GRAND FUNK RAILROAD OR... THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY
By Debbie Burr
From CREEM Vol. 2, # 7 (1969).

EDITOR'S NOTE - 'Member Ol' Terry Knight? Original Detroit popster DJ, with delightful Brian Jones long hair (except black) and spiffy mod clothes. Oh yeah, he knew where it was at all right. The sixth Rolling Stone, right here in the Motor City. At one point he quit his job at CKLW (?) and was off to England to go tour with the Stones. The story was that he was going to be a supporting act, singing, until he could be phased into the band itself. He was, you see, going to replace Bill Wyman. And so much prettier. Anyway, that fizzled and he came back to take on a job as program director with a radio station up in Flint. And kind of drifted out of our consciousnesses. Well, ol' staggerin' Terry's been back in town of late, and this is the story of his new thing.

"Well, I'll tell you," says Mark Farner, pausing after the question and looking intensely into my eyes, "Detroit is a spoiled city. Spoiled. And I hate to say it but a lot of people don't know where it's at and they think they do. I'll tell you, there's a lot of beautiful people in this world. You know, like a lot of places where we've played, these people aren't afraid to get into you and appreciate what you're doing. We get up there and knock ourselves out and we expect what we give, you know. Like if we give all of ourselves we expect a little something in appreciation of that. And here they just don't seem to appreciate it like as much as when we played in Texas or Atlanta, for instance.

"Detroit has been built up. It's been socked into Detroit kids' heads that Detroit is the musical capitol of the world or something," continued drummer Donnie Brewer.

"What happens in Detroit", breaks in Terry Knight, "is that they devote too much time thinking 'make it in Detroit and you can make it anywhere', when for some odd reason, make it in Detroit and you can't make it anywhere. I give them credit for trying to break out but the problem is they've isolated themselves in this area. And there are some very bad people in Ann Arbor and Detroit that screw the kids and screw the groups. I don't want to get involved but everybody knows who they are. Anyway, that's exactly the opposite of what I did with this group, and I say it because it was my decision as well as theirs. We said if this group is going to make it, they're going to make it nationally first. This group is so much bigger nationally than Detroit will probably ever be aware of... right now as we sit here and talk, it's almost almost a shame that these kids don't know what they've got."

Last March, Mark Farner (guitarist/lead singer), Donnie Brewer (drummer) and Mel Schacher (bassist) with Terry Knight (manager and producer) formed the Grand Funk Railroad, or the Great Train Robbery.

Mark has always been interested in music. He played the tuba (?) in high school in Flint. After a football injury to his knee and finger (My "mountain-dew finger"), his mother got him a guitar for his 15th birthday. He started a group called the Gennessians, as in the county, quickly moving on to bigger and better things like Mo-Jo and the Night Walkers. "We did all the VFW Halls and shit and just passed the hat after." He switched to bass in groups like the Bossmen (with the Frost's Dick Wagner) and Terry Knight and the Pack. "I got deeper and deeper into it and I wanted to be better than anybody else. I still do. I still practice for this ... every night."

According to some, Mark still plays guitar like a bass player with emphasis on runs, rhythmic riffs and patterns. His superiority (or super-starity) ties in his charismatic stage presence and his magnanimous voice. Donnie Brewer is probably the most reflective and admired of the Funk, at least among other musicians. Don also started out in high school, playing bass drum with the Swartz Creek Marching Band. "Well, you know how you always start groups in high school. I got into that and things just happened from there. But I've always wanted to play drums professionally." All three Funks, being from the Flint area, they have known each other for years. "I met Mark in a band. We used to play gigs at the "Battles of the Bands" together." The two later played in Terry Knight's Pack and in that group's successor, The Fabulous Pack. "Grand Funk just basically came about because we had known each other and none of us was really happening and we thought we could do something together."

On and off stage Mel Schacher is the reticent one of the three. He described his involvement in music very matter-of-factly, "My dad played the guitar. He was with Lawrence Welk and everything, and I was just kind of interested in it. I started out on banjo and went from banjo to clarinet. Then all the bands really started to happen and I began to play guitar and decided to switch to bass." Mel, also from the Flint area, had known Mark and Don for awhile through his involvement in different bands, one of which was Question Mark and the Mysterians (who did 96 Tears, for which they are less than revered in some circles.) "They came to me and we talked about getting a group together and I thought it would be the thing to do because nothing was really happening with us, individually." Asked why he always stands in the dark on stage, Schacher replied, "I love the dark. I'm the mysterious one, but you better not use that word."

