Directed by Michelle Kath Sinclair–2016–80 minutes
A few weeks ago, I did a retrospective review of Chicago Transit Authority, the debut long player by Chicago, as part of my ongoing series of rock’s notable double albums. A good portion of that piece focused on their renowned guitarist Terry Kath, who died tragically in 1978. Kath is the Chicago member of choice for rock geeks, not just for his musical achievements but for the might-have-beens. Chicago started out as an adventurous jazz-rock ensemble that had softened its edges by the time of Terry’s passing and would soon become all but a MOR yacht-rock ensemble by the Eighties, whose soppy love ballads are easy objects of derision.
“The Terry Kath Experience” gets its title early on in a comment about how a power trio of that proposed name led by Jimi Hendrix’ favorite guitarist may have been quite the ticket had Kath left the chart-topping septet (he was in the process of forming such a “TKE” group just before he died). But this affecting documentary also give proper due to the man himself. Directed by none other than his daughter how could it not be? Michelle Kath Sinclair was but a toddler when her dad passed, and the film takes the form of a personal quest to know him better (and retrieve a cherished guitar of his) as well as exploring his career. She visits with all six of the others in the original band as well as their manager/producer James William Guercio and his widow Alicia Kath.
Kath was a largely self-taught prodigy who would sit in with future Chicago bandmates at DePaul Univ. music school in the Windy City. Many local players like them were serving time in “show bands” at local night clubs. His former colleagues attest that it was “renegade” Terry who began pushing for the band to be more themselves after acts like Cream and the Yardbirds started blowing thru town. It was Kath who wrote the mission-statement song “Introduction” that kicked off their bold first album, released in 1969. A remarkable piece of writing that managed to be both accessible and complex, Kath had to describe it from his head for a bandmate to transcribe. Chicago were on to a winning combination with their punchy horn section, accomplished playing and the keen pop sense that went with it (esp. of keyboardist Robert Lamm) in the early days. Kath’s husky vocals and fierce but passionate guitar solos were the feature of many of their hits, with “25 or 6 to 4” and “Make Me Smile” being maybe the most notable.
His daughter is an appealing presence and a natural for putting his surviving bandmates at ease in front of the camera. Drummer Danny Seraphine is esp. notable in his mix of fondness and regret when looking back on Terry’s role in the band. Kath was set to try his own luck in Los Angeles before deciding to see the band thru to its early success. The whole outfit did move to L.A. in the wake of international success and Kath was the one leading the way to camaraderie, good times and fruitful recording at the Caribou Ranch, the Rocky Mountain studio and home-away-from home built by Guercio in 1972. It was here that Kath and his wife Alicia spent much time in the early years of their marriage.
In relaxed interviews with Terry’s brother Rodney and Alicia, the pair speak to their niece and daughter of a big, amiable bear of a man. He grew up with annual vacations in the country and thrived in the company of friends and bandmates at the wide-open Colorado ranch/studio. There is ample home-movie footage, and even excerpts from a television special filmed, to attest to this.
Eventually, a darker side reveals itself. (“The trappings of success trapped him,” Seraphine says). There are not-uncommon tales of drink and drug abuse and then there’s Kath’s obsession with firearms. For the life of me I’ll never understand this widespread American fixation, esp. with someone like Kath who appears to be an unviolent man. But his favorite movie was “Taxi Driver” and he often imitated Robert De Niro’s famous “You talkin’ to me?” scene.
The end came in January of 1978 when Kath repaired to his place with a member of the group’s road crew after a long night of substance intake. His companion became alarmed when the guitarist started fooling around with a handgun. Moments later, Kath accidentally shot himself in the head after removing the clip but forgetting the one bullet in the chamber.
But moving beyond this needless death, there is plenty of good stuff for fans and guitar geeks here. There are lots of great live clips (several from Chicago’s great gig at Tanglewood, Mass. in summer 1970), a discussion of his boundary-pushing “Free-Form Guitar” from the first album (recorded several months before Hendrix’ famous Woodstock finale), and the guitar quest thru several homes of friends and family that will delight fans and six-string collectors all over. (Streaming now for free “with ads” on YouTube).
I am the author of “Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey.” To look at a 30-page excerpt, please click on the book cover image above.
One of the great action shots in rock history, ace photographer Bob Gruen took this snap of the Clash at the Harvard Square Theater in Cambridge, Mass., at the Feb. 1979 show mentioned below.
If I was backed into a corner for an answer as to what was my favorite concert ever, I’d have to say the Clash at the Orpheum Theater in Boston, 42 years ago tonight, in September of 1979. Opening acts were the Undertones fresh out of Derry, N. Ireland and R&B legends Sam & Dave (both great). The Clash had made their area debut about seven months earlier at the old Harvard Square Theater, a legendary gig ‘round these parts. However, the band’s stand-offish attitude kinda dampened their appeal at that show.
Not so on 9/19/79. By that time their first LP had been finally released in America (re-configured to include a fistful of their classic singles) broadening their fanbase while their collective surly demeanor had been replaced by more of a band-of-the-people image. That become clear three songs into the set during (appropriately enough) “Complete Control.” (My memory has since been aided by a bootleg cassette of the show that I purchased in the 90s). Near the end of the song, Joe Strummer’s ad-libbing to the “C-O-N Control” chant abruptly ends and there is a sudden roar from the crowd (at 9:55 of the above-mentioned recording, seen below). The brutish security guards employed in those days by monopolistic rock promoter Don Law were manhandling fans streaming down the aisles for a closer look. The guards were not used to being challenged, least of all by a relatively scrawny lead singer from England, who had just come ten rows deep (with his Fender in tow) to confront them.
