An Interview with Don Brewer of Grand Funk Railroad
Grand Funk Railroad will play at 9 p.m. on Saturday, July 21st at Moondance Jam 21 in Walker, Minnesota. I had a chance to speak with Don Brewer, the writer and singer of the song that led Grand Funk to become an “American Band.”
One of the biggest stories in rocklore is about how Grand Funk Railroad was fired by Led Zeppelin for overshadowing them as their opener in the early 1970s. I asked Don to tell me the story of that fateful tour.
“They kicked us off the tour,” Brewer explained of Led Zeppelin’s reaction to GFR. “They actually pulled the plug, or their manager Peter Grant pulled the plug on us, so that we couldn’t play. They didn’t like the fact that we overshadowed them. The whole story is that we were being represented by Premier Talent and Led Zeppelin was also represented by Premier Talent. Led Zeppelin had already had a couple of big albums released. They (Premier) were gonna put Grand Funk, the new band, on Led Zeppelin’s tour as the opening act. So we did Detroit and of course there was another band, too, Frosty, Lee Michaels, and then we went on afterward. The audience was just totally going nuts toward the end of our show, and Peter Grant and Led Zeppelin didn’t like that. So they said they wanted the band off the stage, they pulled the plug, and they kicked us off the tour. We did one more show with them and then they kicked us off the tour. They just didn’t want to be overshadowed by Grand Funk—that’s all it was.”
In the late 1960s, Brewer, Mel Schacher, and Mark Farner formed Grand Funk Railroad in the three-piece style of Cream and The Jimi Hendrix Experience. I asked Brewer how his band from Flint, Michigan, compared to other bands of the time that came out of the same state, like Alice Cooper, Iggy Pop, or MC5.
“They were all following different kinds of paths, but we chose to do the power trio,” Brewer said. “We could take our R&B influence, as we were heavily influenced by Motown, branch out from that, and keep that power trio thing. The MC5 were a very political band. Iggy Pop was more of a visual band. Truly, I mean spreading hamburger all over himself, but we were really an R&B band that wanted to crank up the volume and be a rock band. So that’s what we did.”
When you listen to the music of the 1960s, there is a definite change to the sound when moving from psychedelic love-filled 1967 into the later ’60s and early 1970s. In 1968 alone there was the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy assassinations, and the Charles Manson murders. I asked Don if there was more of a hard edge that entered popular music in the late 1960s that reflected what was happening in American culture.
“I think so, for sure,” Brewer said. “It was hard to be involved in music at that time and not be involved in that movement. There was the anti-war movement and all that kind of stuff going on at the time. So, that’s what it was all about. It was all kind of like one thing, a melding together of the young people with their music, all united against the establishment. FM underground radio was launched and so you could get somebody to play your record. All you had to do was to walk into a jock and say, ‘Here’s our album, would you play it,’ and they would play it. It was a very unique time period.”
Grand Funk Railroad’s music feels like the everyman’s rock. You can slam a beer to it, have a good time to it, but then their sound has a deeper side and involves the listener in a different way. I asked Don if that was done consciously or something that just came about.
“I think it’s just us,” Brewer said. “I think it was just the way we saw the world or the way we related to the world. Being from Flint, Michigan, you have a certain perspective on life and a certain perspective on the way you view things. I think that’s what came about. When I listen to those recordings now, I think they sound very sincere. They’re not overly produced, not overly recorded, and not overly thought-out. They were really just what we were feeling and what we were capable of playing at the time and getting recorded. It was very difficult to get things recorded and it was not an easy process to get good rock recordings back then. So it was a combination of all those things. What I get when I listen to them now, as opposed to even when we went into 1973 or 1974 and our recordings became much more sophisticated, is that those early recordings were very sincere, very real.”
I noticed while listening to the first few albums that there is kind of a deep feeling to them. You can also feel a real connection and sincerity from the three members of Grand Funk Railroad. There was an intimacy to the band and their sound before exploding onto the national stage with “Closer to Home.”
