In The Number Ones, I review every # 1 single in the history of Billboard Hot 100, starting at the beginning of the graph in 1958 and working your way up to the present.
It was really an American band. They may have been the more American group. Grand Funk Railroad burst into Flint, Michigan in 1969 – a power trio of silly headbangers made up of guys who had been in garage-punk bands in the mid-’60s, when this genre boom was booming. In quick succession, Grand Funk released six albums, all of which went gold. They became a touring monster, famous for selling Shea Stadium faster than The Beatles had succeeded. They did all of this without critical help – Rolling stone Absolutely hated them – and without much success on the radio or in the charts. When they made manage to score a # 1 hit, they did it with a song about alcohol, partying and fucking groupies. (Other bands did these things, but they usually didn’t sing about them.) In the video, singer / guitarist Mark Farner rides a horse and a motorcycle, both shirtless. No one has ever been more American.
Farner and singer / drummer Don Brewer had both performed in Terry Knight And The Pack, a Flint garage band that recorded a few minor hits and became a big regional draw in the 1960s. The Pack broke up in 1967 , when frontman Terry Knight became a solo artist, producer and general music actor. Farner and Brewer met Mel Schacher, a bassist who had played? And The Mysterians, but not when this band had recorded “96 Tears”. Knight had moved to New York, but Farner and Brewer brought him back to become the group’s new manager and producer. And for a few years, Knight practically took over the group.
Knight is the one who named the new group Grand Funk Railroad. (It was a pun on the Grand Trunk Western Railroad of the Midwest, and it was funnier when you consider that there was very little funk in Grand Funk Railroad.) Knight booked the band at the Pop Festival. from Atlanta in 1969; they played for free and obviously kicked the ass enough that they were immediately signed. When Grand Funk exploded – something happened very quickly – Knight paid a lot of money for a Times Square billboard that just gloated over everything they had done. And Knight also made a lot of money with the band – enough that they fired him as a manager and producer in 1972.
The resulting legal battle lasted a long time and nearly derailed the band’s career. But when they came out the other side, Grand Funk was stronger. They added a fourth member, keyboardist Craig Frost. They ditched the railroad from their name, simply becoming Grand Funk. (They reverted to Grand Funk Railroad, for whatever reason, in 1974.) They hired Todd Rundgren as a producer. And they still sounded pretty much the same.
There was never a subtext to what Grand Funk did. They did not try to cultivate mysticism, as their contemporaries did. Instead, they threw some fun, silly big hooks; even their most contemplative moments are chants with raised fists. They followed the Cream power-trio model, but without the mythical aspirations, instead making blues-rock so big and strong that it became proto-metal. The hatred that Grand Funk received from critics became a selling point; he made them anti-elitist proletarian heroes. And when Grand Funk finally cut ties with Knight and gained creative control over their own group, they didn’t shoot a Marvin Gaye or a Stevie Wonder. With Frost and Rundgren on board, they thickened and cleaned up their sound. But they didn’t try to make a sweeping artistic statement. Instead, they doubled down on everything that was insanely silly about what they were already doing. That’s where “We’re An American Band” comes from.
There is a story that Don Brewer wrote “We’re An American Band” after falling out late at night with hard-rock touring mates Humble Pie, the two arguing over whether British rock or American was superior. Brewer says that’s not true. But there is still a hint of challenge to “We are an American band”. It’s a proudly literal song, a riff-stomper about what it’s like to play in front of drunk, horny, horny kids in every town, to bring the party with you. It’s a statement of intent if there is one: “We’re coming to your town, we’ll help you party. “
Brewer has stories, and those stories are in the song. Grand Funk arrives in Omaha and they find “four young chiquitas” already waiting for them at the hotel, and they all get together and “tear this hotel down.” They stay up all night playing poker with their first party, blues greats Freddie King. They play in Little Rock, and everyone in the band is typing “sweet, sweet Connie” – which would be Connie Hamzy, the famous groupie who may or may not have met Bill Clinton when he was governor of Arkansas. (Those lyrics were the 1973 equivalent of checking out Courtney’s name from Hooters on Peachtree.) There’s nothing about the hard parts of the tour, about living a rootless existence and seeing the world. whole turn into a road blur. It’s a pure fantasy fulfillment – all the parts of rock star life that kids want to hear about, nothing that they don’t have.
“We’re An American Band” is also a nifty popcraft track. In the beginning, when Grand Funk hit the radio, it was on freeform FM stations where DJs weren’t afraid to play an eight-minute epic. But Brewer, who wrote and sang more of the band’s songs, noticed that FM radio was cleaning up his number, becoming more commercialized. Brewer did everything to condense the power of the band into a quick and immediate three and a half minute single. The song’s riffs are big, fun, and obvious, and it sticks its hook in your head with the sheer force of repetition. Brewer’s voice is a dizzying, hedonistic, proud howl. And his drums are lively but worthy of dance; there is at least a distant echo of disco in this whole bell.
There is an unassuming nobility in “We’re An American Band”, and in the very idea of a rock band who want the world to know how much fun they are having. Maybe radio-rock loses something when all the mysticism and idealism is ripped off. But maybe it gets more honest as well. And maybe he’s becoming more American.
BONUS BEATS: Here is the cover of “We’re An American Band” by FU in 1983:
BONUS BEATS BONUS: Here’s Rob Zombie’s life on the road video for his 2013 grunt-rock cover of “We’re An American Band”: