Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Any Old Way You Choose It Book Cover

Mark, Don, Mel, and Terry

The title of the seventh Grand Funk Railroad album is printed simply but grandly across the front cover--Mark, Don & Mel--and on the back there are some incredible liner notes by the fourth Grand Funk Railroad, Terry Knight. The clerk gave me a glance as I was scanning the notes, so I asked him how the set was selling. "Can't tell yet," he said, "just came in," and in a moment he was volunteering his critical opinion: "If I had my way, I'd burn every one of their albums." He told me he was twenty-one, college dropout, son of an advertising man, into music. That last was why he was so vehement. They weren't good musicians, there were so many good ones out there, it just wasn't fair, and it made him mad.

Then someone who had worked at the store longer came over to explain the Grand Funk hype. Because Capitol Records controlled a big distributing company, he said, it could push discount and display deals and create a blitz for its product, especially in the big general outlets. He recalled how twenty-five copies of the first Grand Funk album had languished in his racks for months. Then, wham, the hype took hold, and they all went like that. He was a little unclear, however, about just why the hype took hold when it did.

A few minutes later I was reading the notes to some friends, who were laughing. This was a bizarre piece of writing, even for Knight, whose capacity for bull is almost limitless. Its central conceit was that the members of Grand Funk Railroad were among those rare world heroes--including Jesus, Napoleon, Twiggy, and Mao, one of whom had recently concluded a business deal with Knight--who come to be known by first name only. It is noteworthy that at the time Knight was writing he was preparing lawsuits for fifty-five million dollars against the members of Grand Funk Railroad. It is also noteworthy that when I pronounced the deathless first names that climaxed this panegyric, my friends responded with a resounding "Who?" This was not an unfair question. Even more than the lawsuit, it indicated how grand Knight's conceit really was. And yet, and yet, this all made sense somehow.

Knight's lawsuit, which has grown since it was instituted and may well grow again before this is printed, is not really against the members of Grand Funk Railroad, or even against Mark, Don, and Mel. It is aimed at his business associates, the three co-directors of GFR Enterprises, Ltd., who are listed after Knight on the letterhead as "M Farner," "D Brewer," and "M Schacher." Farner, Brewer, and Schacher are young musicians from the automobile fields north of Detroit. In 1966, when they were still in their midteens--assuming the ages they offer now are legitimate--Farner and Brewer played with a somewhat older character who had formerly been a prominent local disc jockey--Terry Knight. Knight wanted to be a star. Fans recall that when he quit his gig at CKLW in 1964, he left the impression that he was about to join the Rolling Stones. Instead, he wound up singing folk songs in a coffee house in Buffalo, so mortified that for months almost no one in Detroit learned where he was. Then he formed Terry Knight and the Pack.

The band was pretty successful but hampered by the usual ego hassles. Knight was up front more than Mark's many admirers thought appropriate, and he seemed to think anyone who smoked marijuana was a junkie. He was smart, and even though Mark and Don laughed behind his back they listened to him, but in less than two years animosity split the group. Knight performed for a while before settling into a desk job at Capitol. In early 1969, after a long silence, Brewer called him. There are those who believe Knight really called Brewer--in other words, that it was Knight's concept from the beginning. It's more likely, however, that the raw material came from the band, especially Farner, the singer-guitarist-composer. But Knight shaped it and named it, and now in a way his conceit has come true--whereas most rock groups are referred to by the last word in their name, everyone calls Knight's band Grand Funk.

Grand Funk's loud, simple, repetitive music had direct antecedents among all hard-rock traditions of amplification and showmanship--Duane Eddy and Link Wray, the Who and the Yardbirds, Cream and what was briefly known as British blues, and especially American heavy bands like Blue Cheer and Iron Butterfly. Intended to overpower in live performance, this music lacked the sort of identifying marginal detail--hook riff, dance beat, catch phrase or melody--that helps to vary radio programming, and so Grand Funk got little air-play. What notice its records and performances attracted from print media was negative. And yet hard-rock fans who hate Grand Funk Railroad invariably identify its success as hype.