"We go out of our way," Knight emphasized, "to avoid mentioning their former groups. We know here, for example, in the Detroit area and in the Midwest and New York the group quote Terry Knight and the Pack and the group Question Mark and the Mysterians quote unquote were very, very big groups nationally. But unfortunately a lot of people thought they were shit groups. Yea or nay, I don't know, but the fact is both of these groups sold millions of records. So, we could go out in certain areas that count, you know, the important markets where these groups were extremely strong - you know, formerly so and so and formerly so and so, the new supergroup. But none of us wanted to take that route, so that's why we try to avoid it."

Regardless of how super or unsuper the group is, it is purely unrealistic to ignore the members' former associations. Especially when you're writing in a Detroit based paper. And again especially when the former associations were with the group's present manager-producer-promoter, Terry Knight. And especially since popular belief among the area's music people supports the rumor that Knight's severing of himself from the Pack was not a very cheery scene, to say the least. Both parties allegedly vowed never to have anything to do with each other again.

But Knight, of course, denies this. "Well, that's just stupid. We were never really out of touch since we split. We were always on speaking terms and things like that. I've always been interested in Donnie and his profession and in Mark and his. And I knew that if ever I were in a position that I could do something or help do something with them ... But they were going through that growing pains period, that dues period and ... well, ultimately it just seems to have been in the stars that we were going to work together somehow."

The stars received a little help from the very down-to-earth business world. Terry's present "little trip in the business world" is that of executive producer for Capitol Records in New York. It seems that members of the Pack and Question Mark were contracted to Capitol both jointly and severally and Capitol, obviously, had dished out money to promote both of these former groups. It is also obvious that the three were not doing Capitol any good by being inactive. (The Pack had just returned from an ill-fated East Coast tour prior to the birth of Grand Funk. Boston apparently had enough of its own R' and B' groups and the Pack bombed.) So, Terry Knight, it has been said, "simply made the best of a bad scene."

The investment Capitol has taken on with Grand Funk is phenomenal ... something like $125,000, in the form of advertising (the three-page Billboard ad, Knight claims, "was for Capitol Records to let the country know that we had THE group") and more than adequately comfortable traveling conditions (many trips were free gigs for the exposure.) But the hype seems to be paying off as their album, On Time, is expected to be certified as a million seller within the next two weeks and "Time Machine" is a top 20 single all across the country. Except in Detroit.

It is interesting to note that in the midst of this, Mark still uses the same taped-up green guitar. "That's it. That's my baby."

Whether or not Terry would have ever rejoined with Mark and Don, or Capitol would have underwritten Grand Funk had the parties in question not already been legally contracted to each other is unimportant and purely speculative, at this point.

What is important, or at least significant, is the amazing job Terry must have done selling Capitol, encouraging them to take the risk and the super-hype of a group that has apparently stirred up people in all parts of the country except their home base, Detroit. He knows how to sell a product and sell it well.

The Grand Funk Railroad has been hyped. But they seem to have proved themselves worthy, at least on Capitol Records' level. I asked Terry if it was difficult getting bookings for this virtually unheard of band when they started out. "It wasn't hard getting gigs from the first night and I'll tell you why. The first night they ever played together as the Funk (in Buffalo, New York) they caused a riot on stage. A chick was so warped by the show she took off her clothes and headed for the stage. That caused so much talk about this group that they've worked steadily ever since."

The group started out going into several of the summer's pop festivals (i.e. Atlanta and Texas International) as the first act on the first day, for free to get exposure. By the second and third days they were moved to 8 p.m.

The Atlanta people have already asked them back for next years' festival at a minimum of 15 grand. (And that's no hype. I saw the letter.) After the Texas International Pop Festival, Billboard wrote of them "...a Detroit-based trio with individually perfected talents fused into a tight unit of exciting projection." Of the same performance, the Arizona Republic Sun said, "The trio is certainly one of the most written-about newcomers in some time. They have been hailed as the next Cream, which is nothing in itself except that in a string of personal appearances on the pop festival route they received standing ovations and rave reviews at every performance. At the Texas International Festival the group was awarded no less than four standing ovations and two encores from a crowd of 180,000." "We've turned down every TV show offered us so far; Music Scene, Carson, Bishop, even Sullivan. Like the Sullivan Show gets into a thing where they like them to either come on early or close the show, when you get cut or they roll the credits over you" explains Terry. "I'd like when they do the Sullivan Show to do two songs right after the 8:30 break. That's the prime time."

