In 1969 there were perhaps half a dozen US cities with progressive rock on the radio. This is the world into which Grand Funk Railroad would morph from a minor garage band called Terry Knight and the Pack. Top 40 radio on the AM dial was in its golden age, but for a 16-year old in Zanesville Ohio, even that was hard to find until after sunset when two Chicago AM stations hundreds of miles away, WLS and WCFL, legally were allowed to change their coverage patterns, blanketing the otherwise media-starved Upper Midwest at night. Had it not been for one intrepid radio host, Ron Brittain and his late Sunday night “Subterranean Circus” on WCFL, I might not be writing this today, for it was there alone in my bedroom with a battery-powered pocket-sized transistor radio that I first heard musicians including Isaac Hayes with his epic cover of Burt Bacharach and the late Hal David‘s “Walk On By”. It was there also that I heard intriguing new music by bands with funny names including Jethro Tull and Ten Years After, but the band with the funniest name of all also had one of the heaviest sounds to my hormone-saturated ears: Grand Funk Railroad.
Soon there were inevitable comparisons to other 3-piece bands including Cream, but that English trio was much artier, at times with an almost Continental feel due in part to Jack Bruce‘s jazz background plus Pete Brown‘s high-minded lyrics. And while the rock ‘n’ soul in much of Grand Funk Railroad’s music could be compared to other American bands such as Vanilla Fudge and fellow Michiganders Rare Earth, much of the material by those latter two bands consisted of covers of Motown hits. Trust me, that second Grand Funk album with the fire-engine-red cover was in equal rotation on neighbor Mark Lazar’s parents’ Magnavox console stereo along with Blind Faith, Jimi Hendrix Smash Hits , and Led Zeppelin 1 . Grand Funk was our first “road trip” concert ever, in Fall 1970 to Columbus OH , to see them in front of a packed house performing their third gold album in only twelve months, Closer to Home, a Top six seller because of “Sin’s a Good Man’s Brother”,” “Aimless Lady”, the surprise soul ballad “Mean Mistreater“, and the epic “I’m Your Captain/ Closer to Home”.
Ironic then that six years later this “underground radio” raw, gritty, electrified three-man army would be pigeonholed a Top 40 singles band, but amidst bad reviews ( which I believe had more to do with the way in which they were managed than anything ), the irrefutable fact remains that Grand Funk Railroad sold out New York City’s massive Shea Stadium in 48 hours –ten times faster than The Beatles. Here is drummer/ singer Don Brewer and guitarist/ singer Mark Farner for part one of their unlikely story. –Redbeard