over the world to play for the Brothers and Sisters and rap about the revolution. Yet the boys have remained, we are told, unspoiled. “They’re not on ego trips like other rock musicians are,” says a friend of Mark’s. “They’re not like the Beatles were.”

All three are from Flint, a working-man’s town north of Detroit which holds GM’s big Buick and Chevrolet plants. (In Flint, if you can’t afford a Buick you’d better buy a Chevrolet.) Mark Farner, the guy with bicep-length blond hair who writes the group’s songs, plays guitar and does most of the vocals, lives on a horse ranch outside of town. He rides a cycle, according to a friend, “because it doesn’t pollute the air as much as a car.” Don Brewer, the drummer, is 22 years old but still lives at home with his mother, drawing a modest allowance from GFR Enterprises, now roughly a $20-million corporation. Mel Schacher plays bass and wears a mutton-chop beard and an air of silent blankness.

The story of Grand Funk is really the story of another Detroit-Flint boy, Terry Knight, who in the mid-Sixties found himself elevated at the age of 20 to a $25,000-a-year disc jockey spot in Detroit, then just as rapidly fired. (“Everything bad that could be said about someone was said about me in Detroit,” Terry once told a Los Angeles reporter. He’s had that trouble elsewhere as well.) Jobless, he set out to be a rock star. The group was called Terry Knight and the Pack. It featured Terry and Don Brewer (and briefly Mark as a substitute bass player), but it didn’t go far. After a while Terry split for New York.

After Terry’s departure the group went through various permutations and assorted failures, emerged with Mark, Mel and Don as The Fabulous Pack, and wound up stranded in New England in the winter of 1969. They sold their instruments to get home. Don phoned Terry and asked if he would help. Terry listened to the group and reportedly agreed to handle them if they would agree, unconditionally, to do what he told them. They said ok. He told Mark to get his ass moving on stage and told everybody to amplify the sound until it could be heard interstate. They all got down to work.

Let’s Praise Every Person

“Grand Funk is a Terry Knight product,” said E. H. Beresford (Chip) Monck, as he directed construction of the stage at Shea on a sunny afternoon the day before the concert. Chip is a long-boned gentleman with a mid-Atlantic accent who has staged the Rolling Stones, John Lennon, the Airplane, Woodstock, and both Fillmores, and now this. “I think that as a frustrated performer, Terry said, ‘Rather than do it for myself, I’ll do it for these fellows and I’ll do it the way it should have been done for me,'” Chip said.

Terry was back in his office at Capitol Records. “If you’ve never performed –— and I have so I can tell you what it’s like –— if you’ve never performed, you’ll never know what it’s like to have a hundred, two hundred or two hundred thousand people unanimously give you love,” he said. Terry is lean, energetic, rich and purposeful. He is also so humorless that a more rarified vacuum of humor probably could not be concocted by an international committee of the glum. But he has earned attention, so let us now hear from him on a variety of issues of the day: •

  • On the music: “I don’t think of Grand Funk’s music. . . . I think the fault has lied in the fact that simply the media –— the press –— has dealt with the group in terms of their music….I think that the most important communication they’re making to their audience, and I believe personally that the audience is hearing, is not, for example, anything that they’re playing or singing, because I think those two things come second with the group.

“What the audience is hearing and seeing is Mark holding his guitar over his head and saying, ‘You see this, Brothers and Sisters, you see me? I’m free. I own this stage, it’s mine and it’s yours, and we’re free and you can be free.’ … Donny is saying it also when he holds his sticks up above his head. He’s not doing that consciously, saying ‘These are my sticks and I’m holding them above my head, see them,’ but he holds them up there and I see it. I can see Mel when he throws that bass up like that. I can see him. Christ, his waist is only 22 inches around and he stands in front of that monstrous amp and his body fills, it’s like a battery-charger, and then when he’s full of that, I mean really physically full, his body charged, he blows off away from that amp and throws that bass up in the air and the audience comes right straight up with him. I think what that is, basically, is that symbol of ‘I am free, a free bird, I can fly. I’m a lion, I can run. I am a human being but I’m doing what I want and nobody can tell me not to.'” •

  • On the significance of Grand Funk’s success: “An appearance of Grand Funk Railroad, the announcement of an appearance of Grand Funk, does not announce a musical concert. It hails a gathering of people. It signals a convention. It’s an exchange of thoughts and ideas. . . . It is politics, that supercedes music.” •
  • On politics: “If you’ve ever been thrust into the position of becoming a multi-millionaire, it’s a pretty frightening thing, and you don’t want to think about it and you try not to think about it, other than what could be done with it to do some good. . . . We believe that you get out of something what you put back into it. We’ve taken a great deal of money out of this world, from our society, and we feel we’ve got to put a great deal of money back into the world, back into our society.” •

  • On how much money and where: “What if I came and said, ‘Ok, $250,000 is all that’s left. Would I then be less important news than I am right now? If I spend only $25 of that $250,000, would I be less important news than I am now? If you say yes, you’re fucked, because every man out there who spends $25 if he has $250,000 is doing the right thing if he’s doing it to better this world, if he doesn’t put the rest of his money into something that is an anachronism to what he’s just put the $25 into.

