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Nils Lofgren and Grin's sunny take on rock n' roll

Nils Lofgren is well-known as a guitarist and piano sidekick for luminaries such as Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, and Ringo Starr as well as an artist with a far from disgraceful solo career
Nils Lofgren with Grin. Photo courtesy of

Nils Lofgren with Grin. Photo courtesy of

Nils Lofgren is well-known as a guitarist and piano sidekick for luminaries such as Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, and Ringo Starr as well as an artist with a far from disgraceful solo career. However, even before his 1975 debut solo album, Lofgren already had a considerable catalog under his belt with Grin, a band with whom — most fans will attest — Lofgren recorded the greatest music of his career.

Lofgren, born in 1951 to an Italian mother and Swedish father, had started out playing a thoroughly un–rock ’n’ roll instrument in the shape of the accordion before taking up the guitar at 15 after having been turned on to rock by The Beatles. It was only when Lofgren saw Jimi Hendrix live at the age of 17, though, that he decided to try to be a professional musician. Perhaps inevitably then, the band he put together in his hometown of Washington, D.C., was a three-piece, comprising Lofgren on guitar and the barnstorming rhythm section of bassist Bob Gordon and drummer Bob Berberich. Despite that barnstorming quality, the name chosen for the group was a giddy one.

“God knows all the names we went through, but the word Grin came up,” Lofgren recalled. “It was the late ’60s. We were all happy, positive, crazy, and we thought it had a good representation of a sentiment the band shared.” It was also a good representation of the perennially sunny nature of the songs Lofgren wrote for his band.

Grin’s major break came as a result of Lofgren barging in on a famous name playing in town: “[Grin] became a big local band. We were about to head to Los Angeles to look for a record deal, and just before we left, I snuck backstage and saw Neil Young and Crazy Horse in a D.C. club. Neil was kind enough to give me some time. I spent a couple of days with them. He said look me up when I got to California, which I did, and his producer, David Briggs, took us under his wing, so I got to really stay in the circle of musicians.”

At 18, Lofgren was playing piano and acoustic guitar on Young’s “After The Goldrush.” More important than that was the interest of Briggs, who recorded an album with Grin and then set about selling it to a record company. In 1971, it appeared eponymously on a new Columbia label called Spindizzy.

“Columbia had a lot of rules about their studios, their engineers, their producers, and to bypass the rules we set up a subsidiary with Clive Davis which would allow David to produce and engineer,” Lofgren explained.

That fine debut revealed a band with a unique sound: Though Grin had a punchy rhythm section, the ambience — as it always would be on Grin records — was predominately acoustic. This approach, Lofgren revealed, was due to Young: “He gave me a beautiful Martin acoustic guitar as a gift. It was really the first time I had a nice acoustic and played a lot of it, and since a lot of my melodies are melodic and maybe even a little country, it was just a good time to take advantage of that. Of course David had a lot of experience recording acoustic instruments with Neil, so it worked out.”

The album reveals other attributes that would become Grin trademarks: lovely melodies and an almost blush-inducing sweetness of spirit to Lofgren’s lyrics. However, these guys were no wimps — on the occasions where Lofgren brought out the electric guitar, it was to peel off absolutely blistering runs and solos. Adding to the band’s unusual air was a drummer (Berberich) who handled as many singing duties as Lofgren, on record and on stage. Often the two would sing within the same song, creating intriguing vocal textures, Berberich’s grizzled tones contrasting with Lofgren’s gentle voice.

“I didn’t have an affinity towards other styles like Bob did,” Lofgren said. “It was very loose, very friendly. I’d write the song, then when we rehearsed them, ‘Oh maybe I should sing the bridge and he’ll take the high part here and I’ll go underneath.’ We’d just work it out. It was a co–lead singer band."

Despite their quality, the debut’s songs were not the end result of years spent honing songcraft. “The first record was basically the first 12 songs I wrote,” Lofgren revealed.

Lofgren time, apparently, is much faster than real time, underlined by the fact that the next Grin album — released only a year after the debut — is an all-time classic. Lofgren acknowledged the quantum leap: “I’m really proud of that [first] record but... by the second record, as a function of working pretty much nonstop, there was a dramatic improvement. We just played all the time. We lived together; we wrote; we rehearsed.”

The second album was recorded in an independent studio called Wally Heider’s in Los Angeles. “As the thing took shape, we realized that the batch of songs that we had were almost half and half — gentler and hard,” recalled Lofgren. “I don’t remember whose idea it was, but we all started batting around, ‘Well why don’t we just use it as a strength?’” The decision was made to have all the soft songs on one side and the up-tempo numbers on the other. This process also gave the new album its title: 1+1. “It was just a function of the Rockin’ Side and the Dreamy Side,” Lofgren said.

The cherry on the album’s icing is Briggs’ fabulous wide-screen production technique. 1+1 is described by the New Musical Express Encyclopedia Of Rockas “one of the lost classics of rock” because criminally, it failed to sell. “White Lies,” which opens the Rockin’ Side, became Grin’s only Top 40 chart entry.

By the time Grin released their third album, they had an additional guitarist. “My brother Tom Lofgren joined the band,” Lofgren said. “We just realized we had the rough, sparse thing covered as a trio, but now our music was getting a little more melodic and open and we really needed a fourth member.”

All Out (1973) is a thoroughly enjoyable record, if a little lightweight compared to its stunning predecessor. It was to be the band’s last record for Spindizzy, the controversial departure of Clive Davis making the band unhappy with the label. They ended up on A&M, but their final album, Gone Crazy (1974), is something of a damp squib, not just sales-wise but — for the first time — artistically. A&M pulled the plug.

“A&M spent a number of months considering whether to let me continue as a solo artist,” recalled Lofgren. “It was very traumatic at the time.”

Lofgren is now 30 years into that solo career — with his latest studio album Break Away Angel and the in-concert Nils Lofgren Band Live available via his Web site — but true aficionados of his varied career will always reserve fond memories for his days with Grin, surely one of the most unjustly neglected ensembles ever to make use of recording tape.need me