Midweek Music Moment: Grand Funk, Grand Funk Railroad

Want to know the value of album cover art? Take a look at the cover of the Grand Funk album released on December 29, 1969. The blistering red. The afro-haired drummer. The (then) cool looking bass player. The intensity of the lead guitarist. It makes clear that the music they’re generating is causing the album title to vibrate and buzz.
How effective was the cover? Enough that a then 13-year-old boy would shell out hard earned cash at the Tempo Store (you gotta be old to remember those) to buy the album without ever having heard of the band or any of its music. And while the cover art may not have been the primary motivation for others, I was far from alone.

Grand Funk Railroad was one of those bands critics detested. But the band drew thousands and thousands of people to rock festivals and stadium concerts, helping create arena rock. In 1971 it even sold out Shea Stadium faster than the Beatles. The band even thundered Also Sprach Zarathustra, familiar to most as theme music to 2001: A Space Odyssey, from the sound system before taking the stage. As a result, among the musically cultured, listening to Grand Funk Railroad was a guilty pleasure.

Immediately after Grand Funk opens with crashing cymbals and fuzz guitar on “Got This Thing On the Move,” there’s no question the band had its own view of the concept of power trio. Mark Farner’s guitar, Don Brewer’s drums and Mel Schacher’s bass are equal partners throughout most of the album. Even when just laying down a basic bass line, Schacher is as upfront in the mix as the other two. While Farner wrote most of the songs and was probably the “star,” anyone listening to early Grand Funk Railroad has to wonder how many future bass players Schacher inspired. And while he would rely less on it in the future, Farner surely burned through a few fuzz boxes with the music from this LP.

Using a perhaps rudimentary blues-based approach, the band mixed a metal tinge with a hardcore garage sound. At the time, it was just straightforward hard rock. It stood in sharp contrast to both the form and content of what was topping the charts during this time. Half of the songs clock in at six and a half minutes or more and side two consisted of three songs. Yet especially the final two tracks — Farner’s “Paranoid” and a cover of The Animals’ “Inside Looking Out” — display a jamming talent that would be a hallmark of the band. Somewhat surprisingly, Grand Funk went gold in about six months.

Grand Funk Railroad would change its style and approach in coming years, even making it into the top 40. In fact, as with other bands of the era, the original band would ultimately end in bitter litigation. Grand Funk, though, still represents a raw, almost primal, hard rock sound that would influence thousands of listeners, including a 13-year-old kid whose eyes were drawn to that red cover.

Nobody knows the band Grand Funk? The wild, shirtless lyrics of Mark Farner? The bong-rattling bass of Mel Schacher? The competent drum work of Don Brewer? Oh, man!

Homer Simpson, Homerpalooza

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