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"We're coming to your town, we'll help you party it down"

Class E

Main Category: Hard Rock
Also applicable: Roots Rock, Arena Rock
Starting Period: The Artsy/Rootsy Years
Also active in: The Interim Years, The Punk/New Wave Years,

The Divided Eighties, From Grunge To The Present Day





Disclaimer: this page is not written from the point of view of a Grand Funk Railroad fanatic and is not generally intended for narrow-perspective Grand Funk Railroad fanatics. If you are deeply offended by criticism, non-worshipping approach to your favourite artist, or opinions that do not match your own, do not read any further. If you are not, please consult the guidelines for sending your comments before doing so. For information on reviewing principles, please see the introduction. For specific non-comment-related questions, consult the message board.

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For eight long years, from 1969 to 1976, Grand Funk Railroad were one of the most popular rock bands in America. They broke attendance records, sold zillions of albums, seemed to be all over the place and even had the luxury of employing such producers as Todd Rundgren and Frank Zappa. They proudly took the slogan of rock music being music for The People and followed it more closely than just about any competition. And they were hated by the critics worldwide. And for good reason...

In the late Sixties, with Led Zeppelin heralding the way, groups of brawny young people all over the world were getting together with the single aim of making music that would be heavy, heavy and heavy again. Yet, as it always happens when you're following a trend, in order to really capture the public eye, that heavy music had to have an identity of its own. Deep Purple made themselves stand out by successfully incorporating classical influences into their fire-breathing act. Black Sabbath pushed the doors open for Satanic or mock-Satanic rock. Mark Farner, Mel Schacher, and Don Brewer did not invent any particular style, and in purely technical terms, weren't really original. But they did start up a trend, a trend that would be even more widely followed and imitated in the Seventies than any of the trends set by these other (and better) bands. They created Populist Rock.

It's rather hard to define what I mean by this in one short sentence, so instead of offering a definition, let me just describe the symptoms. Populist Rock, as pioneered by Grand Funk, is, above all, a form of music completely and totally devoid of humour. This, I think, was the main point of irritation for the critics: rock music is not supposed to take itself as seriously as Mark Farner did (then again, this never worked for Springsteen, so I'm a-guessin' that's far from the only reason). Perhaps "straightforward" would be an even better term than "serious", though. Not a single song written by these guys in their prime could be interpreted in an ambiguous manner; whether Farner was singing about screwing, breaking hearts, Vietnam, or the greatness of the American way, there was never the slightest amount of subtlety in his lyrics, always perfectly suited for the kindergarten level.

Musically, these guys were just as unsophisticated, playing accessible, simple, and brawny roots-rock that didn't provoke a lot of thinking but was great to guzzle a pint o' beer to. In the early days, Farner did the lion's share of songwriting, and somehow it took them quite a bit of time to figure out that the bulk of the band's material being comprised of bulky, scruffy, pompous, and totally unmemorable hard rock behemoths and/or cheap, generic blues rock excursions was directly linked to that fact. Once Don Brewer and new band member Craig Frost joined in the creative process around 1972, the band's albums grew much more consistent and their hits more "natural". But the basic problems still remained.

My attitude towards this band is rather complicated. On one hand, I totally and absolutely join the "general critical opinion" in hating Populist Rock in most of its forms and styles. Bands that value loudness and raw energy over songwriting craft, aggressive preachiness over humour and subtleness, and stale, conservative forms and values over carving out new identities - all of these things at the same time - will never be neither my cup of tea nor my piece of pie; on the contrary, I have and always will despise this general approach. But on the other hand, I cannot deny that quite a few times I have enjoyed the music of Grand Funk, and that quite a few times they have been successful in making decent music - despite all their musical philosophy rather than thanks to it.

In the early days (1969-70), they were at their best every time they let the music actually take over the image. All of the players in the "power trio" were quite efficient from a technical point, and even though they certainly were no Cream (whom they obviously modelled themselves after), they still had the necessary 'chemistry' to rev up the audience, combining just the right amount of technicality, fluency, and loudness to present themselves as thunderstormy Rock Monsters; above all else, they were clinging to old 'garage' ties which the new metal bands had all but abandoned, and this could at times give them the extra power and rawness which even Led Zeppelin could not boast. Think a much more professional version of Blue Cheer, for instance.

Later, the band started moving away from these garage influences, yet just as it was about to completely creatively collapse with piece-o'-shit albums like Survival (filled with more preachiness than a Billy Graham show and less interesting music than a Kenny G record), Brewer and Frost, along with new producer Todd Rundgren, gave the fading monster a shot in the arm and transformed it into a "roots-pop" band; all of a sudden, Grand Funk knew the concept of "hook" and shifted their attention from pretentious nine-minute epics to much more innocent four-minute pop songs. The old problems never really disappeared, but with Rundgren (and then, later, Frank Zappa for one album) at the wheel, got somewhat toned down. The result was a series of perfectly decent, if not exactly classic, albums, surprisingly filled with quite a few nice songs! Yes, for about every one of these nice songs you'd still encounter a boring or an offensive stinker, but what with the very idea of Grand Funk almost automatically cutting off the possibility of creating good music, this totally anomalous improvement was certainly amazing.

In 1976, the band abruptly stopped their - up to that moment, exceedingly prolific - album flow and went on halt, with Farner pursuing a little-known solo career; the band later reconvened in the early Eighties for a couple of studio albums and then even later in 1997 for a one-time reunion concert, but both these ventures seemed to reek of financial or conjunctural reasons rather than artistic ones, and nobody really needs to know anything about this stuff. Not that anybody actually needs to know about the early stuff either! But if you can't get enough of generic, brawny, ass-kicking early Seventies hard rock, the band's self-titled studio album from 1970 or - even better - the Live Album will certainly be a decent treat for you. Of course, if you happen to be a severely obnoxious right-wing patriotic nut, Mark Farner's just about the perfect poster guy for your bedroom. But we're talking music here, not the fate of El Salvador.

Lineup: Mark Farner - guitar, vocals; Mel Schacher - bass; Don Brewer - drums; Craig Frost, keyboards, joined 1972. Band fell apart, 1976; Farner and Brewer reformed in 1981, adding former pal Dennis Bellinger on bass; collapsed again, 1983. The last reunion (the one that spawned the Bosnia album) was for a couple tours in 1997-98 and included all three original members. As far as I know, God the Merciful has prevented the band from reuniting again so far.



Year Of Release: 1969

Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 9

Energy isn't everything... and being way too pretentious is nothing.

Best song: T.N.U.C. (minus the drum solo)

Track listing: 1) Are You Ready; 2) Anybody's Answer; 3) Time Machine; 4) High On A Horse; 5) T.N.U.C.; 6) Into The Sun; 7) Heartbreaker; 8) Call Yourself A Man; 9) Can't Be Too Long; 10) Ups And Downs.

Listening to this album only further convicts me of the bizarre conservatism inherent to the American brand of mainstream rock criticism. See, judging by what we learn from the archives, upon its release On Time was universally panned throughout the States as completely out of time - too loud, too heavy, too noisy and too un-musical. With many of the songs denied radioplay (no kidding!). And this at a time when Led Zeppelin II was already occupying the minds of the British and European public, an album in comparison to which On Time seems like the Carpenters. Heavy? Not on your life.

Okay, so it ain't exactly soft, either, I'll give you that. Guitarist Mark Farner does emphasize his fuzz and distortion and plays some mean riffs throughout; bassist Mel Schacher lays on some particularly fat bass (not too fat, though) and Don Brewer bashes and crashes upon everything within sight with a heavy emphasis on the cymbals. But there's hardly anything special that sets their style of playing apart from the Who or Jimi Hendrix - except that the Who had far better melodies and Jimi had a far superior overall sound, of course. Hell, even 'minor' bands like Blue Cheer, who came at least a year before GFR, had a thicker and more hard-hitting sound.

The basic problem here, as far as I understand, was that the Funkers aimed for a different kind of audience - they weren't Southerners, but they obviously went for that corner of the market that would soon raise all kinds of "classic Southern rock" like the Allmans and Skynyrd. On Time sounds simple, gutsy, pretentious (in a bad, overtly obvious, pseudo-intelligent and, often, preachy - yuck - way), and at the same time, absolutely inoffensive and clean: it's hard rock, sure, but it's hard rock for sissies, the kind of people who were finding Blue Cheer and Led Zeppelin way too dangerous for them because the former had too big an anti-establishment aura around them, while the latter were just a bit too demonic. Which, of course, explains their commercial success as opposed to Blue Cheer, who never really managed to truly hit the big time. In short, Grand Funk Railroad = hard-rock Carpenters. Get that?

That said, this here album is not at all bad. It just ain't particularly interesting. The guys got some nice, acceptable grooves going on, and it's only when they go for a real 'power' approach that I feel a wave of disgust crawling over me, especially on the power ballad 'Heartbreaker'. Perversely, it's probably the only so-called 'GFR classic' on here, the one song that makes it onto each and every compilation and suchlike, but that's just due to bad taste (oh 'scuse me, "bad taste" is not politically correct, well then, allow me to expand: "due to the fact that people like cliched, formulaic displays of faux emotionality"). Gruesomely inadequate, it does set a precedent - it's probably the very first power ballad ever written (Mother America distinguishes itself in genre-creating, yahoo), and so sets a nice example for Uriah Heep and Aerosmith and the Scorpions and whoever. Sorry, I'm simply alergic to power ballads. Why is it that they are all based on two or three chords, but presented in the guise of the Lord God's latest revelation? Bah. At least if they gave this one to Joe Cocker, he might have saved it with his powerhouse vocals; Mark Farner is, well, just a guy with some vocal cords.

The rockers are good, though. 'Are You Ready?' sets a good, nice-hearted, upbeat tone, and Farner's lead work is quite technically solid and enjoyable, too. I could do with a bit less power chords, but hey, there is a riff, so why complain. See, whenever they're just trying to raise hell without too many references to Heaven, I'm not offended. 'Time Machine' is an okay, if not spectacular, piece of blues-rock that again features Mr Farner beating out some mildly unusual chord sequences out of his guitar (specially in the intro - I guess that was the band's interpretation of "funk" back in '69, and it sure ain't the worst interpretation of funk I've heard), but the best of the bunch is unquestionably 'T.N.U.C.' - the best, that is, if they'd only bothered to keep out the obligatory drum solo. It's interesting in that the guitar is mainly following a Hendrix-inspired pattern - check out Jimi's earliest maniac rockers like 'Killing Floor' for direct prototypes - but watch out for the bassline: it's quite different from the main rhythm work and pounds out a cool riff of its own which, I'm pretty sure, was later copped by Martin Barre for 'To Cry You A Song'.

What's typical for the album is that every time there's something good to be said about a song, there usually is something bad to be said about it as well. 'T.N.U.C.' would be excellent were it not for the ridiculous drum solo. 'Anybody's Answer' is massive and powerful, but it's also the preachiest tune on the album, and Farner's "blue-eyed soul" delivery is about the least probable thing on Earth to get me converted. 'High On A Horse' has some groovy, incendiary soloing going out there, but the song is little else than a pretext for that soloing, and the high-pitched screaming in the verses really warrants the use of an adjective that belongs to the semantic class of "silly" from me in this context. And 'Into The Sun', after a lengthy, but somewhat pointless, introduction, goes into this tight groove driven by Mark's "scraping" funk-rock riff, similar to Martin Barre's choo-choo train imitation on 'Locomotive Breath', but the verse melody is so directly ripped off from Cream's 'Sweet Wine' that it just plain hurts me to pay the track any respect. Not to mention that I hold a personal grudge towards lines like 'I'll be writing you a letter/'Cause I just got paid' (which - I suppose - presumes that up to that moment, the protagonist did not have enough funds to pay for stationery).

But regardless of any particular pinches and nitpicks, in essence it all boils down to whether the railroadmen are pounding out simple, unpretentious rock'n'roll or whether they set their ambitions somewhat higher. In the first case, you get a good American band that's probably not well worth memorizing, but at least well worth hearing. In the second case, you get... er... did I mention yet that I can't stand Mark Farner's voice when he's setting the registers to "grand, universalist"? That's where Styx comes from. And Heep. And Lou Gramm. And Dave Coverdale. This school of rock vocalism simply gives me the creeps. Gimme Stevie Wonder and James Brown over that any time o' day. Or, at least, Joe Cocker or Ian Gillan - the very top of that particular class of white singers.



Year Of Release: 1970

Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 10

Git out yer beers! Everybody CHUG-A-LUG! LET'S RAAAAAAWK!


Track listing: 1) Got This Thing On The Move; 2) Please Don't Worry; 3) High Falootin' Woman; 4) Mr Limousine Driver; 5) In Need; 6) Winter And My Soul; 7) Paranoid; 8) Inside Looking Out.

This just might be the greatest Poor Man's Led Zeppelin album ever - and it certainly is the grand... nay, not funk, the Grand Mother of All Things Barroom Rock related. For this, Farner and Co. merit curses mixed in with admiration. At the peak of rock's struggle to find something new, with psychedelia, artsiness, newly emerged "Satanic metal", and God knows what else, here we have a bunch of guys who not only do not strive to find anything, they shove their lack of struggle right in yer face. Grand Funk is so hideously bland and devoid of personality that it could have been easily recorded by a couple million hard rock bands in the Seventies. But, perversely enough, this is also its forte: at a time when there might have been just about too much personality around, these guys made an album of pure, totally unadulterated, completely unpretentious (not even a drum solo!) rock'n'roll that could go down quite well even on an empty stomach.

