Here’s my story about Grand Funk Railroad—a Michigan rock band with big hair and an even bigger sound that made the big time in the early 1970s and are still rocking out today.
When I was 10 years old, we still had a baby sitter. My twin brother, my 4-year-old sister and I were such hellions that it was a good idea that we had some supervision whilst my parents were away. On those occasions when my maternal aunt, La Loca, couldn’t make the gig because she was out on the road with Wings, our next-door neighbor Debbie did an admirable job.
My father had a fancy hi-fi in the den. Mostly my parents played jazz and classical records. Of course Debbie noticed the electronic monstrosity in the middle of the house; the next time she came over, she brought an armload of records.
Among those teenage rock albums was a disk made of clear yellow vinyl, encased in a plain golden cover that had the words “Grand Funk” in the center. Inside, liner notes implored listeners to play the record at “full volume.”
After what followed—and that included some nascent headbanging, much dancing and some pizza eating—we practically begged my parents to go out on the town more so that we could be supervised by the rocker next door.
Flash forward 45 years and I’m sitting at my desk waiting for a call from Don Brewer, the drummer and co-lead singer for Grand Funk Railroad. They’re opening for Lynyrd Skynyrd on Sunday, Sept. 22 at Isleta Amiphiteater.
Weekly Alibi: Right now you’re on the road, celebrating 50 years of Grand Funk. How’s that going?
Oh, it’s terrific. We’ve been touring, pretty much non-stop since January. I mean, we’re weekend warriors. We go out on a Friday and come home on Sunday. We still average more than 40 shows per year. It’s been a busy year, we started out doing a cruise from Fort Lauderdale [Fla.] to Cozumel, Mexico. Then we flew from Cozumel to Portland [Ore.] and played at a casino that sits right on the Pacific Ocean.
What tunes are you playing in performance this year?
We focus on the tunes people want to hear like “Some Kind of Wonderful,” I’m Your Captain (Closer to Home),” “Inside Looking Out,” “The Loco-Motion” and of course, “We’re an American Band.”
What are you listening to now?
I don’t hear much that blows my skirt up anymore. It’s a little bit difficult. Pop music has become very homogenized. I just don’t listen much anymore.
You’ve been doing this for 50 years now. Do you think rock music has seen its time come and go?
I think I was very fortunate to come up in the time period that I did. We came up when you could make a record and you could drive to your local radio station, knock on the door and get the DJ to play it. FM radio was great for us, there were no limits. Those days are long gone.
You all have that quintessential Midwest hard rock sound; do you ever think about the diffuse influence your work has on rock music?
Well, certainly. A lot of bands listened to us and did their own take on what we were doing—as we did. We were listening to all of these other bands, especially R&B artists and the Motown stuff. I like to say Grand Funk is an R&B band pumped up on steroids. We just turned it up, we crank it up. We came up with bands like Cream and Blue Cheer. We’re playing the blues.
On the American Band album, you worked closely with producer and engineer Todd Rundgren to focus your sound. Then the band recorded a Gerry Goffin and Carole King song that became a monster hit—you turned it from bubblegum pop into a heavy rock anthem. How did that happen?
It was an in-the-studio moment. We were recording all the songs for that album, but felt like we needed a strong follow-up hit. We thought about doing a cover. Out of the blue the idea came up of doing “The Loco-Motion.” It was such a stupid idea, it might work. We had Todd in the studio and we wanted to go after the sort of sound The Beach Boys had on “Barbara Ann,” like there was a party going on in the studio. Of course with Todd, it wasn’t just a party going on, it was that heavy guitar sound and lots of overdubs, huge hand claps, everything. It definitely became a rock song in those moments.
Is guitarist and singer Mark Farner ever going return to Grand Funk?
That’s a question that comes up often. I really don’t have an answer.
What is the Grand Funk Railroad?
It started out with three guys out of Flint, Michigan that loved playing rock and roll music and it just grew from there; we’re still an American band and we still love to rock!