In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
They really were an American band. They may have been the most American band. Grand Funk Railroad came bursting out of Flint, Michigan in 1969 — a dumb-rock headbanger power trio made up of guys who’d been in garage-punk bands during that genre’s mid-’60s boom times. In quick succession, Grand Funk cranked out six albums, all of which went gold. They became a touring monster, famously selling out Shea Stadium quicker than the Beatles had managed. They did all this with no critical help — Rolling Stone absolutely hated them — and without a whole lot of radio airplay or singles-chart success. When they did manage to score a #1 hit, they did it with a song about drinking and partying and fucking groupies. (Other bands were doing those things, but they generally weren’t singing about them.) In the video, singer/guitarist Mark Farner rides a horse and a motorcycle, both while shirtless. Nobody has ever been more American.
Farner and singer/drummer Don Brewer had both played in Terry Knight And The Pack, a Flint garage band who recorded some minor hits and became a big regional draw in the ’60s. The Pack broke up in 1967, when frontman Terry Knight went off to become a solo artist, producer, and general music-business mover. Farner and Brewer hooked up with Mel Schacher, a bassist who’d been in ? And The Mysterians, though not when that band had recorded “96 Tears.” Knight had moved to New York, but Farner and Brewer brought him back to become the new band’s manager and producer. And for a few years, Knight pretty much took the band over.
Knight was the one who named the new band Grand Funk Railroad. (This was a pun on the Midwest’s Grand Trunk Western Railroad, and it was funnier when you consider that there was very little funk in Grand Funk Railroad.) Knight got the band booked at the Atlanta Pop Festival in 1969; they played for free and evidently kicked enough ass that they immediately got signed. When Grand Funk blew up — something that happened very quickly — Knight paid a whole lot of money for a Times Square billboard that basically just gloated over all they’d done. And Knight also made a whole lot of money off of the band — enough that they fired him as both manager and producer in 1972.
The resulting legal battle went on for a long time and came close to derailing the band’s career. But when they came out the other end of it, Grand Funk were stronger. They added a fourth member, keyboardist Craig Frost. They dropped the Railroad from their name, becoming just plain Grand Funk. (They became Grand Funk Railroad again, for whatever reason, in 1974.) They hired Todd Rundgren as a producer. And they still pretty much sounded the same.
There was never any subtext to what Grand Funk did. They didn’t attempt to cultivate mystique, the way their contemporaries did. Instead, they kicked out big, fun, dumb hooks; even their most contemplative moments are fists-up singalongs. They followed the Cream power-trio blueprint, but without the mythic aspirations, instead making blues-rock so big and loud that it became proto-metal. The hate that Grand Funk got from critics became a selling point; it turned them into anti-elitist proletarian heroes. And when Grand Funk finally cut ties with Knight and won creative control over their own band, they didn’t pull 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 some big, far-reaching artistic statement. Instead, they doubled down on everything awesomely stupid about what they were already doing. That’s where “We’re An American Band” comes from.
There’s a story that Don Brewer wrote “We’re An American Band” after getting into a drunken late-night argument with hard-rock tourmates Humble Pie, the two of them arguing over whether British or American rock was superior. Brewer says it isn’t true. But there’s still a hint of defiance to “We’re An American Band.” It’s a proudly literal song, a riff-stomper about what it’s like to play to drunk and horny and fired-up kids in every town, to bring the party with you. It’s a statement of intent if ever there was one: “We’re coming to your town, we’ll help you party it down.”
Brewer has stories, and those stories are in the song. Grand Funk pulls into Omaha, and they find “four young chiquitas” already waiting for them at the hotel, and all of them get together and “tear that hotel down.” They stay up all night playing poker with their opening act, the blues great Freddie King. They play in Little Rock, and everybody in the band bangs “sweet, sweet Connie” — which would be Connie Hamzy, the notorious groupie who may or may not have hooked up with Bill Clinton when he was governor of Arkansas. (This lyric was the 1973 equivalent of namechecking Courtney from Hooters on Peachtree.) There’s nothing about the hard parts of touring, about living a rootless existence and seeing the entire world turn into a road-blur. It’s pure fantasy-fulfillment — all the parts of the rock-star life that the kids want to hear about, none of the stuff they don’t.
“We’re An American Band” is also a canny piece of popcraft. In the early days, when Grand Funk did get radio play, it was on the freeform FM stations where the DJs didn’t mind playing an eight-minute choogle epic. But Brewer, who was writing and singing more of the band’s songs, was noticing that FM radio was cleaning up its act, getting more commercialized. So Brewer did everything he could to condense the band’s power into a quick and immediate three-and-a-half-minute single. The song’s riffs are big and fun and obvious, and it pounds its hook into your head with the sheer force of repetition. Brewer’s vocal is a giddy howl, hedonistic and proud. And his drums are driving but dance-worthy; there’s at least a far-off echo of disco in all that cowbell.
There’s an unpretentious nobility in “We’re An American Band,” and in the very idea of bunch of rockers wanting the world to know how much fun they’re having. Maybe radio-rock loses something when all the mysticism and idealism gets yanked away. But maybe it becomes more honest, too. And maybe it becomes more American.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Boston hardcore warriors the F.U.’s’ 1983 cover of “We’re An American Band”:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Rob Zombie’s life-on-the-road video for his 2013 grunt-rock cover of “We’re An American Band”: