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Grand Funk Railroad

Capitol 11099
Released: September 1972
Chart Peak: #7
Weeks Charted: 27
Certified Gold: 10/12/72

Terry KnightThe first thing you notice about Grand Funk's new album is the jacket. It bites the royal root. Always in the past Terry Knight's instincts insured that each Grand Funk album (well, except for On Time, but that was the first one after all) had cover art which literally reeked of class, reaching pinnacles in Survival and E Pluribus Funk. Now that they don't have Terry to dick around any more, the boys have fallen prey to Capitol's art department, which has hoist hardier than these three with its own special kind of petard. However, it's all compensated once you rip off the shrink wrap and dig in: The slipcover inside the sleeve has a plastic lining. There's nothing classier than that, as Capitol's previous exclusive reservation of this privilege for its classical line makes clear. Not only that, but the label is Deutsche Grammophon yellow.

Grand Funk Railroad - Phoenix
Original album advertising art.
Click image for larger view.
Some people snorted when Grand Funk announced that they were going to be producing themselves, as if they were only kept afloat in the first place by Terry Knight. That's never been true, of course: What has made Grand Funk a phenomenon is the combination of Knight's promotional acumen and the band's extraordinary relationship with its audience. As a producer, Knight often left a good deal to be desired. The first two Grand Funk albums were notable for a fuzzy quality as if the sound were channeled through wool. Survival, on the other hand, sounded almost too clean, to clear and precise, to the point of virtual sterility. The closest they ever came to achieving a recorded sound commensurate with their name was E Pluribus Funk, and even there they were left in the shade by the overwhelming recorded work of bands like Black Sabbath or Dust.

So you really can't say that the absence of Knight has hurt Grand Funk on wax yet, because this album mostly sounds just about as thin as its predecessors. And the material is for the most part just about as plodding as we've come to expect. Most rock is plodding now, and the real question is whether you can forget all about the adrenaline whoop of Chuck Berry and Little Richard and let yourself get into it on its own terms. If you can, you'll leave Phoenix with the confirmation, the same confirmation made by past songs like "Closer to Home" and "Comfort Me," that Grand Funk have real songwriting talent. That's if you're not already convinced. Unfortunately, though, if you haven't been previously initiated, the good moments on this album won't be strong enough in themselves to keep you coming back to it, and you would do better to pick up Mark, Don & Mel 1969-1971.

Songs: "Flight of the Phoenix" is as close as this band has ever come to their last name, the kind of music heard far more in bars than at pop festivals. It's nice, and Doug Kershaw is of course excellent on fiddle, though hardly employed to the up-front extent of a Papa John in a Jefferson Airplane. Craig Frost's organ dominates, as it will through much of the album.

"Trying to Get Away" is Phoenix's archetype, obviously autobiographical and acerbically effective as music. So is "Rain Keeps Fallin'," a moody side closer that's one of the best songs Mark Farner has written.

Most of the rest is slightly inferior to those three songs. "She Got to Move Me" is a lament about having the hots for a 14-year-old girl before the schmuck realized how young the tender morsel was, rendered with no sense of humor at all. "I Just Gotta Know" is about how Mark would like to see all his brothers and sisters get out in the streets again, to "stop the war," "don't take no more shit," and "stand up for your rights." Yawn. "So You Won't Have to Die" is, honest to god (so to speak), about how Jesus came to Mark and told him the answer to the pollution problem: Believe in Jesus. Leading one to speculate if this is the type of song that Grand Funk were talking about when they complained that Terry Knight wouldn't let them record some of their more controversial material. And then there's "Freedom is for Children":

The children are so very lucky
'Cause they're not old enough to know
Not old enough to realize
But they'll find out as they grow
But on the other hand
Who's gonna save the land?
Freedom is for children
Why can't it be for me?

Cat Stevens could have written those lyrics. So could Black Sabbath. So could Don McLean. So could I. So could you. And it's not that there's anything wrong with mediocrity or cliche -- could you or I have written "Sugar, Sugar"? -- but when mediocrity loses all its flair, all its panache, becomes this bland and this pompous at the same time... it's time for some Chuck Berry.

- Lester Bangs, Rolling Stone, 11-9-72.

Bonus Reviews!

No, I'm not a Grand Funk fan yet, not by a long shot. But the group is getting better, and even the recent management hassles it has been going through have not dampened the gradual improvement in its musicality.

True enough, much of the space here is devoted to the kind of heavy-bottomed, simple-minded interpretation of the music of earlier, better groups (like Cream and the Rolling Stones) that has been the sum and substance of earlier Grand Funk outings. But there are also a few pleasant moments of acoustic gentleness, some good harmonica playing from Mark Farner, and the beginning of a feeling for textures in Don Brewer's drumming.

Not a lot to brag about, and for all the Grand Funk fans who are dashing to their typewriters at this very moment to send me the usual murder threats, it really won't make much difference. For those folks, the hotly-hyped trio can do no wrong. But for this listener, one step up may be a small one, but it's one worth making, and worth noting as well, nonetheless.

- Don Heckman, Stereo Review, 1/73.

Grand Funk have by now attained an almost permanent place in rock's hierarchy. They have legions of devoted, ready followers at every performance and lining up to buy their every album. Disappointing no one, and perhaps surprising a few, is the actual musicaI intelligence that is apparent on most of this album. Utilization of the wizardry of Doug Kershaw is an unexpected delight. The single "Rock 'n' Roll Soul" included.

- Billboard, 1972.

If nothing else, this latest Grand Funk offering should be given an award for best biographical album of the year.

Whether Funk, like the Phoenix, will be able to soar from its ashes or have to crawl for a time looking for a take-off area, will be determined by future albums, not this one. Which is not to say this is a bad album. It is, to date, their best.

The most important differences in the group, and the music, are the addition of Craig Frost as permanent keyboard player and the elimination of an outside producer.

As passé as the organ may be as a viable instrument in contemporary music, Frost fills dozens of holes that have long been notorious in Funk arrangements. Not all of them, mind you, just some. Mark Farner also does a little over-zealous organ work on "Flight Of The Phoenix," an otherwise good-timey piece, neatly accentuated by Doug Kershaw's electric fiddle.

There is a certain looseness to this album that is perhaps created through the knowledge that the project belongs to Grand Funk alone. Farner, Brewer & Schacher brought it through composition to production and they are obviously pleased with themselves. No need thinking that material is totally different than what has gone before. The teeth-grinding guitar and drum solos still dominate, but they are softened slightly by Funk's much-improved harmony.

Phoenix is, by no means, a great album. It is, however, good enough to warrant the attention of all of us who previously ignored the name Grand Funk. If this is an indication of what we can expect from now on, we may even get to like them.

- Pat Baird, Words & Music, 1/73.

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