Guilty pleasures. We all have them. They’re the albums or movies that grab you but that most people toss off and even impugn. Grand Funk’s Survival is one of mine.
Most would agree that Survival, the band’s fourth studio album, is the most polished and clear from an audio standpoint. Where people start to wonder is with the caveman cover art and, more importantly, the music.
Released 38 years ago today, the album was the band’s fifth release in 20 months, counting a two-LP live album. Yet it still sold a million copies on its first day of release. It went gold and reached number six on the album charts inside two weeks. It was yet another example of how Grand Funk found a widespread audience despite being roundly criticized by “experts.” At the same time, I don’t think there’s any question that Survival is a demarcation point.
The first thing a fan notices is the difference in sound. Whether intentional or not, the first three studio LPs were somewhat muddy, almost emphasizing a garage band feel. Survival, in contrast, seems pristine in comparison. It also continues moving Grand Funk closer to a more mainstream feel. In addition to covers of “Feelin’ Alright” and “Gimme Shelter,” guitarist Mark Farner plays keyboards on several songs. Having played keyboards in a garage band, I found it a nice touch at the time. And not only would that addition continue on the next LP, E Pluribus Funk released just seven months later, by 1972 the trio added Craig Frost as a fulltime keyboard player.
Farner’s songwriting also embarks into new areas. With the Vietnam War still going on, he takes on the draft in the opening cut, “Country Road” (“Protect your country and for this you must die/They take your life but they don’t tell you why”). Also in this tenor was “I Want Freedom” and the theme would return on E Pluribus Funk with the unabashedly titled “People Let’s Stop the War.” Perhaps more significant with hindsight is Farner’s compositions, “Comfort Me” and “I Can Feel Him in the Morning.” Farner would release four so-called “Christian rock” albums in the 1980s and early 1990s and these two tracks seem to contain the seeds of that development.
Yet “I Can Feel Him in the Morning” is one of several tunes that led to some of the disdain for this LP. Some thought — perhaps correctly — that opening the song with recordings of children describing God and a choral touch was a tad hokey. Still, the song itself is actually quite good. Others found “All You’ve Got is Money” a bit galling, what with a rock trio generating millions of dollars a year bemoaning the fact that some people befriend others because “all they’re after is your money.” In addition, others considered the two cover songs as indicating the band was at a loss for ideas and panned “Gimme Shelter” as uninspired and boring. Personally, though, “Gimme Shelter” is perhaps my favorite cut on the album, followed closely by “Comfort Me” and “I Want Freedom.”
All these slings and arrows have probably led to Survival becoming a guilty pleasure for me instead of just a pleasure. I know, though, that it is the first Grand Funk album I reach for when I’m in a Grand Funk state of mind.
I want the freedom, the kind that makes me feel strong
But let me tell you, something is wrong
“I Want Freedom,” Grand Funk, Survival