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Grand Funk Railroad keeps it grand

Grand Funk Railroad drummer, Don Brewer, talks about the history of a true American band.
The classic trio lineup of the Grand Funk Railroad: (L-R) Mel Schacher, Mark Farner and Don Brewer. Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.

The classic trio lineup of the Grand Funk Railroad:(L-R) Mel Schacher, Mark Farner and Don Brewer. Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.

By Lee Zimmerman

In 1970,Grand Funk Railroad were one of the most popular bands in the world. And also one of the most hated. They were selling millions of records, but their albums were consistently panned by the critics, even as they were adored by fans. To some, Mark Farner, Don Brewer and Mel Schacher symbolized the future of rock ‘n’ roll in all its loud, pouty, obnoxious glory. For others, they represented a new low, the extremes of overindulgence, tuneless power jams and the substitution of melody for mayhem.

Evolved out of the local Flint, Michigan band known as Terry Knight and the Pack, Grand Funk eventually took on a life of their own, playing the biggest coliseums and overturning the competition that lay between them and the top of the charts. Lawsuits and ongoing disputes with Knight, their Svengali-like manager, pummelled their fortunes, but with the success of “Closer To Home” and its epic title track, the band found new respectability, a trend that was hastened with the eventual release of their most successful album to date, “We’re An American Band.” As well as its attendant chart-topping single, which, ironically was written by drummer Don Brewer. The addition of keyboardist Craig Frost and the guidance of the most unlikely of producers, Todd Rundgren, gave the group new impetus and further reason to reside in the lap of the gods.

Farner eventually left the fold, but Brewer and Schacher still soldier on with a newer lineup, keeping the legend alive while attempting to rekindle past glories with a new generation in tow. Now, on the verge of Audio Fidelity’s re-release of “Shinin’ On,” which followed “We’re An American Band” and bore another massive hit in their take on “The Loco-Motion,” Goldmine sat down with the ever affable Mr. Brewer to discuss the unlikely phenomenon that was known as Grand Funk.

GOLDMINE: I recall seeing Grand Funk when you played Hyde Park in London in 1971. Humble Pie was on the bill, supporting you guys. It’s kind of surprising that the concert, as epic as it was, was never recorded.

DON BREWER: Yeah, I’m surprised, too. We were promoting a live album at the time so I think our manager, Terry Knight, wasn’t into the idea of putting out another live album to compete with the live record that was already out.

GM: You’ve had such a storied career. You started playing drums at a very early age. Did you know at the outset that you would be doing this from then on?

DB: It was certainly my dream. I remember, going back to when I was just a little kid, I was watching (television) and seeing Elvis Presley doing “Blue Suede Shoes.” I can still see it. I was impressed with that as a little kid, I was bitten by the rock ‘n’ roll bug right there. I even started doing an impersonation of Elvis doing “Blue Suede Shoes.” My dad would take me to the bar and he’d buy me a hamburger, go over to the jukebox, put on “Blue Suede Shoes,” and then set me up on a table and I’d do my little impression of Elvis Presley. So from that age on, I wanted to be a rock star. Everything that came around after that meant you had to play a musical instrument to get into a band. In school, it was the clarinet and then I switched over to playing the drums because they needed a volunteer in the marching band to carry the bass drum. There were all girls in the drum section, so it was like, “Oh, you need a volunteer to play with all the girls!” So goodbye clarinet! I came home and said, “Dad, I’m playing drums now, and he jumped all over that because he was drummer in a swing band back in the Great Depression. He went and got me a kit and we’d go down to the basement and he’d put on a record and he’s show me how to play. My parents were very open to music. My sister was a dancer and my mother was a dancer, so the basement became the practice room for any band I’d put together. My first group was called the Red Devils, and we’d practice in the basement, and the other parents were okay with it. It was always rock ‘n’ roll ... I had to play rock ‘n’ roll.

GM: At any point was there parental pressure to find a real job?

DB: With my mother, it was to be an accountant. She said, all this stuff is fine, but at some point you’re going to need, quote unquote, a real job. She pushed me to finish high school. “You can play this stuff on weekends, but you have to finish high school, and I want you to go to college and take accounting courses and learn to become an accountant, because you’re going to need it.” And I have to say it paid off. I did a couple of years of college and I’ve always been the guy in the band who’s been the responsible one and the guy that oversees the finances and watches how things are going. So it did pay off, but I never had any desire to be an accountant or a lawyer, although I did go back to law school for awhile when I was in my 40s. I thought at that point maybe I’d be a lawyer. But it didn’t work out so well. (laughs)

GM: Presumably, when you had your first hits with Terry Knight and the Pack, that more or less confirmed you were on the right track, no?