As usual, the big problem is that I can't remember a single one of these melodies once they're over, apart from 'High Falootin' Woman' maybe which is just a generic blues progression anyway. Well, I guess 'Winter And My Soul' has a riff that's easy to remember as well... mainly due to its endless repetition over the course of six minutes. But that's not the point. These guys may be professionals and rather good instrumentalists, but this is still DIY at its rudest: just pick up the guitar and play whatever you want, as long as it is loud, brawny, and powerful. After all, not everybody can be Jimi Hendrix or Cream. Here's that nice alternative you've been looking for!

This is indeed the best GFR album of their "early" period, not because it's entirely different from the rest of their output, but maybe because it does a good job of emphasizing all their strong points and downplaying all the weak ones. Not a single ballad on here, for one thing, meaning that Farner is quite tolerable, and a lot of tracks that really aim for the "play-it-out" approach, with bombastic crescendos and fuzzy trills and everything that constitutes rock'n'roll excitement. In other words, it's notably more adequate because they aren't even pretending that they're making songs - as structured compositions, none of these make any real sense at all. Instead, they just concentrate on testosterone, and do it successfully.

In that respect, it's the long songs on here, where the band shines in all of its primitive glory, that really stand out. The short numbers are decent enough, but I have little interest in Farner-sung verses and choruses, while the instrumental sections are too short. 'High Falootin' Woman' takes us to the same territory as 'Time Machine' did on the previous album, and that territory - generic mid-tempo blues rock - is really something I don't want to hear from Grand Funk at all. I can be excused for that. 'Mr Limousine Driver' is slightly more inventive, but reminds me way too much of the Cream vibe on 'Politician' without the cool multi-tracked guitar solos. Probably the best of the short tracks is 'Got This Thing On The Move', which gives the album an even better start than 'Are You Ready' did - more fuzz and distortion, baby! More balls-to-the-wall!

The record's major piece is unquestionably the closing "suite" 'Inside Looking Out'. It takes a rather long time to build up, and when it finally settles into its initial groove, one might think the groove's a bit too wimpy, but eventually this is resolved - the real fun starts once the song gets past the three-minute mark, with a series of simple, but well-constructed solos (including another chugga-chugga funky section) from Farner and, well, basically a lot of different things going on: they keep moving in all directions and never settle down in one groove for too long. Running ahead now, I'd have to admit that this sounds much better when it's even rawer - that is, in the context of a live show, but, after all, this is their rawest-sounding studio album.

I also like 'In Need', which adds a poppy scent to the proceedings - Farner's "rolling" riffs that open the song are much more cheerful than should be requested for a gritty blues-rock album, which is okay in my book (and actually earned bonus points for some other albums, including Quicksilver Messenger Service's 1971 sucker). Later on the song evolves into a shamelessly straightforward blues pounder before dissipating in a flurry series of arpeggios and other shit Mark plays before they triumphantly close the proceedings, but it ain't stupid. Or maybe it is, but it works on a gut level. This is what Grand Funk Railroad should have been doing for the rest of their lives instead of propagating the values of a heavily Christian sexual maniac.

The other long epic on here is 'Paranoid', which, unfortunately, suffers much from the inevitable comparisons with the Black Sabbath song of the same name, recorded less than a year after this one. Not that the two songs have much in common - the Sabbath one is a frenzied three-minute piece o' boogie, the GFR one is a take-your-time eight-minute piece of "hard-art" philosophizing - but where the Sabbath song at least has an understandable conception, a memorable melody and a unique guitar tone, this one only has the unique guitar tone, and it's not a very ear-pleasing guitar tone, I'll tell you! Sounds like a wah-wah pedal receiving a double amount of electricity. Still kicks some ass, though.

Make no mistake about it - this is a seminal album. Without it, there would have been no Bad Company, no Kiss, no Lynyrd Skynyrd, no Foreigner, and maybe even the Eagles wouldn't have dared to go "rock". Or, well, there probably would have been all these bands, but I wouldn't have a chance to make such a terrific statement. If you think I'm being ironic, well, yes, I am, but don't get me wrong: Grand Funk is a good record. Even if I have no idea how it could - according to a reader comment below - "blow people's minds away" in 1970 when there's not a single thing here, except maybe for the ugly guitar tone on 'Paranoid', that hadn't been done better by Hendrix (to whom this record could have been easily dedicated, it borrows so much of his style). Probably it blew away the minds of those people who thought it unsuitable for themselves to listen to Hendrix, if you know what I mean, and that's not a very nice suggestion.



Year Of Release: 1970

Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 8

Every time these guys cut down on the energy level, I'm left scratching my head wondering why the hell am I supposed to dig this.


Track listing: 1) Sin's A Good Man's Brother; 2) Aimless Lady; 3) Nothing Is The Same; 4) Mean Mistreater; 5) Get It Together; 6) I Don't Have To Sing The Blues; 7) Hooked On Love; 8) I'm Your Captain.

Duh. I'm no big GFR fan, but I honestly enjoyed the "Red Album". I sure as hell saw no grand composing genius there, but the sound was so big and crunchy - on much of that record - I didn't really give a damn. So why tone that down and kill off a good formula when it was working so steadily? Were they afraid of not getting enough airplay or something like that? I'm not saying there are no powerful rockers on this album, but there's definitely less of them than before, and overall their attention seems to have been steadily dragged towards (a) trying to justify the "funk" in the bandname by playing more of those bland, not-too-convincing white-man-chug-chug guitar lines that no Sly/Funkadelic fan would give a shit about and (b) bringing in more blue-eyed soul and gospel influences which would require the listener to actually, like, open up his heart to Mark Farner, and I definitely won't do that.

What the heck - speaking very roughly and dirtily, upon the first few listens all of these songs suck. All of them. Not all of them are awful, but for some reason, the record turns out to be an even bigger mess in the songwriting department than its predecessor. I give the album a rating of eight because I still like the effect that these guys get on some of their material - the guitar tones, the excellent bass playing, the furious drumming. I mean, if only they'd been given better material to sing, they could have turned into America's greatest hard rock band ever, and one of the world's most worthy factors on the scene. But noooo, they just had to fuck it all up by wasting their power on uninteresting and/or derivative riffs.

Naturally, the rockers are definitely more listenable than the ballads - 'Nothing Is The Same' and 'Sin's A Good Man's Brother' probably beat out everything else on the record, and even then they're absolutely no William Shakespeare. No great Shakes, that is. I like the bass playing on 'Nothing Is The Same' (Mel Schacher could have been a serious big funk star... in another company), but essentially, that song seems to be an attempt to one-up the "funk triumph" of their current rivals, the James Gang, that they achieved with 'Funk # 49'. It's like, 'hey, let's take the vibe of 'Funk #49', build a more complex song around it and show those mofos who's the real funkster around here!'. The problem is, 'Funk #49' was such a cool song exactly because it was so simple - repetitive as hell, but catchy because it managed to make funk playful and just plain fun. 'Nothing Is The Same' takes the same vibe and manages to make it dull and forgettable - so much that the song never really lives up to its opening "ringing" guitar line. Why didn't they build the actual tune around that one?

This leaves the title of best song to 'Sin', whose whacky, dirty riffage is as close as it really gets to recapturing The Red Album's mammoth atmosphere, although it's really an extremely deceptive intro - and Farner's pompous vocals aren't that much to my liking either. But at least it shows they were still able to rock out well when they weren't too busy arranging background gospel vocals, and it does earn the album extra points. More extra points are earned by 'I Don't Have To Sing The Blues', a song so stupid and obvious in its corniness that I just take it for what it is, a goofy 'happy' send-up to have a cute giggle about. On the other hand, maybe not. Maybe I was just wooed over by the nice-sounding solo.

Hmm, perhaps that last line wasn't too clear, but I couldn't rephrase it for the life of me. Let's move on to the bashing now. 'Mean Mistreater', again, is the type of "classic rock power ballad" that's absolutely detestable. To be more precise, it's perfectly alright until Farner actually starts singing - I like the organ intro, but there's something so atrociously fake sounding when Mark's vocals come in about ten times louder than everything else, so that it's like he's singing directly in your face and you feel his tobacco-stained breath all over it, I can't stand it. Sorry. Maybe out of the general context of GFR, or sung by a different artist, the song would have sounded better, but what can I do? These kinds of songs are made for people to get emotional about, and I much prefer to get emotional about a Nick Drake song or a Paul McCartney song than a Mark Farner song.

'Get It Together' is a meaningless love-and-peace soulful anthem (mostly instrumental and seriously organ-based) that seems to bring GFR at peace with Crosby, Stills & Nash who they were so obviously the local antithesis of just a year before. Wonder how many fans it cost 'em; not to mention that the big difference between GFR and CSN was in that the latter could actually write good melodies - this one seems to have, at most, two different musical phrases, which finally change into one, endlessly repeated with Farner adding ecstatic "soul" rambling to the proceedings. Gee. And the two lengthy album closers are a hellish nightmare to me, both of them, eeh, yuck yuck yuck. 'Hooked On Love' ain't so much funk as it is rather a horrible white-bread send-up on some classic R'n'B tune. And while I don't usually engage in all kinds of "white boys should stay away from appropriating black boys' music" discussions, this is a clear-cut case of 'em saying such stuff being right, too. It kills me hearing Farner strain and belt out all those James Brown-imitating screeches and trying to produce something really energetic with his guitar but instead just repeating the same monotonous, tired riff over and over again. For seven minutes, Lord. For seven minutes.

The worst offender, however, is 'I'm Your Captain'. I know it's supposed to be a classic rock staple and all, but it's so painfully inadequate and primitive to this reviewer's ears that all ye classic rock radio fans will just have to excuse me. If it were a short two-minute acoustic ditty, it would probably have gone unnoticed and fans of the band would treat it as a minor, pretty, pleasant throwaway. Unfortunately, the guys had the idea to transform it into a pretentious ten-minute artsy epic - replete with a 'Hey Jude'-like coda (the one that gives the album its name) that drags for eternity. Now I know it's all pretty subjective, and what's the big difference between appreciating the endlessly repeated 'na na na' of 'Hey Jude' and the endlessly repeated 'I'm getting closer to my home' of 'I'm Your Captain'? Well, let's put it this way: regardless of one's actual attitude towards these codas, there is an objective difference between them. 'Hey Jude' ends in carnivalesque fashion - its ending is actually a funny one, during which you can pull faces, spout out stupid nonsense and basically stand on your head. 'I'm Your Captain' ends like a cathartic anthem - you are supposed to feel the beauty of it (that's what all the orchestral flourishes are for) rather than the fun of it. This, of course, means that it is, by definition, more pretentious. And that's exactly what makes me feel it's so inadequate: for a supposedly "grandiose" statement like that I sure wish they'd pick more than just one simple musical phrase which, really, doesn't get much better no matter how many sound layers you pile up on it.

That said, hey, it's your dime. Feel free to love this record more than your younger brother. Me, I'll get back to my compilations of Blue Cheer highlights. Oh, and if you;re about to ask the dreaded question "What's so different between this album and the Red one?", the answer will be simple: "The Red one didn't have anything like the tracks I've highlighted in blue".



Year Of Release: 1970

Record rating = 10
Overall rating = 11

More of that awesome noise, please, less of that "brothers and sisters" crap.

Best song: IN NEED

Track listing: 1) Introduction; 2) Are You Ready; 3) Paranoid; 4) In Need; 5) Heartbreaker; 6) Inside Looking Out; 7) Words Of Wisdom; 8) Mean Mistreater; 9) Mark Says Alright; 10) T.N.U.C.; 11) Into The Sun.

Well, for better or for worse, if you're not a major fan, this might be all the Grand Funk Railroad you'll ever need - at least, out of their first period when they were still "Railroad". (But why doesn't it say 'Railroad' on the front cover? I'm really afraid of messing up, you understand - and these guys just won't give you no slack!).

Simply put, GFR live is a radically different experience from GFR studio. Disregarding the ballads ('Heartbreaker' and 'Mean Mistreater' sound more or less the same as the originals), all of this rockin' stuff really, really rocks. I mean, really. There's some wonderful, primal, ballsy, kick-ass rock'n'roll, not just tons of mediocre wanking all over the place. Well, there is some mediocre wanking as well, for sure - after all, it's the early Seventies we're talking about - but the climactic moments, spread a-plenty all over the place, more than make up for some second-rate passages. Pretty much every song gets improved from its regular studio version, even the stuff from The Red Album; I might quote 'Paranoid' as an exception, because apparently they couldn't quite reproduce the mean, 'poisonous' guitar tone of that song on stage with enough authenticity - but at least it still rocks hard.

The interesting thing is - I really can't say what's so particularly great about these performances. The songs, true to the spirit of the epoch, are all extended beyond hope (the double album has just nine songs!), with endless jams nudging out the very bare glimpses of melodies. The production is nearly abysmal; sometimes it seems like the engineers just didn't bother to separate the tracks at all, and the audience constantly manages to outscream the playing (although, granted, in a few places their maniacal screams actually manage to raise the tension - in a cheap way, of course, like sometimes behind the screen laughter in sitcoms forces you to laugh, but hey, GFR are a "cheap" band, it's adequate). And most interesting, the band members themselves, well, Farner primarily, turn out to be just as inane on stage as they were in the studio.

