Grand Funk Railroad: The Highs & the Lows

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Grand Funk Railroad in an early promo photo

Here’s how Grand Funk Railroad began: Guitarist Mark Farner and drummer Don Brewer played in Terry Knight’s band, Terry Knight and the Pack. They had some regional success in Michigan, but nothing huge. Knight would later become their manipulative producer-manager-Svengali. It’s not something Farner looks back upon with fondness.

“Back then,” he says, “Terry Knight told us he was gonna keep us from the press to create a mystique around the band. It sounded OK with us. We didn’t know anything; we were 20 years old when we signed with him. My mother had to sign to make it legal. But he did it and it was a way for him to tout his managerial expertise, how good he was and how good looking he was.”

So, who were they if they were mysterious creatures of Knight?

“In the early days, we were just a garage band, basically,” says Farner. “We were actually a five-piece, I was the singer, there were four other musicians, but I wasn’t playing anything in that band, the Fabulous Pack. I just stood up front and sang. We got waylaid; we were out in Cape Cod in a summer beach house, a little cabin, and it was winter. We had the worst snowstorm in the history of the world and we got stranded there for weeks in February of 1969. We were melting down snow to have water to drink and mix with our oatmeal that didn’t have any butter or sugar and that’s all we were living on.

Related: Read part one of our interview with Mark Farner

“These two other players were married. When we got home [to Flint, Mich.], the two guys that were married, their wives were gonna divorce them and the band broke up. We got all these gigs coming up and now we don’t have a band. I said, ‘We ought just do a three-piece’ and Don said, ‘Do you think we can?’ And I said, ‘If we get the right bass player we can.’ We started looking and went out to Delta Promotions in Bay City where this company that sent us out to the Boston area to do these gigs [was located] and we were going to give them a piece of our minds. But while we were sitting in the outer office waiting to get in, there was somebody in their rehearsal hall playing. You couldn‘t hear it very good, but you could feel the bass coming through the wall and I said, ‘Ooh, listen to that bass player, that guy’s getting down under that. We gotta see who that is.’ So, they took a break and it was ? and the Mysterians and Mel Schacher was playing bass.

“Mel and I had grown up together, road dirt bikes, hung out together and I said, ‘Mel, are you playing with him now?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, but I’m not liking it.’ I said, ‘Brewer and I were talking about putting together a three-piece. Would you be interested in being the bass player?’ He said, ‘Hell, yeah, when are you gonna do it?’ and I said, ‘Next week we’re gonna start.’ We joined the Flint Federation of Musicians on Avril Street. A lot of the first album was written, right there in that Union Hall.”

Watch a video of early GFR playing “I’m Your Captain/Closer to Home”

The message in the music? “I tried to speak to the people through songs,” says Farner. “Stop the war, to provoke people to think. And I think because of that, the obvious motivation for anything geared toward the people is love. They love me because they hang onto the hope that I’ve given them.”

Todd Rundgren entered the GFR world to produce 1973’s We’re an American Band, but Farner claims there was no grand design, either to snag him or shift toward a more pop direction. “We were discussing who would produce, who we wanted, who did we think would do a good job for us,” Farner says, “and we put a bunch of names in a hat. I’m not kidding, I drew it out and it was Todd Rundgren. He really made the album sound more like what we were looking for—what the keyboards should sound like, what the guitars should sound like.

“Terry Knight never did that for us. He never even asked, ‘Do you like that?’ or, ‘Am I going in the right direction?’ He did it and that’s the way it was. Todd, he would fit right in to whatever we were doing.”

With the big hit came the big party and with the big party came the kind of PG-rated hijinks the song suggested. “When we had the party for [the title track of] ‘We’re an American Band,’ when it went to number one, we had a big party with a cake in a Beverly Hills hotel in the ballroom and it was a layer cake, like somebody’s wedding cake but huge, with Uncle Sam on the top. It was kinda cool and they were gonna have a photo op. We all get our hand on this knife—Don, Mel and Mark posing—and got the knife halfway through the cake, pushing down on it and somebody says, ‘Food fight!’

“Brewer grabs a handful of that cake and whips it out into a hundred people and they [hotel staff] did not like that. There was food was flying! After most of the cake was torn down, there was that bottom layer that had frosting on it and Brewer got on underneath that thing and threw it up to the ceiling and it stuck up there and was falling off in pieces from the chandelier. That cost us $50.000, the fine and the cleanup and they barred us from ever coming back to the Beverly Hills Hilton.

“We’re an American Band” was a mega-hit—AM, FM, everywhere. It was a party-hearty song; everyone wanted to join in. They imagined that they, too, were the boys in the band. Brewer has the songwriting credits.