"We've also turned down a TV spot that would have been world wide via satellite. Just to show you where my head is at with them ... you know, Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade is shown on all channels throughout the world and they came to Capitol and offered them a Grand Funk float and that would have meant that as the camera rolled by they'd be lip-syncing or something. Well, this is exposure before hundreds of millions. But, this is the wrong kind of exposure. You know, I'm not trying to exploit the group."

You can put spectra-color ads in every publication and on every highway in the country. But you can't hype an audience into feeling the music.

Any answer to the question of why Detroit people have not received the Grand Funk Railroad with open arms is completely theoretical. But, for one thing, Detroit has been flooded with so much good talent that a group must not only be exceptional, but also catch the right crowd in the right mood. This, combined with a prejudice against hype generally and Terry Knight specifically, and maybe a little hard feeling for this "local" band that felt they didn't need the Ann Arbor-Detroit fans to make it, could all be contributing to Detroit's rejection of the Grand Funk. Terry claims that "The kids didn't come to the Grande last night to hear Joe Cocker or Grand Funk. It was the place to go." [EDITOR'S NOTE: Mr. Knight has spent much time in New York recently and little in Detroit. It seems to show.]

Or ... maybe the audience just plain doesn't like their music.

Their music, although not particularly anything new as far as concepts go, is nonetheless distinctive and peculiar to the group. Especially since most three-piece groups follow the musical directions via Cream or Hendrix.

"It's just hard, hard rock," says Donnie. "We've all been influenced by everybody. Like I dig the Rascals. But there isn't anybody that stands out that we try to copy and we don't avoid trying to copy anyone, either. We just play music we like and we think the kids will like. And if it happens that some kids think we should sound like Cream, well, we're not trying to avoid it but we're not trying to do it, either."

Farner writes all the tunes or at least he writes the lyrics and gets the basic chord structure. "Then at rehearsal we jam and put what we feel should be in certain spots and get it together,."

"Basically we all write the songs," adds Donnie. "It's just that he writes the original song and we arrange it."

"In my lyrics," continues Mark, "I try to use a universal language. I don't write so complicated . . . like I don't use big long words and symbols. Without the lyrics, to me music is nowhere. But, along with lyrics, the music expresses something as a whole and expresses what we feel."

These feels are also expressed, especially through Mark's stage performance. Farner (I later found out he is half Cherokee) goes through what had struck me as a similar to an Indian ceremonial dance. "I'd go on stage naked if I could. I'd go everywhere naked. I love the freedom I feel on stage cause I can do anything I want to. And I do anything I want to. I get off doing that, especially when people appreciate it. That's when I really get off. Like at Texas, after two encores, I was so "stoned" when I got off stage that I couldn't even walk and that's where I want to be. That's the kind of stoned I love and want to be all the time."

There are some definite future plans. Their second album is finished and will be released December 29, preceded by the release of a single, Mr. Limousine Driver, in about three weeks. "It's much heavier than Time Machine," says Knight and then adds, paranoically, "which is funny because like Time Machine is Top 20 everywhere and who knows what happened in Detroit... if they're supposed to be so great what kind of Mickey Mouse record is that? Well, heh, we're not stupid, dumb people, which should be obvious by now. I mean I think we know what we're doing. We've got a hit album on the charts and a hit single and a hit group to work with. We seem to be doing something right. So, we put out a record and it was a hit record. The next record'll be a hit and so will the album.

"They'll start recording their third album in January. To do it right they'll have to restrict their personal appearances. The days are gone when you can knock off an album in a couple of weeks. We'd like to reach a point where eventually they do like two tours a year. Then when they get done they can go to the place where they practice and no one bothers them and the three can get into their little circle and work."

Right now Terry is negotiating a European and possibly an Asian tour for the Funk for early next year to correspond with the first album's release over there. "You know", Knight claims, "there never has been a super-group from the States since like Bill Haley and the Comets or Buddy Holly and the Crickets, in the era. But, from the rock music age, since the Beatles brought it around again, there never has been a super-group from this country. [What about the Doors, Airplane, Byrds, Supremes, to name just a few? -Ed] There is bound to be one sometime. It would be nice if this were the group."