Scorned by the critics but worshipped by the masses, Grand Funk Railroad never second-guessed its own heavy-handed brand of blues rock. And soon, the Flint, Michigan-bred band became staples of the 1970s FM underground, as their primal, prototypical heavy metal showed itself to be a perfect fit for late-night deejays and the stoner set.
Although they seemed unlikely candidates for mainstream success, the Grand Funk guys surprised practically everyone when they managed to plough their way up the charts with the Todd Rundgren-produced single "We're an American Band," the radio favorite "I'm Your Captain," the exuberant "Some Kind of Wonderful," and their unlikely cover of the Carole King classic "The Loco-Motion."
Live, they were also unstoppable, breaking the Beatles' record for selling out Shea Stadium and headlining a free concert in London's Hyde Park. They were legitimate '70s superstars and the college crowd absolutely adored them.
"We were selling out stadiums all over the world," drummer Don Brewer recalls. "Then radio starting changing and you couldn't get those seven-minute songs on the radio, because radio adopted a commercial FM format and it wasn't the FM underground anymore."
"So we started making commercial hits," he says. "We kind of had two careers -- the 1969 to 1972 phase, and then the end of '72 until 1976. After the first phase, we kind of faded away, but then we picked ourselves up and put it all together again. We were able to reinvent ourselves and come up with hit records that got us back on the radio.
"We were either going to fall off the cliff or we were make it again. And that's what we did."
Even so, the critics remained unconvinced, and problems with management meant the Grand Funk guys failed to see many dividends. Nevertheless, they attracted some formidable allies in Rundgren, Frank Zappa, and Peter Frampton.
And while their longevity never seemed assured, they managed to persevere, even after founder, singer, and guitarist Mark Farner left the fold, forcing Brewer (who's also a staple in Bob Seger's band) and original bassist Mel Schacher to anchor a new version of the group that includes later recruits: singer-guitarist Max Carl, keyboardist Tim Cashion and onetime Kiss guitarist Bruce Kulick.
"The three of us had reunited a couple of times over the years," Brewer says. "But when Mark finally decided to leave in 1998, because he didn't like us anymore, Mel and I said, 'OK, what do we do now.'
"We really didn't intend to push it, but when I ran into Max and listened to his stuff, I thought he'd be perfect for Grand Funk. So we started messing around with Max and eventually put together this band with Bruce and Tim. We started playing together in 2000, and since then, we've been doing around 40 shows a year. It's worked out really well."
Right now, the American Band is back on the road, comin' to your town to help you party it down, with a new tour launched to capitalize on the group's 45th anniversary.
"It's a lot of work," Brewer says. "But at age 66, I'm happy to be working. I'm lucky to be doing something I love."
Indeed, Brewer can feel some sense of vindication that Grand Funk has actually outlasted the tastemakers who once showered them with such disdain.
"All those critics are gone," he laughs. "We're still going strong and we're still an influence. I get out on the stage and see three or four generations of fans out there, kids and grandparents, all at the same show and all knowing the words to the songs. It's amazing and it really gives me a chill. I still love it."
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Grand Funk Railroad. With War. As part of the Legends of Music Festival. Friday, November 21. Magic City Casino, 450 NW 37th Ave., Miami. The show starts at 8 p.m. and tickets cost $20 via magiccitycasino.com. All ages. Call 305-460-6579 or visit magiccitycasino.com.