After the commotion, Strummer went back to the stage and went all Popeye Doyle, demanding to know who’s-running-this-operation? When the name Don Law was called out it was a bit of a laugh: the Clash’s version of “I Fought the Law” was released as a single two months earlier. “Where’s Don Law?” Joe repeatedly bellowed. When the man didn’t show, he declared the area in front a stage open to all and the crowd went nuts. The goonish guards were obliged to stand down.
The Clash were spectacular that night, playing every song as if their lives depended on it, with a passion and ferocity seldom equaled. Guitarist Mick Jones further endeared the band to the fans by allowing, “This is a good crowd for us, don’t think we don’t appreciate it.” Mick got off another good one later, while introducing his song “Stay Free,” saying it was about a couple of friends who were sent to the nick. “That’s the penitentiary to you lot.”
The cassette ran out before the end of the show, but I do remember the first encore, a new reggae number where Strummer came out from the wings swinging a train-signal lantern. This was “Armagideon Time” which would soon be released as a b-side to the title track of the album that would break them in the U.S. From that same month (Dec. 1979) that “London Calling” was released, here’s them doing “Armagideon” at the benefit concerts for Kampuchea. RIP Joe, there will never be another.
Any music genre that was once new and fresh and radical is bound to become established and settled if the quality of the original output was great enough to still be well-loved years, decades or, in the case of classical, even centuries later. So it is now with punk rock. True, there are many younger practitioners of the form and some of them I go and see in my own area. But just as some talented young jazz artist will not make aficionados forget Miles Davis or John Coltrane, so too these ardent newcomers could never outstrip the golden era.
Which brings us to the Skids. No newbies are they: their first single was released in the halcyon days of 1978. But these veteran Scottish punkers have just released the vigorous and entertaining Songs From a Haunted Ballroom, a covers album leaning heavily to late 70s battle cries from the likes of the Clash, Sex Pistols, Ultravox etc. and also a few left-field choices that help tell a larger story. Lead singer Richard Jobson and bassist William Simpson are from the original band and drummer. The Skids’ current line-up is rounded up by the father-son guitar team of Bruce and Jamie Watson. (Bruce the elder was also in Big Country, formed in 1981 by the late Stuart Adamson who was Skids’ original lead guitarist). This duo provided plenty up six-string firepower to the amped-up arrangements heard here.
The Skids front line of today. Left to right, Jamie Watson, Bruce Watson and Richard Jobson.
The original Sids were a dtermined and edgy outfit that worked their way down to London from Dunfermline and scored a UK #10 single with the anthemic classic “Into the Valley” in 1979. They would stay together and put out four albums until splitting up in 1982. Since their 2007 re-forming they have been more centered on their Scottish origin. The “Haunted Ballroom” of the title refers to the Kinema Ballroom which recently closed before re-opening as a global fusion restaurant. Generally, tribute albums can be a hit-and-miss affair and it’s likely that some listeners will be underwhelmed by the energetic but pro-forma versions of the Sex Pistols’ “Submission,” the Adverts’ “Gary Gilmore Eyes”, the Stooges oft-covered “I Wanna Be Your Dog” or the Clash’s “Complete Control.” (In the latter, Jobson shouts out Joe Strummer’s iconic ad lib “You’re my guitar hero” twice–maybe once for each of the Watsons).
In the liner notes, Jobson relates the personal significance of the selections, usually being a song from a band he saw at the ballroom in the heady days of the “No Future” punk uprising, or songs that were popular DJ selections on dance-club nights. The Kinema looms large in Richard’s largely personal mythology and not just for the revolutionizing groups he saw there and inspired his own music-making. He makes several mentions of Scotland’s numerous gangs who would occasionally crash the Kinema, giving an added edge to several cuts. Haunted Ballroom kicks off strong with Ultravox’s “Young Savage” and it’s telling tag line “Anything goes where nobody knows your name.” It also informs the Skids’ turbo-charged take on Mott the Hooples’ “Violence” and Magazine’s “The Light Pours Out of Me.” Jobson would later form The Armoury Show with that group’s talented journeyman guitarist, the late John McGeoch.
One of the more intriguing covers here is “Rock On” where the band take David Essex’ frothy 1973 glam hit and gives it an ominous edge with a spoken-word section where Jobson recalls how gangs like the fearsome AV Toi (“the most mental gang in all of Scotland”) would use the chorus of “Rock On” as a cue to cause mayhem on the dance floor. Also having novel appeal on the song list is Garland Jeffrey’s lost gem “35mm Dreams” (the Skids’ did it as an encore back then) and Ace Frehley’s discofied “New York Groove.”
The guys end the album with re-makes of “Into the Valley” and another great early single, “The Saints Are Coming,” before concluding with their cheeky holiday song “Christmas in Fife.” The two makeovers only improve by way of modern production values, so I’m going to go with the august ’79 original where you can read the hard-to-decipher lyrics and see the band in the full flower of their rough-hewn youth. We all have some special nightspot that is now gone (for me it was The Rat in Boston) but Jobson suggests the importance of the Kinema for him goes beyond nostalgia. For him, “it’s the place that made me what I am.” And listening to an album like “Songs From a Haunted Ballroom” can help keep alive the psychic rebellion of the punk rock soul.
The daily posts I put up for my Facebook group Rock Docs (check it out if interested) generally fall into a few different categories: birthday tributes, trailers for upcoming music documentaries and seasonal-themed series (I recently had a weeklong string of posts about Irish bands centered around St. Patrick’s Day). Another frequent category that can’t be avoided: obituary posts. Any rock music fan of a certain age who is on social media knows these well. Whenever one of our beloved stars dies, the online tributes, often very heartfelt, come pouring in and last for days if not weeks. This phenomenon probably peaked in early 2016, when David Bowie and Prince passed away within a few months of each other.