"Hype" is a term often applied to someone else's promotion. Usually, it is fairly routine--big ads, stories in the trades and the rock press, radio exposure, special merchandising--but because they were denied direct media access to their audience by taste-making middlemen, Grand Funk had to come up with something special. That was Terry Knight's job. His solution was simple: Instead of dispersing information by electronic and print media, he used trucks and airplanes. It was also paradoxical--essentially, he started a grass-roots movement with corporate money. Capitol's clout as a distributor was useful but secondary. If it were that easy, Capitol wouldn't lose money on so many artists. Rather, the key was Frank Barsalona, of Premier Talent, the biggest booking agent in rock, who took on Grand Funk after another of his acts saw the group at one of the five Southern pop festivals it played for free in the summer of 1969.

Book any rock act before a similar act, and a percentage of the audience is bound to dig it. The process is obvious enough to have made agents like Barsalona very powerful, but it is not automatic. In fact, Grand Funk's success has not been duplicated. Something about the overwhelming simplicity of the music hit the audience. Something about Farner's presence--striding the stage gracefully, his compact torso gleaming with sweat, his gorgeous auburn hair swinging and shimmering beneath the lights--inspired countless midadolescent males to spread the word. Something about his exhortation to his brothers and sisters made Grand Funk Railroad the spiritual center of a whole youth culture for a season. In fact, the group was so successful that it made enemies, demonstrating conclusively that there are many youth cultures. Even today, you can find plenty of kids in record stores who are eager to put down their younger, less privileged and articulate brothers and sisters for liking Grand Funk Railroad.

Because its tidings traveled largely through industry channels and by word-of-mouth, there is a sense in which the entire Grand Funk phenomenon--three musicians, one media master, some middlemen, and approximately three million teen-agers--remained a secret until its climax on July 10, 1971, when Grand Funk made its Beatle move and filled Shea Stadium. For the teen-agers, secrecy was essential--they wanted to share something adults could not touch--but it frustrated Knight. He claimed to be happy behind the scenes, but he wasn't--after all, he had done what all the scoffers had said he would never do, and the scoffers seemed hardly aware of it. He claimed contempt for the press and said Grand Funk would not talk to journalists because they resented all the bad reviews--more likely he didn't want them to say something radical, of course--but bombarded the press with mimeographed releases. Finally, he invited hundreds of journalists to a press conference with the band in May of 1971. Only a handful showed up.

But at Shea Stadium, the end of the beginning and the beginning of the end, fame finally came to Grand Funk for the band as an entity, which was more Terry Knight than it was, you remember, Mark, Don, and Mel. And this was just. Populist critics convinced themselves that because the phenomenon was genuine, the music was good, but despite those millions of keepsake albums, the music was not the phenomenon. It was a derivative synthesis, most likely without much long-term value even for those who bought it. But the hype, ah, the hype will live on in the annals of humankind.

Yet whatever the aesthetic justice of seeing musicians as symbolic figures, they remain human beings. Mark Farner does make some good music--he has written many good rockers and a couple of first-rate ballads. He is talented and young and--not incidentally, because it comes through on stage--idealistic. He finances an underground paper in Flint, Michigan, and has been seen in the vicinity of John Sinclair's Rainbow People's Party. Sometime in March he and Don and Mel asked John Eastman--the same John Eastman, Knight reminds us continually, who figured so prominently in the breakup of the Beatles--to help them extricate themselves from Knight. Some of Farner's political admirers claim this is because he learned that Knight was investing Farner's earnings in oil, but Farner knew that years ago. Most likely, he and the others just want to be men for themselves.

It turns out that Knight has his co-directors so entangled in legalities that their attempt is likely to fail, but that seems almost irrelevant. So does the cynical suggestion that the whole thing is a vast publicity stunt to revive the band's sagging career. A year ago Knight was talking about releasing three LP's a year in perpetuity, but everyone knows there isn't that much difference between a phenomenon and a fad. The lawsuit is like a death notice for what we will call a phenomenon. Phenomena needn't last, and Grand Funk was an extraordinary one. Let those who participated remember. Mark, Don, and Mel will do all right for themselves, Terry Knight will win again, and those three million teen-agers, well, whatever the quality of the music, they had themselves a good old time.

Newsday, May 1972
Any Old Way You Choose It, 1973


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