45 Years Ago: Grand Funk Railroad Fight for Their ‘Survival’
The power trio era’s little engine that could, Grand Funk Railroad, had been defying odds stacked against them since day one, perplexing highbrow critics and thrilling concert audiences with their relatable, working-class rock and roll. But, deep down, the Michigan natives knew it was still all about Survival.
That was the title that vocalist/guitarist Mark Farner, bassist Mel Schacher and drummer/vocalist Don Brewer ultimately selected for their fourth studio LP, which followed the same, strenuous recording schedule that had seen its predecessors punctually recorded and released in six months intervals.
And yet, by now, Grand Funk’s undeniable commercial prosperity was such that they could afford all of six weeks in the studio with their manager, producer and overall taskmaster Terry Knight. The resulting material certainly reflected this with better production and smoother arrangements to go with typically varied songwriting, but not a lot of it. Only five originals and a pair of covers comprised the sum total of Survival’s contents.
"Country Road" locked into a hypnotic riff for the duration, "All You've Got is Money" was a mean, mean blues filled with tormented screams and hell-raising guitar strangling. "Comfort Me" was the album’s anthemic number, inevitably fueled by Age of Aquarius idealism, without coming off nearly as full of itself as most of Grand Funk’s peer group.
A laid-back, soulful cover of Dave Mason’s "Feelin' Alright" and another, growling hard rock version of the Rolling Stones’ "Gimme Shelter" acknowledged the absence of an obvious single – though both were eventually released as such. And the false start and studio banter prefacing "I Want Freedom" (a highlight that embodied prog-rock at its least pretentious), plus a random, if rather morbid, conversation between kids preceded the almost religious "I Can Feel Him in the Morning" – clearly serving as padding for the overall shortness of songs.
Not that any excess ammunition was needed to give most of the period's music critics a reason to sharpen their knives for action. Indeed, Robert Christgau, the self-proclaimed 'Dean of American Rock Critics,' echoed most pundits’ sentiments by dismissing Grand Funk’s latest as “For about a year I've been saying that people aren't stupid, that there has to be something new about this music, and of course there is -- it Americanizes Led Zeppelin with a fervent ingenuousness that does justice to the broad gestures of mass art. But now I read where various men of taste, having reached similar conclusions, claim in addition actually to like the stuff. That's going too far.”
And yet, Survival was another commercial success, climbing to No. 6 in the U.S., No. 4 in Canada and No. 9 in Australia -- figures that either matched or bettered Grand Funk’s previous LP, Closer to Home, and, thus, gave no hint that the Grand Funk gravy train was in danger of derailing anytime soon.
In fact, not until the band’s fifth album, E Pluribus Funk, released barely six months later, would the wear and tear of Mark, Don and Mel’s punishing work schedule and their relationship with manager Terry Knight begin to show – eventually threatening Grand Funk’s Survival, several years further down the line.
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