and ride the railroad...
one more time."
~ Grand Funk Railroad ~
And the thunder's gonna roll. Grand Funk Railroad was a three-piece absolute thunderdome led by founding member...Mark Farner. The band was heavy and loud. They were soulful and trippy. And for nearly a decade they ruled the school. Yet the critic snobs wouldn't offer them a ride across the street if the band paid for their own gas. Didn't matter. The people loved'em. Blue collars and neckties. Stoners and hard rockers. Headbangers and footstompers. They loved the way Grand Funk Railroad buttered their bread. They got in the trenches. They got their hands dirty. Nothing fancy or prissy here. Just pounding, chunking, rock and roll soul. Mark Farner is a thunder-maker.
Go get you some.
Mark Farner Interview -- March 2019
Casey Chambers: I'd like to begin with "I'm Your Captain/Closer To Home." (1970) It has long become an absolute staple of classic rock radio and is one of the definitive songs of not only Grand Funk Railroad...but of hope and determination as well. The song is epic. Timeless. Do moments like that stay with you when you are writing songs?
Mark Farner: Yes they do, because most of the songs that I have written come from me just jamming on my guitar or jamming on a piano or organ or something. Just from a jam. And then I would develop the lyrics from there. But I went to bed one night back in 1970 and said my, 'Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep' prayers...and I put a P.S. on the end. I asked God to give me a song that would reach...touch the hearts...of those, the Creator wanted me to get to and went to sleep. And I got up and wrote those lyrics in the middle of the night. I didn't know they were lyrics yet 'cause I'm always getting up and writing thoughts or whatever's on my mind. I got to put it down. Because I've lost some really good songs by being too lazy and not gettin' my butt out of that bed, dude. (laughs) But yeah. I prayed and I got the lyrics in the middle of the night.
When I got up the next morning, I grabbed my guitar out of the corner in the kitchen, got a cup of coffee going and I got my feet kicked up on the chair next to me. And I'm looking out at the horses in the pasture and I start that...'bap-m-bap-m-bap-m-bap do, do, do-we-do' thing. That little lick. I thought...'Wow. That sounds pretty good.' And then I sat up and I made the inversion of that C chord that I'd never made previously. It never occurred to me. But when I hit that chord, it just spoke to my heart. Anyways, I took it to rehearsal that day and both of the other guys said, 'Man, that thing's a hit.' I guess they were right.
"I'm Your Captain/Closer To Home" - Grand Funk Railroad / "Closer To Home" (1970)
Casey Chambers: There's a transition where we hear the sound of crashing waves and strings that almost startles. It's just killer. Was that something you knew you wanted to include when you went in to record the song?
Mark Farner: Well, I didn't know it was there until I heard it myself. And I loved it. It was a natural sound in a rock song and it just took you to a different place. In consciousness. A gradual ascent to a different place. We were in Cleveland to do the recording and I played a little bit of the song to Tommy Baker who was the bandleader for the "Upbeat" show...it was on channel five in Cleveland, Ohio...and he said, 'Man, if you could leave me some room on the end of that song, I'm hearing all kinds of stuff.' He was the one that actually wrote and orchestrated what people here with the symphony and that is the Cleveland Symphony that you're hearing on that.
Casey Chambers: A most excellent maneuver. And when radio began playing "I'm Your Captain/Closer To Home"...not only did it become popular here in the States, but our soldiers fighting in Vietnam were adopting your song like good mojo. That really adds a whole other dimension, doesn't it?
