Did the Bee Gees Kill Grand Funk Railroad?
Drummer Don Brewer Tells The Story
But if the whiny Aussie trio didn’t actually throw the switch, Grand Funk drummer Don Brewer can make a case that the Bee Gees strapped the Michigan muscle rockers to the chair.
“We could see the writing on the wall that disco was coming,” chuckles Brewer who continues to head up a reconstituted Grand Funk Railroad – on tour for 2012.
“All the bands were getting glittery. We tried the glittery thing but it just didn’t work. So then we tried for an R&B thing and that didn’t work. All we succeeded in doing was alienating our old fans and we weren’t getting any new fans because they wanted something different and didn’t want Grand Funk Railroad anymore.
Everybody wanted The Bee Gees and we just couldn’t do disco.Between 1969 and 1975, Grand Funk Railroad was the rock and roll symbol of what critics hated and real people loved; the definitive FM, arena rock, underground band if ever there was one. Along the way they proved it was possible for a band that put the emphasis on double-digit-minute-length songs could actually have three minute hits.
Brewer, who laughs easily and often at the insanity of the Grand Funk life, recently gave Rock Cellar Magazine an earful. Turned up to eleven, of course.
ROCK CELLAR MAGAZINE: Did you get a better caliber of groupies once you started having No. 1 hits?
DON BREWER: Man! By then most of us were married or had steady girlfriends. The wildest stuff with groupies was in the early days when we were first getting started.
RCM: Did you think of yourselves as a rock band or a singles band?
DB: When we started, we were trying to be an album oriented band. We were coming out of the late 60′s and FM underground radio was all around and they would have no problem playing 10 minute tracks. We always felt we were a live act and everything we did was geared toward a live audience. But when we tried to translate that live attitude into studio recordings it was difficult because the recording techniques were so primitive. It was hard to get that ‘live’ vibe.
RCM: So long story short, you were not really thinking in terms of singles?
DB: Not for the first three albums. At that time, it was all about making great music and gearing up for live shows.
VIDEO: Grand Funk Railroad Live at Shea Stadium, 1971
RCM: When did you start thinking about having commercial hits?
DB: We had just gone through a huge divorce from our manager and producer Terry Knight and a couple of attorneys who had basically ripped us off for everything we made. To make matters worse, by 1972, FM radio had started to go away. All the stations started hiring consultants and they had to have playlists. Jocks were being told what to play and all songs had to be three minutes. We had just changed from a three piece to a four piece band and had hired new management.
The reality was we were flat broke and, if we were going to continue and compete, we were going to have to start making singles.RCM: Was the rest of the band on board with this or did they balk at the idea?
DB: Mark Farner has said in later years that he had balked at the idea. But he was certainly on board back then. I know he wasn’t screaming too loud when the royalty checks started coming in.
RCM: But you were releasing singles from the beginning?
DB: Sure, there were always things being put out. Songs like Closer To Home, Foot Stompin’ Music and Rock ‘n’ Roll Soul. It was basically a matter of editing down longer songs to fit the three minute format. Some of those songs would crack the Top 40 and then fall right back out. We’re An American Band was the first time we had a No. 1 hit.
RCM: How did the song We’re An American Band come into being?
DB: We had just come off our last album with Terry Knight, Phoenix. We had a marginal hit with Rock ‘n’ Roll Soul and were on a 40 city tour behind Phoenix. Terry was suing us in every town we played in and even confiscated all our equipment in New York.
RCM: It sounds pretty grim.
DB: It was a nightmare. At that point we were on our own and it was like ‘Well what do we do now?’ Then we came up with the idea of going to Nashville and producing ourselves. We got down there and were smart enough to enlist Todd Rundgren to help us out.
RCM: So you’re down in Nashville with Todd Rundgren. What happened next?
DB: I came up with the idea for We’re An American Band. I started by picking out my little two fingered chords on guitar, brought them into rehearsal and showed everybody the basic chord changes.
RCM: What about the lyrics?
DB: I wrote the lyrics based on our real life experiences on the road during the Phoenix tour. Things like ‘Up all night with Freddie King.’ ‘Four young conchitas from Omaha, waiting for the band to return from the show.’ ‘Sweet, sweet Connie in Little Rock.’ I had all these tidbits and I just put them into a song. I really didn’t have a tagline until one day it dawned on me, ‘Gee, we’re an American Band.’
RCM: When you presented this to the rest of the band, what was their reaction?
DB: Everybody loved the idea. It was like ‘Yeah! This will be great!’ In those days we rehearsed in the Flint musician’s hall and so we went in and hammered out We’re An American Band in a day or two. We just jammed it and came up with ideas. That’s where the whole cow bell and double bass drums hits happened. We just jammed out until we came up with the arrangement and the song just took off from there.
When we relocated to Miami to record, I was still doubtful that this would be a big single. I was telling everybody ‘You really mean you guys like this?’ Management liked it and the Capitol Records people liked it and they all wanted to put it out immediately.
RCM: How long did it take you to record the song?
DB: The beauty of working with Todd Rundgren was that he was not a stickler for perfection. He was big on editing stuff together and fixing stuff and so we didn’t have to do 50 takes to get one perfect one. We did three takes that were way off the map and out of control.
Todd would say ‘Okay guys, let’s settle it down a bit.’ It ended up being maybe 10 takes and less than half a day and we had the basic track. Then we came back and did the overdubs and the song was done.
RCM: How long after you completed the song was it on the radio?
DB: Literally within weeks. It went out pretty fast. It was out and it was up there really quick.
RCM: What were you guys thinking when We’re An American Band became your first number one hit?
DB: It was like ‘Shit! Now what are we going to do?!’ Our follow up single, Walk Like A Man made the Top 40 but it didn’t get close to being a number one. About that time we had built our own studio in Michigan and we brought Todd back to work on the next album Shinin’ On. We had pretty much finished the album and we’re thinking about Shinin’ On as the next single but management and the people at Capitol didn’t think it had the makings of a number one.
RCM: And that’s when the idea came to cover Locomotion?
DB: We had just come back from a dinner break and in walks Mark (Farner), singing Locomotion.
All of a sudden it hit us: How stupid would it be for Grand Funk Railroad to cover ‘Locomotion’?And once we got over how stupid the idea was and stopped laughing, we thought ‘Let’s do it.’
RCM: So, how stupid was stupid?
DB: The original was so far removed from what we had been doing. It was just beyond totally stupid. But it was like ‘It’s so stupid, let’s try it.’
RCM: So how did you go about Grand-Funking the song?
DB: Todd thought it was a dumb idea, too, but he was also the master of production wizardry and thought we could do something with it. His idea was to make it a fun party track, kind of like The Beach Boys’ Barbara Ann.
That was the atmosphere in which we created the song. The vocals, the overdubs, that crazy guitar sound. Todd was flipping the Echoplex up and down like a madman.
RCM: How long did it take to get Locomotion out?
DB: It was on the radio within a month. We had become notorious for getting stuff out quick.
RCM: You had a couple of Top-10 hits after that with Some Kind Of Wonderful and Bad Time but Locomotion was pretty much the swan-song of the band.
DB: Yeah. A lot of things came down after that. We had switched labels from Capitol to MCA, the band was falling apart and we made it plain to MCA that we would not be touring anymore. But we went into the studio one more time to do the album Good Singin,’ Good Playin’ with Frank Zappa producing.
RCM: How was it working with Zappa?
DB: He was great. We all knew that the album was going to be tossed out there with very little marketing support because we would not be touring. So he basically let us do what we wanted.
Frank definitely had some ideas and it was actually Frank who came up with the album title. The album flopped and it’s kind of too bad because it was a real good album and very much underrated.
RCM: How long were We’re An American Band and Locomotion at number one?
DB: We’re An American Band was on the charts for 17 weeks and number 1 for one week. Locomotion was on the charts for 20 weeks and number 1 for two weeks.
RCM: Not a lot of time at number 1 for either song.
DB: Not a lot of time but 40 years later and they’re still around. We’re An American Band is like the energizer bunny. It just keeps going.