By Felicia Naoum
Grand Funk Railroad IS ‘America’s Band’ for a reason. When you get a compliment from the editor of Rolling Stone Magazine David Fricke that says, “You cannot talk about rock in the 1970s without talking about Grand Funk Railroad,” it’s hard to argue that an impact in rock and roll cultural has not been made.
Even more, Grand Funk Railroad, a rock group from Flint, Michigan sold out Shea Stadium in Queens, New York faster than…wait for it…THE Beatles. The record-breaking history was made in 1971 and drummer and co-lead singer, Don Brewer of Grand Funk giggles when I remind of this astonishing fact. He does credit the faster sell-out to technology, but we all know that a significant part of it is certainly due to talent and musical messages that people needed to see then and still do today – 49 years later.
When asking Brewer how it feels to have beat The Beatles, he says, “I think it’s great. It’s a nice thing to hang your hat on. I credit it to technology [and how events sell out instantaneously in modern times].”
Even if technology played a role, Brewer repeats aloud to me, in a humble, lighthearted, and far from arrogant way, “Grand Funk sold out Shea Stadium faster than The Beatles [more giggles].”
I have a feeling Mr. Brewer knows his band – IS America’s Band. Grand Funk’s success speaks for itself: 19 charted singles, 8 Top 40 hits, 2 Number 1 singles (We’re An American Band and Locomotion), 13 gold records, 10 platinum records – with album sales surpassing 25 million worldwide. Whew. The accolades are stacked in America and beyond.
While the stats speak for themselves, I want to know how Brewer defines the band’s success.
“How do you feel Grand Funk Railroad has contributed to the history of rock and roll?”
“We came along at a time when arena rock didn’t exist,” says Brewer. He recalls when the band played at ‘rodeo places’ in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Iowa with dirt floors, bleachers and the band carrying in the loudest PA system they had – that as Brewer says ‘was rock and roll.”
Legendary rock artists like Van Halen and Prince credit Grand Funk Railroad for inspiration and trailblazing a rock and roll path for those who came after. After all, as Brewer adds, “We were the pioneers of arena rock.”
The song that continues to say it all – ‘We’re an American Band’ – was born from rather challenging times. Sometimes, it takes the bad to get to the good. “We were going through a huge change. We fired our manager and crooked attorneys that took all our money. The former manager was suing us. We were trying to continue with a career, and they were disputing the right to us using our name.”
With all the tumultuousness in the air, Brewer and the band used their creative forces as an outlet. They needed to make a statement, and they did. Brewer was not writing songs at the time, but tough times pushed him to write. “We needed to come up with hit records,” he says. The band, as he admits, was broke and being forced out of the music business.
He described it as ‘sink or swim time.’ And not only did Grand Funk Railroad swim – they crushed waves with ‘We’re an American Band.’ The song is an ode to where the band has been – performing in city after city while being sued as well as a collaboration of past songs with a message to keep standing or crushing those waves – during tough times. The waves will always come – it’s about how you choose to ride them, right?
The truth is Grand Funk Railroad is more than ‘an American band.’ They have sold out venues in Canada, Europe, Japan and South America as well.
Through it all, like many bands, they did part ways more than once. But thankfully, the separation didn’t last forever. Brewer explains that the band went into retirement until the ’90s and mostly raised their children. With a new line up, the band has been solid for the past 18 years, and interestingly enough, Brewer shares ‘the past two years have been the best of the last 20 years.” I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again – true rock never dies.
Is there a secret formula for cultivating a rock and roll song that truly never dies? Brewer has an idea – after all – he was and is a part of rock and roll history.
#1. It’s about the song.
#2. It’s about the performance.
#3. Least of all he says – it’s about the recording.
“Those are the three key elements. I think a lot of that is missing these days. Focus on recording before sound and presentation.”
As new generations are born, and technology continues to devour almost everything we do – it’s authenticity that stills rings true for a legendary rock artist. “There’s not bands in the studio recording anymore.” Brewer explains how bands are recording parts of songs separately or on a computer and as he states, “it’s just not the same.”
So, for more of the same – that old school rock and roll – delivered by the trailblazers or ‘pioneers’ – Grand Funk Railroad will be performing at Hard Rock Rocksino Northfield Park January 20 for a sold-out show. According to Brewer, not much has changed, although there are a ‘few new things.’ Most importantly, “The show is designed around the hits. We know that people want to hear the hits…”
At a Grand Funk Railroad show – it may feel like the ’70s never passed. I did mention ‘authenticity’ before. As Brewer confirms, “We’ve always delivered a high-energy rock and roll show, and that is what is always was.”
To go back to the pioneer days, the days before arena rock, and to get a taste of humble beginnings from Flint, Michigan, the show to see is Grand Funk Railroad.