Mark Farner on Grand Funk Railroad’s Legacy

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Grand Funk Railroad performing at Shea Stadium in New York, July 9, 1971

There aren’t many musicians of the classic rock era who don’t have wild drug stories, whether they’re talking about what they did themselves or what they observed of what went down around them.

Mark Farner—co-founding singer-songwriter-guitarist of Grand Funk Railroad, a band that’s sold more than 25 million albums—has both kinds of stories. One is a doozy. It’s about him and Jimi Hendrix.

“I knew Jimi,” Farner says, on the phone in our 2017 interview from his home in Petoskey, Mich. “Every time we were on the same bill, we would make sure our paths crossed and say howdy. At Randall’s Island [a New York City rock festival held in July 1970, headlining Hendrix and GFR], Jimi Hendrix’s right-hand man came over to my dressing room after we got offstage and said, ‘Hey, Jimi wants to see you.’ These guys have got some stuff lined up on the dressing room table that looks like snow drifts and [Jimi] says, ‘Come on, do some of this.’ And I said, ‘No, man, I don’t do that stuff. I’ll watch you guys. Knock yourself out.’ He says, ‘Well, just do a little bit.’

“So, I do a little snort of this stuff. I’d never done anything like this before but, Jimi says to me, ‘I wouldn’t give you nothing that could hurt you and you know me.’ That’s my guitar god telling me he’s not gonna hurt me. Then I do this stuff and, holy crap! I just found out how much somebody could lie.”

Mark Farner performing at Lawrenceburg, Indiana’s Fall Fest in 2009 (Photo via Wikipedia)

Farner, born on September 29, 1948, says it was a combination of cocaine and heroin. “That took me someplace where it put the fear of God in me about ever doing anything like that [again] and it also gave me compassion for those who are caught up in it,” he continues. “You have to lose part of your sanity to let that get ahold of you, and that’s the part that really scared me, brother, because I would have to allow this to happen. Man, I knew it was bad. I fell off the equipment truck because this stuff was getting to me.”

Wait, there’s more. “Then I saw Jimi get onstage and he couldn’t find the neck of his guitar. He was missing it by two feet! And this longhaired kid with no shirt with bare feet with a pair of bellbottoms walks out on the stage, grabs Jimi’s arm, hooks it to the neck of the guitar and Jimi starts playing. But Jimi’s music isn’t making any sense to me and that’s when I got sick and fell off the truck and threw up.”


Mark Farner in a 1971 publicity photo

Grand Funk Railroad—originally guitarist Farner, bassist Mel Schacher and drummer Don Brewer, with keyboardist Craig Frost joining in 1972—was, in the early ’70s, the most popular American band of its day and, in some critical quarters, the most hated. The trio, from Flint, Mich., was the “people’s band,” a hard-rock outfit that came out of a garage. They released two albums in 1969, On Time and Grand Funk, and two more, Closer to Home and the double Live Album, in 1970. The following year they sold out Shea Stadium in 72 hours, faster than the Beatles.

It’s Farner’s most memorable moment. “I was flying over Shea Stadium in a big helicopter, a big Huey, and the side door is open and I’m looking down—Humble Pie is onstage, which is set up at second base—and there are 60,000 people in the stands and it is bouncing up and down. The stadium looked like it was gonna collapse. It was bouncing so much I was thinking, ‘Wow those guys are rocking it!’ I couldn’t hear them because of the helicopter rotors, but man, visually.

“Then, when we landed in the parking lot where the limousine is supposed to be waiting for us, there was nothing. We’re in an empty parking lot. The guy with us who was riding along runs down to the phone booth and makes a call. Within two or three minutes we got cop cars in the parking lot, with the lights and sirens, picking us up. They haul us into Shea Stadium and we get out of the back of the cop cars and the crowd loses it! Wow! What a moment!”

Grand Funk plays the July 9 concert. “And the crowd,” says Farner, “they’re singing ‘I’m your captain—I’m getting closer to my home’—louder than the PA system! I got huge chills.”

