Get the Funk Off This Railroad

Originally published in Salon

Among cultural historians, it has long been an article of faith that the ’60s dream died in an ugly bar fight at Altamont Speedway in December 1969. Given the evidence, it’s not a bad guess. After all, the Rolling Stones’ well-intentioned fiasco proved that rock and roll wasn’t about good vibes and peace (man) and made it clear that the Woodstock nation was far better equipped to destroy itself than take on any nebulous “establishment.” Within a year, superstars would start ODing like flies, the Beatles would sue each other and Don McLean would write “American Pie.” How much more habeas corpus do you need?

As Freddy Krueger later observed, you can’t kill something that’s already dead. By the winter of ’69, rock was already flat-lining. If the bad news had yet to reach the front lines–and some might argue that it never has–the monument to virile youth the Stones helped erect only a few years earlier was an edifice about to be wrecked.

And, ironically enough, not by its sworn enemies or its craftiest exploiters. Not by MTV, hip-hop, the Internet or even Celine Dion. No, rock and roll was done in by three well-intentioned nobodies who, to their credit, worked hard and believed in themselves. That their values ran counter to the counterculture might have left them on the outside looking in a year earlier, but the ’60s were ready for last call. That party had gone out of bounds with hard drugs and the discovery of death as a lifestyle and was facing a grim and uncertain morning-after. The new left politics rock had inadvertently fueled had diverged into feel-good Moratorium marchers and self-obsessed bombers. Stardom had corrupted musical idealists and left them easy prey for commercial interests. With Newtonian certainty, the great leap forward was ready for its about-face.

The world didn’t need any more fixing, at least not of the sort that had turned to mud at Woodstock. There was nothing to be nostalgic about, since youth culture needed to see its reflection, and the Elvis ’50s didn’t look familiar at all. The future was too hard to comprehend, and far harder still to imagine shaping. No, what the world needed, in the eyes of those unaware of its possibilities, was the kind of fun that didn’t mean anything. As the social pendulum began its great swing back, Grand Funk Railroad rolled up to embody that know-nothing reactionary spirit and make it the soundtrack of the ’70s.

GFR arose from Michigan’s working class industrial fug around the same time as the Stooges, but their garage-bred ineptitude was a completely different American breed. The Stooges were bad seeds, pollution-fueled aliens who had abandoned life’s assembly line to make music of enormously negative appeal as they accelerated blindly towards a personal hell. Ugly, depraved, unsophisticated but knowledgeably honoring some worthy predecessors, these vicious bohemians fit into the cultural fabric like cigarette holes in a couch. Their clothes and demeanor, if at all conscious, were not meant to help them fit in but to stand out, to inflict whatever offense was still possible in a time of great moral decay.

Grand Funk were Nixon’s silent majority, living proof that long hair and loud music signified nothing more than the Prez muttering “Sock it to me” on Laugh-In. Arriving on the scene too late to grasp rock’s pivotal role in shaping the ’60s, they observed a landscape of no-account hippies, foreign influence and dissipating idealism and didn’t like what they saw. (The bra-less chicks, drugs and ready cash were another story.) Unlike the sissies and bookworms who had found rock and roll their court of last resort, Mark, Don and Mel were hard, simple and strong–macho moral descendants of John Wayne and Billy Jack—and they knew their country needed them. Owing nothing to history, unashamed of their shortcomings and undaunted by their obstacles, they suited up and got to work. Though hardly in the same league, they shrewdly fashioned themselves a power trio after Cream, who conveniently dissolved just in time.

Others could lock themselves away, spending unconscionable amounts of time in the studio making grandiose art-rock of increasing intricacy and technical reach, Grand Funk displayed the rugged efficiency of line workers. These get-it-done types released two albums in each of their first four years, paving the way for cynics like the equally unselfconscious KISS, who also knew to keep striking while the iron was on fire.

In addition to a career-launching appearance at the Atlanta Pop Festival a month before Woodstock, Grand Funk released two albums in 1969 and began their inexorable plod to superstardom. Released only weeks after Altamont, their second longplayer, Grand Funk Railroad, is a textbook classic of sweat-rock, a lumbering collection of cliches played with the conviction of Charlton Heston parting the Red Sea and the mindless determination of Rocky Balboa leaking blood on the canvas. Whereas the Stooges presumably noticed the vast chasm between their work and the sound of young America—and thought themselves the better for it—Grand Funk comically gave it their best shot with quavering vocals, grunting bass and high-school guitar licks. And they were richly rewarded.