Of course, a lot of this can’t be helped: rock ‘n’ roll is a youth-centric artform that is now about 65 years old. While many of the baby-boomer stars of its Golden Age are in their Golden Years, rock has ceded its primacy in the pop-music pyramid since at least the late Nineties. A book like Twilight of the Gods: A Journey to the End of Classic Rock was inevitable.
Freelance author and podcaster Steven Hyden has acquitted himself well on this subject. Twilight of the Gods is an accessible, witty and committed book. Part of its success may be that Hyden was born in 1977 and grew up in suburban Minnesota, a Gen X/Millennial bitten bad by the Classic Rock bug. He is no portentous, self-serious scribe a la Greil Marcus, but he gets it. By early middle school he was subsumed by rock “as an act of faith: albums as sacred texts, live concerts as quasi-religious rituals, and rock mythology as a means of self-discovery.” An avowed agnostic, Hyden admits that “if there is a God, I was sure I had found Him on side two of Abbey Road.”
Hope I die before I get old—or not. Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend on the “Who Hits 50 Tour” in 2016
He first saw his favorite band (the Who) in 2002, so the timeline of his grand obsession was already leaning into advanced middle age. But by the end of the night, Hyden had found his musical Olympus as the Who rose to the occasion of past greatness. Or, more precisely, Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey did that. Bassist John Entwistle had recently died (after a night of latter-day rock-star debauchery) and Keith Moon, the original wildman drummer, was already a quarter-century in the grave.
But to Hayden and countless other fans, what may matter above all is the (hoped for) immortality of the form itself. Bands like the Beatles, the Stones, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd not only have a considerable repertoire of recordings but are also steeped in rich mystique and all sorts of esoterica. Like many before him, Hyden enthusiastically partakes of both the canon of accepted masterwork albums and more obscure discoveries, reads the books and music mags and views all the important rock docs.
By 1988, when American TV viewers were treated to the legendary “Freedom Rock” commercial, the canonization of Sixties and Seventies youth music was in full swing.
The result of this deep-diving is an often quirky book where the author explores all sorts of different tributaries on this long and winding musical river. Hyden tells of his great appreciation of both the rebel spirit of Bruce Springsteen’s wilder early albums and the more reflective tone of his later work (both men had complicated father/son relationships). He talks of how fans can keep the classic-rock experience fresh by embracing once-avoided “good bad albums” like the Stones’ Black and Blue and Neil Young’s Trans. And of course, no book about rock history would be complete without foray’s into the subjects of the occult (there is an excellent dissection of the Ozzy Osbourne song “Mr. Crowley”) and the old stand-by discussion of how awful the Eagles are (“They were cool like the captain of the high-school baseball team is cool… the kind of guys who will tape your ass cheeks together if you dare pass out early at the party”).
Not every section of The Twilight of the Gods works equally well. The “dad rock” chapter, while entertaining enough, goes on too long with its Wilco vs. Pearl Jam showdown. But Hyden mostly stays on point, often keenly so. Through the real-life example of his own divorced mother, he discerns a generational class of women who by the Eighties had moved on from the randy sex anthems of Aerosmith et al. Instead, they welcomed the embrace of goopy power ballads like “Open Arms” by Journey and “Keep on Loving You” by REO Speedwagon. But for good reason. Here, wised-up sensitive men were also looking for something more lasting. “These power ballads are about damaged people trying to make a go of love despite trying circumstances” and Hyden has the stats to mark this as a growing demographic.
Divorce Rock? Singers of this song type were often (and improbably) culled from glam metal bands.
As the author observes, eventually “you’ll see there is no beginning or end to music, only grooves that you can lock into until you find another groove.” But there is an end to the mortal coil and early on in the book he makes note of the rock notables who passed on while he was working on it: Chuck Berry, Gregg Allman, Leonard Cohen etc. Each of these deaths is mourned personally (online) often in ways that are inter-generational. In the the closing pages he notes, “The exaggerated arc of rock stardom creates a framework for understanding our own lives. Now classic rock is helping us understand, and accept, the inevitability of death.” Not the most pleasant thought, but I’m glad that Steven Hyden has tackled this thorny subject with such insight and panache.
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Spin yourself back down all the days to…
Wilsontown High School, 1974
It was a time when the hair was long and so were the musical attention spans. That fall the mellow vibe of Wilsontown High gets disrupted by a mysterious rich-kid bully. But he makes a “sad” miscalculation when he focuses his grievances on Sean and Paul—two know-it-all aspiring rock critics—and their two new friends: clairvoyant Jane Klancy and kung-fu enthusiast April Underwood. Things are going to get personal in a hurry…
It’s here! The complete 32-page “I Was a Teenage Proghead” is now available in a shiny new standard comic-book format. Text is by me (Rick Ouellette) and artwork is by Brian Bicknell. The recently added 8-page epilogue catches up with the kids in the summer of 1975, a year after the events of Part One.
This project is 100% author-funded. If you would like to support indie, rock ‘n’ roll-inspired comics, you can purchase your own copy (and/or buy one for a friend) for only $5, postage included.
This is final installment, see below the final page to find out how you can obtain a FREE copy of the full 32-page “Proghead” comic book when it comes out in print next month.