Still does, he says, “It’s a spiritual experience. It takes me close to who I really am and every night I dedicate that to our troops and to our veterans because it means the most to them, it really does. I’m still in the spirit, because it means so much and it has carried so many dreams and hopes. It has carried love and people sing it to me when I’m on stage. And it works, because it’s love. We are spirits in a bone suit here and we get mixed up. We think we’re gonna be here forever, but no.”

At the peak of their ascent, Rolling Stone called Grand Funk Railroad “the biggest American group in rock history,” but in the same article asked the question, “Is this band terrible?” Implied answer: Pretty much “yes.” But it didn’t matter what the critics thought. In 1973, having previously logged 10 Billboard chart singles—none of which had reached higher than #22—GFR vaulted to #1 with “We’re an American Band.” The same-titled album, produced by Todd Rundgren, was their sixth to make the top 10 of the trade magazine’ LP chart; it out-ranked its predecessors, settling in at #2.

Watch Grand Funk Railroad play “We’re an American Band” in 1974

Related: The story behind “We’re an American Band”

Brewer sang the single and has the sole songwriting credit for the gleeful, anthemic song about loving the rock life—hotel destruction and groupie adoration. Until that point, Farner had been the primary songwriter, by far, but Brewer was starting to move into the mix. On the album, Brewer sings four of the leads and Farner the other four.

Grand Funk (they’d officially abbreviated the name with We’re an American Band) broke up, for the first time, in 1976 after a couple more top 10 albums It was time for them to go; their fans had moved on. But while other hard-rock outfits have been hailed as rock game-changers, Grand Funk Railroad never did get much respect from the critical elite. They are not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, will likely never be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Farner does not give a rat’s ass.

Related: Other prominent artists who’ve been shunned by the Rock Hall

“I believe it’s so politically oriented,” Farner says of the Hall. “If it hasn’t shown itself to be that way [to you], I’d say put a rubber band around your head and snap out of it. It’s really about kissing ass and Grand Funk does not kiss ass. We kick ass. There is no brown ring around any of our mouths and there will not be. I could not give a shit less about them. I’m serious. Period. I care about the fans. The critics, they can go and have their time, go write their stuff, but as long as the fans keep showing up, I’m gonna keep showing up.”

Grand Funk Railroad still exists, and has pretty much for 50 years, excepting a decade or so from the mid-’80s to the mid-’90s. But Farner is not part of it. Max Carl has taken Farner’s slot and has been there since 2000. So, when Farner’s talking about Grand Funk kicking/not kissing ass you gather he’s pretty much talking about history—the band during his tenure—and, perhaps, what he does as a solo act (including the two years he spent as one of Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band in the ’90s).

The Grand Funk of today is co-founders Brewer and Schacher alongside three others who all joined in 2000: Carl, ex-KISS guitarist Bruce Kulick and keyboardist Tim Cashion. Today’s version of GFR doesn’t really come up in conversation with Farner.

Farner has a band that’s been with him for more than a decade: drummer Hubert Crawford, bassist Dennis Bellinger and keyboardist Karl Probst.

Watch Farner talk and perform in 2019

Read Part 2 of our interview with Farner here.

Jim Sullivan

17 Comments so far

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  1. Jack
    #1 Jack 25 August, 2017, 03:33

    It’s a shame about the RRHOF, Grand Funk did accomplish more than some of the inductees. Like them or not, they were relevant in the late 60s and early 70s. Were they The Beatles or Rolling Stones? No, of course not. However, they were American rock ‘n roll at that time. Again, like or hate, you don’t sellout Shea Stadium, playing your own songs, playing your own instruments, and not have incredible talent. Nor do you write songs like “Closer to Home/I’m Your Captain” with no talent. Name one song by Kiss (who is in the Hall) that is as complex, mood-wise, as that and some of the other GFR songs. Farner is correct when he calls the Hall “political”. They are truly as political as the sports Halls. Bottom line is, GFR should be there, and there are a lot of others who should be there as well. To be truly legitimate, the RRHOF has to come up with some kind of consistently applied criteria with which to determine whether an act is worthy of being in it, then, they must apply it across the board. Me, I can take or leave GFR, but fair is fair. I was around back then, I know how relevant and popular they were.

