Songwriter-drummer Don Brewer on the origins of a rock anthem
It’s one of the most iconic songs in rock & roll history. Written and sung by Don Brewer, drummer for Grand Funk Railroad, it was released in 1973 on the album of the same name. Produced by Todd Rundgren, it was the band’s first number one single.
Rocking, anthemic and steeped in American pride, he has become a rock standard, recorded and performed by a remarkably wide range of artists, including Rob Zombie, Garth Brooks, Poison, Phish, Kid Rock, Village People, Rascal Flatts and many others.
The story behind the song has been the subject of controversy, which we are happy to work out. According to an oft-repeated account, the song appeared when Grand Funk and British band Humble Pie were on tour together in 1973. After a performance, the bands were drinking in a bar when an argument flared over who was the best. , American or British Rock & Roll. Don Brewer stood up, as the story progressed, and began to shout the names of great American rock stars, such as Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, Little Richard and Fats Domino.
Then, with great intensity, he declared: âWe are an American group! “And went and wrote the song.
âThis is completely wrong,â Don said. âIt never happened. We were great friends with Humble Pie!
The true story of the source, Don Brewer, is here, in his own words.
DON BREWER: We were in a big lawsuit with our former manager, Terry Knight, and he was suing every town we played in, disputing that we owned the Grand Funk Railroad name. It was a very difficult time for us. He was trying to make us forget. It was time to sink or swim.
At the same time, the radio was moving from an underground FM format to a new successful format. All the songs had to be three minutes long and they had to have commercial value and they had to have a hook and so on and so forth. So we fly to all of these cities on a tour and we got chased by our manager and it was like we didn’t come with the records, we were going to say our goodbyes.
With all of this hanging over our heads. I decided I was going to try to throw my hat in the ring and do some of the writing and singing.
We were on planes all the time, flying in these cities. I remember looking at the ground as we walked into a town and this thought came to my mind: “We come to your city, we will help you party. âBecause that’s what we do; that’s what this group does.
So I wrote the song around that line and found other things that were going on while we were on the road at the same time, like the young chiquitas in Omaha and the sweet sweet Connie.
And I thought about staying up all night playing poker with Freddie King, the great bluesman: Freddie was actually opening the Phoenix Tour for us, and it was true. We stayed up all night playing poker with Freddie.
I’m a drummer, and not a great guitarist, but I can play with a guitar. I came up with some really simple chord changes, and then I wrote the song really around those chords and that idea.
I really didn’t find the âWe’re an American Bandâ label until the song was over. I had that melody but not the words, and then it came out, the line, and it sang so well, âWe’re an American band. This is who we are.
I really didn’t see that this song would be our big hit. We were just hanging on to straws, trying to find business stuff. And we brought in Todd Rundgren to help us make this transition from underground FM to a more popular sound.
We recorded it at Criteria Studios in Miami. When we finished this song some guys from Capitol Records had come over to listen, and when this song played they started jumping up and down. They started to say, âThis is it! It is a success. It’s a hit! ”
I remember walking into the control room when they were partying and I was like, “You guys really love it ? Truly ? Do you really? “
Thanks to them, we made it the single. We remastered that song, and before we even finished the album, we gave it to Capitol so they could plan the single to release before the album. It was a done deal at the time.
Todd Rundgren was the perfect producer for this. He was definitely the sound guy. He has a formula for the way things sound. And, you know, he starts tweaking those buttons and he rings the drums Great and it makes everything sound good.
Also, he puts it on tape that way. It doesn’t go to the tape flat, with no EQ, no echo, nothing like a lot of producers, who add the effects later in the mix. Todd throws it all out the window and he records it on a tape like it’s going to be. This is what it will look like. Which for us was liberating, especially for the lead vocals, because you could hear what the record sounded like while doing it.
I didn’t really realize the power of the song until I heard it for the first time on the radio. I was driving from home on these country roads and it came over the radio in my car. It’s the first time I’ve heard it on the radio.
I left the side of the road and picked it up. And I’m just sitting there and I couldn’t to believe how good it sounded on the radio. there was only that thing. And that’s when I knew it was a hit. This is what the hit record looks like.
It’s become a standard, and it’s one of those songs that wave the American flag. Even though I didn’t try to wave the flag at all. It was just descriptive; that’s who we are. I was writing a song about the band.
But it’s also a celebration of the country and American rock and roll. I mean, that’s where it came from. Rock & Roll is an American thing.