Versatile, virtuosic, and blessed with a formidable work ethic, renowned arena-rockers Grand Funk Railroad rapidly rose to prominence. Formed in Flint, Michigan, by lead guitarist/vocalist Mark Farner and drummer/co-vocalist Don Brewer, the band’s initial line-up was completed by ex-? & The Mysterians bassist Mel Schacher, and an acclaimed early performance at 1969’s Atlanta Pop Festival led to them securing a deal with Capitol. The perma-gigging trio maintained a large cult following during the early 70s.
Their 1969 debut, On Time, went gold in North America, while in 1971 GFR sold out New York’s Shea Stadium: their 55,000-plus ticket sales reputedly equalling the prestigious venue’s previous attendance record set by The Beatles in August 1965. All Grand Funk’s early LPs were solid sellers, and their sixth, 1972’s self-produced Phoenix (recorded after the group recruited keyboardist Craig Frost) earned them another well-deserved gold disc. However, while the band’s career apparently remained on an upward trajectory, there were problems behind the scenes. As they wrote the songs for their seventh LP, We’re An American Band, GFR were beset by management and finance-related issues, and they knew a hit record was paramount for their survival.
“Music was changing and so was radio, it was getting a lot poppier,” revealed Don Brewer. “We had to make this conversion from being the FM underground band to being a hit radio band. Our very career and financial lives depended on it.”
The man GFR rightly believed had the smarts to get them on mainstream radio was production wunderkind Todd Rundgren, fresh from the release of his acclaimed double LP, Something/Anything? Gladly accepting Grand Funk’s request, Rundgren duly oversaw the album sessions, which took place at Miami’s Criteria Studios over just three days in June 1973.
Released the following month, on July 15th, We’re An American Band oozed with confidence, attitude, and radio-friendly accessibility. Peaking at No.2 on the Billboard 200 and going platinum, the record featured evergreen favorites such as “Stop Lookin’ Back” and the sultry “Black Licorice,” but its twin peaks were surely its breakout US hits “Walk Like A Man” and the irrepressibly catchy, chart-topping titular song.
One of music’s truly seminal feel-good anthems, it’s now hard to imagine the rock’n’roll world without “We’re An American Band,” yet as the song’s author Don Brewer recalls, he never envisaged it would end up defining GFR’s oeuvre: “I played these little two strings on my guitar when I was writing songs and every chord I knew was in that song,” he says with relish. “I didn’t think ‘We’re An American Band’ would be the anthem it would end up being. I remember the people from Capitol hearing it and jumping up and down with excitement, so I knew it had something, but I had no idea just how good it really was!”
Luckily, the rest of the world knew exactly how good it was. And its source remains one of Grand Funk Railroad’s best albums.