Farner’s take: “Don Brewer kind of did [write it] as far as the lyrics. I wrote that drum lick for the intro. I told Brewer ‘We need a cowbell in this,’ and he didn’t even own a cowbell. He said, ‘I’ll pick one up,’ and I said, ‘No, man, pick up six and we’ll use the best one out of the six,’ and that’s what he did. And that is my drum lick on the intro. I couldn’t play it, but I could tell him how to play it. I wrote the music, all the changes, the harmonies, So, Brewer comes to me when it’s all said and done and said, ‘You know, Farner, I never had 100 percent writing credits on any song. Could I take it on this?’ I thought for a second and said, ‘Ah, go ahead,’ because I’m a nice guy. Eh … sometimes. My heart was in the right place, but I got taken advantage of because his heart wasn’t.”

What he learned: “Deception works.”

Bigger example: “I had no idea when Don Brewer came to my hotel room after a gig one night in 1998, I think it was, and he said, ‘Mark, we all need to sign our individual ownership of the trademark into the corporation, where it’ll have this protective umbrella’ or something. Now, I didn’t finish high school and he had gone to law school and I thought he was looking out for best interests of the band. I thought he was my friend and I went, ‘Uh, OK I’ll do that.’ He says, ‘I’ll go to my room and get the papers.’

“While he was gone, I thought ‘Why the hell didn’t he just bring the papers with him?’ And then it didn’t dawn on me until after I signed the papers and there was a conference call with Don and Mel and they were telling me I was no longer an officer in the corporation, that they were throwing me out. It ensued from there, the hatefulness and jealousy.

“I am who I am. I wrote 90-some percent of that music and I’m very proud of what I wrote—not any songs Brewer wrote—and Shea Stadium sold out on Mark Farner music. Don Brewer hadn’t put his pen to any song at that point in his career.”

So, there was bitterness. There were also reunions. In 1983 Farner’s current bassist, Dennis Bellinger, stepped in for Schacher because, Farner says, “Mel told us he could no longer fly—he was afraid of flying.” In ’96, he says, the original trio got back together. “We went out and did the [live] Bosnia album and did New York, L.A. and Detroit with a full orchestra, with Paul Shaffer [conducting]. He did a bang-up job, a wonderful man. He’d never been a conductor of an orchestra before and it was awesome. [Editor’s note: Bosnia was a live album from the Detroit show, a benefit for Bosnia and Herzegovina.] You talk about highs. I’m up there singing and the violins start coming in on ‘Closer to Home’ and I’m having a hard time just trying to sing without this softball that’s in my neck getting in the way.”

The bad blood was put aside before. Might that happen again?

“I don’t foresee it, because I go by feeling,” Farner says. “I asked Brewer because a fan said they’d read an article that said when asked if Grand Funk would get back together again he said, ‘Never say never.’ So, I said to him, in a conference call a few months ago, ‘Hey, Brewer. I heard from a fan in an interview you were asked if the band might reunite and you said never say never. Was that true or was that just bullshit?’ He hemmed and hawed. No words were coming and then he finally said, ‘Never say never.’”

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Watch the reunited Grand Funk perform “We’re An American Band” in 1997

Mark Farner Tour Dates
10/4: Kalamazoo, MI, The State Theater (with Blue Oyster Cult)
10/6: St. Charles, IL, Arcada Theater (with Blue Oyster Cult)
10/20: Salisbury, MA, Blue Ocean (with Jefferson Starship)
10/21: Portland, ME, Aura (with Jefferson Starship)

Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan

As a high school baseball player growing up in Maine, I used to pump myself up for games by playing Raw Power by Iggy & the Stooges –the ultimate adrenaline rush. My friends and team mates didn't quite get it. They liked Chicago (the band). But that was OK: the punk rock revolution was around the corner, and that's where my musical taste locked in with many others, bored with corporate rock. Yes, I had Slade, Mott, Bowie and Roxy to get me there, too. That punk (and post) period was a time of extreme excitement (friction, joy, conflict) that inspired me to write about what I loved. And it opened the doors to even more worlds.

I wrote about pop music and other arts for the Boston Globe for 25-plus years, with more than 10,000 stories to my credit before leaving in 2005. Since then I’ve freelanced for the Boston Phoenix, Boston Herald, Where magazine, Boston Common, Yankee magazine online, Time Out Boston, US News & World Report, the Cape Cod Times. I host the XFINITY on Demand music/interview show “Boston Rock/Talk,” and write and edit www.jimsullivanink.com, which serves as a critical guide to arts and events around metro Boston.
Jim Sullivan
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  1. Bluzrider
    #1 Bluzrider 24 September, 2017, 07:40

    As always, there’s two sides to every story. The reason Brewer did what he did was because Farner would not commit to an all out reunion of the band. He wanted to do his own thing and when he wanted, he would then join back up with Brewer and Schacher, the other two wanted to make it permanent, but Farner was doing a come to Jesus thing and did not want to make Grand Funk a priority.

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