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.
Grand Funk (née Grand Funk Railroad) weren’t the best of the early-’70s hard-rock titans, but they were probably the most shameless. The Michigan band were already tremendously popular arena-wreckers by the time they hit #1 with “We’re An American Band,” a song that’s all about how awesome it is to be tremendously popular arena-wreckers. This was a feat. Hard-rock bands could sell millions of albums and concert tickets in the ’70s, but they almost never made a dent in the singles charts. Grand Funk did it twice, and their second #1 hit was even more shameless — a giddy stomp-along cover of a dance-craze jam that had been a #1 hit 12 years earlier.
The married songwriting team of Carole King and Gerry Goffin wrote “The Loco-Motion” in 1962, and their 17-year-old babysitter Little Eva recorded it. This was Eva’s only hit, and she disappeared into obscurity and poverty soon after. But the song stuck around long enough to get stuck in Grand Funk singer/guitarist Mark Farner’s head one morning. Farner and Grand Funk were finishing up their album Shinin’ On with “We’re An American Band” producer Todd Rundgren, and Farner walked into the studio singing the song. The band messed around with the song for a bit, and Rundgren convinced them that they had a single on their hands. Rundgren knew what he was talking about. “The Loco-Motion” became the second song ever to hit #1 twice, by different artists. (The first song — “Go Away Little Girl,” a hit for both Steve Lawrence and Donny Osmond — was another Carole King/Gerry Goffin song, albeit a way shittier one.)
To me, the funniest thing about this is that, in the grand scheme, 12 years isn’t that long of a time. The original “Loco-Motion” must’ve still been pretty fresh in the popular imagination. For a rough equivalent, imagine Greta Van Fleet hitting #1 with a cover of “Crank That (Soulja Boy).” And then pray that none of Greta Van Fleet’s handlers ever reads this. But pop music moved faster back then, and so “The Loco-Motion” must’ve seemed, on some level, like a relic of an ancient civilization.
Don Brewer, Grand Funk’s competent drummer, has said that the band’s “Loco-Motion” cover was “a tongue-in-cheek kind of thing.” But the good thing about Grand Funk’s version of “The Loco-Motion” is that it doesn’t sound tongue-in-cheek. Instead, it sounds as sincere as a goofy party song can ever sound. And it doesn’t sound like the American Graffiti rock ‘n’ roll nostalgia that was so popular in the ’70s, either. Instead, it sounds like Grand Funk taking a fun song, one that everyone already knew, and playing the hell out of it. It’s a total bar-band trick, the sort of thing that Grand Funk’s members might’ve done when they were back in the ’60s Michigan garage-rock scene that birthed them. And it worked.
Grand Funk don’t bring anything new to “The Loco-Motion,” and they don’t sing it with Little Eva’s brassy charm. But they attack the groove with all the sweaty, mane-blowing vigor that they can muster. Their version is compact, joyous, and faithful to the original. The biggest difference comes when they replace the honking sax solo of Little Eva’s version with a screaming guitar solo. (And really, the screaming guitar solo was the honking sax solo of the early ’70s.) Rundgren produces the shit out of it, cranking up the handclaps and the bass tone and making that big, obvious hook even bigger and more obvious. The Grand Funk version won’t change your life or even your day, but it’s big and juicy and difficult to dislike.
“The Loco-Motion” would be Grand Funk’s last #1 single. They kept cranking out albums over the next few years, and they landed a couple other big hits. But then they got sick of being an American band and broke up in 1976. “The Loco-Motion” itself lasted much longer. In 1988, 14 years later, Kylie Minogue hit with another version of “The Loco-Motion,” taking it up to #3. (Minogue’s version is a 7.)
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Homer Simpson extolling the virtues of Grand Funk on a 1996 episode of The Simpsons: