Not able to interview the band first time round we thought we would celebrate 45 years of Grand Funk Railroad, one of the best rock bands of all time by grabbing an interview with Don Brewer, their drummer. We chat about the Detroit music scene, the Atlanta Pop festival, life in a rock and roll band and we even managed to get in a question about The Simpsons.
What was the first record you bought?
The first record I ever bought, I remember the first ever album I bought, you know long play, LP that I had was The Dovells, do you remember The Dovells? The Bristol stomp (sings), you know the doo wop? That was the very first LP I had, it was funny because much later on, Jimmy Ienner who produced a couple of our records, he produced Some Kind of Wonderful and a few of the other things, he was a member of that band, of that vocal group (laughs). That was interesting.
So, what was the first gig you ever went to?
Well the very first concert I recall going to in Flint Michigan, well one of the first big shows I went to was Jimi Hendrix and the Experience as they came through Flint in 1966, 1967? Maybe somewhere near? You know, I had been to a lot of teen hops and stuff like that before where there were big bands playing like The Kingsmen but those were like smaller places and I also remember seeing Jerry Lee Lewis but the first real concert I went to was Jimi Hendrix.
How was that for you? What impact did that have?
I was blown away. I knew who Jimi Hendrix was, Flint wasn’t quite ready for Jimi Hendrix yet so the place was half empty and so it was an interesting show and he didn’t really put on a good show because he was disappointed with the turnout but I was just blown away, I always loved Mitch Mitchell, his drumming, so I was very impressed with that.
You talk about Flint. How did the Flint scene compare to the Detroit scene? Was there much crossover?
Oh yeah we would go to Detroit and play but we weren’t really part of the Detroit scene, even as The Pack, as far as the bands from Detroit we were always that band from Flint, we were kind of like the outcasts you know? We would play all over Michigan and not play a lot around Detroit but really we made our name as The Pack as being a Michigan band and playing all over Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana, even going to New York and not really being that much of an attraction in Detroit so to speak. The MC5, Amboy Dukes, Iggy Pop and all those bands were the bands at the time in Detroit and like I say we were the outcasts.
Were you ever a fan of any of those bands?
Not really, I didn’t care much for that whole Detroit music much. We were always way more into the RnB thing, you know, Motown, what was coming out of Motown, you know Aretha Franklin and all of that kind of stuff so were just completely head over heels in love with the RnB thing and not so much the grungey motor city rock thing with Iggy Stooges smearing hamburger all over himself you know, it was like, oh please, really? Is that what music is? (laughs). That’s not music but in our own way we were kind of snobs in the other direction you know? We just didn’t like what they did and I guess they didn’t like what we did.
Did you prefer Motown to Stax and Southern Soul?
Oh yeah absolutely, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, all that, the whole thing. We were just totally head over heels with that stuff and we still loved other acts, I mean I loved Hendrix and Cream and Blue Cheer and all those three-piece bands were doing really, blues! It was all just cranked up all pumped up on steroids and that’s what we really did with Grand Funk. Our RnB thing that we did with The Pack and when we became Grand Funk most of the same material that we did with The Pack was pumped up on steroids and was made into more of a rock feel, a rock format and that’s what Grand Funk really is. It is a unique combination for rock and RnB. That is why it is what it is, that’s what make it unique and different and one-of-a-kind I think.
So, whose idea was it to go from The Pack to a power trio?
Well it came out of necessity. We had run The Pack as far as it would go, we just weren’t getting enough gigs you know? We were trying to play gigs in Boston trying to establish some sort of following and it just wasn’t working and we had a falling out with our management and Farner and I were just…we gotta do something you know? We gotta put gas in the car, you know, what are we going to do? Terry Knight who had been in The Pack had moved off to New York and had become an A&R guy in New York with Capitol so I said to Terry that me and Farner are looking to put together a new band and of course we would love to have your input so he writes a letter back to me and said well these three piece bands like Hendrix and Cream, that’s what’s happening right now so why not put together a power trio thing? So that’s what we did, we hooked up with Mel Schacher who was a fan of ours, I got him playing the bass and we re-worked all that material that we were doing in The Pack and just pumped it up and we played it loud as a three piece trio and we got Terry to fly out to Flint and that was pretty much the beginning of Grand Funk and that was the decision, we had to, we wanted to do something original, we didn’t want to play clubs, we didn’t want to be a club band and play cover material, we wanted to do something original and this was it! This was our scheme. And it worked!
At the time did you think you would be talking about this 45 years later?
Never. You know, we went through the whole Grand Funk thing up to 1976 when we first broke up and then we got back together briefly in 81 and 82. At the end of that I really never thought we would ever be a band again. It was like, it had run its course and we just walked away from it and everybody went on and did other things. I went on to play with Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet band, Mark went on to do his own thing. We never dreamed that in the nineties that Classic Rock radio would be born that they would be turning all the albums into CD’s, this whole thing came round in 96 and all of a sudden we have people knocking on our door again say hey look at all these bands getting back together and getting back on the road, what do you guys think? So we put it back together and went out and did a couple of years, 96, 97.