Mark Farner: I learned later the song was voted number one out of all the songs that were popular during that time for the Vietnam veterans. And to vote my song...oh, man. They asked me if I'd come and play the song at the 25th anniversary of the Memorial Wall in D.C. And I asked them if they were going to have a stage and lights and a PA. And they went, 'Oh yeah, we're going to have that.' I said, 'Great, we'll come and play you an entire show for free.' I got all the guys. We got on a bus, put all our equipment under and we headed down there and performed an entire show for them. But I'm telling you what...it was 36 degrees. (laughs) We were in the dressing rooms warming our...they had little trailers ya know? We were having to warm our hands on the dressing room lights because there was no heat! (laughs)
But when we went out to play, not only did we see U.S. Vietnam veterans, but the Canadian Vietnam veterans were there too. Our brothers and sisters from Canada. And when we finally got to the end of the set and started into that song, it was very hard for me to sing because...try singing with a softball in your neck, ya know? (laughs) I was choked up just looking out and seeing the tears come down. Right from the beginning of the song. We also played a show for the Vietnam Veterans at Fort Irwin in California where they've processed over a million troops since 9/11. Everybody crying and singing. Everybody. It was all one effort. But that song, man, I'm telling you what...I thank God for that song because it means so much to other people and for the Lord to have given it to me...it humbles me.
Casey Chambers: That's a really nice share. Thank you. And that song was certainly in the setlist when you guys played Shea Stadium.
"I'm Your Captain/Closer To Home" - Grand Funk Railroad / Live at Shea Stadium (1971)
Mark Farner: Oh absolutely. And I'll tell you something, Casey. The way that Shea Stadium was set up in a semicircle, they put the stage at second base. Humble Pie opened for us. They had opened for us in Europe and we brought them to the United States. This was their first U.S. performance and it was at Shea Stadium with Grand Funk. We arrived at Shea by helicopter. We took off from a heliport on the East River and flew over the stadium. And Humble Pie was on second base. And the stadium was bouncing! The whole thing. The bleachers were bouncing and I thought, 'Oh my God, I can see that from here!' (laughs) They are rocking the house. We landed in the parking lot where the limo was supposed to be waiting for us, but it wasn't there. So the guy that was riding with us ran to a telephone booth on the corner and made a call. And in two or three minutes...bam!....there were cop cars in the parking lot. They picked us up and drove us into Shea with the lights and sirens going on. When we climbed out of the backseat of the cop cars...man, the audience went off! We took over the stage and that semicircle of a sold-out stadium was singing the words to "I'm Your Captain" louder than the PA! It was projecting like, I don't know man...it was amplified. It was so extraordinary and I'm getting goosebumps just telling you about it, man. (laughs)
Casey Chambers: That's awesome! What a great time that must have been.
Mark Farner: Oh, it was. Yes sir. What a riot.
Casey Chambers: In 1973 and '74, Grand Funk Railroad recorded two popular albums with the help of Todd Rundgren producing. How did his involvement come about?
Mark Farner: Well, we had names in a hat and his name got drawn. And that's the same way we did when Zappa produced us. We just put the names together of producers that we would like to work with or would consider working with. And we drew. And that was the luck of the draw. And yeah, man, Todd effortlessly does whatever he does. It's just what he does. I learned from him. I learned a lot from Todd.
Casey Chambers: Your album "We're An American Band" (1973) was the first one Todd did with you guys. Great album. You co-wrote the title track with Don Brewer. What's your earliest recollection of that song?
Mark Farner: Well, our publicist Lynn Goldsmith, said, 'You guys need to do a song about who you are. You know, you're an American band.' And so Brewer came in with the lyrics. And I said, 'Dude, I hear the song like this.' And I played the chords, you know, with all the different stuff. And I said, 'It's got to start with some cowbell, dude.' And he did not own a cowbell. (laughs) So he says, 'Okay, I'll pick one up.' I said, 'No man, pick six of them up and we'll listen to it and whichever the best one is that really kanks that's the one we'll use.' And the drum lick on the intro, I taught that to Don 'cause I heard it in my head. I said, 'You got to double kick the bass drum.' He goes, 'Man, you can't do that.' I said, 'You can do it, Brewer.' And he played it great. That's the way the song all came together. But he came to me just before the release of the record and he says, 'Hey, Farner...I've never had 100% writing credit on any record. You mind if I take it on this one?' And I went, 'No, go ahead.' Because I'm a nice guy and I wanted to see him happy and everything. And so he got credited for writing it. Yes, he wrote the lyrics, but I had a whole lot more to do musically with that song than he did.
"We're An American Band" - Grand Funk Railroad / Studio Footage (1973)
Casey Chambers: One of the best rock intros ever. And the song shows up in pop culture all the time. I was watching an episode of "Supernatural" on Netflix a while back and heard "We're An American Band" blasting out of their famous '67 Chevy Impala. And I was reminded again what a great driving song it really is. ("Ghostfacers" - S:3 E: 13 - 2008)
Mark Farner: Oh, that's cool. I knew it was on the Simpsons.
Casey Chambers: As was "Shinin' On." Homer Simpson loves "the wild shirtless lyrics of Mark Farner." How cool is that!
Mark Farner: Yeah, I thought that was a hoot. (laughs) I had never watched the Simpsons. I'm just...I don't watch too much animation. I just never have. Cartoons kind of fell apart for me after Road Runner and Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck and, you know, Donald Duck. But the other ones, they were not as refined as those characters, man. I don't know what they did with the animation or who got ahold of it, but they simplified it too much. A lot of people dig it, obviously. We did use that Simpson's clip to open our show at Pine Knob in Detroit and the audience absolutely loved it.
Casey Chambers: Now if we could only get Yosemite Sam to get on board. (laughs) A deeper cut and a personal favorite from that album was another gem you wrote called..."The Railroad." Just killer all around. Fantastic vocals and the guitar break just fits. No baggage. You were responsible for most of the Grand Funk songs. Do you have your guitar break worked out in your head when you write them? And what was your weapon of choice?
Mark Farner: Oh, thank you. I was using a Strat. It's just what I hear when I'm hearing the track back. And what I visualize. And then I transfer it to my fingers. I can't just sit there and play impromptu to something. I've got to hear it. I can do that and jam a blues or something. But something that is more critical as far as the construction, I need to listen to it. Two or three passes before I start even getting the inspiration. But then once I get the inspiration...once I start feeling it out and start putting this and that in...it just blossoms into whatever it is and that's the way it was with, "The Railroad."
"The Railroad" - Grand Funk Railroad / "We're An American Band " (1973)
Casey Chambers: I recently heard your new song..."Can't Stop"...and man, you're timeless! Good stuff. And the video looks fantastic. Funny as hell.
Mark Farner: Well, I met these guys at Rock N' Roll Fantasy Camp. The band originally played together when they were kids in Salt Lake City. They live all over the country now, but they get together to come to fantasy camp. Ken Van Wegenen was the guitar player and he liked my instruction because they were all big fans in the first place. But he told David Fishof, who is the owner of Rock N' Roll Fantasy Camp that he specifically wanted to have me up there again next year. So David called and yeah, I went and I was their counselor again and we got to know each other after about three or four camps.
And Ken said, 'We got a video in mind and I want you to check it out and critique it. See if you'd be into doing this. I would fly you out here first class. I'll put you up in the best hotel. We'll take care of you and you don't have to pay for nothing, man. Just come out here and do this and let's have some fun.' And the guys, and there's a Sarah that works with them too, had great video editing for all this. Jim McCarty drums. He's good. He can rock. He's not like a Hubert Crawford who drums for me. You gotta put a cage around him when he's up on stage. (laughs) But they're all very good, accomplished players. And I went out there and I loved the idea. And I said, 'You know what, I'm gonna do this and have some fun.' And we did. We had fun.
Casey Chambers: Absolute gold!
"Can't Stop" - Mark Farner (2018)
Mark Farner: I think we're going to do another one. Ken's talking about it. I can't wait. Isn't that something? Can't wait. "Can't Stop." Maybe the next will be, "Can't Wait." (laughs)
Casey Chambers: Off the cuff, what are a few of your favorite albums?
Mark Farner: Well, I got a set of R&B albums that have all of the great R&B dance songs on them. And my wife and I pull back the coffee table and push the chairs to the side of the room and then we'll cut loose in the living room and just dance, you know? I love the soul stuff. I got a Howard Tate album called, "Get It While You Can." That was from 1965 or '66. Somewhere around in there. And I got his album when I went to WTAC in Flint, Michigan with Bob Dell, the DJ. And, we had gone in and he played a record that we made in Nashville and we drove up from Nashville right to WTAC and walked in the building, and said, 'Will you spin this?' And he did. That's back when they could. And on the way out, he says, 'Hey guys, if you want any of those albums over there, any of those records...help yourself. They'll end up in the dumpster if you don't.' So we went through them and I picked up Howard Tate.
"Get It While You Can" - Howard Tate (1966)
And that was the best choice I could have made 'cause that guy influenced me so much. As far as my vocals, I present myself largely because of the influence of Howard Tate. And I loved Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder albums. I love the nice texture of their voices on record. And I have those albums as well. But I've got Anne Murray. She was another vocalist. And Karen Carpenter. And that's kinda what I was into and I didn't buy a bunch of...what everybody thought was popular. I just bought what I thought sounded good.
Casey Chambers: Absolutely. That makes me think of Farley and Spade when they're driving and The Carpenters come on the radio. Neither wants to admit they like'em, but neither changes the station either. And they both end up singing along. (laughs) Good is good, right?
Mark Farner: Yes. (laughs)
Farley and Spade sing with The Carpenters - Tommy Boy (1995)
Casey Chambers: Oh, I want to ask about performing at the Atlanta International Pop Festival. A lot of great bands showed up and Grand Funk Railroad got invited to come down and do a little jammin', too. What do you recall about the festival?
Mark Farner: Well, the one in '69 was the historic one. That was the first one. We played there in '69, '70, and '71. All three festivals. But the first one was, for us, monumental because just getting there was a miracle. This guy, a friend of ours in Ann Arbor, Michigan loaned us his van and a driver to go to Atlanta and play this gig. We put all of our equipment in a U-Haul trailer and away we went. Well, this was before I-75 was finished and we were on one of those side roads and the guy had been driving all night and I'm riding shotgun and I wake up and I look up ...and I see this sign saying I-75 to the right.
And I know he's gonna miss it. So I said, 'Hey, I-75 is to the right.' And he goes, 'Oh my God.' And he turns and that trailer flipped. The U-Haul trailer with all our equipment in it went flipping down through the ditch and we're like...'Oh my God!' So anyway, we take all the equipment out of the trailer, we put the trailer back on its tires, put all the stuff back in the trailer onto the van and we start down the expressway, you know...limping along. But when the thing rolled, some of the transformers on the amplifiers had ripped right off of the chassis. And, yeah...when we got to Atlanta, our roadies had to solder the leads back together because the wires...they were...ya know...they were gone. It stretched them right out and snapped them. So they had to put everything back together...before we could even play! But God bless them. That was Tom Beam and Mike Schwartz who was our guys at the time. They would take a bullet for us if they had to. They put it together and we made it up on stage.
And those amps kicked ass. They were West Amplifiers. And West was from Flint, Michigan. And Dave West had a good company then for a while, God rest his soul. He's gone. But he's got a son that may be putting out amplifiers too. But we, you know, before that concert man, we were...we really hadn't been exposed to those kinds of numbers. And even looking out into the audience from between the cracks and the fence backstage, you could not see past 20 or 30 rows in. That was all you could see from standing on the ground. But once you had the advantage of being 15 feet above their head...holy crap, dude. There was a lot of people. It was just an ocean of folks. I said to 'BookMan.' That was Tom Beam. We called him BookMan because he had all these comic book characters tattooed all over his body. I said, 'BookMan, I really gotta piss, man.' (laughs) He says, 'You better get out there.' (laughs) I really had to pee though. Superbad. Cause it was that many people. It was like, 'Oh my God, I got to pee.'
"Footstompin' Music" - Grand Funk Railroad / The Forum 6/1/74
Casey Chambers: It's the stories we can tell, man. (laughs) And that was in 1969. That was really early on.
Mark Farner: Oh yeah. And we played for free. At the very first one. We went on at 12:00 noon and gave a free concert. Yeah, they loved us. It was great. They didn't want us to leave the stage.
Casey Chambers: And the legend of Mark Farner and Grand Funk Railroad explodes. What a ride you've had. I'd like to thank you so much for all the crankin' music and peeled paint over the years. It's been a real pleasure.
Mark Farner: Thank you, brother Casey. God bless you, my friend.
Official Mark Farner Website
Mark Farner's American Band 50th Anniversary Tour Dates
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