I mean, come on, I'm no musician, but it's really obvious that Mark Farner is actually a very limited guitar player. A decent one, sure, but technically weak. He shares the Big Brother & The Holding Co. problem: masking the lack of improvisatory talent by putting on insane amounts of distortion, fuzz and other effects, and cranking the volume up to level ten thousand. He goes as far as to play really speedy solos while using all these "dirty" tones, which is really cool because you can't tell if he's actually playing one note or twenty. And yet, just like Big Brother, he somehow makes all that noise come across as something enjoyable and sincerely rocking. I don't know how. He just does, that's all - producing sounds that manage to excite me where the studio recordings all failed. He lacks the awesome dynamics of, say, Pete Townshend, who could turn a two-minute guitar solo into a complex drama impersonated by twenty actors, but he's got a good feel for extracting the "primal scream" out of that thing all the same. In a similar way, Schacher is no bass virtuoso - but he compensates for it by making his bass louder, fatter, gruffer than anybody else's in the arena-rock business, and whenever Farner refrains from playing it too loud, it's like that local earthquake coming on.

The material mainly relies on the three previous studio albums, with the exception of one half-pseudo-funky, half-boogie improv piece ('Mark Says Alright'); but I really couldn't care less, because, apart from maybe 'Are You Ready' and 'Into The Sun' and the first two minutes of 'In Need', none of these songs had memorable melodies in the first place. If anything, GFR is one band whose live albums simply can't be judged according to the song selection principle - whatever you get, you're guaranteed to have a lot of dreck. So I usually just sit and stare blankly at something nice nearby as they play their hearts and lungs out on the main melodies, and then my attention gets picked up as soon as the band gets into jamming mode. That's when the fun starts.

Apart from a few obligatory excesses like the extended drum solo on 'T.N.U.C.', these jams are all fascinating; the guys really get the crowd going. Like I said, nothing in the way of technical virtuosity, but there's a lot of subtle and witty dynamics on here. They sure know how to speed up the tempo, for instance, or how to make a perfect instrumental crescendo, or how to get your blood flowing with all those squeaky, screeeching tones. Unstoppable, undescribable fits of headbanging, and I can totally understand the audience going wild. My personal favourite is easily 'In Need', starting from around the fourth minute - with Farner hanging on that one string and Mel hanging on that one fat bass note and the audience slowly revved up to the classic glam-rock state of ecstasy (like Mick Ronson used to sometimes do at David Bowie concerts). 'Into The Sun' comes seriously close, although the best passages there are so intoxicating not due to the "shrillness" of delivery but rather to the overwhelming chaotic wall of sound. It's hard to discern if they're playing more than two or three notes, but this is where you have to let your guts run wild, not your intellectual guide.

This is, I daresay, the Seventies' equivalent of Eighties' hair-metal debaucheries, except that Grand Funk Railroad were just one band with a unique sound (hear me say that, hear me say that - at the time, at least) and ninety percent of Eighties' hair-metal bands sounded like they were all studying the same rusty pack o' sheetnotes. So skip the ballads, close your eyes on disgraceful production, close your ears to Farner's Christian remarks coming through from time to time (thank God there's none of that awful gospel stuff of theirs on this record - not even 'I'm Your Captain' made the grade!), and you got yourself a damn fine reason for this band's existence.



Year Of Release: 1971

Record rating = 5
Overall rating = 6

Yeah, I'd prefer to be a primitive caveman too if I had to listen to this mind-rotting preachiness on a regular basis.


Track listing: 1) Country Road; 2) All You've Got Is Money; 3) Comfort Me; 4) Feelin' Alright; 5) I Want Freedom; 6) I Can Feel Him In The Morning; 7) Gimme Shelter.

Now honestly, stupidity doesn't get any further than this. Apparently, at some time the G-Funkers realized their own material was, mildly speaking, totally devoid of hooks, so they decided to pad the album with a few cover versions so as to enrich their specific brand of hard-rock with some pleasant melodies written by some of their betters. But when we are Grand Funk and we're doing a cover, do we do it in half-measures? Certainly not, and they start their cover routine with - sic! - 'Gimme Shelter'. Needless to say, the song is completely and utterly butchered; were the original lost for ever, we could have probably appreciate this band's version a bit more, but as such, it simply loses all of the tension that was present on Let It Bleed. Keith Richard's subtle, cleverly syncopated rhythms have been substituted for a monotonous, robotic, vacuum-cleaner distorted bass grumble (which also loses all the signs of "ominous-ness" induced by the original's clever use of the tremolo effect); Charlie Watts' wonderful 'drum-shooting' is replaced by Brewer's stupid repetitive lines; Farner's voice overemotes, sounding pretentious and artificial; and the female backing vocals are 'plastic soul', not even close to Mary Clayton's shiver-sending lines on the Stones' record. Of course, I guarantee that there are enough Grand Funk fans in this world that'd be happy to state that this version 'annihilates' the original because it kicks ten times more ass or anything, but hey, not only do we sometimes live in different worlds, we also live in different aesthetic paradigms.

And it wouldn't be nearly as bad, actually, hadn't Farner succeeded in making 'Gimmie Shelter' just one single brick in his now-perfected Great Wall of Preachiness - where it used to be a creepy message of warning against the real evils of this world, now it sits beside gospel pap such as 'I Can Feel Him In The Morning' and functions as a generic apocalyptic message for those who are born again. Yes, kids, Survival is a purely Christian album, and a ravaging, ecstatic, Baptism-or-whatever-drenched Christian album at that. Which could be tolerable in the hands of a genius like Stevie Wonder, but is totally detestable in the hands of a so-so hack like Mr Farner. Most of the previous albums had streaks of religious passion in some place or another, but with Survival, it's like a resolute transition. And, of course, if you needed more proof than Bob Dylan's Saved that blind by-the-book dedication to the core of Protestant ethics wreaks havoc upon your artistic gift, you can wrap this one up and take it to court straight away. Godawful, simply godawful.

The other cover that they do is Traffic's 'Feelin' Alright' (for some reason, people just loved covering that song - Joe Cocker had a hit with his version of it, too); it's okay, mainly due to the fact that the original would be hard to spoil, but certainly expendable. And as for the other stuff, well, disaster comes after disaster. For some reason, the songs start getting even longer than before - to compensate for lack of creative ideas, apparently. Long, pompous, and completely generic and worthless boredom celebrations which seem to present themselves as oh so majestic and unique and spiritual, but in reality sound like your average Southern gospel band with a distorted electric guitar and a white screamin' guy thrown in for good measure. 'I Want Freedom' and 'Comfort Me' are completely forgettable in that respect - they might pass as acceptable background music, but why not throw on some real gospel instead? Would this stand competition with Aretha Franklin? Or Marvin Gaye? Besides, I don't see why anybody should be interested in hearing a minute and a half of the band's studio banter in the intro to 'I Want Freedom', either. Did they really need to pad out the record to such an extent?

Apparently, yes, or else they wouldn't have preceded 'I Can Feel Him In The Morning' (yet another completely generic gospel number) by two minutes of little children describing their understanding of God, you know, like they do in those TV games where you have to guess the word by the kids' description of it: 'he kind of started all the plants growing, and he started people...'. Rarely have I met a more banal idea in my life - the inadequacy really hurts me deep down the heart. 'Good means to obey your mother and father, to do what the teacher says.' Do we really need our noses rubbed in all this shit? Do we really need to be explicitly told, over and over again, that Grand Funk Railroad are pandering towards the lowest common denominator and that they don't give a damn about it?

Musically speaking, this is probably GFR's mellowest record up to that point, and you know the score: the mellower it gets, the more unbearable it becomes. Not even Schacher saves the day with his ultra-heavy bass - when there's next to no interesting guitar work to compete with it, most of Mel's tricks don't seem to work on me. Two rockers, placed at the very beginning of the record (the lumbering, guitar-heavy 'Country Road' - with probably the best bass riff on the whole record, which ain't saying that much - and the 'evil-sounding' 'All You've Got Is Money' with a lot of Roger Waters-style screaming and Zeppelin-like "dark mystery atmosphere" tacked on at the end), are solid enough to save it from being one of the worst albums ever recorded, and, well, the covers aren't exactly bad, they're just totally unnecessary in the light of the superior originals (in the case of 'Gimmie Shelter', far superior originals). But the gospel crap just 'bores the daylight out of me', as the poor Mr Jagger would have said. Perhaps Revival would be a more suitable title for the album; the only thing these guys needed would be to get rid of the guitar and drums, and then they could just go and offer their services to the Reverend Billy Graham.

Oh, I know. They were probably scared of the musical press comparing them with Black Sabbath, and so decided to carve out a totally church-respecting identity for themselves. Funny thing is, Sabbath put out an album with Christian lyrics on it the same year - but at least Sabbath never resorted to generic gospel, now did they? Take my advice - forget about this tripe and go buy Master Of Reality instead if you wanna indulge in some basic Christian morality. Or just reread the Gospel according to your favorite apostle. Come to think of it, at least it's a good thing Mark Farner wasn't born in Judaea two thousand years ago, you know.



Year Of Release: 1971

Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 9

Good ol' rock energy IS sometimes known to wash the gargling water of preachiness out of potentially bad songs, you know.

Best song: NO LIES

Track listing: 1) Foot Stompin' Music; 2) People Let's Stop The War; 3) Upsetter; 4) I Come Tumblin'; 5) Save The Land; 6) No Lies; 7) Loneliness.

What do you know? After two major embarrassments (Live Album not counting) in a row, at long last, a decent album, and a record that initiates a period when GFR were... hmmm... almost not bad, and at the same time closes up the period of GFR being an unpolished, raw-energy-led "primal rock" band - starting with their next album, they would completely redefine their image; thus, an essential purchase for the fan (in my humble opinion - more essential than Closer To Home, yep I'm a controversial freak). My best guess is someone around told them, 'Hey guys, you sure look cool with those guitars, but come on now, why the hell do you have that "Funk" word in your moniker?', because this album is certainly closer to real funk than anything they ever did before.

Since I'm no great expert in classic masters of the genre, I won't engage in lengthy discussions on whether GFR's brand of funk just follows the 'white boy doing black guys' work' pattern or if they have a unique sound of their own. My intuitional guess is it's rather the former than the latter, but then again, I don't usually like to speak in these categories. Direct comparisons between two bands are all right, but basic generalizations like "white musicians can't funk like black musicians can" always have that treacherous little backside to 'em. What I do know is - I'm not at all offended by this album, at least, not by its overall dandy looks. And the main reason is that for the most part, they wisely throw out the cheap gospel garbage that made Survival such an exercise in said activity for the listener, and replace it with high-volume bombastic rockers, i. e. the stuff they always did best - only this time they really drive it into the funk camp, with tons of raunchy wah-wah leads, hot pulsating basslines (geez, despite all the hype, that Schacher guy is really getting close to becoming my favourite member of the band), and crowd-pleasing vocals overloaded with lyrical cliches. Still, I don't mind the cliches so much because I hardly ever notice the lyrics, too busy digging the grooves.

From the very start, when 'Footstompin' Music' hits you with that 'ba-boom ba-boom ba-boom ba-boom' of the bass and swirling organ, you know you'll at least get to tap your foot recklessly - you'll probably end up remembering none of these tunes, as the non-sense of melody faithfully sticks to Farner and co., but, after all, come on, you don't really need to remember every formulaic rock'n'roll song ever played in the Seventies. Save your memory cells for analytic geometry basics instead. Yet while they're actually on, you will stomp your foot a lot, you'll play air guitar, and did I mention the 'party factor' yet? Probably not, but I guess it's obvious. That song, by the way, also features a wonderful finger-flashing lead from Farner; speed does matter, after all.

Of course, I was very much afraid on seeing the second song's title - when you see a song named 'People Let's Stop The War' and it's performed by Grand Funk Railroad, trouble is just one step ahead. But turns out that trouble never really comes: the song's a guitar/bass paradise, with Schacher laying on some particularly thick, throbbing lines, and Farner throttling his six-string and practically annihilating the wah-wah pedal on that crazy rhythm. So were there any lyrics? There probably were, but I never noticed them and I couldn't have done better.

'I Come Tumbling' and 'No Lies' are two more songs that hold up the general groovy atmosphere pretty well, particularly the former - fast, paranoid, with a rap-like vocal delivery and fiery guitar riffage all over the place. Big, heavy, and smelly - that's the thing Grand Funk Railroad was all about, brother! (The only thing I don't get is all those soft, slow, relaxing acoustic intros to the songs. Nobody needs 'em, guys, let's just go crashing in the groove at once, or somebody will be tempted to press the skip button.) That said, over time I've come to regard 'No Lies' as the real highlight, if only because it features the heaviest, densest riff on the whole record - a very simple, recycled riff, to be sure, but honestly, it's the only song on here that really captures the full greasy, sweaty vibe of the Red Album by not just rocking the house, but actually rattling it.