Text by Rick Ouellette, Illustrations by Brian Bicknell
This is my first foray into the world of indie comics and the first time in 25 years that I’ve written any fiction! So feedback is important. The first five people who comment with something specific that they either like or dislike about the comic will get a FREE copy of the complete 32-page “Proghead” comic book when it comes out next month. Entries outside the USA are welcome! I will contact you when the time comes for details. This is a print item only. Although I did not post Part Two of this to protect my intellectual property, you can look at Part One by looking for the link below. Thanks, Rick
What separates the names Mark, Don and Mel from those of say, Moses, Cleopatra and Napoleon when it comes to their relative significance in world history? Apparently not much. That’s at least what you would think if you took at face value the shameless audacity of the liner notes to this Grand Funk Railroad compilation album released in 1972. Written by their then-manager Terry Knight, this proclamation, pictured as written on a parchment scroll (!!), was the last salvo in a monomaniacal hype campaign that pitted him in a three-year war of words with America’s rock music press. That Messrs. Farner, Brewer and Schacher should find fame and fortune in the rock and roll business would probably have sat better with the critics if it had just been left at that. The hard-working and hirsute power trio from economically distressed Flint, Michigan was not the most imaginative or technically proficient band to ever come down the chute. But they busted their tails in their emerging arena-tour economy and their manic stage show earned them a large, and largely blue-collar, following. But by constantly stating Grand Funk’s real value in terms of the Most Albums Sold or Quickest Sell Outs practically ensured a backlash by a music press that Knight claimed to be the enemy of the people. The divisive nature of this episode in pop history has some interesting parallels to the socio-political climate that we are dealing with in the U.S. today.
Terry Knight got Capitol Records to fork over $100,000 for this colossal Times Square billboard of Mel, Don and Mark (from left to right).
For this 3-year period, Grand Funk was statistically the #1 band in the USA. During this time, Terry Knight’s leadership was marked by extreme self-absorption, intellectual vacancy, shady business dealings, a distinct persecution complex and the demonization of a press corps who called him out for appealing to the baser instincts of a demographic that had felt neglected. Gee, sound familiar? To get at the full story, let us wind back the parchment scroll a little bit. Knight, who hailed from the Flint area like the three guys he was fated to manage, began his career as a radio DJ but after burning a few bridges in that field tried his hand as a singer in the mid-Sixties. The result was Terry Knight and the Pack, who scored a few regional hits. The biggest of these was his histrionic version of the oft-covered “I (Who Have Nothing).” But soon Knight left performing to concentrate on the business side of things. Some of the Pack people, which now included guitarist Mark Farner and drummer Don Brewer, continued on the club circuit. But a dubious wintertime booking on Cape Cod left them stranded after a major blizzard in Feb. of 1969 (I remember that one well, having grown up on the North Shore of Massachusetts). Fed up, they phoned up Knight and asked him if he would manage them. Knight, who was several years older than Farner and Brewer agreed, so long as they agreed to do exactly as he told them. Mel Schacher, formerly of ? and the Mysterians was added on bass and a record deal with Capitol (for whom Knight was working) was quickly hammered out. Under their new moniker, based on the Midwest’s Grand Trunk Railroad that passes thru Flint, they released their first album, On Time, that August.
But the record, with Knight’s less-than-auspicious production values, sounded a bit tinny—more like heavy aluminum than metal. The first single off it (“Time Machine,” which also kicks off this compilation) was the type of bare-bones blues rock that was decidedly aimed at a lower common denominator in these peak years of Hendrix-Clapton-Who-Stones etc. The critics pounced, decrying this “regressive rock” that was like catnip to an early-teen demographic. These were the hippies’ younger siblings, perusing the record sections of countless department stores and anxious to start attending big concerts. It was an emerging market and Terry Knight was all over it. Under his strict directions, the trio gave a balls-to-the-wall performance at thundering volume every night. Finesse was sacrificed at the altar of frenzy. A nice studio track like “Into the Sun” (included on MD&M) had an instrumental intro whose soundscape was more reminiscent of progressive than regressive rock but on the double Live Album it was extended to twice its original six-minute length and culminated in an ear-splitting crescendo of guitar feedback, the part of the show where the ever-shirtless Farner was obliged to hump his guitar a la Hendrix. The kiddies were sent into a tizzy just as they were during Don Brewer’s earlier 7-minute drum solo, judging from the noise level of howling fans.
This was definitely not the first choice of more discerning rock fans and record reviewers, but the band certainly struck a vein. They toured early and often, building a huge base. They released five studio albums in little over two years, all of them went gold as did the live album, which I was very excited to obtain when I was thirteen—critics and parents be damned. Side Three of Mark, Don & Mel was devoted to this notorious concert document, including the track that contained the drum solo. Listening to some of the more choice cuts on Mark, Don and Mel nowadays, like their turbo-charged remake of the Animals’ “Inside Looking Out,” is a fun throwback to the elemental rock & roll joys of our youth, esp. for those of us just coming of age. For the older peeps of the music press, it was a different story. On the inner paper sleeves of this record, are re-printed articles that paint a less-than flattering portrait of the band. Sample headlines:
“Grand Funk Railroad Finks Out In Concert”
“Hot Group Gets Cold Shoulder At Home”
“E Plurbis Funk, All Others Pay Cash”
or, cutting straight to the chase: “Grand Funk is Lousy”
It may seem strange to include these clippings in a best-of album whose manager-composed liner notes begin: “From the dawn of recorded history, stemming through the lifetimes of every man, woman and child who ever walked upon the earth, there have been but a handful whose fate it was to become known as Phenomenon.” (Dang, even Spinal Tap would be embarrassed by that). But by the time Terry Knight put pen to parchment his solipsistic reign was nearly over. The band had become more and more suspicious of why they were still on a weekly salary after all their record-breaking exploits and soon enough found the consequences of running all your publishing thru a scheming agent that had been working for the record company you signed with. He was making at least three times as much as the band members and had tied up much of their earnings in tax-shelter investments, some of which were later disallowed by the IRS.