    Reply this comment
    • Little Bill
      Little Bill 26 August, 2017, 03:10

      Grand Funk Railroad without Mark Farner is like the Stones without Mick Jagger just caint pull it off!!!

      Reply this comment
  2. JJK
    #2 JJK 27 August, 2017, 18:31

    I was at the Shea concert, and it ranks up there with my all time favorite concerts that I ever attended. To me they were one of the most rockin bands of the 70’s. I still think their “Live Album” is one of the most underrated live albums ever. Overall, I saw them about five times. Most in Madison Square Garden. Those were the days!

    Reply this comment
  3. Scotty
    #3 Scotty 11 December, 2017, 15:28

    I saw GFR on New Years Eve at the Convention Center in Las Vegas during the 70’s.

    Reply this comment
  4. Joebob
    #4 Joebob 19 April, 2019, 12:01

    I saw the America Band tour and they were an awesome live band. Their tunes werent consistently great but they had their moments for sure. Paranoid, Heartbreaker, Mean Mistreater, Are You Ready, etc. I cut my teeth on Farners solos.
    The fact that Madonna and Janet Jackson are in the HOF and GFR are not is a joke. It’s a farce of an organization.

    Reply this comment
  5. wynnedriver62
    #5 wynnedriver62 23 September, 2019, 21:08



    Inarguably the best ROCK’n ROLL band ever –

    Screw the RRHF – who needs’em?


    Reply this comment
  6. Bluzrider
    #6 Bluzrider 30 September, 2019, 07:37

    The fact that the fan’s loved them, says all that needs to be said about Grand Funk.

    To hell with the political crap that Rolling Stone said about them.

    You don’t accomplish what they did and not be a talented group of musicians.

    It goes to show you that just a couple of words by the wrong people can ruin somebody or a group.

    I never did listen to the critique’s very much. They never did seem to have the same taste as the fans.

    Reply this comment
  7. Nick
    #7 Nick 30 September, 2019, 17:31

    Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has become a greedfest, regular pople can’t get in to see the performances, more and more artists come away disgusted with the whole process. As for Grand Funk, of course they should be in and there is no Grand Funk without Farner, end of story!

    Reply this comment
  8. steve b
    #8 steve b 30 September, 2019, 22:39

    the 4 early albums you mentioned i remember 5.The last one produced by terry knight in 1971 was E plurbis Funk which had Upsetter and foot stompin music on it

    Reply this comment
  9. Freddie
    #9 Freddie 17 May, 2020, 08:08

    I was at the Shea concert July 1971. A few friends camped out overnight to buy tickets. No Ticketmaster back then, The box office at the venue was it!
    I was 14 years old. GFR upcoming show was the rave In my Junior High School. It was the talk all spring/summer. Originally, I did not have a ticket however somebody backed out the last minute and I scored a spot. I have to tell you that was my first rock concert. Shea was literally rocking. The stands looked like they were going to collapse! I was def afraid. The show was great. Top 5 for me in my lifetime. I have seen just about everyone. What made GFR @ Shea so good that it was a concert for the times.
    1. GFR @ Shea
    2. Led Zeppelin @ MSG 1977
    3. Queen @ MSG 1977
    4. Stones@ Shea Steel Wheels Tour
    5. Rush @ The Palladium 14th St NYC

    Reply this comment
  10. Timflyte
    #10 Timflyte 4 September, 2020, 05:34

    They SHOULD BE in the rock hall. They were huge in the early 70s. Kids were starting bands ( including me ) and you had to play them. Their arrangement ” some kind of wonderful ” was a staple bar song for decades to get girls to dance. I’ve met Craig several times and he even complimented my singing.
    I agree there needs ti be a good doc on these guys.

    Reply this comment
  11. JJK
    #11 JJK 5 June, 2021, 15:21

    No 50th Anniv. Commemoration for Shea? Such BS!!!