'Save The Land' and 'Upsetter' aren't my favourites, because the former is slower and dippier (and once again they got me disgusted with the song title - could they be any more obvious?) and the latter is lighter and sleazier, but still, they're all right. Not so with the album closer, the lengthy pseudo-epic 'Loneliness' which almost robbed the album of one point. It's not a gospel tune, but it again reverts us to the band's power ballad style, and it closely follows the principle that the longer a GFR song is, the less adequate it actually seems. Neither Farner's "I'm-the-Lord-God-if-you-didn't-know-it (or at least his faithful prophet if you're gonna burn me)" intonations nor the orchestration don't help much, it sucks like all similar GFR songs, a pathetic anti-climax to the genuine fun and excitement of the other tracks. To be fair, the overblown coda is at least a mild improvement over the monotonousness of 'I'm Your Captain' - they handle the orchestration a little more subtly this time. There are false endings and climaxes and anti-climaxes and stuff. But this is still not enough to make me choose GFR as my official Epic Music Provider. I'll take any classic prog rock act over this any time o' day anyway. Hell, I'll take Led Zep over it. Easily. 'When The Levee Breaks', now there's an epic for you.

Still, the album more or less matches its name, and is as close to an 'authentic' record as the band ever managed after Red Album. Today, it would probably not be of much interest to anybody because GFR's funk has not dated well if compared to the 'real thing' - play this back to back with same year's Maggot Brain and feel the crucial difference. Where Funkadelic open a whole new dimension in music, covering all kinds of things unpredictable and stunning, Grand Funk Railroad only deal with basic ass-kicking. But if you need nothing more than just your ass kicked on a basic level and manage to find this cheap in a dustbin or in the form of a cracked old LP lost under your Dad's bed, pick it up and give it a try - who knows, you might even want to revive some vibes.



Year Of Release: 1972

Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 8

"Phoenix" symbolizes "rebirth". Apparently, a newly-reborn phoenix is not a very pleasant sight. Give it time to grow.


Track listing: 1) Flight Of The Phoenix; 2) Tryin' To Get Away; 3) Someone; 4) She Got To Move Me; 5) Rain Keeps Fallin'; 6) I Just Gotta Know; 7) So You Won't Have To Die; 8) Freedom Is For Children; 9) Gotta Find Me A Better Day; 10) Rock & Roll Soul.

Now, this is indeed the beginning of a different period in the life of Grand Funk. As far as actual music goes, though, it is a slight dropdown from a slight improvement, because the band is again reclining from its funky formula; the rockers are more restrained, and the dreaded gospel makes its reappearance once again, even if it's mainly drifting on the fringes. If you ask me, it all probably depended on how much "God-sent inspiration" Mr Farner chucked out of his entity during the recording sessions. The more there was of Farner, the more the final product looked like Survival.

And these particular fringes are hideous - with the absolutely detestable 'So You Won't Have To Die', Farner fully embraces Christian rock in its most disgusting, banal form, i. e. the one that includes brainwashing and primitive preaching. Sample lyrics for youse: 'He said overpopulation is the problem of today/There's too many children on Earth and more on the way/If you don't start some birth control then you won't last much longer'. It's a wonder the band never got the idea of distributing free condoms for its live shows of that period. Mmm, maybe you'd better start singing in Chinese or in Hindi, Mr Farner; I don't think America is quite the perfect place for your message.

This, and its immediate follow-up, the gospel chant 'Freedom Is For Children' ('I wrote the words of freedom/I've even sung the song' - well, now we know who the Father of all things Libertarian actually is), transform the second half of the record into a virtual nightmare. Need I add that the music lacks any punch whatsoever? Because when Mr Farner sings an "inspired" song, he usually reasons that his vocal talents alone suffice to carry the music along. Frantic guitar solos? Nah, nah, the more you get carried away by guitar solos, the more you forget about Important Philosophic Maxims like "man's invention is gonna be the prevention of their life" (I'm not joking - this is an actual lyric, and it's about CONDOMS! Well, actually, I guess it's rather about the H-bomb or something. But I like it more when it's about condoms. Especially considering the previous song was about condoms, too.)

Fortunately, this is not Non-Survival, and the rest of the album is more or less listenable. It never quite lives up to the opener - the energetic organ-led instrumental 'Flight Of The Phoenix' which announces the arrival of a new permanent band member, keyboardist Craig Frost; a compact, hard-hitting, ELP-like onslaught of keyboard/guitar/drum sound that makes its point very effectively. The tune is pretty simple, of course, but as a blood-pumping barroom jam it works. I was really frightened when I saw that title, to tell you the truth... I mean, for anybody who'd be to release a song titled 'Flight Of The Phoenix' in 1972, chances were it'd be a pretentious prog or pseudo-prog symphony. And for Grand Funk Railroad to go prog would only mean the arrival of a "proto-Kansas" two years before the arrival of the real Kansas. But no, no prog here, although there is some proto-Kansas-like violin. In fact, the composition could have easily fit onto Kansas debut, but then again, compositions like these are pretty much the only thing I could tolerate about Kansas anyway, so no prob.

But it's not as if the rest of the songs were total crap, either. Yes, there are very few raunchy rockers this time - 'She Got To Move Me' is probably the only one of these, and even that one is pretty tame compared to the thunderstorms of E Pluribus (besides, its anti-paedophilic lyrics also bug me big time. Calm down, Mark, we all know you're a Christian rocker already. Besides, this poor man's Lolita never really lets you understand what exactly is more important - fantasizing about fourteen-year olds or restraining that fantasizing). 'Tryin' To Get Away' also tries to rock out, and ends up sounding not unlike some of the boring filler on contemporary Free or Traffic albums, with useless generic riffage and stuff, but like most kinds of by-the-book rock'n'roll, it's danceable and what the hell else do you want from it? These are simple lads with simple goals.

The rest of the songs are just ballads or lazy countryish shuffles, as if the band spent a bit too much energy on the last album and slipped back into a comatose state as a result, due to complete exhaustion and overwork. The best thing that can be said here is that none of them try to be power ballads - even a thing like 'Someone' prefers to alternate between soft, mellow sections and basic "rocking" parts rather than combine the two. Although, on the other hand, in the wake of the arrival of the Eagles that very year this approach wasn't guaranteed to bring GFR the necessary success either.

But in the end, they're not all that offensive. I mean, heck, my expectations were as low as it gets anyway - I'm not gonna pan this band too hard for wasting time on expendable, useless, trite, soulless ballads unless they start reeking of severe inadequacy. In other words, as long as they're not into that 'I Can See It In The Toilet' stuff, they can sing whatever they like. At least, they did have the chops to make it all work, more or less. I couldn't remember a single note of 'Someone' after a dozen listens, of course, nor could I memorize anything from 'Rain Keeps Fallin' even under threat of execution... yaaaawn... but neither could anybody with a vast enough musical scope. But is this music supposed to be memorable? Ne'er in my life. It's supposed to be enjoyed now and forgotten in an hour, so jus' leave 'em guys alone. They're doing all right. Not everybody can write good melodies.

What makes Phoenix such a boring experience is that the band suddenly tones down two of its biggest attractions. Since the funk is mainly gone again, Schacher's bass is reduced to just a basic outlining of the melodies, without that wonderful fuzzy throbbing of the last record; and (I think I said it already, didn't I? Well, repetition rules!) Farner's guitar solos are minimal, with none of the energy and finger-flashing of E Pluribus. It's only natural, that when you don't write any solid melodies and tone down your chop, the effect is going to be pretty grim. Generally, I suppose that with the band's talents it could have done far better than it did - the most seriously undermining factor was this cheap passion for Christian rock and white-boy gospel.

Oh, by the way, the band made a permanent transition from Grand Funk Railroad to simply Grand Funk on that album. Now if I were them, I would be more honest and drop the 'Funk' instead - 'Grand Railroad' seems a far more exact symbol of this music. Get it? Like a boring journey through the deserts of Arizona on a never ending trail... choo-choo-choo-choo... choo-choo-choo-chooo... er... sorry. I think I just fell asleep.

PS. What's the difference between Grand Funk Railroad and KISS? Simple. GFR sing: "Young people, would you do the patriotic thing?". KISS sing: "Young people, would you shake the patriotic thing?" And then they proceed to shake it. Although maybe not in public.



Year Of Release: 1973

Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 10

In a better world, this cover would read: "TODD FUNK: We're a Rundgrenian band!"


Track listing: 1) We're An American Band; 2) Stop Lookin' Back; 3) Creepin'; 4) Black Licorice; 5) The Railroad; 6) Ain't Got Nobody; 7) Walk Like A Man; 8) Loneliest Rider.

It should be noted here that up to 1971, all of the band's albums were produced by their long-time partner and once singer in Don Brewer's band, Mr Terry Knight. As one might have guessed, Mr Knight was a pretty lame producer - actually, a completely undistinctive producer who seemed to substitute loudness for sharpness and brashness for subtlety much too often. Not that it was bad per se - in fact, much of the time it was quite suitable, especially when the band just jammed along in overdrive mode, but whenever it came to preachy gospel, the lack of slickness stuck out like that particular needle in this particular buttcheek.

I have no idea whether the band members really cared about this or not, but anyway, in 1971 Knight was fired, and Phoenix was produced by the "fatherless" (and, if I'm not mistaken, at that moment - penniless) band on its own. The results were not any more appealing, and for their next album the band resorted to the services of none other than Todd Rundgren himself. I have not the least idea why such a notorious pop experimentalist as Todd bothered to produce two records in a row for one of the world's most conservative and rednecky bands (although it's even less understandable that they would enlist Zappa as a producer three years later), but then again, it might have something to do with that very experimentalism - giving him a chance to try out his forces in a department radically different from his own career in "scientific pop-making", as I call it. The fact is, he did give the Funksters a slick, glossy sheen that was severely missing on previous albums. This is definitely Grand Funk's best produced album so far, and by 'glossy' I don't necessarily mean 'sterile'; no, somehow Todd manages to both preserve the raw edge and 'polish' all the individual instruments so that the sound is sharper and crisper, making you really want to take your air guitar off the wall.

That's not to say that Todd was able to improve Farner's melody-writing abilities as well - as usual, Grand Funk's songs are almost completely unmemorable when it comes to locating these chord sequences on the shelves of your brain compartments. There is some good news, though: as of now, Don Brewer has officially come into his own as a songwriter along with The Great Guru of Birth Control, and in general, his melodies are a vast improvement over Farner's non-melodies. Unfortunately, only one song (the best one) is credited to Brewer alone; three others are co-writes, and the rest are more Farner. So even with the good news, there's not a huge lot of redeeming qualities to the songwriting on here. But hey, that's not what the band is about anyway. If E Pluribus Funk managed to be one of the band's best efforts due to its raw energy and invigorating funky grooves, then We're An American Band gets its due by being (relatively) diverse, bouncy, and, well, excellently produced. The guitars ring out tasty and juicy, the organs are layered in an echoey, rumbling, atmospheric way, and Farner's voice sounds even more impressive when let through a few special effects devices.

All this culminates in the title track, the band's most renown anthem that can be perceived as (a) a stupid cheesy boozy bloozy barroom piece of crap or (b) a direct expression of the band's deeply-feeling American heart. Oh well, it's at least pretty catchy, something I couldn't really say about 90% of this band's material, and as long as Farner isn't singing about overpopulation and children freedom, I can certainly take it. And it certainly gets me thumbs up in that, despite the title, it manages not to be a slobbering jingoistic anthem or something, but instead, just a simple declaration of the band's status quo. I mean, they are an American band, right? And they sure are coming to your town, helping to party it down? Who could argue with that? This is no Springsteen-level pretentiousness, this is just a simple man's affirmation of low-key creative freedom along the lines of, I dunno, the Allmans' 'Ramblin' Man'. I like these ditties. Simple, catchy, and unassuming.

Aside from that, 'Stop Lookin' Back' is one of the band's most effective slow rockers, where Todd basically salvages the song by putting that marvelous 'astral' effect on Farner's voice during the chorus. As far as 'intelligence' goes, this is pretty good - the song really manages to convey an atmosphere of 'powerful desperation' and should definitely be appreciated outside of the great redneck convention. Plus, it has an alternation of faster/slower sections - that's "experimental" for you.

Another rockin' highlight is 'Black Licorice', with a particularly crazy, almost Brian Johnson-like vocal delivery - Don Brewer, who actually took lead vocals on that track, must have run out of vocal cords that day. This one should be played out loud, because otherwise you won't get the full impact of the excellent Frost/Farner interplay, although for some reason Farner doesn't play much lead guitar on this one, mostly leaving the "mad soloist" duties to Frost. Jealous of making his buddy Don occupy all the best slots on the album?

None of the other songs impress me that much, but none of them suck, either (well, apart from the obligatory 'save something - in this case, the Indians' anthem 'Loneliest Rider', I guess; we all need to be pompous some day). 'Creepin' is very long and potentially boring, but Rundgren manages to imbue some genuine broodiness and menace into this slow blues creeper, and for those who get bored even more easily than me, there's a great finger-flashing guitar solo out there. 'The Railroad' is a bit silly, but funny, attempt to record something in the 'traditional' vein; I actually like the idea of making the drum track go clink-clink-clink, imitating the real process of working on the railroad - was this the band's idea or one of Todd's inventive gimmicks, I wonder? 'Ain't Got Nobody' shows the band going pop-rock for a bit, and 'Walk Like A Man', despite borrowing the chorus melody from Ten Years After' 'Love Like A Man' (and the lyrics from about a million cliched blues originals and cock rock derivates), still rocks my world if I remember to clue in at the right moments.