What do you think was the pivotal moment that made Grand Funk? It seems that the Atlanta Pop festival was quite important.
It was a major turning point. We had been looking for gigs and looking at how we were going to establish ourselves and we got on the first Atlanta Pop Festival in 1969 as really a guest. We weren’t paid for the gig, they just told us, you get down here and we will put you on as the opening act, we knew some guy that was working the festival. We drove down, we rented a van and a trailer, took our stuff down there. We show up, get on stage in front of 30,000 to 40,000 people the very first day and they just went nuts over the band, they just loved it and that is really the turning point of the whole thing. We actually went on the next day at a better time slot and the third day an even better time slot and the whole thing of that festival was – you gotta see Grand Funk, you know? We caught a whole bunch of gigs through the south and it just took off. It really started for us in the south. Georgia and Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, Louisiana and that is really where we took off.
You used the word unique and it’s really hard to think of another band that sound Like Grand Funk. Did you think that any of the bands of the late 60’s, early 70’s, did you ever see them as peers?
Well, there were a lot of bands that came after us that really imitated a lot of what we did and I had even seen people comment on it. You know Lou Gramm from Foreigner, Kiss says that Grand Funk was a huge influence, Van Halen came out and said it, Huey Lewis and the News said it, you know they were big fans of Grand Funk, Toto. It is the same as what we were doing, we were listening to what was coming before us and turning it into something we did and these bands who were listening to us were turning it into something of their own but they were taking little bits and elements and you could hear it in their music. I hear Mickey Thomas from Jefferson Starship sometimes and think he is a dead ringer for Farner. So you can tell that is who he was listening to.
Have you ever heard any other bands covering Grand Funk?
Yeah I’ve heard some stuff but I’ve never really heard any really good covers that I would say wow, that is a really great cover. I hear people doing Closer to Home and American Band and of course Some Kind of Wonderful, Huey Lewis tried to do a version of Some Kind of Wonderful and I think it sucked! I’ve heard a lot of guys doing American Band including Kid Rock, Bon Jovi, Poison but I’ve never really heard anyone do it better than us and I’ve never really heard anyone kinda doing it differently. I was really disappointed when I heard Kid Rock’s version because he is this hip hop, new generation rock guy and when he did American Band and he did it just like the original song, he changed a few of the words I was disappointed in that, I thought somebody should take a whole new take on it, you know? The one band I maybe heard in the past ten years was Wolfmother. I just wish there were more bands that would just go into the studio and play live, you know? Play live because that is what a lot of that early rock stuff is, the early recordings and I think that’s what is missing, it’s over-produced and it’s over thought, everyone is overdoing the recording and not looking at the real content and emotion of the recording is and it’s just being overlooked.
You said that you took your RnB and rock and made it loud, how loud were you?
Well there was always the PR that we were the loudest band, loudest rock band on the planet. I don’t think we were as loud as the other bands that came along after us. When we were out there though we would fill these little arenas and a lot of them were just rodeo places they had dirt floors and bleachers, those kind of things because that is what there was to play, we had one spotlight on each guy and the sound system back then was terrible so we would bring in as many cabinets as we possibly could get in the truck and as much power and amplifiers and just crank it up. It didn’t really sound good but it was loud! We were compensating for the fact that the sound systems weren’t really good, you were just trying to fill an arena with loudness because the sound just wasn’t that good.
What is your favourite Grand Funk song or album?
I would say one of my favourites would be E Pluribus Funk and when anyone asks about my favourite albums I always think back to the time in the studio and how long it took us to complete the record and how much fun we were having. The favourite ones for me are the ones that didn’t take a long time, it was always done in two or three takes and we knew what we were doing when we went in there and we got everything to sound decent and we put it down and it was just smokin’. To me that was a really great album.
And do you have a favourite song?
A favourite song of all time for Grand Funk Railroad? I really can’t say I could pick a particular song but one of my favourites is on that album, I Come Tumblin’, I think it is a great track.
One thing we have to ask. What do you think of The Simpsons?
(Laughs) well, I think It’s great! They sent me a script as a request to use one of our songs and I saw the script and I thought, this is perfect, Homer Simpson is American, pure Americana and to have Homer educating his kids about Grand Funk on an episode of The Simpsons, I thought it was just classic, mentioning each guy by name you know. I laughed when I read it and I said of course you can use it, it’s terrific. I think one of the writers is a big Grand Funk fan.
Why did the critics not get Grand Funk?