With three additional decades of rock history to consider, their ineptitude can actually be forgiven. After all, punk couldn’t have happened if instrumental ability were a prerequisite. But lack of skill has to be mortgaged against some brilliant idea, or at least a clever novelty. But Grand Funk, God love ’em, didn’t have an original bone in their body. They went from being puppets of an autocratic manager to willing servants of strong producers like Todd Rundgren without ever demonstrating a shred of individual creativity. Their best work, save for the dumb-luck power of “We’re an American Band,” came via covers of classics like “The Loco-Motion” or “Some Kind of Wonderful.” And uncredited borrowings, like the Ten Years After chorus (“Love Like a Man”) in Grand Funk’s subsequent “Walk Like a Man.” The significance of their merciless decimation of “Gimme Shelter,” the Stones song for which the Maysles named their documentary film of the dismal doings at Altamont, however, is too dense to contemplate. No, GFR were hopelessly bad singers and players, but success calls its own tune, and their unmitigated shittiness became an acceptable ’70s benchmark.

With the green-eyed gods of commerce on their side, Grand Funk sold an unheard-of ten-million albums within two years. And that was that. Critics could carp all they wanted, but it was a new decade and a new generation had spoken. The ’60s suddenly felt like a pitifully naive oasis, pre-school for the big boys. In the wake of Grand Funk’s jolly thuggery, the era they had wiped away felt like it might have been a mass hallucination, and rock was revealed to be just another cynical American industry, free of social consequence and solidly status quo. Flag-burners be damned–the irony-impaired Grand Funk posed nude in a barnyard full of flags and made it look respectful.

The success of Grand Funk dragged rock back to earth from its wildest imaginings, as if the space program had been taken over by McDonalds and NASA’s rocketry breakthroughs converted to broil burgers. In their clumsiness, Grand Funk inadvertently knocked down the wall that had divided rock self-expression from market-driven factory pop. Shorn of its pretensions and dreams, its politics and its effeminacy, rock entered Have a Nice Day hell, the vapid wasteland of the early ’70s in which musical styles became random buttons on the Top 40 jukebox. While Britain’s teens embraced the future in platform heels and eye shadow, Americans would go years before rediscovering music’s artistic and cultural ambitions.

But, in their own minds, Grand Funk were ready to save America. Weighing in late on the Vietnam saga (14 months before the signing of the Paris peace accords, as it happens), they declared, “People, Let’s Stop the War” on 1971’s E Pluribus Funk, reducing years of protest against the military-industrial complex to three incoherent lines: “If we had a president that did just what he said/The country would be just alright and no one would be dead/From fighting in a war that causes big men to get rich.” On the same album, which is the most outspoken for singer-guitarist-songwriter Mark Farner, “Save the Land” warns, “Look out for the land rush…All we’ve got is just the land/Take a stand, save the land.” More typical of the group’s spiritual concerns is the unbridled passion of “Heartbreaker,” a minor hit released in early 1970: “Heartbreaker/Can’t take her/Heartbreaker/Bringin’ me down.”

Critics raked them over the coals, but Grand Funk had the last laugh. Victory was theirs, no matter how many pussies with pens proclaimed that they sucked. Their sales as much as their sensibilities cleared a path to football stadiums, where rock, sports and other testosterone-fueled mass gatherings could finally meld into one universal crud culture. That would lead to even worse things. (Maybe you don’t care that rock songs have become “jock classics” or that hawkers vend hot dogs in the stands at Pink Floyd shows, but I do.) Mark Farner went to become a survivalist and born-again Christian. In the liner notes to the band’s Thirty Years of Funk box set, he writes, “Just for the record, I despise the men and women who under the influence of darkness have compromised the sovereignty of the People of the United States.” Can you spell W-A-C-O?

I suppose there have been worse bands than Grand Funk Railroad, but try and imagine what might have happened if it had been, say, Melanie who had been able to outsell the Beatles at Shea Stadium. That would have fixed rock’s male paradigm, wouldn’t it? What Grand Funk did was establish banality as a mass-market ideal, inverting the idealism that had once driven artists to strive for creative progress, testing and shedding styles like babies learning to walk. For a brief, exciting time, rock could not bear to stand still, and its greats were those who constantly sought new challenges. Between 1966 and 1969, it was swept by waves of psychedelia, sitar, folk, blues, country and more. The arrival of Grand Funk stopped progress dead in its tracks. Ill-suited to do more than sweat, stomp and sell, they were neither capable of, nor inclined to, advance. By the time they got out of the way, ushered into the past tense by two albums that tanked, the latter having been produced by Frank Zappa (bless his bearded little head), the ’70s were more than half over. As if on cue, the Ramones were counting it down on the Bowery, and it was time to begin again.

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