In other words, just look what good production can do to a man's life - just don't spread that news across to all the potential teen pop bands out there. I mean, Todd Rundgren is only available to select people at select moments. He has his own bullshit career to care about, after all, doesn't he? (Just kidding - I actually like Mr Rundgren, although perhaps it'd do him - and us - more good if he traded about half of his solo records for a few years of officially teaching the basics of pop music in Columbia University).



Year Of Release: 1974

Record rating = 10
Overall rating = 11

And by "shining" they presumably mean "so highly polished it looks completely artificial, but it's better than being preachy anyway".

Best song: SHININ' ON

Track listing: 1) Shinin' On; 2) To Get Back In; 3) The Loco-motion; 4) Carry Me Through; 5) Please Me; 6) Mr Pretty Boy; 7) Gettin' Over You; 8) Little Johnny Hooker.

And now, here it comes - the ultimate delight for the ultimate redneck-hater who secretly nurtures the idea of enjoying a few redneck delights himself, Grand Funk in all their slick rag-tag glory, where roughness and toughness in the essence have been overshadowed by gloss and, well, shining on the surface. Yeah, it took Todd Rundgren and even a second try at that to bring out the very best in Grand Funk, but believe me, the result was worth it; Shinin' On is a brilliant 'guilty pleasure' and the one "late period" Grand Funk album to buy if you're only gonna buy one, far better than any of those stupid hit packages that are all busy incorporating dreck like 'I'm Your Captain' and 'Heartbreaker' instead of showcasing the band's driving, energetic, boozy rock'n'roll sound as neatly combed and fleshed out by Mr Todd "Pop Is More Than Just A Pretty Chorus" Rundgren.

And Shinin' On certainly has a lot of that - a bit too much, even, perhaps, but heck, since it's the only true style I can easily tolerate from Farner and his dudes, it's all right in the end. The album is remarkably short, with none of the songs stretched out to ultra-epic length (well, many of them feature extended codas, but they're not epic codas - rather like unpretentious dance grooves), and six of the eight tracks are in-yer-face rock, sometimes faster, sometimes slower, but almost always ballsy and gruff, with a lot of energy and, occasionally, wonderful lead work from Farner. Of course, six years of work still haven't managed to teach Mark the skill of writing something at least halfway memorable, but I did close my eyes on that a long long time ago - we all know that Grand Funk Railroad thought themselves above such a primitive idea as 'hook'. I know. They must be progressive.

Only one tune has any signs of gospel ('Carry Me Through'), and, of course, it's one of the longest and the most boring numbers on the entire record, but still, it's interesting how Todd cleverly applies all those production devices to transform a routine gospel throwaway into a strange 'cosmic' weird chanting complete with electronic voice processing and otherworldly wah-wah solos. Whenever I check the lyrics sheet, I feel like pukin' ("help me find the hand that knows where I've been" - isn't that part a little bit too ambiguous?), but apparently, Rundgren felt that way, too, because he cleverly laid all these "voice screens" on Mark's delivery so he sounds like some Andromedan guy from far, far away, with a bunch of "space synth loops" confirming that idea.

Likewise, 'Mr Pretty Boy' is a very strange and exciting interpretation of a straightforward blues original, with atmospheric Mellotrons roaming in the background and weird underwatery guitars underpinning Farner's vocals. It's not that I'm actually saying these tunes are great or anything like that - but you gotta understand, for a band so unimaginative as GFR these arrangements are top of the game indeed. Subtract them, and you'll be left with basic derivative structures that do nothing, except for reminding you of several dozen identic performances from several dozen generic Southern rock bands. Whoever said production doesn't really matter? Oh, I did. Would you please get into your time machine, move five years back and shoot me?

And the rest just R-O-C-K-S. Rocks well, rocks hard, despite all the sheen, and even if you forget every single note as soon as the album's over (and you will, unless you grew up with this stuff under your pillow or something), that doesn't mean you won't have a real good time while the music's on. The title track is again the biggest highlight, with a classy 'dry' guitar tone employed by Farner as he bases the song on a phased funky riff, with booming, echoey vocals on top, more of a caveman than of a Christian. Craig Frost comes to the forefront here, getting involved in the same kind of driving interplay with Mark as he did on 'Flight Of The Phoenix' - but this here thing is rather funky than bluesy, meaning it actually gets hot during the performance.

The band's take on the golden oldie 'Loco-Motion' is funny; not great but essentially saved by the fact that it's the most lightweight tune they ever did up to that moment - in the context of this album, it functions akin to the Traveling Wilburys' 'Wilbury Twist', well, you know the score. Hardcore fans were probably disappointed hearing GFR do such blatant pop-rock, but hey, thank the Lord they're not doing generic bubblegum, and I suppose that Farner's (or is that really Rundgren? my commentators seem to be split on that one) blazing solo will put everybody to their senses anyway.

'Please Me' is the strangest thing on here lyrically, since I can't figure out who or what is the 'she' of the song supposed to symbolize. 'Five million guys have tried to reduce her to another girl on the street?' What the heck is that? That's a bit too few if they mean the world, and way too many if... well you know. The song rocks anyway, and so does the funky 'Gettin' Over You' and the socially biting 'Little Johnny Hooker', the latter apparently GFR's analog of Lynyrd Skynyrd's 'Saturday Night Special' (only where the Skynyrders condemned hand guns, the Funkers condemn switchblade knives). I don't know why, but they even manage to come out with enough sincerity on that track. Maybe it's the poison emanating out of Farner's guitar that drives me berserk, but I am perfectly ready to perceive 'Johnny Hooker' as a sincere, emotional, powerful anthem directed against... ah, well, all the anthems that are directed against something are directed against one thing all the time. It works, anyway, and even the vocals aren't overdriven this time.

So, in general, I can honestly say this was the first ever GFR album I'd heard that convinced me this wasn't a bad band - or, to be more correct, that this was a band capable of making consistent albums slightly above the "pleasantly mediocre" level (I'd only heard the self-titled album much later, and while it's also good - in a different way - and full of excellent material, it's much more inconsistent than Shinin' On). Granted, this would have never happened without Todd Rundgren, who provided all this extra pizzazz, but then again, whoever knows what would become of the Beatles had they never teamed up with George Martin - much too often, we tend to underrate these overshadowed "fifth members" of the band.



Year Of Release: 1974

Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 10

Dumb, honest, and fun, with a bit of unusual gothics for good measure.

Best song: GOOD & EVIL

Track listing: 1) Responsibility; 2) Runnin'; 3) Life; 4) Look At Granny Run Run; 5) Memories; 6) All The Girls In The World Beware!; 7) Wild; 8) Good & Evil; 9) Bad Time; 10) Some Kind Of Wonderful.

Let me ask you - who in the world could have guessed that an album proudly sporting such a hideous title and an even more hideous album cover (in case you've missed it, it features band members as spandex-clad muscular studs ready to screw any unlucky - or, in their opinion, lucky - female coming their way) would actually turn out to be one of their best? And not only that - their third good album in a row? And not only that - their first album of these three without Todd Rundgren as producer?

Definitely not the fans, among whom, if I get it right, this particular record is often considered to be their artistic nadir. And they're right, in a way. As art, this is one big sucky album. It's got less artistic pretense in the whole of it than five seconds of 'I'm Your Captain'. But in my eyes, that's a good thing when it's Grand Funk you're talking about. With the help of Brewer, Frost, and Rundgren, Farner steadily drifted away from overblown, inadequate ambitions, and finally settled upon making moderately good, run-of-the-mill pub rock. So maybe this record screams "BUDWEISER!" a bit louder and more obnoxiously than the two previous ones did. Big deal. It's all tongue-in-cheek anyway, starting with the album cover, of course.

So, as I was saying, Todd left - or maybe they dumped him, I don't really know (probably left - he had his own eggs to fry, after all), and the new producer Jimmy Ienner didn't really make much of an impact on the band, because the band was now on autopilot, hastily edging its way out of their native R'n'B and into the more smooth delights of pop-rock. Really, All The Girls just naturally continues the trend of the former albums, pushing it ever forwards, so that by now not only the annoying gospel chants, but the generic bluesy jamming begins to fade away as well. And further on the positive side, the poppier they get, the more hook potential their pop material actually displays. (Oh what a shame for the band's reputation, apparently - weren't they once "the most unmemorable rock group on Earth?" What's up with that unfortunate virginity loss?).

So before dismissing the record, take a good whiff of 'Some Kind Of Wonderful'. I'll be the first to admit it's not exactly CCR quality, but it's rhythmic, toe-tappable, well-structured, and sports a really infectious chorus. A bit too straightforward, maybe - the band doesn't swing on the track, as it usually does, instead going for an almost robotic, stern drive, but it's a nice and fresh change of style anyway, and I love that quote from 'Can I Get A Witness' smack dab in the middle. It's not an epic, nor is it a glorious 'Waterloo Sunset' to die for, but it's a nice pop song that I could never imagine getting offended by (well, maybe I could if I heard it ten times in a row on the radio, but so far I have managed to escape that fate).

And the title track? As cool as redneck music ever gets (and don't you get me wrong, this is still redneck music, but this time, it's not really any worse than mediocre Lynyrd Skynyrd), with a terrific funky throbbing bassline and a hilarious "rapped" (well, no, it's not what you think) chorus. It's really not so much about the sexist lyrics as it really is about the music; even at their most 'offensive', this band is still about the music, which still makes them better than, say, KISS. If you're gonna remember anything about this song, it's gonna be the monster bass and organ interplay, not the degree of correspondence between the song's lyrics and the album cover.

Elsewhere, the Grand Funk octopus is slowly reaching out one purple tentacle and starts even groping around in the world of 'weirdness'; 'Good & Evil', the album's lengthy seven-minute centerpiece, is definitely unlike anything else they'd recorded up to that point. Hey, I betcha anything them rednecks were sure scared shitless when they heard this - sounds more like Alice Cooper than GF, a creepy, organ-dominated funeral drone with electronically encoded 'evil' vocals and Farner's patented evil screaming all around. (Actually, if a more suitable analogy were to be offered, it sounds closer to Frank Zappa's goofy take on Goth matters in 'The Torture Never Stops' than anything else!) Maybe seven minutes is a bit too long, but there's something hypnotic about the track - maybe the very fact that it comes in the middle of such a cheerful and life-asserting record. Well, it's always nice to hear something with a real edge from such a "gloriously dumb" band as Grand Funk.

The other tracks aren't as memorable or inspiring or even solid, but again, there's not a real stinker to be found in the bunch. 'Responsibility' is a moderately attractive piano rocker, 'Life' has some great guitar work (again), and 'Look At Granny Run Run' even features a dirty sexual narrative, a thing one would hardly expect to hear from a guy who once used to complain to Jesus of overpopulation. Ah well, as we all know from our Sabbath and Cooper records, such things are perfectly compatible. One song I've become unexpectedly attracted to recently is 'Bad Time' - it's so unbearably generic and simplistic, way beyond even the Eagles at their most average, but there's something decidedly charming about it all the same. The cool, friendly brass bits? Farner's disarming naivete? Who knows?

In any case, despite my being so nice and all (don't forget - part of me being so nice to these records is due to the general sense of relief after albums like Survival and Phoenix), I can't give the record any more than an overall 10 because there's a little bit less energy and a little bit fewer "GF classics" than last time around, but I must say I am impressed by the fact that All The Girls shows the band were now able to stay on their own feet without outside help (Rundgren) and still release something adequate and enjoyable - personally, if I'd only heard their first three or four albums, I'd probably shrug my shoulders and say: 'These guys are hopeless'. And I wouldn't be quite right. Although I would be half right. Come to think of it, such a thing as "quite right" is really impossible. Remember, dear sir, if you think you are quite right, this can only mean that you are not. How come I'm right in these reviews? For all I know, there might be half a million blood-thirsty Grand Funk lovers sitting at their PCs right now, just waiting to overload my mailbox with spam in revenge! Oh, and since we're on the subject, never repeat my mistake - don't you dare get a Yahoo E-mail account. These guys are ready to just donate your address to anyone... even people who regularly listen to 'I'm Your Captain' [insert stupid 'I'm-holier-than-thou' fit of laughter here].



Year Of Release: 1975

Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 10

That's them, alright. But it's real hard to get the energy up'n'comin' when you have to remember how the melody goes, too.

Best song: SHININ' ON

Track listing: 1) Foot Stompin' Music; 2) Rock & Roll Soul; 3) Closer To Home; 4) Heartbreaker; 5) Some Kind Of Wonderful; 6) Shinin' On; 7) The Loco-Motion; 8) Black Licorice; 9) The Railroad; 10) We're An American Band; 11) T.N.U.C.; 12) Inside Looking Out; 13) Gimmie Shelter.

Second sleazy album title in a row, and for a live album, too! Some heads are gonna roll... but before they do, let's come to terms about the little things that actually make this album worth owning. First and foremost, it's sort of symbolic: it really captures Grand Funk Railroad at the height of their "second stage", as the rootsy popmeisters instead of sweaty jamsessioners. Meaning it sounds nothing like the early classic Live Album, and not just because they have a wimpy dude at the piano (you can't hear him very well anyway).

