Grand Funk Railroad: Still On Track, 50-plus Years On (Part 2 of 3)

Continued from Part One

The band had one of its first big breaks at the Atlanta Pop Festival in July 1969, a full month before Woodstock. What do you think it was about that time and place that made it your early breakthrough?

Don Brewer: I have no idea! That was so awesome. We rented a van and borrowed a trailer, and we got all our equipment and went down to the first Atlanta Pop Festival. Nobody had ever heard of Grand Funk Railroad. It was just a favor of a friend of ours that got us on as an opening act on the opening day of the festival. He said, “If you can get here, we’ll put you on.” We walked on stage, and it must’ve been 100 degrees and humid.

By the third song, the audience was going crazy. They loved this new band, and they had no idea who we were. By the end of that set, they invited us back the next day: “We’ll put you on third tomorrow.” So we came back the next day, and again the audience went crazy. Word of mouth was getting around.

And then they put us on again the third day! I have no idea what struck that audience about this band, but it just gelled. It just happened, you know? Maybe it was all the pot.

In the early days, the critics were not your biggest fans…

No, they hated us.

Why do you think that happened, and why do you think you had to wait so long to be recognized?

I think we got off to a bad start with Rolling Stone, and it was because of [our manager] Terry Knight. Terry made it appear that he was Svengali, he was the magic wand, he picked up Mark, Don, and Mel, and he put it together, and he told us exactly what to do and exactly how to play. So Rolling Stone got this idea that we were just like a Monkees-type band, you know? We were just a manufactured thing.

And they hated Terry, because he was a prick. He took out a full page ad in Billboard one year giving everybody the finger; that was his thing. And he wouldn’t let anybody talk to the band: Rolling Stone would want to talk to Mark, Don, and Mel, and Terry said, “No, no, you have to talk to me.” So they just didn’t like us.

It was funny: after we fired Terry, when we played Madison Square Garden for the first time, the critics from Rolling Stone came: “Hey, these guys are good! Who knew? Wow!”

When Closer to Home came out, that seemed to signal a more sort of nuanced approach to music. Would you agree? And what was behind that shift?

I thought the first two albums, On Time and Grand Funk had some great three-piece stuff. I think E Pluribus Funk was the best album of that three-piece band, really. You know, that was my favorite album as a three-piece. And when we got to Closer to Home, it definitely was a little more refined. We were starting to get a little better at being in the studio and a little better at the songwriting.

Grand Funk eventually went to a four-piece lineup: you added a keyboard player. What led to that?

When we split from Terry, we wanted to make a definite change: “This isn’t Grand Funk from the Terry Knight era. This is the new Grand Funk.” We brought in Craig Frost, a guy who both Mark and I had worked with back in the Pack days.

Not very many people know this, but we actually reached out to Peter Frampton, who had recently left Humble Pie. We said, “Hey, Peter, would you be interested in joining Grand Funk?” Because we had a great relationship with those guys in Humble Pie; we did a whole European tour with them and became pretty good friends. But Peter was just starting his solo career, and he said, “Thank you very much, but I’m doing my own thing.”

How did having a keyboard player change the musical dynamic in the group?

We got to do a lot of the stuff that we couldn’t do as a trio. it opened up another world of what we wanted to do and where we wanted to go. We went into the studio in Nashville and did that first record without Terry (Phoenix, 1972) and produced it ourselves. That was kind of a mistake, but we wanted to do it, and it was a great learning process: “Which way are we going?”

So when we got to We’re an American Band and we brought in Todd Rundgren, we were a whole new band. Working with Todd gave us another form of freedom. We weren’t afraid to be in a studio anymore. Todd made everything sound so good in the studio while you were recording. And there were no “’Take 20,” “Take 25.” None of that. We played the song two or three times, and it was done.

In those days, you had hard rock album bands, and you had singles groups; there weren’t too many that did both. But you guys managed to have hit singles. “The Loco-Motion” was one of the first 45s I ever bought; I still have the picture sleeve. How and why do you think you were able to thread that needle to be a successful live band, album band, and singles group?

Well, the trio was more of an album band, because of FM underground radio. That was what we were catering to, and you didn’t have to pay attention to three-minute songs, you know? When FM radio changed to being a hit format – that was right about the same time that we dropped Terry and we set sail as a four piece – we had to start making radio hits. We knew we had to, or we weren’t going to be on the radio. And we were broke. Terry had taken all the money, and he was trying to take the name. He was suing every town we were playing in.

We looked around and went, “If we want to survive this, we’ve got to start making three-minute hit singles.” and that’s what we did. I started doing some more of the writing: “We’re an American Band,” “Walk Like a Man.”

Then, we got into Shinin’ On. Again, we needed a hit. We looked for coming up with something and just, by happenstance, we came up with “The Loco-Motion.” Grand Funk doing “The Loco-Motion”!? It was kind of stupid, but it worked. That was the reason why we started doing singles, because we had to: sink or swim.

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