An Interview with Don Brewer of Grand Funk Railroad
I had a chance to speak with Don Brewer, the writer and singer of the song that led Grand Funk to becoming an “American Band.”
The biggest story I read years ago about Grand Funk Railroad was how they were fired by Led Zeppelin for overshadowing them as the 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 3-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 coming out of the same state like Alice Cooper, Iggy Pop or MC5.
“They were following all 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.
Had you seen Jimi Hendrix, Cream, or MC5? I mean, you even had the same hairstyles?
“That’s what was happening at that time,” Brewer said. “We were trying to go after that kind of a deal and that kind of a feel. Of course the hippie thing, the anti-war movement - all that stuff was all coming right around at the same time. You know, 1968 - 1969. 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 great time.”
I went to college for history and love to study the 1960s. When you listen to the music of the 1960s there is a definite change to the sound when moving from 1967 into the later 60s and early 1970s with the killings at Kent State. In 1968 alone there was the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy being assassinated, and the Manson murders. I asked Don if there was a darkness and more of a hard edge that entered popular music in the late 1960s that reflected what was happening in the 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. It was a very unique time period.”
Grand Funk Railroad’s music feels like the people’s rock. You can slam a beer, have a good time, but then their music has a deeper side and involves the listener in a different way. I asked Don if that was done consciciously 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, 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 dark feeling to them. You can also feel a real connection with the three members of Grand Funk Railroad. There was an intimacy to the band.
“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 are 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 have they been embellished over time?
“I think they are embellished quite a bit, but yeah, it was certainly part of the time period,” Brewer said. “It was a thing that there were girls who aspired to be groupies, that’s what they wanted to be known as. It was a definite time period, but I think it burned itself out pretty quick though.”
After releasing their 5th album GFR’s manager sued the band for breaking their contract and eventually kept most of the royalities from the band. I asked Brewer what it was like to start over on their 6th 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 7 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 3 minute or 4 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 producer. He definitely had more of an understanding of what it took to get a rock song on the radio. And so we brought him in and he helped us with “American Band”, “Shinin’ On”, “Locomotion”, and all that stuff that came after.
There is a fun feeling to GFR. You have the deepness of the 3 piece, but when the band grows larger they get a more fun type of song. “American Band” was the moment that shined in that whole period and represented partying and having fun. It was different from songs like “Heartbreaker” that came years earlier.
“We were changing and we were trying to find our way,” Brewer said. “And that’s the way it came out, but, we had to do it. It was sink or swim time and we were either gonna do that or fall off the face of the earth.”
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’s huge stadium shows and long solos on guitar. 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 behind.
“That’s exactly what happened for us and we decided to hang it up for awhile,” Brewer 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 here, and we did.”
In the early 1990s there was a return to rock and three pieces with bands like Nirvana gaining popularity. Then in the late 1990s it kind of ended again. Don was in GFR railroad during the 1990s when the entire band got back together. I asked him if the end of rock in the late 1990s had parellels to the 1970s.
“I don’t relate it to that,” Brewer said. “Ever since rap music came in back in the 1980s everybody thought it would go away and it never went away. It just kept evolving, and it kept evolving, and it kind of took over pop music. I don’t really get it. I haven’t had a feeling about music like I used to in the 70s where new artists come up and you say, “Wow, that’s great.” Everything seems so homoginzed, so manufactured. We were talking about the sincerity of the original three piece band Grand Funk, but I don’t hear that in music. I don’t hear that sincerity. It’s a shame that artists can’t just be themselves. They have to manufacture who they are what they sound like rather than just be themselves.”
So what does Don like about playing summer festivals 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, that 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.”
Mark Farner, the former lead singer of Grand Funk left that band after they reunited from 1996 to 1999 and 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.
Replacing Farner of vocals is Max Carl, who also sang with .38 Special, and is known best for a song off of their eighth studio album.
“Max was the replacement guy in .38 Special and he’s the guy that sang Second Chance, which was one of their biggest hits. He is actually from a band called Jack Mack and the Heart Attacks which was a soul band out in Los Angeles in the 1980s. He got in with .38 Special and did a couple of records with them and is a great singer,” Brewer said.
I asked Brewer if it is still great to get up there and expose this music to young people.
“At times yeah,” he said. “It depends on what kind of venue we are playing. When we play the casinos that tends to be an older crowd, but the fairs and festivals tend to draw out the people who are curious. I heard of Grand Funk Railroad, let’s go see.”