The ugly split came about just around the time of what should have been their crowning achievement: their blockbuster 1971 show at the 55,000-capacity Shea Stadium in New York which they sold out in 72 hours despite the fact that Shea’s box-office windows were the only outlet (the Beatles took several weeks to sell out the same venue in ’65). Albert and David Maysles, the famed documentary-making brothers who were just six months removed from the release of Gimme Shelter, had been hired to make a film of the group. But for Terry Knight, it was a triumph tainted by both his bitterness at the media and the ridiculous self-aggrandizement that he projected onto his charges. (Of course, these two elements fed each other: Knight was livid when he threw a lavish press conference to announce the Shea gig and only six of the 150 invited reporters showed up).
Terry Knight in the studio. “I’m in control from now on, you hear! Now, tell me, how do you work these controls?”
In a released statement, he said that the mega-show was “the next logical step in (Grand Funk’s) now-famous not so logical nose-thumb to the media critics who have been consistently relentless in their outrage at the group’s soaring popularity.” He claimed for his clients’ the mantle of cultural revolutionaries: “An appearance of Grand Funk Railroad does not announce a musical concert. It hails a gathering of people… it is politics, that supersedes music.” Considering the decibel-soaked maelstrom of the group’s live act, deemed “obnoxiously loud” even by their own road manager, the non-believers would at least agree that GFR superseded music… in all the wrong ways.
The end came soon after, during a screening of the Maysles’ Shea footage. According to later interviews with Mark Farner, the guys were wary of Knight from the start but appreciated his music biz connections. The working stiffs touted as gold (record) plated demi-gods had had enough and confronted Knight for the books. In a fit of pique, they fired the manager a short time after, though Knight points out they were only three months away from the end of that contract and could have renegoitated then. “How stupid can you get?” he said of his ex-clients. When you’re dealing with a Terry Knight, it’s a thin line between being a demi-god and a dumb-ass.
As relations between the band and Terry Knight became frayed, funding for what could have been a fascinating film by the Maysles Brothers was cut off. This Shea Stadium clip survives.
So naturally the lawsuits started flying and Grand Funk were eventually able to buy out Knight’s interest at great cost to themselves. But they quickly recovered and in 1973, with new keyboardist Craig Frost and a real producer in tow (Todd Rundgren), they streamlined their sound and scored their first #1 single with “We’re an American Band.” By that time Knight, who had been let go by Capitol Records, was out of show biz. Although interest in GFR waned at the end of the decade (they were a uniquely Seventies “Phenomenon”) they soldiered on, sometimes with different personnel. But by the mid-Nineties they re-formed in their original trio form to make some hay on the classic-rock circuit.
Long live Mark, Don and… Dennis?? Graffiti on a Grand Trunk R.R. overpass in Flint celebrates an Eighties line-up of the city’s favorite sons.
How does the early Seventies Grand Funk craze contain early inklings of Trumplandia?
1. Play to the Base and the Fake News impulse.
Terry Knight saw the growing appeal of the hard-rock power trio and stripped it down for parts to reach as large an audience as possible without striving for aesthetic advancement. Gone were the artful touches of predecessors like Cream. They maxed out the volume and did songs that seemed expressly written to rile up a live audience. Two of these (“Are You Ready” and Footstompin’ Music”) are included on MD&M. When the music press, whose natural role it is to analyze records for potential buyers, noted this more primitive style, Knight played the Fake News card. He suggested that the critics only said that because they were jealous of the band’s (and his) materialistic success. The naysayers then got more personal in their attacks and it just escalated from there.
2. The Rightward Drift of Middle America
Until Knight started harping on the subject, the core of GFR’s fan base probably didn’t even realize it had been shortchanged by the Coastal Elites of Haight-Ashbury, Laurel Canyon and Greenwich Village. Now, this base wasn’t pandered to in the outrageously vulgar and racially-hostile way of a certain current U.S. president during the 2016 presidential campaign. The band had African-American fans and, on the surface anyway, left-of-center views. They were anti-Vietnam and pro-ecology, though songs like “People, Let’s Stop the War” and “Save the Land” didn’t offer much more than their titles. (More admirable, and more unusual for the time, was their anti-hard drug stance). But Trump’s pig-headed avarice is backwards-reflected by Knight’s silly insistence that his group’s music wasn’t nearly as important as “Mark holding his guitar over his head and saying, ‘You see this, Brothers and Sisters, you see me? I’m free. I own this stage, it’s mine and it’s yours.” This has echoes of the long-time Republican propaganda tool that has plebeians feeling like “undiscovered millionaires” and voting against their own interests and in favor of obscene tax cuts for the wealthy because they will be one of then someday, and in the process helping to turn the land of opportunity into one of chronic income inequality. It would not surprise me if a much larger percentage of Grand Funk fans of the Seventies became Trump voters than, say, people whose favorite band was Jefferson Airplane. (Some of this anti-liberal bias was not so latent: in an October ’72 interview Mel Schacher said, “One thing is sure, if McGovern gets elected, they’ll be a depression”).
