Grand Funk Railroad: Still On Track, 50-plus Years On (Part 1 of 3)

Note: This is a substantially longer (as in, more than twice as long) version of a feature that first appeared in Rock On Magazine. – bk

Grand Funk Railroad is the rarest of rock bands. A power trio coming on the scene during the hard rock era, the Michigan-based group successfully transitioned into a hit-making singles band. And when their long run of studio albums came to a close – and then their original lead singer departed for a solo career – Grand Funk Railroad kept things going, making the change into a purely live act. More than 54 years after releasing their debut, the core rhythm section of the band – bassist Mel Schacher and drummer Don Brewer – keep GFR on the road, playing to enthusiastic, fist-pumping audiences across the land. I spoke with Brewer about the group’s start, its album era, and what sustains him after decades on the road.

Are you a self-taught musician?

Don Brewer: I’m pretty much self taught; I did take some lessons. I joined the junior high school band and learned how to play drums there; that’s what got me going that way. But most of it was just listening to records. My dad had been a drummer back during the Depression; he used to go out and play for beer. He would show me what the drummers were doing, and then I’d sit down behind the kit and start playing.

Is it true that you started your first band in 1960 when you were only 12?

Yes. My first band was The Red Devils. The second was call Jazzmasters, and it wasn’t because we played jazz! We were named after the Fender Jazzmaster guitar.

By 1964 you had joined Terry and the Pack. You experienced some success when that group scored a Top 40 hit in 1966 with “I (Who Have Nothing).” What was the most important lesson that you learned during that time?

Don’t trust anybody!

You left that band and formed Grand Funk Railroad in 1968 with Mark Farner and Mel Schacher. When you guys got together, did you feel a kinship with other Michigan hard rockers like The Stooges, MC5 and The Frost?

We were kind of outsiders. We were from Flint; growing up, we knew of these bands from places like Ann Arbor and Detroit, but they had their own kind of clique going on. Whenever anybody brought us up, we were “that band from Flint.” So we were kind of on the outside of all that. We did cross paths with some of those guys playing at some of the same teen places in Jackson and Lansing.

What kind of a music scene was there in Flint in those days?

There was none! There were battles of the bands, but there wasn’t really a music scene happening in Flint. So we were sort of one of a kind.

Mel had been playing with Question Mark and the Mysterians before joining you guys. Did it take a long time for the two of you to develop that rock-solid rhythm section?

The way that Grand Funk came together, it was just a trio; there wasn’t a rhythm guitar player, a keyboard player or any of that kind of stuff. So we had a lot of space to fill, and we loved it. We did it with volume, and we did it with playing. Mark did the majority of the writing, especially back then.

He’d bring in a song, and then Mel and I would manufacture our own parts. We’d jam on it for an afternoon, and we’d go, “Well, we could put in a bridge here. Mark, you need to come up with a chorus.” We were writing our own parts, but we weren’t really focusing on, “What are you playing, and what am I playing?” Mel and I just kind of locked into step and just took it from there.

When you made those records, were they a blueprint for what you would do live, or was live performance something completely different?

Until we hooked up with Todd [Rundgren, producer], it was old school. Recording in the early ‘70s was not fun. We would have to come up with a whole new way of playing in a studio to compensate for getting it on tape, because those guys just didn’t know how to do it. What you heard in the headphones was so dry and so empty; you’d have to play a whole different way in the studio than you did live.

When we were on stage live, we were free. There was, you know, nobody saying, “Here, you’ve got to do this. We’ve got to get the level on this. You’ve got to do that.” We just blasted away, so it was always much more fun to take those songs on stage.

But once we got with Todd, it was a piece of cake. He said, “Just play it, and I’ll record it.”

Did the band have other artists that you looked to for inspiration?

Yeah. When we put Grand Funk together, we were kind of going down the road of Jimi Hendrix and Cream and Blue Cheer: all the power trios. That was what we were after: filling up a lot of space with three guys. And it was a lot of fun!

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