Grand Funk Railroad rise to fame

Make Mine a Double #6: Grand Funk’s “Mark, Don & Mel” (1972)

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