3. Ignore the Flyover States at Your Own Peril
How fitting that Mark, Don and Mel hailed from Flint in the future swing state of Michigan. The town’s auto plants started closing around the same time that GFR were riding high, leaving the city (and to a greater extent, Detroit) nearly empty shells. The capitalist evacuation of southern Michigan’s dominant industry and the more recent poisoning of Flint’s water supply as a result of cost-cutting by a tax-averse Republican administration, is the stuff of dire legend. But it’s leftie documentarian (and Flint native and GFR fan) Michael Moore, that was out there in 2016 warning complacent liberals who thought there was no way that Trump could beat Hillary Clinton in the general election. Hillary’s ill-advised crack that some potential Trump voters were “deplorables” must have rubbed the wrong way not only a lot of undecided voters, but chafed Moore’s working-class roots as well. The current noxious term for Middle America used by some (“flyover states”) has roots in the New Yorker’s famous cover of a Manhattanite’s view of America (a whole lot of nothing between the Hudson River and California) and even in the overstated snobbery of critic John Mendelsohn’s review of Mark, Don & Mel in a June ’72 issue of Rolling Stone, calling the music “worthless rubbish” and the group’s fans “insecure dingbats.” Sure, maybe they were people too prone to seek someone outside the accepted system to blindly idolize (ahem) but they hardly deserved that. Payback is a bitch, even when it takes over four decades to be delivered.
Sure, Grand Funk Railroad will not go down in history as the Einsteins of rock and roll. But they and their fans deserved better but for the lame-brain arrogance of their manager. He invited derision and it deflected off anyone in his orbit. Terry Knight ended up selling ads for a local newspaper in Temple, Texas where he shared an apartment with his adult daughter: it was her boyfriend that murdered Knight in 2004 after a drug argument. The lessons learned have a long reach as we find out in the Mark Farner interview below, where his magnanimity wins out over any hard feelings. So let’s take that to heart. The early Grand Funk anthem “I’m Your Captain” had a subtle anti-war theme that Michael Moore claimed was not lost on the very draft-liable young men of places like Flint, where the proportion of college deferments had to be a lot lower. As Mark repeatedly sings “I’m getting closer to my home” as if it were a mantra (enhanced by strings and oceanic sound effects) it seemed less about a returning veteran and more of a call to return to a larger American home. But over the long years since, that’s become a house ever more divided. To get back closer, it will take a little less certitude and a lot more mutual understanding from all interested parties. Are You Ready?
My latest book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic History, explores the social and musical history of youth culture through the prism of non-fiction film. To find out more, check out a 30-page excerpt at http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html
The latest in an occasional series about the wild woolly world of rock’s double albums.
Todd Rundgren has got to be one of rock history’s great chameleons. He’s gone from a paisley pop wunderkind as leader of the Nazz in the late Sixties, to a sensitive piano balladeer to a guitar-slinging metalloid, prog rocker and blue-eyed soul vocalist. These phases were not necessarily in that order, and a style once adopted could return at a later date and be co-mingled with others. With Rundgren, this never seemed to be a case of following fashion or commercial expediency; he had the air of a protean craftsman, a maverick with many interests. Something/Anything? was a prodigious outpouring of his eclectic talents, Todd’s only outright gold LP. It charted three singles and helped to solidify a loyal cult following that would stick with him through all the sometimes-bewildering career diversions in the decades to come.
The loping rhythm of “I Saw the Light” kicks the album off in elegant, R&B flavored style. “If there’s a single on this album, this is it, so I put it first like at Motown,” writes Rundgren in the first of the pithy comments he prints before each song’s lyric sheet entry. Reaching #16 in May of ’72, Todd’s business acumen doesn’t hide the sensitive side that won him the better measure of his popular appeal. “I Saw the Light” unerringly gleans the first nervous, delicious moments of a romantic affair. Although side one, a self-proclaimed “bouquet of ear-catching melodies” plays to his then-current strength, the restlessness is already leaking through, whether through the frisky rocker “Wolfman Jack” or by the implication that he’s already wary of being pigeonholed as a piano balladeer—even terming the lovely “Cold Morning Light” an “accident.”
Flip the old platter over and you get the “cerebral side.” After a quick audio tour of the studio, we start with the adventurous keyboard instrumental “Breathless,” a little preview of the wild left turn Rundgren would take into progressive rock a couple of years later with his offshoot band, Utopia. Aside from playing nearly all the instruments on his double album, Rundgren also showed off the soundboard skills that would soon make him an in-demand producer. “The Night the Carousel Burnt Down” is a good case in point with its calliope rhythms and shading dissonance dovetailed with a lyric of mixed innocence and foreboding worthy of a Ray Bradbury short story. But overall, the cerebral side isn’t radically different in content from the other three, with occasional genre side trips soon yielding to Todd’s default setting—the slow or mid-tempo number with heart on sleeve and fingers on the ivories.
Side three (“the kid gets heavy”) opens loud-and-proud with “Black Maria,” a prototypical 70s blues-rocker with Rundgren’s nervy lead guitar a highlight. Though the handsome balladry continues here as well (both “One More Day” and “Torch Song” are worthy additions in this crowded category) the side’s other two tracks are album, if not career highlights. This especially goes for the single “Couldn’t I Just Tell You,” as perfect a slice of impassioned power pop as was ever recorded, matching anything of the era by the likes of Badfinger and Big Star. From it’s lilting guitar intro, to a vocal that opens on an urgent moment-of-truth (“Keep your head and everything will be cool/You didn’t have to make me feel like a fool/When I try to say I feel the way that I do”) to it’s soaring chorus, it seemed to pre-figure much of the indie rock of following decades, though it only reached #93 as a single. The side closes impressively with the Hendrixesque “Little Red Lights” (a “you know what” to “you know who” Todd quips), a “Crosstown Traffic” doppelganger featuring more six-string exploits.