DB: Oh, absolutely. We had a couple of regional hits. “You’re a Better Man Than I,” “I (Who Have Nothing).” We actually went on that show, Dick Clark’s “Where the Action Is.” We went out to L.A. and did a couple of other TV shows as well. It was more and more like a taste of success that never went away. So it then became all about putting different bands together, putting different people together and watching people come and go out of the Pack, Terry Knight and the Pack, The Fabulous Pack ... all these different incarnations came and went and eventually Farner and I were left with nothing in our pockets. We asked each other, “What are we going to do?” We had been with Terry Knight, and so when he went off to New York, I told Mark we ought to contact him and see what’s going on. Terry got back to me and mentioned that trios were happening. Cream and Hendrix and that kind of stuff. So I went back to Farner and said “let’s put together a trio.” We knew Mel Schacher from Question Mark and the Mysterians, and Mel was always a fan of the Pack. He would show up at these teen hops where we’d be playing. So one day, Mel was practicing at this barn in back of where our management office was. I had gone to the office because they had confiscated our equipment because they said we owed them money. This was up in Flint, and so we went up there to try to get our equipment back. As we were leaving, we heard the band practicing back there in the barn. So Mark says, “I know that kid playing bass. Let’s get him!” And that’s how we got Mel. (laughs)

GM: That’s very fortuitous, but did you ever think that maybe you needed another person, maybe another guitarist, maybe a keyboard player? Or did the trio just click right away?

DB: You know, we set out to do the trio thing. We didn’t want another guitar. We didn’t want a keyboard. It was fun for kids who were 18 and 19 years old, because we had these amps that were modelled after Sun amplifiers. It was fun because we could turn them up really loud. The whole idea was to be loud, as loud as you could possibly be. You could fill up all the spaces you needed with sound. You didn’t need another guitar player. You didn’t need a keyboard player. You just filled it all up with volume. And as a drummer, I just loved it. I was playing with random abandon, doing all the fills I wanted because there was nobody getting in my way. There you go! We wanted to be a power trio. We took a lot of the material that Farner had written for the Pack, and that’s what we worked into the first album, “On Time.” We reworked it for a trio to make it sound big, huge. That was the whole idea.

GM: You guys hit your stride right from the get-go. Capitol Records really seemed to be behind you right from the start. Were you surprised at the sudden success?

DB: We actually went out and played a couple of shows before Capitol Records ever heard of us. Our booking agent said to us, “First you called yourself the Pack, and now you’re calling yourself Grand Funk Railroad. I can’t get you any work.” But somebody called him up and said, “Hey, you got any bands? There’s a festival going on down here in Atlanta and we’re looking for acts.” This was around the same time as Woodstock. So our agent tells this guy he’s got a brand new band. So he books us. They weren’t going to pay us anything, but they’d put us up. So we borrowed a trailer and borrowed a van, and borrowed a couple of roadie guys and we all piled into the trailer and headed for Atlanta, Georgia. We were the opening act on the opening day of the Atlanta (International) Pop Festival in 1969. So we walked out on stage and nobody had ever heard of Grand Funk Railroad, but there we were, out there on stage. It must have been 95 degrees and here we are in front of 20,000 people. They’re looking at us as if to say, okay what can you do, and by the end of the show, they were giving us a standing ovation. Everybody is going, “Who the heck is Grand Funk Railroad?” So they put us on the next day, and then again the day after that, and they kept moving us up in the lineup so we weren’t the opening band anymore. By the third day, we were the third or fourth band from the top of the bill. So we walked away from that festival being the talk of the South. The festival drew people from Alabama and Mississippi and Florida and all over the place, and so all of a sudden we could get gigs all over the South. Capitol Records were saying, “Who are these guys?” That’s what really set it off ... The Atlanta Pop Festival.

GM: After the first couple of albums, there were a couple of major turning points for the band. The “Closer To Home” album marked a new level of sophistication in the melodies and arrangements. Then “We’re An American Band,” with your hit song of the same name, provided the catchy choruses and radio-ready sound.

DB: Certainly. The first three albums were very similar in the style of music and the three-piece configuration – “On Time,” “Grand Funk” and “Closer To Home.” There were similar kinds of riffs, and you’re right, by the time we got to “Closer To Home,” we had gotten better at it. I think Terry Knight also got better as a producer. It was a work in progress. So by the time we got to “Closer To Home,” that was the peak of it.

GM: Still, you couldn’t escape the wrath of the critics.

