GRAND FUNK RAILROAD
40 years and the train keeps a rollin’
An exclusive interview with original founder Don Brewer
by Todd K Smith
“The only way we were going to beat Terry Knight [Manager], keep the name and keep our band together was to come out with a successful record, go on tour and make the money we needed to fight him.” ~ Don Brewer
Grand Funk Railroad turned 40-years old this year and to their amazement, they are still playing sold out shows to adoring fans. For the power trio that originally consisted of Mark Farner (vocals/guitar) Mel Schacher (bass) and Don Brewer (drums, vocals) all hailing from Flint, Michigan, the road has been paved with the good the bad and the ugly. In 1999, Farner left the band but drummer/singer Don Brewer and bassist Mel Schacher still carry the banner with lead singer Max Carl (38 Special), guitarist Bruce Kulick (Kiss, Blackjack, Good Rats) and keyboardist Tim Cashion (Robert Palmer, Bob Seger). These days they play weekend gigs, State fairs and festivals a lifestyle change suitable for a stable family life. “I’ve done the bus thing for years,” says Brewer when we spoke on the phone after the band’s Chico, CA Silver Dollar Fair show. “I wouldn’t go back to it it’s just not where we are anymore.”
During their heyday from 1969 to 1972, there was no American heavy rock band bigger than Grand Funk Railroad. The 1971 tour was especially memorable as the band was paired with a budding Humble Pie. “They were definitely competing with us,” says Brewer of Pie. “We were being handled by Primer Talent, the mafia of rock ’n’ roll and our manager Terry Knight was thicker than thieves with those guys. Pie were ready to move to the next level so we brought them along.” In June of that year Grand Funk Railroad with openers Humble Pie sold out New York’s Shea Stadium (57,300) in three days beating the Beatles record. A block-long billboard for their third record Closer To Home was posted in Manhattan’s Time Square. Explains Brewer, “There was a screw up with the permits and the city so the billboard, that was only paid to be up a couple days, ended up staying for a month. It put that record over the top for us. Man, the big time had arrived.”
Granted most of their early success was credited to the shrewd (some say, “outlaw”) business dealings of band manager Terry Knight. A relentless force, the Capitol A&R man had known Don Brewer and Mark Farner from his old band The Pack. He had seen the trio play in Michigan and arranged to have them perform at the July 4th 1969 Atlanta Pop Festival with headliners Janis Joplin, Blood Sweat and Tears, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Led Zeppelin. Afterwards, the band was signed to Capitol records, a reported conflict of interest but was pushed through with Knight’s thug-like persistence. Modeled after power-trios like Cream and Mountain, the group remarkably became the label’s biggest selling American band within 18-months. “Terry was a great salesman,” says Brewer. “He really knew what he wanted to do with the band. He would take any avenue to get there. I give him all the credit in the world for breaking through all those barriers for us but he made a lot of enemies along the way.”
After five successful albums and millions sold, the band found they were broke at the end of 1971 and in a very public and nasty split, fired Knight and broke away on their own. “Knight had people believing we were like the Monkees, a manufactured commodity,” says Brewer. “We released Phoenix a year later (1972) and had a top-40 hit with ‘Rock and Roll Soul’ but we knew we needed something big to separate us from Knight. We had to draw a line in the sand and say, “that was us then this is us now! The only way were going to succeed was to break into top-40 radio in a big way. Terry was suing every town we booked a show saying we didn’t have the right to play as Grand Funk Railroad. But people kept showing up and having a great time. So the phrase ‘we’re coming to your town, we’ll help you party down.’ meant a lot to us and to our fans.”
In 1973 Brewer, Farner and Schacher recruited keyboardist Craig Frost, relocated to Nashville and began working with top producer Todd Rundgren. “I was on a mission personally to make sure we didn’t fail,” says Brewer. “I had some ideas in writing these 3-minute 30-second songs. I brought them into the studio and with the other guys messaging the songs they blossomed. Radio was changing so I wrote within that “hit” format. The only way we were going to beat Terry Knight, keep the name and keep our band together was to come out with a successful record, go on tour and make the money we needed to fight him. That’s what we had to do.” Rundgren pushed the band, brought Brewer out from behind the drum kit and encouraged him to share vocal duties with Farner. With Brewer’s gritty voice and a confident writing style, the result was an explosive package of songs that immediately caught the public’s attention.
“I brought in the chord changes for ‘We’re An American Band’ and had most of the lyrics from our road experience,” laughs Brewer. “Todd encouraged that. Under Knight we’d signed a contract to deliver two records and go on two coast-to-coast tours a year plus Europe. We had to produce that volume of work. We were in the studio almost every day either to rehearse or record. Nobody does that anymore. Now bands take a couple years between records. Imagine trying to come up with songs at that pace. When we hooked up with Rundgren, we focused on quality.” The gold covered We’re An American Band (1973) took the group eight months to get right. It posted two smash hit singles, the title track and “Walk Like A Man” another Brewer composition and gave the band the vindication they needed.
Two more gold records came in the form of Shine On (1974) and All The Girls in the World Beware! (1975) but, by 1976’s Born To Die, which had the band depicted in coffins on the cover, their star began to fade. Says Brewer, “After seven years at break-neck speed there was obviously some disconnect and dysfunction that went on. Mark and I were at odds but we rallied with the chance to work with Frank Zappa.” The Mothers of Invention leader had taken a swipe at GFR in one of his art-house films, in return Grand Funk asked him to produce their next record. “It was a joke really,” says Brewer. “When he accepted, we were shocked and thrilled at the same time. We thought he’d be this weird, freaky guy but he came out to Michigan and fit right in one of the guys. He let us do what we wanted to do and pushed us to be ourselves.” The result was possibly the last solid platter from the band and the most red-neck with songs about guns (Don’t Let ‘Em Take Your Gun), girls (Big Buns) and the good old’ USA (1976).
A couple records were scattered through the ‘80s including the critically over looked Grand Funk Lives (1981) and What’s Funk (1983). Neither of which achieved much success. In 1996 the original three members reunited and played to an amazing quarter of a million people in 14 shows including three sold out Bosnian benefit concerts. In looking back over the years Brewer can’t believe his good fortune. “We got to meet or play on the same stage with many of rock’s elite including Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin,” he says. “Mick Jagger even came the Shea stadium show. And though we came from Michigan we didn’t really compete with the Detroit bands like the MC5, Stooges, Ted Nugent or Bob Seger - we were just all in it for the music.” Brewer has even maintained a long time association with Bob Seger. When GFR were on hiatus, Brewer toured with Seger in 1983-85 and again in 2006-07.
Grand Funk Railroad is far from retired - still touring and writing new material. “We have a couple new songs in our live set, says Brewer. “One is called ‘Sky High’ and we start the show with another called ‘Bottle Rocket’ that’s got a nasty little groove. We’ve always taken pieces from the Beatles, Stones, Hendrix and Cream as well as Motown. But a Grand Funk song will always sound like Grand Funk as long as Mel and I are in the band.” When asked about any new-recorded material coming from Grand Funk Railroad, Brewer says simply, “We’ll come out with a new record when radio starts playing new music by older bands.”
Website: Grand Funk Railroad