The Right Track: 40 Years of Grand FunkBy William Simpson • May 12th, 2009 • Category: Feature Articles
By Jennifer Chance
“Out on the road for 40 days… .” The first line of Grand Funk Railroad’s iconic song could read “Out on the road for 40 years… .” While it’s not true in the most technical sense — they’ve taken breaks, broken up and reformed — the idea is true. Though the lineup has changed, the original “American Band” is celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2009, and is still touring, still writing, and still rocking audiences everywhere.
As someone who grew up listening to Grand Funk on vinyl (I still listen to them on vinyl, by the way), but was too young to see them live “back in the day,” I had to ask: How does 2009 differ from 1969? “It’s a whole different career,” says Don Brewer, original member and drummer. “We were the new kids back then. We were playing to people our own age.” These days, when Grand Funk takes the stage, their original fan base is there, accompanied by children and grandchildren. “It’s a totally different experience,” says Brewer. “When three generations of people know the words, I really get a charge out of that.”
When Grand Funk debuted at the Atlanta Pop Festival in 1969, their performance launched them into the collective consciousness of a society that was hungry for their special brand of “garage band” rock and roll. “It was fluke,” says Brewer. “We got opening day as a favor. If we could get there, we could play; we weren’t going to get paid.” After a standing ovation on the first day, the band was asked to play the second, and then the third day. “The audience was ready to hear something new; we were very fortunate.”
The buzz surrounding the band piqued the interest of Capitol Records, which offered up a contract, and the rest is 40 years of history. With albums consistently near the top of the charts, Grand Funk Railroad set out on a career that would encompass a few identity crises — lineup changes, name changes (they became Grand Funk in 1973), and producer changes. In 1974, Grand Funk released its first album with producer Todd Rundgren. The title track on that album was a detailed description of the band’s life on the road, and “We’re an American Band” became the anthem of every would-be rock band in the States.
Brewer, who wrote and sang “We’re an American Band,” was flying into Phoenix, Ariz. when he found the line “We’re comin’ to your town; we’ll help you party it down” in his head. “I just wrote this about our experiences,” he says. So, how much of the song is factual? “Well Freddie King was our opening act, and he would invite us to his hotel to play poker. He would make his band play with him, so he could win back the money he paid them.” So it seems “up all night with Freddie King…” is right on.
“Sweet, sweet Connie” has become an icon of sorts in the decades since the songs release; and those “four young chiquitas in Omaha?” Absolutely. “That was an actual experience too,” says Brewer. Funnily enough, the image one garners from the lyrics of the song contrasts sharply to their easy-to-work-with reputation. Which is the truth then? “We were a party band, but minor league,” says Brewer. “We knew when to leave the party.”
But they never really left. Four decades of exposure have cemented Grand Funk Railroad into the annals of the classic rock radio format. Holding court on stations across America, alongside The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Allman Brothers, Brewer is happy with the classic rock label. “I think classic is a progression,” he says. “I appreciate that we’re classic instead of being old.”
So what does this classic rocker think of the music scene today? Let’s just say it is very different from the scene Grand Funk encountered years ago. “I don’t hear a lot of new music that turns me on,” says Brewer. “I don’t hear new bands stepping outside the bounds and getting creative. There’s not much from the heart and soul anymore.” What sapped the soul from rock and roll? According to Brewer, the “over-homogenization” of the industry, from radio to recording, and all points in between. “I equate [radio] to the mall,” he says. “You walk in and you know exactly what’s going to be there.”
Though the scene was certainly different in 1969, Brewer feels that if Grand Funk was starting out now, they would do things pretty much the same way – develop a local following, expand regionally, promote yourself. “Do it the old-fashioned way,” he says. “When you don’t really need the record companies, they come to you.”
Have they come calling on Grand Funk Railroad again? The band does have some new material, which they play live, and 40 years worth of music upon which to draw, but Brewer remains reticent. “We’ve had talks about a DVD or new CD, but then we get to the end of negotiations, and there’s nothing to offer,” he says. “We’d probably self-produce and self-promote.”
Possibility of a new album or not, the band is rocking straight ahead and doing what they love to do. With more than 20 remaining dates in 2009, and new additions coming in regularly, they are simply locked on doing the best show each and every time, and giving the crowd exactly what they want. “We’ve always focused on giving people a high energy show,” says Brewer. “It’s always better live.”
2009 is the chance to find out. Tour dates are posted on www.grandfunkrailroad.com. I personally will put my albums away for the night and be front and center when this “American Band” parties my town down.