If there’s a hitch in Rundgren’s professionalism and organic rock ‘n’ roll instincts it’s on Something/Anything’s last quarter. Presented as a “pop operetta,” it begins at the beginning with a hilariously lo-fi snippet of what sounds like one of his first-ever performances, fronting his teenage group, Woody’s Truck Stop. The rest of the side consists of live-take cuts with an ad-hoc studio band, a confounding series of tracks that sound just like their off-color titles: “Piss Aaron”, “You Left Me Sore”, “Slut,” etc. A career on Broadway was not in the offing. Somewhere in the middle of this is Rundgren’s world-beating love song “Hello It’s Me,” a lively remake of the Nazz’s gauzy 1968 single. It became his biggest ever hit, reaching the Top Five over a year after the release of the LP.
Something/Anything itself would be a highwater mark in Rundgren’s popularity, though mere chart success could never be the sole criteria for this singular personality. After its less accessible follow-up (A Wizard, A True Star) failed to catch fire, he blasted off into outer space with Utopia, the dazzling (if esoteric) combo that initially featured three electronic keyboardists in addition to Todd’s rocket-fueled lead guitar. Side two of their debut album was a 30-minute composition, in case any teenyboppers were still hanging about. Although he continued on parallel paths with his solo work and a toned-down Utopia, Rundgren would become just as notable as a studio producer, his bright-surface production stamp benefiting albums for a next wave of artists like Patti Smith, Cheap Trick, XTC and the Psychedelic Furs. Into the 21st century the irrepressible Mr. Rundgren rolled on, still recording and touring, both as a solo act and with Ringo Starr and His All-Starr Band, a re-formed Utopia and even as a Ric Ocasek stand-in with the New Cars. That makes the title of his classic double album sound not so much as a shrug but as a lifelong mission statement.
Oh, to have grown up in the Seventies. That’s not a hypothetical, because I did. To me, the later baby boomers got a bit of the best of both worlds, musically speaking. At the start of the decade, we had just graduated from the kids table and many of the best Sixties performers still going strong, while the glorious excesses of newer rock gods like Led Zeppelin were on the vanguard. If the music scene seemed to be a bit on the wane by the middle Seventies, that was OK. By the time we were off to college or moved away to the big city a couple of years later, the punk and indie-rock movement was just taking hold. In my new book, Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey, I examine this ever-shifting and regenerating rock history through how it was captured in concert and documentary films.
From The Song Remains the Same (1976)
Jimmy Page’s fantasy sequence, the most conceptually fine-tuned of the four, arguably holds up the best. It comes during the twenty-eight-minute, nuclear-option version of “Dazed and Confused,” the fame-making psycho blues from the band’s first album. The concert incarnation of “Dazed” featured several sections not heard on the studio original, most notably the unearthly interlude when Page took a violin bow to his guitar, fed it through an echoplex, and played to the crowd like a modern-day Merlin. Then the scene switches to his property near Scotland’s Loch Ness where he had recently (and un-coincidentally) bought the former home of occult figurehead Aleister Crowley. The atmospherics are just right (full moon and a light snowfall) as Page climbs an escarpment in a near re-creation of the “Stairway to Heaven”-suggestive gatefold illustration in Led Zeppelin IV. At the top he meets the same Tarot-deck hermit but it’s actually himself in advanced old age. In a special effects shot that always got a cheer from theater audiences, the hermit’s face then morphs back in time, eventually revealing Page in his Yardbird days, as a schoolboy and as a young tot—suggesting, as Page said in a 2007 magazine interview, that enlightenment “can be achieved at any time in a man’s life.” To top it off, the hermit’s staff turns into a multi-hued light saber.
From Soul to Soul (1973)
Ten years after becoming the first sub-Saharan African country to gain independence in the post-colonial era, Ghana celebrated in part by staging a huge cross-cultural concert event. Featuring local performers and an array of mostly black soul, pop and jazz musicians from the U.S., this was an age before a word like “multiculturalism” was part of everybody’s vocabulary and there is a real sense of discovery here on both sides, though the solidarity is touched with befuddlement at times. The biggest star to the 100,000 fans is clearly Wilson Pickett, whose bravura performance inspires a giant mosh pit.
From The Kids are Alright (1979)
Despite the Who’s tendency to tomfoolery in interviews, in the end all you need is in the music. Jeff Stein made his best directorial move in cajoling a reluctant band to go back on stage at Shepperton Studios and give him one definitive take of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” for the record (there was an invited audience of about 500). Townshend’s eight-minute manifesto of self-determination in an unreliable world is one of rock’s great galvanizing classics and the fired-up band pulls out all the stops. The years of hard living were catching up to Moon (as they would with John Entwistle in 2002) and he showed up for rehearsals overweight and out of practice. But coming out of the song’s electronic keyboard interlude (with its 2001-inspired laser light display) Keith nails the thunderous drum cadenza and Roger lets rip rock’s most histrionic “Yeah!!” while Pete leaps clear across the stage, landing in a knee slide straight at the camera. Yes, rock ‘n’ roll does matter despite the Who’s self-conscious protestations.
From The Filth and the Fury (2000)
Julien Temple started filming the Sex Pistols from their earliest gigs in 1976. He starts The Filth and the Fury with a bracing montage of British social upheaval, discontent and rioting in the mid-70s that left the country ripe for the Pistols’ confrontational and chaotic revolt. It is the ex-Rotten John Lydon who gets off a lot of the best lines in the contemporary interviews, during which group members are shown individually and in silhouette, as if in witness protection, still somewhat menacing. Lydon recalls his life and times as a “damn ugly fuck-up” who emerged “brain-wiped” after being in a coma for a year with a bad case of boyhood meningitis, then realizing at age fourteen he had only a short time left to escape a third-rate fate. By the end, Lydon tears up at the memory of the ill-fated Sid Vicious, admitting to his inability to pull his childhood friend off the dismal path to junkiedom—it affords Sid a humanity rarely allowed to him by both detractors and idolizers.