DB: Terry loved to put himself in between everyone and us. So nobody could talk to us. And Terry just loved to piss people off. He was the old Barnum and Bailey kind of guy.Any publicity was good publicity, so even if he pissed someone off and we got bad publicity, that was fine. He took an ad out at Christmas one year with a photo of him sitting behind his desk at Capitol Records, giving everyone the finger. That was his thing. He wouldn’t let anyone talk to us and so the press took it out on the band. So by the time we got to “Closer To Home,” a lot of the critics were begrudgingly giving us a little more of a fair shake. And then once we ditched Terry, fired him, all of a sudden Rolling Stone magazine came to see us at Madison Square Garden and they gave us a good review. Terry Knight is gone, but we’re still the same band and we’re still doing the same material we’ve done since 1969, and all of a sudden, we’re good. (laughs) It was interesting.

GM: The “(We’re An) American Band” album seemed to turn a corner. Is that when Craig Frost (fully) came on board on keyboards?

DB: Yeah, we were looking to make a huge change. We had been through the trio thing. We had put out six albums for Capitol with Terry Knight as producer. After we fired Terry as our producer and our manager, we went to Nashville to try to do a record on our own without a producer. That was 1972. We loved doing it, but we didn’t know what we were doing in the studio. And here we are in Nashville of all places, working with Nashville sound engineers, and the whole combination was a little odd. So when we it came out, people were asking, “This is Grand Funk?” But we wanted to make a change, and we fired Terry, we fired the attorneys and then we found ourselves in a lawsuit over the name. We had become friends with Peter Frampton from Humble Pie, and we called him and asked him if he wanted to join the band. He was just in the process of finishing his new solo record, and so he humbly backed out. Craig Frost had been in and out of the Pack several times, but he left as soon as we turned into Grand Funk. All of a sudden, we take off and he’s still playing bars around Flint and stuff. So we brought Craig in, and the idea was to make a change. Not only a change in the sound, but we also wanted to be commercial, because FM radio was no longer playing seven minute songs, no more “Closer To Home,” no more 10-minute jams. They wanted two- or three-minute hit records. So we had to make that turn because we were being sued, and we were broke in the first place. (laughs) We now had to have hit records. We had to write three-minute songs, enlist a guy like Todd Rundgren to produce. We couldn’t produce. We went out and we did it. It was all on purpose. The fans were kind of saying, “Hold on! This isn’t the Grand Funk that we knew.” (laughs) But once we got to “American Band,” the fans went “Okay.”

GM: You yourself wrote a veritable rock and roll anthem.

DB: I don’t know how ... (laughs) I know three chords on a guitar and those are the three chords I used.

GM: Well, it worked!
It worked indeed.

GM: So now Audio Fidelity is re-releasing the album that came after. “Shinin’ On.” And here again, you had Todd Rundgren behind the boards. So what was it like working with Todd? There are some he worked with who disliked him so much, all they’re willing to offer is a “no comment.”

DB: Oh yeah, some people hated him. I love Todd. He has a dry sense of humor, He had an ego. He’d put his feet up on the console and he’d have a book, and while we were out there working on arrangements and working on songs, he’d be in the control room with his feet up on the console reading a book! (chuckles) But when we were ready to record, he’d put the book down and crank the dials, and do the EQ. And we’d be listening on our headphones, so we were hearing a very similar sound to what we got when he mixed it. All the engineers we worked with before that had it completely dry. No echo. No EQ. No nothing. So what we heard in the headphones really sounded like sh*t. They wanted all this pure stuff. Pure guitar, pure bass, all that. Then they did all the manipulation later. Well, Todd said, to hell with that. He threw it all out the window. He cranked all the dials and made it sound unbelievably good. And we were putting it on tape that way. So it made for an incredible sound. I thought he had great arrangement ideas, great harmony ideas. I was truly inspired to work with Todd. I loved it.

GM: The one-two punch of “American Band” and “Shinin’ On” bore his touch, and that seemed to be a turning point towards your new-found acceptability and commercial success. 

DB: I’ll never forget being in New York and being called in for a deposition in this lawsuit we had against Terry Knight and the attorneys that had ripped us off. And we’re sitting there and Terry Knight is there, and we have not one, but two gold records since we left Terry. I gotta tell ya, that was sweet revenge. It really was.

GM: Did you or any other members of the band have any input into Audio Fidelity’s reissues of those albums?

DB: Not really. I was delighted that they did it with “American Band,” and now with “Shinin’ On.” I hear they’re actually trying to reproduce the liner notes, so that you get a smaller version of the original album via CD, along with the 3D thing and the glasses, although I don’t know how they’re going to do that. They’re looking to put out a very pure sounding reproduction of what they had in the first place. Nothing can replace vinyl, but this is as close as you’re going to get.

GM: So you’re still touring with Grand Funk these days?

DB: We still are!

GM: And how about Bob Seger? Are you still touring as part of the Silver Bullet Band?

DB: There’s been some talk he might go out at the end of 2017, beginning of 2018. But last year, 2016, was the best year in 18 years for Grand Funk Railroad. It’s just amazing we’re still able to do it and we’re lucky and blessed.