Loved by fans but hated by critics is what defined The Grand Funk Railroad as an illustrious rock band. They were loud and had enough attitude that made blue collar workers root for them. Their take on the working class made the everyday man feel as if they could’ve been a member of the band. A hard work ethic that consisted of constant touring and energetic, at first inept, performances tagged the group as folk heroes. Heavy rhythm and blues led the rest of the way as three men from Michigan became one of the most respected groups of their era. As David Fricke of Rolling Stone once said, “You can’t talk about rock in the 1970s without talking about Grand Funk Railroad!”
The 1969 Atlanta Pop Festival was historic in many ways, apart from showcasing one of the greatest lineups a free concert could offer. The thousands that occupied the International Raceway witnessed icons onstage at their absolute peak. But the night was especially memorable for a certain Michigan band as Grand Funk Railroad stole the show and walked away with a record deal. Lead singer/guitarist Mark Farner and drummer Don Brewer felt like kings that night as years prior they were members of another band that completely dissolved. But their former band leader, Terry Knight, changed careers and began acting as their manager with local bassist, Mel Schacher, joining shortly, thereafter. Even if they weren’t the most technically sound band, Capitol Records could easily see they knew how to work the crowd. Their debut album, On Time, solidified that with Knight heavily promoting the band. But DJs weren’t thrilled to air “Time Machine” on their stations. But regardless how they felt, Grand Funk Railroad would annihilate critics and opposers with their next album.
1969’s Grand Funk was shredded by publications everywhere. Critics unanimously despised the band while picking apart the album as if it was drivel. Oh, but that didn’t stop the album from nearly cracking the Top 10 on Billboard and going platinum with fans selling out their shows. If their fans were the loyal soldiers combating the critics, the band members were the captains leading the charge. Behind the greatest of captains are the ones who strategize their plan of attack and lead them to victory, Knight was known as many things to anyone who asked. A mastermind in some regard, or an unorthodox head case. No one really saw the difference. His aggressive promoting of the band labelled him a scorn to all radio stations who refused to play any of their material. They eventually gave in, though. Knight never knew when to back off on the assertiveness. His energy and promotion abilities equaled that of the band’s hard work and continuous touring. But would he go overboard with his marketing strategies for the band’s next album? Again, depends on who you ask.
There’s no love loss when you’ve got entire press companies out against you. But when you rent an entire billboard on Times Square to advertise your next album, who cares what the “experts” think? 1970’s Closer to Home was meant to be a critical failure for all the backlash reviewers gave the album. But for all their effort, detractors couldn’t stop the album for being a multi-platinum blitz. Grand Funk Railroad were now mentioned in the same regard as other fan favorites such as Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. The standouts from the record were the groups metamorphic sound wave with including a symphonic style to their music. Instead of coming out with hectic, in-your-face loudness, the band was delicate with acoustic and string trippiness. But they never forgot to give the fans pure rock ‘n’ roll in between the subtle tracks.
Despite their run of success, the band grew weary of Knight’s management practices and if he had their best interests in mind. What resulted was a legal tirade between both parties upon Knight’s firing from the group. 1972 would be a year of court battles between the two that involved instrument repositions, publishing rights and royalty disputes that carried over into the following year. The band eventually reached a settlement with Knight and continued their gold/platinum certification sells during the chaos. Grit and grind were just a reflection of who they were. Even with a heated battle in legalities looming over their heads, nothing would stop the band from releasing their definitive album. We’re an American Band is appraised by the National Association of Recording Merchandisers as one of the top 200 recordings in history. Brewer took the helm on vocals in the self-titled track with a noted departure in their previous style. But the sudden change was a breath of fresh air for the band and fans as the album became their highest charting record on Billboard. Their sound was now at the extreme and their live performances were tighter than they’ve ever been before.
Their follow-ups of commercial successes were met with open arms from fans and radio classics. But their appeal began to wane steadily through the mid-1970s and eclipsed with Farner departing for a solo career. The band tried to remain together and continue other ambitious projects, but the group officially disbanded in late 1976. Attempts at revivals and short lived transpired here and there during the 1980s. But nothing serious ever coalesced the band into reforming in the long term. Until 1996, the three original members reformed and played together over a three-year term with live audiences. But Farner, like before, would return to his solo career with friction building between him and the others. That hasn’t stopped the band from remaining together and performing over the years. In 2019, the band launched a tour to commemorate 50 years of “Grand Funk” and display their excellence. Their follow-up with the Some Kind Of Wonderful tour was met with similar acclaim. But the pandemic outbreak shut any further shows, however, their return was imminent as they hit back on the road to continue strong. With tour dates stretching into the next year, fans of the old and contemporary style of rock can expect the best to ever do it to keep on doing it. For all the ups and downs, they showed they were a true American band. In their words, they are, “Raw. Real. Rock.”
Written by Trenton Luber