“It was truly a rock and roll fantasy thing,” Brewer said. “We were just caught. We were kind of overwhelmed by it. It was a good thing that we stayed in Flint, you know, because if we would have moved off to New York or Los Angeles we really would have gotten caught up in it. I think we kind of were kept grounded by staying in our hometown. We built our own studio and continued to record at our place in Parshallville, Michigan, rather than going around to different places in New York or Los Angeles and getting involved in that scene. I think it kept us real.”
Everyone is obsessed with Liverpool, the town made famous for the Beatles. I asked Don if Grand Funk’s fans have that same connection with Flint, Michigan.
“When I think of Liverpool and playing in the clubs there, it sounds a little more exotic than growing up in Flint. Really there were very few places to play around Flint. We did the teen-hops and there was the Rivera Terrace, Mount Holly, and a couple of other places like that, but nothing quite as mystical or as intriguing as the clubs in Liverpool,” Brewer said.
Grand Funk Railroad is not only the American Band, but they also have a theme song to prove it. I asked Don if the times and groupies were as wild as the legends or if they’ve been embellished over time.
“I think they are embellished quite a bit, but yeah, it was certainly part of the time period,” he said. “It was a thing that there were girls who aspired to be groupies, and that’s what they wanted to be known as. It was a definite time period, but I think it burned itself out pretty quick.”
After releasing their fifth album, GFR’s manager Terry Knight sued the band for breaking their contract, and eventually kept most of the royalties from the band. I asked Brewer what it was like to start over on their sixth album, titled “Phoenix.”
“It was extremely scary and it was very difficult,” Brewer said. “We were certainly searching for a new avenue. Not only was that going on, but we were trying to make the transition from being an FM underground band, which was what we were with the three-piece, where everything was album-oriented and everything was seven minutes long. Then, all of a sudden, FM radio changed right at the same time that we were going through this mess with our manager. We had to start making hit singles. If we were going to stay relevant, we had to make three– or four-minute songs that were pop friendly to stay on the radio. So it was the ‘Phoenix’ album that was truly an experiment in how we were gonna do this. Then we decided we couldn’t do it by ourselves, so for the next record we enlisted Todd Lundgren to be the producer. He definitely had more of an understanding of what it took to get a rock song on the radio. So we brought him in and he helped us with ‘American Band,’ ‘Shinin’ On,’ ‘Locomotion,’ and all that stuff that came after.”
Between 1969 and 1976, GFR released nearly two albums a year. When disco came out in the mid-1970s, it took over pop music. If you look at rock in the 1970s, it is filled with huge stadium shows and long guitar solos. It grew extravagant and just got bigger and bigger. I asked Don if he felt like there was no place left to go at a certain point in 1976 and if disco kind of took over, with punk following closely behind.
“That’s exactly what happened for us and we decided to hang it up for a while,” he said of GFR’s split in 1976. “We just weren’t gonna go there and we weren’t gonna be relevant anymore. So we disbanded. We had done two records and two tours a year since 1969, which was unheard of, but that was what was in our contract back then. That’s what we had to produce and it took its toll. I mean, by the time we got to 1976, we were pretty burned out, we were pretty sick of each other, and we needed a break. The disco thing was coming in and there was no way we could fight that. So we just said let’s stop right there, and we did.”
Mark Farner, the former lead singer of Grand Funk, has left the band several times. The most recent breakup came after they reunited from 1996 to 1999, and he hasn’t returned since. I asked Don if he foresaw a reunion in the future.
“I don’t know, I’m a guy—I never say never, but there’s nothing being planned right now,” Brewer said.
So what does Don like about playing summer festivals such as Moondance Jam 21 in Walker, after all these years?
“It’s kind of a throwback to the pop festival day where everybody’s out there doing whatever they want to,” Brewer said. “Showing the love of music and being entertained is what I really like. I enjoy the fact that you have all the different age groups of people, too. I mean, it’s just all over the place. There are people like you, who weren’t alive back when Grand Funk happened, and then all of sudden here you are 30 years later, and you’re being turned on by Grand Funk. I think that’s terrific.”
Visit www.moondancejam.com for more information on the festival.