    Reply this comment
  12. Luis
    #12 Luis 6 June, 2021, 15:58

    No way to deny that the deserve to be in the rock hall of fame. They were a super band. Today s´GFR is aonther band, like Uriah Heep or Deep Purple: Its only a brand name that plays the glory days hits. They should be there among the giants because they were “the people s´band” a gave us many incredilble good music.

    Reply this comment
  13. Cosmic Cowboy
    #13 Cosmic Cowboy 9 July, 2022, 23:49

    Consistently Sold-Out concerts in their heyday, platinum albums, rock anthems (i.e. “I’m Your Captain/Closer To Home”) to this day, many cuts played regularly on F.M. Classic Rock stations – True injustice on several levels.

    To hell with the Rock and Roll HOF, Rolling Stone magazine, and Jann Wenner (Notice an interrelated theme here?).

    To this day, everytime I hear that cowbell and kick/snare/tom-tom intro and lyric “On the Road for Forty Days”, a smile stretches across my face.

    Although it will likely not happen, as with The Eagles, it would be nice to bury the hatchet, even if for only one well-promoted tour, and have founding member and the true soul of GFR, Mark Farner, back on tour, if nothing else but for the loyal fans, before it is too late.

    Reply this comment
  14. Da Mick
    #14 Da Mick 10 July, 2022, 12:22

    Folks, I am truly sorry that the RRHOF’s continued indifference to many “deserving” bands continues to mean so much to you. While I’ve never been a huge Grand Funk fan, I feel the same way about a number of bands that have either been ignored, or the Hall waited so long to induct them that they were either too old to perform or deceased. But from these bad decisions by the Hall, and more so from so many of the people/bands they HAVE chosen to induct, I came to realize that the whole organization is, not so much political, as Farner says, but more like a just a roadside attraction that has no sense of real criteria for what its name implies. In its earliest days, it was easy to pick the artists and bands that no one could find fault with, so we all thought they were on the level. But as time wore on, you came to realize that the organization was not really aligned with what it’s title implied. There’s been a lot of frustration, disappointment, and even anger at what that organization has and hasn’t done, how it continues to operate, and the decisions that it continues to make. But the basis of those feelings about the Hall are our own expectations about what we thought it was and what we actually want it to be. Sadly, we’ve come to realize over the years that it is neither of those things. As an analogy, the RRHOF is much like Baseball’s All-Star Game, where the players who participate aren’t really the actual baseball categorical leaders of that year’s season, but instead, just a glitzy event made up of people selected from popularity contests to celebrate the IDEA of baseball’s best. So many players each year who should be worthy of such a celebration are never chosen. And so it is with the RRHOF. A popular phrase is that it’s a joke, and that’s true in terms of what it really is compared to what it purports to be. But if it’s a joke, the joke’s on us. For as people who’ve loved and lived Rock n’ Roll our whole lives, and the fact that it’s meant to us, we would actually like a real place or organization that honestly celebrates this incredibly powerful part of our culture and lives, not some glitzy facade of an organization that capitalizes on the fans’ devotion to a very real emotional bond with music and the people who’ve made it, but, in reality, functions in that respect in name only. I know it’s disappointing, but it’s time to see it for what it is, stop expecting it to be more, and stop holding it up as some righteous bar that we hold music up to as a measure of its all-time worthiness. You know what music is good, and you know it’s value. Pinning a fake medal on it, as it were, or not receiving that fake medal doesn’t change what it is and what that music has meant to us all. Let the RRHOF go. If we all simply ignore it, perhaps it will die a quiet death.

    Reply this comment
  15. Baybluesman
    #15 Baybluesman 15 July, 2022, 00:21

    Saw Mark Farner a few years ago (right before the corona virus shutdowns) at the Ram’s Head in Annapolis, MD – He and his band killed it, provided a high energy show, was authentically friendly during his performance, as well as accessible for handshakes and mutual thanks afterwards – Not bad for a 70-year old (at that time) veteran rocker who had heart surgery and a pace-maker implanted, as well as recently having lost his son (who had become a quadriplegic as a result of an accident), whom he and his wife had been caring for.

    A truly strong and inspirational person, as well as one heck of a rock performer.

    Would see Mr. Farner again without hesitation.

    Support Live Music.

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