You know, I don’t think it was the critics that didn’t get us, they had ongoing war with our first manager Terry Knight. Terry wouldn’t let us speak to the press, he always had to be the guy that was talking to the press, he wanted to create this whole image of Grand Funk and how he had created us, kind of like a Monkees thing, he tells us what to do, he tells us where to go and the critics didn’t like that and that they couldn’t speak to us, they had to speak to Terry and they took it out on us. I think it was a battle between Terry and the critics and Terry’s whole philosophy was if you get bad press it’s good press and he kind of used it against the critics, going to the people and saying look at what the critics are saying about your favourite band, it made our fans love us more. It was Terry’s strategy and its funny, the year we fired Terry and we played Madison Square Gardens, the first time without him as manager, The Rolling Stone Magazine came to the show and they wrote in their next edition “where’s this band been? I love this band”. The only thing that had changed is that Terry Knight was no longer with us.
How many times have you played the UK? You have done a couple of shows.
Yeah we came over and did a couple of shows, we played Hyde Park that was fun with Humble Pie. I think we played Royal Albert Hall once.
Were you popular here?
I think we were kind of a curiosity. I’m not really sure the English really got us, I think they were reading all the press especially bad press at the time and they were curious about this band that were so huge in America so when we came over there is was a curiosity thing and even in Europe I think it was a curious thing. We did much better in Germany, Italy and France and in Japan of course, we were huge in Japan. England not so much. I don’t know if the English thought we were stepping on their toes with Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple, I don’t know!
You quite famously played with Led Zeppelin. Were you fans of them at all?
Yeah we were fans of Led Zeppelin when they came out with their first record, they were playing to me, like rock should be played, they went for a live sound in the studio and it really came across you know? It was terrific.
Were you fans after the tour, when you unknowingly upstaged Led Zeppelin?
(Laughs) Ah, not so much. I understand, Peter Grant just did not like the idea that there is this band upstaging his band. We were going to wring the audience dry before Led Zeppelin got onstage so I understand why he was upset but that is just the way it goes.
Led Zeppelin famously had John Bonham and you mentioned Mitch Mitchell. What other drummers influenced you?
Some of my early guys were Louie Bellson, Dino Dannelli from The Rascals and I love the Rascals with their RnB New York kind of thing. Of course, Ginger Baker, Bernard Purdie who played on Aretha Franklin stuff, those were really my influences.
Later on it became a little smoother for example the track, The Locomotion? Can we talk about that?
Yeah! We had completed the album Shinin’ On and we were looking for something else to do as a follow up to the Amercian Band album. We really changed our sound when we fired Terry, radio was changing and we had to change our own approach if we were going to stay on the radio, we had to become commercial. We were being sued by Terry and we were broke and we had no choice but to follow the trend of radio. After the huge success we had with American Band we needed a follow up hit so we were exploring different ideas and Mark actually just walked in one afternoon when we were in the session and he was just singing “Everybody’s doing a brand new dance now…” we all just fell on the floor…that is a really stupid idea but it might work, let’s do it! We put on this whole party sound and recorded the Locomotion. We had to go the commercial way and there it went.
What about Good Singing, Good playing, that doesn’t seem to get much coverage?
I loved the record and I loved working with Frank Zappa again we were looking to make a departure, we were looking for another direction to go so we enlisted Frank Zappa to come in and help us work on some stuff. The band was having a lot of internal problems at the time, we were having difficulty writing songs together. Poor Frank came in and was thinking, what am I going to do with this thing? He did the best he could and I thought it was a good album. We had just finished our contract with Capitol and had signed with MCA and of course MCA was expecting us to go on the road to support that album and we broke up and we decided we weren’t going on the road and so MCA pulled the plug on any promotion, so the album flopped because there was no promotion behind it, nothing.
You mention fractions in the band. Can you tell us more?
It was politics, looking for a direction. We just didn’t gel on which way we wanted to go, when you end up like that you are kind of like our congress over here. You go nowhere. That’s why the band broke up, it just wasn’t moving anywhere.
How are you enjoying the bigger line up now that you are playing again?
I love it. We put this band together in 2000 we got great people in the band. We play Grand Funk the way I like to play Grand Funk and we go out having a great time doing it, 14 years we have been doing this and we do about 35 to 40 shows a year and we have a good time.What more can you hope for at the age of 65 right?
What were your options, career-wise when you were a teenager?
Well my Mother wanted me to be an accountant and I was in school to do that but I just didn’t like it you know. I’m glad I stuck with the musician thing.
Are you and Mark friends at all?
No I wouldn’t say we were friends, we have a business relationship. Mel does his thing and that’s really where it’s at.
We’re An American Band is a classic band on the road song, tell us more about it.
It really is taking little stories about being on the road, it was all about us being on the road and having a good time and everybody took it as being what a rock and roll band does! They were right, that’s what rock and roll bands do!