“It’s not less praiseworthy. Let’s praise every person out there. Let’s praise every person who takes a baggie and a plastic spoon and cleans up the dogshit. Let’s praise every person who puts one piece of dirty Kleenex in a can, man.”

What this amounts to, you see, is that Grand Funk is concerned about ecology. They want to help, says Terry, and he’s been meeting with engineers and financial experts and so on to decide how. He’s not sure how much they want to help –— in fact he’s offended by the question –— but he seems inclined to think it may have to do with buying trash cans for Flint or findings ways to make people pick up dogshit. This may not seem like the Revolution to those who have heard Grand Funk throw the word around, but perhaps that’s because they haven’t heard Terry’s opinion of, say, Andrew Carnegie: So long as Andy didn’t channel his money into munitions or the like, Terry feels, he was “a total revolutionary.”

Some may have reservations about all this, feel doubtful whether a Grand Funk concert really heralds “an exchange of thoughts and ideas,” or simply think Terry Knight is full of shit.

They are referred to Steve Wayley, in Flint. Steve writes for a local paper called The Freedom Reader, which Mark Farner started this June and to which he contributed a slogan, “A Dream Waiting for the People: The Power to Make it a Reality.” The paper’s first edition led with a story headlined, “We Wish to Communicate,” but Steve concedes that so far they’ve had trouble discovering what to communicate, which may be a disease communicated from Grand Funk. He is articulate in defense of the group:

“It doesn’t really matter if their music isn’t as skillful perhaps as others,” he said. “It’s just that it’s real. . . . I think it’s a free experience that’s what revolution is really all about. We’re after the type of freedom that you feel when you completely lose yourself at a rock concert. There is totally nothing else in your mind or your head, you aren’t even aware of your body. All you’re aware of are these electronic sounds. . . .”

Steve can see some trouble in talking about free, real music coming from a group which Terry Knight seems to have choreographed to the point that it’s hard to tell whether anything they do on stage is spontaneous rather than the result of some marketing survey. He points out, however, that “any rock group, when it starts, sells its soul,” and he thinks that now that the boys are famous, things will change. “Even Terry’s concepts are going to be coming around much more, and I think the whole group is going to become a much more spiritual thing,” Steve says.

So the paradoxes confronting a thoughtful Grand Funk enthusiast are enough to stagger a 20th century Papist. Can he be freed by what even Steve Wayley, Funk’s friend, calls “among the least free people in America?” Will the sheer volume of the medium keep him afloat until he can sight a message? In a couple of years, will anyone remember or care?

Grand Funk Meets the Press

On May 3rd, 1971, Mark, Mel, and Don “consented to talk with the US press” for the first time. Terry hired a big hall in the Gotham Hotel in New York and said he had invited 150 reporters. Only six showed up. They were dutifully filmed by the Maysles brothers (who were making a Grand Funk film until Terry cut off the money), and they asked questions, most of which were answered by Terry. Big blocks of silence followed each answer. Mark was asked about the brand of “revolution” he’s seeking, and he said it was a big subject and that he’d like to sit down with the reporter and rap about it (which Terry later wouldn’t allow). Mark mentioned that he wants to buy trash cans for Flint. The press conference ended after a while. Terry called it “the grossest case of non-recognition in the history of the business.” The music business, that is.

The Terrifying Burden

At 9:36 PM at Shea the boys walked onstage with their fists clenched above their heads, plugged in, and kicked off with “Are You Ready” –— just like always. The song ran along on a single chord for a while at top speed, then broke to allow Mark a guitar solo: It consisted of only a few notes repeated endlessly, but with 6,000 watts of fuzz tone it generated some excitement. A few kids, mostly young girls, already were dancing with the ceaseless enthusiasm of bottled lust.

Without a break the boys blasted into another quickie, which bore a striking resemblance to the first. Mark, wearing red pants, no shirt and an uncomfortably tight-looking Detroit chrome bicep band, ran back and forth across the stage, storming out the same few notes again and again with apparently uncontrollable joy.

At 9:50 PM they uncorked “I’m Your Captain,” from the Closer to Home album. It’s one of their best songs, with words effective enough to enable a non-fan to listen to it straight through without getting a headache or nodding off. In the slow part halfway through Mark sang the line, “I’m getting closer to my world” in a natural voice, a pleasant surprise. Unhappily he quickly returned to his high-pitched vibrato, which comes across as an imitation of the kind of voice about which a barroom drunk with no sense of pitch will bellow, “Now that’s singing!”

By 10:22 PM a prolonged display of unvarying rhythm got the crowd to clapping along, no mean trick since it took the sound considerable time to travel between tips of the huge arc of the arena. Mark sang “I want to take you higher” a dozen or so times, each phrase answered with a cheer. Spotlights played across the crowd and hands were raised to it like flower petals opening. People seemed to be having a good time.

On it went. I ran into David Silver, a peyote scholar from London, who was disgusted with the whole thing. “These men are not musicians —– they’re musical storm troopers,” he fumed. “You play music to display something elusive; you don’t play music to show something obvious.”