Second, it's got a pretty decent track listing. I was all ready and set up for having to endure a long, bombastic rendition of 'Closer To Home', and yeah, I got it, but you can't have a Queen concert without the obligatory 'We Will Rock You', either. At the very least this particular version is worth one listen just to see how niftily Craig Frost is able to recreate the orchestration of the original with a Mellotron, no less. (Somehow the overall effect does sound a little more acceptable). The good news is, I was also afraid Farner might start lecturing the audience about the advantages of birth control. But in this part of my expectations, I was proven wrong - apart from 'Closer To Home', the preachy faux-gospel inclinations are kept to a minimum, and instead, we get a slew of their most tolerable/enjoyable pop standarts, where music actually matters more than the message.

Got a few reservations, of course, like everybody else, I guess - I could do without the idiotic 'Rock & Roll Soul' - in the humble eye of my worthless mind, 'Foot Stompin' Music' was perfectly enough to get the audience up on their feet at the start of the show; I wouldn't mind removing 'The Railroad', which is way too slow, moody, and yawn-inducing to be a great concert number and is even more of an anti-climax after the rousing 'Black Licorice' than it was on We're An American Band; and I haven't exactly worked out the necessary immunity against 'Heartbreaker' - no matter how much Farner is trying to seduce me with these soaring guitar leads, it's still an overblown, inadequate power ballad. The rest is pretty dang good, though! All those Rundgren-produced little ditties, without the Rundgren sheen, of course, but with a whole buncha live energy instead - no problems here. 'Loco-motion', 'We're An American Band', 'Some Kind Of Wonderful'... performance-wise, I guess, the absolute highlight is 'Shinin' On', with its echo-laden guitar and actual funkiness (go Mel go!) shining on for all it's worth.

I was even surprised not to be offended by the closing rendition of 'Gimmie Shelter' - although, to be fair, it is rather due to the fact that I have never been impressed by that song performed live, even by the Stones themselves, as much as I have been impressed by its immaculate studio perfection. The fact is, there is only one way to get that tremolo bass right; there is only one way you can make a harmonica sound like a trumpet of the Apocalypse; and, of course, there is only one Merry Clayton in the world. So, if you're doing it live, well, cool and all that, it won't stand up to the studio version nohow, so in this setting, it doesn't really matter much who's performing it as long as he/she/they/IT don't fuck the chords up. Farner soloes good, too. (But where's the friggin' third verse?).

Another big surprise is just how damn strong Don Brewer's vocals are live, with him singing from outta the drumstool and all. In fact, he sings with more power on 'Black Licorice' than he did on the studio album! And he sings with more power than Farner at his best, too. I was so pleased I would even be ready to cope with his drum solo on 'T.N.U.C.', but, unbelievably, he omitted most of it. Unless, of course, they just happened to cut it out of the CD version. As a result, it became a real good song!

Yet, on the negative side, the band's days as a "megajam supergroup" are definitely gone. They are still willing to indulge in nostalgia: the last side of the original LP is almost completely dedicated to the twelve minute version of 'Inside Looking Out', but even a brief comparison of the performance with the former glory shows how perfunctory it already became by 1975. Maybe something can be blamed on the acoustics of the location, or maybe it's just that Frost's organ backing doesn't quite fit in, but instead of the expected crushing power, you get a rather messy sound, only a shadow of a hint at how awesome it could be in the early days when Mel's fat, fuzzy bass, multiplied by Don's powerhouse drumming and criss-crossed with Farner's ecstatic solo wailing, could so effectively make you forget all your troubles. Not that they have formally changed: the bass is still fat and fuzzy and the drumming is still strong, but somehow the conviction seems to be lacking. Farner doesn't even have any of that terrific funky chugga-chugga in the instrumental section. It's perfectly clear they're just doing this stuff to please old dedicated fans, the way Collins-led Eighties' Genesis would still occasionally play a Gabriel-era prog epic at a show or two just to minimize the quota on rotten tomatoes.

The final conclusion, thus, is that Caught In The Act just doesn't add much moolah to the band's legacy. Now if I were in their place, I would take something like 'Shinin' On' and extend it from its original five minutes to fifteen, being careful to preserve the groove and build up on it. That's a sound very different from the 1970 sound, of course, but it's a "live-oriented" sound - with more swing and, in a way, subtlety to it, with lots and lots of space for improvising, jamming, and adrenaline-raising. Now that would be a terrific evolution as a live band. However, I guess they were playing to a way different audience by now, the "classic Seventies AOR audience" as opposed to the "free-flight late Sixties audience", and so taking their biggest hits and playing them as close to the studio originals as possible was the only way to go. Well, time puts everything in its place.



Year Of Release: 1976

Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 10

Which they're doing all over this record, to be sure, in a pretty convincing way.

Best song: DUES

Track listing: 1) Born To Die; 2) Dues; 3) Sally; 4) I Fell For Your Love; 5) Talk To The People; 6) Take Me; 7) Genevieve; 8) Love Is Dying; 9) Politician; 10) Good Things.

Oops, there goes another moderately good album. Change that 'moderate' to 'quite' good, even, although that doesn't really have anything to do with the actual melodies. Something must have happened since they put out that last record, because in sharp contrast with its lightweight, frivolous, at times intentionally moronic-sexist mood, Born To Die, as the title suggests, is an extremely gloomy and depressed piece of music, arguably GFR at their bleakest ever. If you think that's a whimsy subjective statement, check out the lyrical subjects on here - mostly having to deal with unshared love ('Love Is Dyin''), untimely deaths (title track), lack of understanding ('Talk To The People'), dirty politic games ('Politician'), and trouble and desperation in general ('Dues').

And actually, under standard conditions I wouldn't give a shit about whether Mark Farner and the gang are troubled or happy, because in the past years the overall result of GFR's mood was more or less the same. But something must have really happened; I don't know what, but many of these songs work, and after listening to some of them I'd probably never have guessed it was Grand Funk unless told so. I understand very well why some critics actually called it the band's finest hour; it is not as consistent as Shinin' On, but it's definitely the most 'powerful' of all the band's statements made so far, or afterwards - with the bullshit quota kept at a relatively low level.

Technically, this is well reflected in a dramatic "arrangement shift". All kinds of dark overtones on this record, like that quasi-goth electric piano riff that opens 'Born To Die' and immediately sets this morose mood for the entire record. And for once, Farner's vocals are really convincing, because instead of preaching about the usual universal themes and playing the Reverend, he's "cryin' for my cousin, who died yesterday", bringing himself down to earth and actually making the listener (me) sympathize. The mean, dirty, slightly phased guitar solo suits the mood as well. However, the title track is certainly obliterated by Brewer's excellent 'Dues', an impressive slab of 'funk metal' (indeed, the basslines are quite funky, but the guitars define mid-Seventies heavy metal) that rocks down the house and climbs to an almost climactic height the way they never managed to do before - or, rather, never tried to do, because this is the first GFR album that really dares to shove the "tragedy" spice into the mix. Be sure to check out the blistering guitar solo on the song's coda: Farner has definitely been practicing, as he'd never soloed with that much "burning flame" before. It's songs like these that really justify my taking up this band's material in the first place, I guess.

Actually, I suppose the masterful guitarwork on the album is one of the main reasons of its success: all of this echoey, shadowey production makes a perfect background for all kinds of ecstatic deliveries, which makes even more routine numbers like 'Love Is Dying' take on a life of their own. And while I normally don't see anything particularly special about the slightly primitive dance number 'Take Me', at a certain point the band radically changes key and shifts the optimistic dance style atmosphere for a fast angry jam, moving along at tremendous speed and Farner soloing like mad. This is something really new, I say! Doing multi-part songs, are we? ARTISTIC GROWTH?

The band even tries its hand at a lengthy instrumental jam ('Genevieve'), and it works as well. It's not merely rhythmic and danceable, it's got a thick, brooding sound going on, and it's definitely based upon the guys heavily studying the various P-Funk mob techniques, which explains the way they make the all-encompassing organ interact with the guitars and basses. While we're on it, it is interesting to note that GFR, what with their instrumental skills and all, actually have a surprisingly scarce number of complete instrumentals in their catalog. Instrumental passages, sure, lots of 'em; songs that are less songs than foundations for building up jammin' power, but still feature lyrics - tons of 'em; but pure instrumentals? Apart from 'Genevieve' and 'Flight Of The Phoenix', I can't remember a single one. Is that supposed to mean something? Not that I know of. But hopefully I have given you food for thought.

All said, though, the album just ain't consistent enough, dammit. Not all the gloomy songs impress me: sooner or later, they're bound to collapse under the inevitable weight of preachiness, and 'Talk To The People', with its pseudo-soulfulness, does exactly that, sacrificing good melody for the weepy universalist message. Brewer's 'Politician' is definitely no Jack Bruce-quality material, either, with cringeworthy lyrics like 'Mr Politician, please don't deceive us/Mr Politician, you're there to relieve us'. Yuck. Moreover, the band ruins the overall impression with a couple "intentionally happy" numbers that just never fit in. What the heck does the stupid 'Sally' ditty do on here, for instance? Subpar country-pop material with cheesy harmonica and almost vomit-inducingly fake "cheerfulness"?

And what an anti-climactic way to end the record with 'Good Things', a moronic mid-tempo cock-rocker in the bad old tradition? 'Come a little bit closer baby, and rub off some of your stuff'? What the heck? Do we get to hear that on an album whose very first line of text went like 'Life is too short now to live it half way'? You know, I'm all for diversity but those who dare to put gloomy songs about death and tragedy and happy songs about dirty sex on the same record do not deserve to become fuckin' millionnaires so they can make even more albums with the same melange. Especially when the band pretends to be "soulful", i.e. sincere rather than 'working according to a formula', in both cases. You know why the Beatles can get away with this stuff? Because the Beatles were formula - a damn great formula - and there's always a bit of "distancing" from even their most sincere-sounding material. GFR can't get away with this stuff, because they make a point of singing about "real life". And while there is a time for both mourning life's calamities and enjoying life's simple (and sometimes sleazy) pleasures, they're usually different times. Unless, of course, it's normal for you to rent a cheap whore right after helping to bury your best friend or something. Sorry for the stupid "ethical" rant, but at least it was conditioned by the context.

Still, make no mistake about it: the title track, 'Dues', and 'Genevieve' are among these guys' best material. It's just that perhaps they can be better enjoyed on a compilation. Or, even better, as a mini-EP.



Year Of Release: 1976

Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 10

If only Frank steered them away from brickhead right-wingness... then again, knowing Frank, it's possible he was steering them IN that direction.

Best song: OUT TO GET YOU

Track listing: 1) Just Couldn't Wait; 2) Can You Do It; 3) Pass It Around; 4) Don't Let 'Em Take Your Gun; 5) Miss My Baby; 6) Big Buns; 7) Out To Get You; 8) Crossfire; 9) 1976; 10) Release Your Love; 11) Goin' For The Pastor; [BONUS TRACK:] 12) Rubberneck.

Yes, that's right: of all people Grand Funk had to turn to Frank Zappa to produce their next album, and the one that turned out to be their last one in about five years. Ol' Frank was probably getting really bored with his chores at the time, as it's hard to imagine anything less compatible than GFR and Frank Zappa. On the other hand, that's just our first impression talking: the problem with Zappa is, you just don't pigeonhole a guy like that. He's got his musical and social and political preferences all right, but that doesn't mean you can always predict his next move. And, in a way, working with a band like Grand Funk, whose general style and ego couldn't be further away from these preferences, for Frank - at one point or another - was inevitable.

It took me some time to get used to the 'changes', though, and at first I was all out and ready to proclaim that this particular chemistry gets out a lot of white bubbles but little in the way of useful substances you can bottle and sell at a decent price. However, that feeling soon passed; the problem with the album isn't Zappa's production, rather it's just the usual problem of interspersing decent material with barely tolerable filler. Also, there is a sudden, unexpected "conservative leap" that Farner does in his lyrics - on no previous album had he managed to be so defiantly right-wing. 'Don't Let 'Em Take Your Gun', for instance, makes even Ted Nugent look like a seasoned Democrat: 'If you want your freedom son/Don't want your country to be overrun/You got to keep America number one/...son, don't let 'em take your gun/They're taking your Bill of Rights away from you'. I especially like the "don't want your country to be overrun" line, of course. Golly gee, this is much worse than banal, but at least harmless birth control propaganda. But hey, that's freedom of speech for you; that's probably what ol' Frank was aiming for. Then there's '1976', of course; is it possible that the self-proclaimed "American Band" will miss an opportunity to wish its country a happy lil' birthday on such an important date? Whew, at least he's merely singing about ecology problems on there. What a relief. I expected to find "America for Americans" on there or something like that. The melody is pretty solid, too, by the way.

These, however, are the least Zappa-like tracks on the album; but you can certainly tell Frank's presence on the record - in many a case, he tries to make the boys acquire a slightly 'weirder' angle than before. For instance, 'Can You Do It' begins with a few outbursts of laughter, a couple false intros, and a general, er, declaration of a truly boozy atmosphere (with somebody announcing 'LSD Duckblind' as well!). The song itself is an excellent slab of pop-rock with harmonies arranged quite unlike anything on any earlier GFR album, by the way. And further on down the line, Frank makes the boys stand in line and chant 'I wanna grab you by those big buns so tight, so tight' for no particular reason ('Big Buns', the shortest track on any Grand Funk record ever). Now THERE'S freedom of speech for ya! Not that I think the average GFR fan would be offended. :)

There's a lot of boring filler, though. You know something's wrong when one of the most memorable songs on the record is the first one ('Just Couldn't Wait'), and that's primarily due to the endlessly repeating chorus 'She just couldn't wait, she said she couldn't wait till Sunday, she just couldn't wait, my baby just couldn't wait now, she said she couldn't wait till Sunday, till Sunday'. It works, but even I must admit it's kinda dumb in a technical way. And what the hell was Zappa thinking when he let them put the seven-minute misery of 'Miss My Baby' on the album? It's nowhere near as anthemic as 'I'm Your Captain', of course; actually, it's more of a groove-based soul workout in the vein of Stevie Wonder, but without Stevie's imaginative melodies, arrangements, or passionate vocal delivery. When I hear that draggy 'lord I miss my baby/I think I'm going crazy' for the nineteenth time, it makes me officially wish that such a thing as "slow tempo" never existed, or that at least bands of GFR's caliber were officially prohibited from using slow tempo.

Then there's just too many okayish pop-rockers without a big fat hook - 'Pass It Around', 'Crossfire', 'Release Your Love'... all these songs can't be saved by the production, swishing past your head like yesterday's papers, filled with useless, forgettable information. Repeated listens make them enjoyable, but don't make them special. And in between all the so-so stuff, it's perfectly easy to lose track of the very best thing: the half-instrumental 'Out To Get You'. On that song, Frank is said to actually be present on guitar, rocking out together with the boys, which alone makes the album recommendable for Zappa fans because no Zappa fan has ever had the chance to witness Frank on any of his own albums playing fast rock guitar soloing backed by a typical (not 'weird') R'n'B combo. Fast, rollickin', with a big nod to the classic funk/R'n'B school of Sly & P-Funk, it rolls along like no other GFR track - and like no Frank Zappa track either.

Some CD editions add a bonus track - 'Rubberneck', which is absolutely inexpendable for Zappa fans, because it sounds almost exactly like prime Frank in his Overnite Sensation period... well, maybe a little bit less complex and more straightforward, but both the hilarious lyrics (mocking the 'Jamaican' lifestyle), the goofy low-pitched vocal harmonies, and the unexpected tempo shifts are first-rate Zappa. Talk about strange places to find strange things, eh?

In all, this is an uneasy "compromise", because normally Zappa lovers wouldn't want to end up within ten miles of a Grand Funk album, and vice versa, I guess, but then there are people who just love these kinds of compromises, and I, in particular, always welcome some untrivial chemical reaction like this one. In fact, with maybe just a couple more strong tunes and a couple less pseudo-patriotic chunks of bullshit, Good Singin' might have nudged Shinin' On out as my favourite GFR pop period album, but inconsistency is inconsistency. Besides, this is a joke record, and I'm pretty sure the only reason they allowed themselves to become a joke band for one album was because they didn't really care anymore, being on the straight road to splitting up and all. And it's a good thing they split up, because I really wouldn't want to know what a 1977 Grand Funk album would sound like.



Year Of Release: 1981

Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 9

Well, "lives" is a bit too strong a word here. "Kept on life support tubes" would be more adequate.

Best song: GOOD TIMES

Track listing: 1) Good Times; 2) Queen Bee; 3) Testify; 4) Can't Be With You Tonight; 5) No Reason Why; 6) We Gotta Get Out Of This Place; 7) Y.O.U.; 8) Stuck In The Middle; 9) Greed Of Man; 10) Wait For Me.

All the rednecks of the world beware - the Christian boys of evil rock'n'roll are back to have some more fun on our asses! Hey! With a totally inept bass guy called Dennis Bellinger instead of Schacher! Hey hey! With everything being so plentiful all around, you can say the only thing that the world was really lacking in the early Eighties was a Grand Funk revival, because, you know, the world just can't survive with a healthy splurging of old-time mediocre pseudo-heavy rock riffage. And obviously, Foreigner alone just couldn't fulfill the quota, what with overpopulation and the like. Thus, Grand Funk singlehandedly crash down the myth of the Eighties as a synth-pop decade. Here they are - a bunch of smelly neo-Christian guys whose only passion is driving that mean guitar sound back home. Oh yeah, with an occasional injection of mean little synthesizers, but then again, you gotta keep up with the times if you want trendy producers to work with you.

Anyway, never mind the limp sarcasm, it actually ain't a bad album. It's somewhat less consistent than Farner's solo debut and definitely far less consistent than some of Grand Funk's best mid-Seventies albums, but I guess it just all depends on the attitude. I could write that initial paragraph, give the album a five or a six and be off with it. I would actually find supporters in that endeavour, and lay my claim to fame as the brave guy who said that Grand Funk Lives is a piece of poo. (I wouldn't be the only brave guy, though). Instead, I will be a friggin' coward and meekly state that, er, you know, there are some good songs on here. Like, a couple good riffs here and there, a couple vocal hooks, you know the rest.

More precisely, the first three songs are all excellent concise three-minute rockers that are wonderfully produced - the guitars have a nice fresh (a bit sterile, though) tone to them, the vocals are crisp and clear, and plus, there are, like, hooks. (Oh no, I can't believe I already said the same thing two lines above. I give you full permission to play Jeff Lynne with my demo writings, then). 'Good Times' borrows the main riff from 'Wanton Song', partially at least, but what was second-rate for Led Zep (let's face it - the reason I'm not a big fan of Physical Graffiti is that you really don't need to be the best heavy metal outfit in the world to record an album like that) becomes top of the crop for Grand Funk, and besides, it lasts for a whoopin' two minutes, yeah baby, I know you don't believe me, well you should. It's easily the shortest GFR song ever, not minding gimmicks like 'Big Buns'.

Then there's 'Queen Bee' which has nothing to do with the classic 'I'm A King Bee' blues standard, but instead is just a half-decent semi-fast rocker with a catchy chorus. Styx liked to do this kind of material, but Styx would have Dennis De Young playing his Enrique Caruso schtick on such a song, while Grand Funk humbly downplay the song's pretentiousness with run-of-the-mill overdubbed choral vocals. And then there's 'Testify' - sure ain't no Parliament song, but it rocks my boat nevertheless like one of the three or four solid Foreigner songs should. Oh, and there's one more classy thing here - this band's version of 'We Gotta Get Out Of This Place' is sweaty and energetic, and while the world didn't exactly wither away and die due to lack of a version that would superate the Animals' one, Grand Funk's alternative is acceptable and reasonable, with Farner sounding anything but obnoxious and the heavy distorted riff adding a lot to the sound. Nice guitar solo too.

I think that's about it with the highlights. Note, please, that I haven't yet given anybody my definition of a highlight on a GFR record, which is surely a flaw. Let me correct myself now: "GFR highlight" = "a tune the likes of which Mick Jagger and Keith Richards could have written on a particularly busy and uninspired day, then hastily discarded before even deciding to record it so that it could never even be found on any selected Rolling Stones bootleg". If that ain't a precise, concise, intelligent, and detailed definition, nothing is. And if you're not that familiar with the music of the Rolling Stones, just keep in mind that a good GFR song may be enjoyed but may never be remembered unless you happen to be locked in a room with only GFR records for several years. But that, of course, is a special case that needs to be treated separately. Maybe I'll write an essay on the issue.

Of course, you understand that I wrote that paragraph only so that the review could go on longer because I don't have anything (decent) to say about the other songs. Some of the other rockers are nice, but they all run alike after some time, and while I never really clued on into the lyrics of 'Greed Of Man', I can only surmise they're horribly Christian and preachy and undermine all the charm of the song's main riff which has been totally wasted. I'm also not really fond of the album's ballads - 'Can't Be With You Tonight' isn't even fit for the likes of Hall & Oates, a corny dance-pop number the likes of which have been written by more people than there are drops of blood in my entire body. And they didn't lack enough bad taste to end the album with an insipid singalong arena-rock pomper (= pompous rocker, something I invented on the spot!), 'Wait For Me'.

There still are a couple or so decent rock songs on here, but overall this really doesn't live up to... well, to whatever you could expect. At least we have to congratulate the guys on not falling victims to the excesses of Eighties production, and giving the brave rock-oriented population something to chew on in the days of the Cars and Duran Duran. You might think that's an achievement, and fuck the reviewer guy. Me, that is. What? Oh no, I only meant that in a figurative manner.

PS. Rereading this, I caught myself upon a hideous crime: all that verbose blabber, and I haven't even mentioned that the album pretty much sucks from a purely instrumental point of view. No interesting drums, no furious bass, and the guitar solos are mostly perfunctory. It still rocks, but it's about as many times as artificial-sounding as their Craig Frost period was more artificial-sounding than their early "garage" days. Plastic soul, man, plastic soul.



Year Of Release: 1983

Record rating = 5
Overall rating = 6

I like the album sleeve, but, unfortunately, that kind of "like" just doesn't apply to the songs on here.

Best song: no, no, and no.

Track listing: 1) Rock'n'Roll American Style; 2) Nowhere To Run; 3) Innocent; 4) Still Waitin'; 5) Borderline; 6) El Salvador; 7) It's A Man's World; 8) I'm So True; 9) Don't Lie To Me; 10) Life In Outer Space.

The circle has closed. Grand Funk (Railroad) had once started out as a dumbhead "brawny" band substituting memorable melodies and raw talent with bad loud noise and worse sloppy distortion, then learnt to exercise some control over these things, later went on to actually develop a dose - occasionally solid - of songwriting skills, developed a huge ego, started tap-dancing on the top of the world, tipped over the edge and finally crashed down into the same old garbage heap.

This album was Farner's last attempt at saying something 'vital' to the new generation, or perhaps at simply entertaining it, and it blows. I really can't resist taking a potshot or two at the title - the album matches it pretty well, as if the band had actually forgotten what is funk and were now shyly posing that question before their audiences ("sorry to bother you guys, but would you please remind us what our band name is supposed to mean?") Because if the songs on this album can be called 'funk', whether you take the purely musical definition or the metaphysical one (funk = dirty & sleazy), I could as well argue that the Police made a folk rock record that very year.

There are two songs on here that managed to make an impression on me, although not necessarily a positive one. 'Borderline' is a power ballad that suffers from a tedious, trite arena-rock arrangement, but at least has a very well constructed chorus - give the song to, I dunno, Paul Simon, and he'd make a 'Homeward Bound'-spirit epic out of it. Curious remark: I know of two other songs called 'Borderline' that happened to come out that same year (Madonna's and Cheap Trick's), and unsurprisingly, both of them were much, much better. And the rocker 'El Salvador', apart from another catchy chorus, has a clever riff, although upon further inspection, it becomes obvious that it's been simply copped from 'Satisfaction'. Yeah, that's how low these guys have fallen - stealing classic riffs! They got nothing over Ray Davies now! In fact, I'd rather have Ray Davies stealing from the Stones - being brave and including their riffs into your songs as direct, immediately recognizable 'quotations' (cf. 'Jumpin' Jack Flash' inside the Kinks' 'Catch Me Now I'm Falling') is way more honest than actually trying to mask it by toning the guitar down. Stupid.

Not as stupid, though, as the actual lyrical message of the song. Fortunately, there is a God in Heaven who has kept Grand Funk from re-re-uniting in the XXIst century, or else there'd be a hundred percent probability we would be suffering from, aarrgh, a Farner-penned "Let's Roll Into The Fire For Freedom" 9/11 anthem. And a 9/11 anthem from a Reagan-worshipping honcho decrying communism in friggin' Salvador and making me develop an alergy towards the word 'freedom' would be worse than sitting through ten Freddy Krueger flicks in a row. Please somebody stop this guy giving America its bad name in the rest of the world. Please do it. Don't let him speak for the rest of this country. Don't buy this album at least!

In any case, none of the other songs merit to be mentioned in any context, but I just can't keep silent about the band's total butchering of 'It's A Man's World'. Jesus, I acknowledge they did manage to make a decent reading of 'We've Gotta Get Out Of This Place', but when they try to be groove-ful and soul-ful, it's like... uh... man does it stink. (Not that I ever liked the song, mind you - I've always found its lyrics to be pretty moronic - I'll take straightforward macho sexism over macho sexism pretending to be feminism any time of day - but at least one thing I'll always agree on is that the James Brown original is up there and the GF version is ten thousand feet down there, together with its rotten solo and overblown rotten power chords).

As if it were possible to sink even lower! But yeah, they begin the record with a dumb Kiss-style macho rocker entitled 'Rock & Roll American Style', hurting their native country's reputation even more than with that vomit-inducing Salvador song. The song could be just a stupid throwaway, but no, they thought they needed a 'We're An American Band Vol. 2' and added these cheesy pseudo-patriotic lyrics to make every man with a tiny bit of self-respect say goodbye to his hard-digested breakfast. Ugh.

To tell the truth, I don't even know why I intuitively gave this piece of total shit an overall rating of six when it's basically just blatant braggard self-righteous three-chord crap like that, stuff that makes people shy away from roots-rock as "redneck muzak". It's painful to know that just because the radio happens to be infested with this easy-goin' musically-void garbage (I can't believe they didn't actually play GFR on the radio in the Seventies - this band was made for the airwaves! Then again, apparently, radio programmers used to have some taste), intelligent people won't actually listen to the Allman Brothers Band or Little Feat because talentless no-goodnicks have occupied all the space. And I don't necessarily mean this particular album, but it's just a typically crappy album. A typically crappy album in the Foreigner or REO Speedwagon or Black Oak Arkansas vein, you know the drift. Oh well, okay, I guess the half-star is necessary because if you don't understand English, 'El Salvador' produces a nice effect, and every now and then, tiny bits of catchiness do manage to jump out at you ('Still Waitin' has a bit of pop potential, in particular).

The best news in this particular context is that Grand Funk Railroad happily disbanded after that, and from 1983 and up to the present day, there hasn't been a single new studio GFR album out (although, alackaday, there have been touring reunions - see below). From what I've heard, Mark Farner made a conscious decision that the band couldn't compete with 'em young 'uns and should evacuate the scene to make way for fresh blood and fresh talent. If this is true, it's about the wisest statement the most obnoxious Christian boy of rock'n'roll has ever produced. Although, hey, I do surmise he's speaking for himself, right? Somehow neither AC/DC nor the Rolling Stones ever said anything of the sort, which more or less demonstrates the big difference between GFR and these bands.



Year Of Release: 1997

Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 8

Oh well, at least they made this money for a GOOD cause. But now that Bosnia doesn't get any more royalties, don't buy this album.

Best song: ...

Track listing: 1) 2001 A Space Odyssey; 2) Are You Ready?; 3) Rock'n'Roll Soul; 4) Foot Stompin' Music; 5) Time Machine; 6) Medley; 7) Heartbreaker; 8) Aimless Lady; 9) T.N.U.C.; 10) Inside Looking Out; 11) Shinin' On; 12) The Loco-Motion; 13) We're An American Band; 14) Overture; 15) Mean Mistreater; 16) Some Kind Of Wonderful; 17) To Get Back In; 18) Bad Time; 19) I'm Your Captain; 20) Loneliness.

This weird, totally unasked-for album is usually explained as a simple 'accident' - the Bosnian ambassador being a big fan of Grand Funk Railroad, he persuaded Farner and Co., reunited at the time to revisit old glories and reap in some more cash, to perform for a noble cause - and that's probably the way it should stay for ever after. There is absolutely no reason to own this album unless your GFR fanaticism can measure up to that of the Bosnian ambassador. There is absolutely no reason to review this album, either, unless your stupid, harmful, maniacal completism can measure up to mine.

This is a weak, perfunctory show, no matter how much Farner's artificially ecstatic in-between-track wailings try to make it look otherwise. The only thing I still can't understand is whether the band's former chemistry has completely and utterly dissipated, never to return again, or if they just happened to be uninspired on this particular night. Regardless of the answer, the fact remains that this particular show's aim was (a) to raise money and (b) to give the fans their due by running through a standard palette of old hits. Thus, the setlist is pretty much predictable, and for almost every one of these performances you can find a far superior equivalent on either one of their two classic era albums.

The short list of "surprises" worth mentioning includes the following moments: 1) the show begins with fanfares playing the 'Also Sprach Zarathustra' theme, here faithfully "retitled" '2001 A Space Odyssey' because of, well, you-know-what (plus, hey, it wouldn't be prudent to mention something related to both the prophet of the Zoroastrian religion and the God-hating Nietzsche on an album fronted by a good Christian, right?) - an appropriately pompous introduction to an appropriately boring concert;

2) the pomp gets even bigger when they bring in the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in the middle of things to play an "overture" of short orchestral reworkings of some of their bigger hits - yes, including a few bars of 'I'm Your Captain' and, oh gosh, a symphonic rearrangement of 'Bad Time' - it's bad enough what with all the "London Symphony Orchestra Misses The Point By Playing The Music Of Pink Floyd" releases clogging the market, so what's to be said about this; fortunately, it's just three minutes long;

3) Peter Frampton is called upon to deliver the guitar-playing goods on 'Time Machine', and still later on reappears on 'Loco-motion'; I've never been a huge fan of the guy, but supposedly on this particular night his level of inspiration was about as high as everybody else's. Which means that there's no particular criticism I can attach to his solos (a professional is always a professional), but they don't strike me as anything special either, and certainly Farner could do all this on his own (then again, they did need two guitars on 'Time Machine');

4) several of the early period songs are glued together in an eight-minute medley, which totally sucks the life out of 'Paranoid' (since that song has next to no memorable melody, it only succeeds as a basis for a huge-soundin' jam) - a weird decision considering most people would probably enjoy some major-ass jamming instead;

5) the audience participation is fortunately limited to people going along with the band on a few bars of 'Loco-motion' and throughout the yucky 'Closer To Home' coda (and how the hell it takes the audience a whole eight seconds to recognize the opening melody of that song? it may be stupid and repetitive, but it doesn't take more than two notes to be recognized).

That's about all there is to say, really. Well, actually, the first disc is more or less listenable. Apart from the obligatory 'Rock'n'Roll Soul' and 'Heartbreaker', there are no true stinkers on there, and all the good sides of the band are represented. The second disc is a different matter - the cutesy 'Bad Time' is about the only song on it that I can openly enjoy, even after it being so badly "symphonically marred" with the overture. 'Some Kind Of Wonderful' is transformed into a clap-along kitsch extravaganza (with the rhythm section playing barebones for most of its duration); 'Mean Mistreater' never stopped sucking, especially after it's been stripped of its moody electric piano introduction; and 'I'm Your Captain'... well, you saw that coming.

Worse, they do 'Loneliness' for an encore. 'Loneliness'! Remember that overblown, chokingly pulpiteering epic on E Pluribus Funk? 'There's a glorious land' and all that? Never mind that it was about ecological catastrophes in the first place - ecology, wartime, earthquakes, it's all hell, and it doesn't matter much as long as you sing about something depressing and disturbing. They might as well have sung 'Born To Die' and nobody would be complaining, even if it was just about the death of one person.

Anyway, the best thing about this whole enterprise is that fortunately this one-day reunion stayed a one-day reunion and was never followed by another studio album: judging by the band's early Eighties comeback and the energy level of this particular show, I can only imagine what a new GFR recording might have sounded like. And my biggest "fee fie" goes to Mel Schacher - where the fuck is the bass? Dennis Bellinger had a good excuse for not bringing in classy bass - he wasn't Mel Schacher. Mel Schacher does not have the excuse of being Dennis Bellinger. If all the success of this band had exclusively depended upon Farner's guitar playing, it wouldn't have been much of a success at all. And the second biggest "fee fie" is that they weren't able to even bring out Craig Frost to play the keyboards (meaning that the keyboard playing on here sucks even more than the bass playing). And the third biggest "fee fie" is that having sterile back vocalists chanting 'keep on shinin', shinin' on' on 'Shinin' On' completely strips the song of all of its former fun. And the fourth... all in all, a heck of a lot of fun, this record. You may now go on without me.



Grand Funk's mid-Seventies career successfully proved that the band was (fortunately) not equal to "Mark Farner and friends", yet, for all the shit one can throw (and deservedly so) at the protector of El Salvador's freedom from commies, there's no denying that Farner's heavy hand lies on every single GFR track ever recorded, and, while I would hardly bother getting any of his solo records on my own, it's only fair to review at least the stuff that I got for free, you know. Not that there's any way I'm reviewing his "deliberately Christian" Eighties output, but the solo records he made with the so-called 'Mark Farner Band' in between mid-Seventies Grand Funk and early Eighties Grand Funk turn out to be surprisingly listenable, and in a lot of ways similar to the best Grand Funk material of their "poppy" era, so there's no obvious reason to ignore them. I only have one, though (the self-titled "debut"); the 1978 No Frills album might be a piece of shit for all I know.


Year Of Release: 1977
Overall rating =

Maybe that's just inertia, but some of the songs roll along like prime GF material. But this IS Mark Farner, not GF.


Track listing: 1) Dear Miss Lucy; 2) Street Fight; 3) Easy Breezes; 4) Social Disaster; 5) He Let Me Love; 6) You And Me Baby; 7) Second Chance To Dance; 8) Lorraine; 9) Lady Luck; 10) Ban The Man.

With Frank Zappa out of the picture and Grand Funk on hold, Farner naturally went on to record a side project of his own which - surprise surprise! - turned out to be better than a good deal of Grand Funk albums. (Then again, what I mean is more albums like Survival and Phoenix than the really decent stuff they were putting out when the stars were right). This time, instead of speculating, I wash my hands - I can't think of a reason that forced the guy to have such violent ups and downs and ups and downs for numerous periods of time. Okay, a possible reason is that it was produced by guitar wiz and long-time Alice Cooper and Bob Ezrin friend Dick Wagner. After all, Grand Funk always seemed to be faring better in the hands of a talented producer than when left completely alone. The fact is, Mark Farner is a rather worthy album, with a bunch of songs that are moderately catchy and... and... and... emotionally resonant in places. And enough shitholes to fall into, of course.

Cut the crap, I'll just review it in the easiest way, song by song, that is. What kind of sweeping generalization could I make about a record like this, after all? 'Dear Miss Lucy' is an upbeat cheerful rocker, somewhat reminiscent of Styx (the good side of Styx, you know, that side which is responsible for 'Jennifer' and suchlike). Forms a suitable, if slightly corny and sexist (after all, it's a groupie putdown, isn't it? Say, don't you have a naggin' hypothesis that all the groupie-bashing songs are being written so that the male chauvinist pigs could find a good excuse for treatin' dem wommin like bitches?) introduction, after which it's immediately followed by the slow-paced, gritty blues workout 'Street Fight' that's tougher than almost any given GFR blues workout. Is it Andy Newmark's steady, unerring drumming that helps? Or is it Dennis Bellinger's fluent basslines? Or maybe Philip Aaberg's bubbling organ swirls? Or the listener's frustration at not being able to recognize one single name out of all the playing credits? Nada. Speaking of which, 'fluent bassline' is definitely tautology (if a bassline ain't fluent, it ain't worth a late great Stu Sutcliffe shit), but it still sounds so much nobler when you do say "fluent", doesn't it? Let's give tautology its due: without it, life would be dull, colourless, and we'd have to be sitting on Prozac all day long.

Anyway, next comes the pretty pretty pretty ballad 'Easy Breezes' which - in another age - would have been worked into a nine-minute 'soulful' composition that would leave you consciousless under your chair halfway through; here, though, it's worked into a three and a half minutes pop number that rolls along nicely and is warm and cool (at the same time). I didn't quite notice the socially biting 'Social Disaster', but I didn't think of it as particularly offensive, either. Funny how most of these songs really remind me of Styx so much. Who could have guessed that someday Grand Funk Railroad (okay, Mark Farner) and Styx could be rated and judged on the same scale? Well, upon second thought, they were never really that distant...

The gospel piece of fodder 'He Let Me Love' is the only serious suckjob on the whole album, but that's saying something. Hey, you couldn't expect such a strong born again Christian hack like Mark Farner get away without placing at least one tepid generic gospel number on an album? You have to take it, I guess, although I would personally advise you to skip it. You won't be missing anything particularly important, unless you're born again yourself, in which case I can understand what you're doing on a page dedicated to GFR but can't understand how you have managed to read thus far without sending me a bunch of E-mails about the flames of hell.

Well anyway, for a born again Christian, Mark Farner sure writes shitty gospel tunes, but for a rocker, he sure can pen a few good ones: 'Second Chance To Dance' is pretty cool-io, with a well-crafted looping vocal melody and driving guitar solos in the trademark Farner vein. And give credit where credit is due: in the midst of the disco era Farner was still refusing to do generic disco arrangements, sticking with relatively more complex - and more rockin' - funk/R'n'B rhythms. Another cheesy Styxish ballad follows ('Lorraine'), and as mediocre and overblown as it is, it still manages not to piss me off. It's hard to determine where exactly you can have this thin line between being "unpleasantly mediocre" and "pissing off", but I'm a-guessin' it lies somewhere in between the baritone and the mezzosoprano. When you're not talking opera, of course. Or heavy metal.

'Lady Luck' and 'Ban The Man' end the record on a good note - two more cool-sounding rockers, although there's nothing particularly original about them. But that's GOOD! Mark Farner sure can rock when he's not original! It's when he tries to, you know, like, actually DO something when trouble strikes! Here, he just takes the most generic song structures imaginable and bashes them out with passion and all that goes along with it. Gotta love it. And I realize you're now gonna look back at the overall rating and say "Hey! This is too low! This guy's been cheatin' again! Bring in the fishheads!", but see, there's really no cheating going on at all. What is going on is I expected this album to be an utter waste of my precious time (no Don Brewer? no Todd Rundgren or Zappa at the wheel? Sheesh!), and then I was pleasantly surprised - which doesn't mean these songs are real good. There are, like, maybe two or three truly interesting and fully original hooks on it; at other times, Farner is ripping off his betters and/or practising on the generic blues rock scale. But that's all right! At least he does it with gusto and more or less adequately. This stuff is dispensable - you can probably find a million albums like these, made by bluesy guys who got some feel and who have some playing talent - but it's not toilet-paper-level dispensable. Rather your solid morning newspaper-level dispensable. You know.


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