Wednesday, July 27, 2016
Grand Funk Railroad "We're An American Band"
[Editor's note: just a reminder that tracks of the week are jumping off points for discussion, and not always a statement of a particular song's worth. That said, this song is a bit of a guilty pleasure.]
I have an admitted fascination with the hard arena rock of the early to mid-1970s. I own REO Speedwagon's second album on vinyl and have been known to crank "I Don't Need No Doctor" by Humble Pie from time to time. I am not proud of this, this music is often dumb, macho, and is used quite often by the Trump campaign. See for instance his use of "All Right Now" by Free, a 1969 song that basically set the template for the hard arena rock of the decade to come. It was the first song he played after his nomination speech.
One of my favorite Simpsons episodes is the one where Homer joins the Lollapalooza tour as a circus freak getting shot in the belly by a cannon. He shows up to the famous alternative rock festival as a way to prove his coolness to his kids. In an eternally hilarious scene Homer earlier tries playing the classic rock station for his kids, and he is shocked, SHOCKED that they have never heard of Grand Funk Railroad, including "the competent drum work of Don Brewer." Homer's love of Grand Funk signaled his absolute lack of current musical knowledge and being stuck in the past.
Homer was actually on to something. There is no song that better exemplifies the spirit and meaning of the hard arena rock of 1969-1976 than Grand Funk Railroad's "We're An American Band." It's a song about the arena rock culture of the time, the band singing about being on a rock tour as if they are conquering heroes. This was before the rituals of the rock show were completely ossified, when the tickets weren't outrageously priced, and when you could still slam a sixer and blaze a doobie in the parking lot without the authorities or venue getting too uptight about it. The rock show was one of the newest and most exciting cultural happenings in the youth culture of the time, part of the reason so many arena rock bands replicated it on innumerable double live albums.
The beginning has all the necessary elements of hard arena rock, and more. There's a big drum fill and some guitar that moves into a tight riff backed up by thundering bass and, you guessed it, cowbell. In the first verse of "We're An American Band" the aforementioned Don Brewer, as opposed to lead singer and guitarist Mark Farner, brags about playing poker all night with bluesman Freddie King and that "Booze and ladies keep me right/ Just as long as we make it to the show tonight."Then we hear the anthemic chorus, which combines nationalism and partying. I can never get over the repetitive organ part on the chorus, which makes it sound like John Cale or Philip Glass sneaked into the session. (The fact that this record was produced by Todd Rundgren might have something to do with that.)
The second verse starts with Brewer leering at "Four young chiquitas in Omaha/ Waiting for the band to return from the show." Part of the key to this song is that the places mentioned are Omaha and Arkansas, spots off the beaten track that nevertheless are drawn into the new national rock concert culture. Living in an out of the way dullsville place? Well just come on down to the local sports arena and let Grand Funk help you party down! As lame as you might think this song is, I love Brewer's delivery of the line "Feelin' good feelin' right it's Saturday night." It just perfectly captures that feeling of being young in some podunk place on a hot summer night off of work looking for some action. More bragging ensues, as the band parties with the "chiquitas" and proceeds to tear the hotel apart, the ultimate sign of 70s rock star immaturity.
This song feels like an artifact from a long lost civilization, and hence why the writers on the Simpsons chose Grand Funk to be Homer's favorite band. It's not only from a different time, but also from a different place. A very large percentage of American arena rock bands of the 70s came from the industrial midwest right at the point that it was getting smashed on the rocks of recession and deindustrialization. Grand Funk hailed from the auto city of Flint, Michigan. Glenn Frey (the hardest rocking guy in the Eagles before Wichita-born Joe Walsh) and Ted Nugent (barf) were Detroiters. Illinois was especially fertile: Styx from the South Side of Chicago, Head East and REO Speedwagon from central Illinois and Cheap Trick from Rockford. Forty years of getting hit by an economic hurricane have changed those places into something almost unrecognizable, without many American bands to come to town to help anybody party down. At least not with the out and out unironic gusto of Grand Funk.