Concert promoter Sid Bernstein was down by the medical center (it being Grand Funk night, they treated more kids for booze than for drugs), looking busy and nervous. (Sid will be remembered as the man who learned of the Beatles back in 1963 because he took a social studies course at the New School, as a break from the routine of managing Chubby Checker and Bobby Vee, and one of his assignments was to read a British newspaper. He saw how well the Beatles were doing in England and so he booked them into Carnegie Hall February 12th, 1964, and later into Shea Stadium.)

From a distance Sid looks like the archetypical promoter, overweight and middle-aged in his black suit. At closer range he proves to be something else –— a warm, honest and entirely likable man, without pretentions about his work. He said he took on Grand Funk’s Shea appearance for the money.

“Terry Knight said he was ready to pay me a fee for putting the thing together,” he said, “and the fee was such an interesting one that with a new baby on the way, I just found I couldn’t resist it.”

At 10:50 PM I got back to my seat to catch the encore. “I’ve said it before in Madison Square Garden but it’s the truth and I’ll say it again,” yelled Mark. “You’re the best fucking audience in the world.” When the cheers died down, they did “Gimme Shelter,” in which Funk displays its sensitivity to other people’s songs –— approximately the sensitivity of Vandals gazing at the statuary of ancient Rome. The thing opened with a bludgeoning statement of the rhythm and progressed through a violent, flatulent recital of the lyrics by Mark while Mel played a one-note bass line that seemed cut from the very heart of monotony. Like the rest of the concert it was done through a sound system that despite its enormous power was pushed to such distortion that everything sounded as if it were being played full blast on the world’s biggest car radio.

After “Gimme Shelter” it was all over. Terry and the boys jumped into their limousine and made it out the gate just as the last bars of Zarathustra died away.

Many Grand Funk fans say they don’t like the records too well but that the concerts are better, which I think is true. I tried to put together a commentary of the Funk discography but found it nearly impossible to keep my attention on any of the songs from beginning to end. There are five albums —– On Time, Closer to Home, Grand Funk, Live Album and Survival –— and the earlier ones seem to display more enthusiasm, if less refinement, than the later ones. Survival, their most recent, has received some favorable comment, and the lead song, “Country Road,” has even been praised for its words, so here is a sample verse:

Going down that country road
Leaving behind that heavy load
Getting away from the city lights
Society caused too many fights. *

A Weighty Analysis

There really isn’t much mystery to Grand Funk. The audience for rock has become huge, and as with other mass entertainment, a promoter willing to appeal to the lowest common denominator can make a lot of money, at least for a while. A lot of harsh things have been written about Funk, citing their popularity as evidence of the moral decay of America or the West or the whole earth and describing their audience as a gang of seconal freaks with chains, but actually Grand Funk is no more ominous than Bonanza (and not much more interesting, either).

What they do is to play –— with great energy and apparent excitement –— music which really isn’t very exciting at all. They are to real rock and roll what a PTA versifier is to poetry, but there is no more reason to decry their ascension than to moan about hula hoops or beach blanket movies or any of a hundred other fads which have captured huge audiences in the past. Grand Funk plays to a young and not especially sophisticated audience, which should be allowed to enjoy itself without being tarred with a lot of undeserved labels.

If the Beatles represented the baroque rock development of the music, Grand Funk is rococo, which in this case is to say that they are characterized by the grotesque exaggeration of one element for effect. Renaissance painting can be seen to have begun with the discovery of perspective, then proceeded through the baroque to the rococo, where perspective techniques were multiplied to breathtaking extremes before everything came to a dead end. Well, perspective in this analogy equals shaking your ass.

The old recital: From blues, apparently the most inexhaustible folk music in history, came rock ‘n’ roll, the music of shaking your ass and feeling good. The great groups of the Sixties managed to combine the raw force of rock ‘n’ roll with the complexity of their own backgrounds, which matched that of their white audience. That synthesis now has collapsed, leaving the music divided into the cerebral and the shake-ass. The lesson of the Renaissance was that things don’t go backward after such an upheaval, but forward, even if forward is worse. So the cerebral side today isn’t represented by another early Dylan, but by a troop of soft-rockers whose music is highly developed but often not very moving. And the shake-ass music isn’t represented by a new Little Richard or Chuck Berry, but by Grand Funk. Rococo is the efflorescence of decay.

Given that decay plus Terry Knight’s hype, upon which Grand Funk is built, as the Jamaican city of Pt. Royal was built on scrap timber until it collapsed into the sea, it should be interesting to see how long they last. The Shea Stadium concert sold out in three days but on the night of the concert itself hundreds of kids outside were trying to sell tickets and couldn’t unload them even at discount prices. It’s not to detract from Grand Funk Railroad’s success to say that the tressle appears to be collapsing close behind them.

What Suzie Thought

Outside Shea after the concert I talked to Suzie, who goes to high school in Queens and who stood in line overnight to get her ticket. I asked her if there were any other groups for which she would have gone to such trouble. “Oh sure,” she said. Who? “Oh, Sea-train, Johnny Winter. You know. Anybody.” 

*Copyright Storybook Music Co. 1971. Used by permission.

In This Article: Coverwall, Grand Funk Railroad

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