From Rust Never Sleeps (1979)
Never mind the Jawas: an open-ended life quest, in the end, is concept enough for Rust Never Sleeps. Never as overtly confessional as some of his singer-songwriter contemporaries, Young connects with his fan base using a more loose-ends type of questing poetry. It’s the type that is easy to project oneself into even when the language gets elaborate and impressionistic. Is the Dylanesque “Thrasher” a beguiling manifesto of creative and personal independence or a thinly-disguised dissing of his former and future colleagues named Crosby, Stills and Nash? Of course, it could be both and more, and the imagery (“Where the eagle glides ascending, there’s an ancient river bending/Down the timeless gorge of changes, where sleeplessness awaits”) of escape and discovery are universal. Rust Never Sleeps, both the film and his then-current album of the same name can be seen as an end-of-decade mission statement.
Please contact me via a comment below if you are interested in purchasing a copy. Thanks, Rick Ouellette
Ralph Bakshi, the iconoclastic animator/director who is still probably best known for the 1972 film “Fritz the Cat,” has certainly had a curious career. Born in 1938 to Jewish parents living in Haifa, Israel, his family emigrated to avoid World War II and Ralph grew up on the gritty Brooklyn streets of mid-century New York. A keen interest in illustration and cartooning developed at Manhattan’s School of Industrial Art (now the High School of Art and Design) lifted him above his self-admitted feckless teenage years, but the streetwise demeanor seemed to stick with him. After breaking into the business with the Terrytoons animation studio (creators of Deputy Dawg and Mighty Mouse), Bakshi worked for years to develop his own projects and when he did it met with instant success. “Fritz the Cat”, based on the R. Crumb’s racy comic strip, kickstarted the modern movement of adult animation, with a visual look of stylized realism and blatant themes of sex, violence and drug use that earned Fritz an X rating, which in turn only helped to boost the film’s profile. After that, though, Bakshi seemed content to coast on that initial hit, either re-treading the urban-jungle setting (Heavy Traffic) or indulging in the burgeoning animated fantasy genre (“Lord of the Rings” and “Wizards”). But with 1981’s “American Pop”, where he took on the far-reaching subject of American popular music, he created his biggest fantasy yet: that he knew anything about the topic he was making a movie of.
“Hey man, what is this shit? You’re pulling Houdini and she’s pulling freak-out city!” “American Pop’s” hapless hippie band get saddled with a lot of the film’s tin-eared dialogue.
During the film’s 96 gear-grinding minutes, Bakshi traces the history of this vast genre from mediocre vaudeville performers in the 1910s to a coked-up poseur doing a hatchet job with Heart’s “Crazy on You” to an arena crowd at the end of the Seventies. Authenticity leaks through only occasionally, and inadvertently. The director uses the potentially interesting idea of tracing this musical chronology through four generations of one family. However, hardly anyone in this clan seems to have much talent, having more success as hoodlums and dope pushers than they do as songsmiths. The patriarch starts out as a Russian emigrant kid in New York City who somehow transforms into a Sicilian gangster—he doesn’t have time to learn an instrument but does hang out in nightclubs. He marries a run-of-the mill chanteuse whose affection for home-delivered pretzels leads to tragedy (don’t ask). But this is not before they produce a son who is supposedly a “genius” but never seems to advance past the piano lounge in his daddy’s restaurant. He in turn has a son named Tony (still with me?) who, despite being a dim-witted layabout, somehow manages to compose the classic songs “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” Maybe Bakshi figures that no one will care very much that Tony’s accidental inspiration in late-60s Haight-Ashbury comes several years after some guy named Bob Dylan wrote those songs in “real life.”
I’m sorry, pal, but could you move? We’re trying to shoot the “Physical Graffiti” album cover.
Actually, Tony is almost likable in his unwavering ineptitude. He chafes against the conformity of post-war suburban America and, dressed like James Dean and talking like Brando on sedatives, he goes cross-country, unfortunately impregnating a corn-pone Kansas girl along the way (this progeny turns out to be the “Crazy on You” guy). In a brief lyrical moment, Tony jumps a train and performs a harmonica duet with a black hobo, a rare nod that Bakshi makes to pop music’s great indebtedness to African-American culture. Later, Tony finds himself fed up with the latest in a long line of dishwashing jobs and tells his boss he’s going to keep “moving out West” before being reminded that he’s already in San Francisco. That this applehead is writing a masterpiece like “Hard Rain” only moments later is perverse proof that America is indeed the land of opportunity that his grandfather fled czarist Russia to find.
“American Pop” is based on such a lazy, checklist aesthetic that the only reason I can think of for its initial 1981 box-office success is a long-lingering “oh wow” factor left over from the Sixties. Just let it happen, man! Bakshi’s visual style still had a certain audience-drawing flair, though many elements (like the clunky “punk” montage see above) come across as third-hand information that should be laughable to any real rock fan. Pop history does matter so if you’re going to make a whole film about it, try to get within a mile or two of credibility. Instead, we’re asked to go along with the notion that Jimi Hendrix would open for the squabbling Frisco flunkies that are the movie’s excuse for a hippie band. (OK, Ralph, I heard you got a good price on the rights to use “Purple Haze” but really!). I get the feeling, though, that many of the true-blue fans I mentioned would have mentally checked out by then, long before “American Pop’s” absurdly anticlimactic, fist-raising concert finale. That would leave plenty of time to ponder just why Bakshi felt he needed to foist this clueless cartoon on the world.
My latest book, Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey, is available now in paperback from Amazon and other online retailers, including from my author page at BookLocker.com. Click on this link for a 30-page excerpt: http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html