Tony the Tour Guy's Blog

A not very regular series of posts on New York City history, historic preservation, genealogy and related themes.

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Man Who Saved Grand Funk Railroad

Can a producer turn a crude heavy metal band which was virtually ignored by critics into a pop music phenomenon?   In the case of Todd Rundgren's work with Grand Funk Railroad in the early 70s, the answer was clearly "yes!"

Formed in Flint, Michigan in 1968, GFR was a very loud (some would say crude) heavy metal trio which achieved great commercial success, both in terms of record and concert sales.  Indeed, they broke the Beatles' record for selling out two nights at Shea Stadium.  Despite such success, however, the critics either ignored or loathed Grand Funk, and radio stations were slow to play their material. 

Producing and managing the band during this early period was Terry Knight, who commanded complete artistic control over the group's sound.  This continued until 1972, when Knight's services were abruptly terminated, resulting in his filing $60 million in lawsuits against GFR.  Litigation continued until attorney John Eastman, Linda McCartney's father, brokered a deal in which Grand Funk essentially bought him out.  

Post-Knight, GFR added a fourth member, keyboardist Craig Frost (formerly of Bob Seger's Silver Bullet Band), who helped make their sound a bit more melodic. But the band's big break came in 1973, when Todd Rundgren produced their album "We're An American Band," along with the single of the same name, which quickly rose to #1 on the charts.  Critics and radio programmers began to take notice.  A talented performer in his own right, Rundgren had previously engineered and produced albums by acts as diverse as Badfinger, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and the New York Dolls. With the tighter, bass-driven arrangements Todd developed, Grand Funk suddenly sounded like a real rock group, as opposed to a garage band.  More albums followed, along with singles such as a remake of "The Locomotion," "Some Kind of Wonderful" and "A Bad Time to Be in Love."  

The GFR/Rundgren collaboration continued until 1976, when Frank Zappa produced what would be the final album for the band's original members, "Good Singin,í Good Playin."  Mark Farner, Grand Funk's guitarist, went into the alternative energy business, while the others pursued their own musical interests.  In 1981 Farner reunited with drummer Don Brewer for two albums, before again disbanding.  As for the producer who made them a critical success, Rundgren continued doing albums for performers such as Meatloaf (who can forget "Bat Out of Hell?") and Patti Smith. Later he would branch into the newly emerging field of music videos. 

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Saturday, January 05, 2013

Sincerity or Noise? The 1970s Folk Mass

Catholics (and former Catholics), remember the Folk Mass?  To some it was a sincere effort to involve younger people with music to which they could relate, while to others it was hideous, even offensive.  As an alumnus of 16 years of Catholic education, I certainly attended enough of them, mostly during the early 1970s.  

Perhaps the idea of the Folk Mass arose in an effort to counter the shrinking numbers of Catholic youth who attended church regularly.  Or it could have come out of a larger movement to make the Church more accessible to the laity and in touch with ordinary people.  Most likely a combination of factors were at work, but the result was that Catholic clergy, religious educators and hymn writers began composing folk songs with religious themes and integrating them into worship.  Groups of kids in bell-bottoms with acoustic guitars and tambourines, often led by a nun or teacher, replaced the traditional choir and organ in many churches.  

The folk hymns themselves were typically simplistic, and the musical abilities of the accompanists... well... varied.  Occasionally pop tunes were also played at Masses, including Paul Simon's "Sounds of Silence," which for some reason was very popular, despite its lack of a religious message.  But the kids (and some young adults) loved Folk Masses, despite the protests of some parents and stalwarts who thought the whole movement was disrespectful. 

Did the Folk Mass accomplish the goal of keeping more young Catholics coming to church?  I don't know the statistics, but do recall that, for those kids in my parish who did attend Mass, the weekly folk service was very popular.  For the older youth it served a dual purpose: it was a chance to dress in trendy clothes and interact with opposite sex.  

Friday, October 26, 2012

An Italian-American Looks at the Seventies "Guido" Phenomenon

‘Ey, you! Yeah, YOU!! Were you a Guido (or Guidette) during the Seventies?

“They think they’re Italian? Look at me. I AM Italian!”
-Mario, a classmate from Italy, circa 1978

During the 1970s it seemed as if everyone was becoming interested in their ethnic backgrounds. Perhaps fueled by the success of Alex Haley’s 1976 novel ROOTS, as well as the phenomenally popular mini-series that followed, people began to celebrate their ancestry and identify themselves as ‘hyphenated-Americans.” But while some did this in a positive way, such as doing some genealogy or learning a bit of their family’s original language, others adopted some behaviors that had nothing to do with their background. For those of us of Italian ancestry this often took the form of becoming, as we said in Brooklyn, “Guidoed-Out.”

As the great-grandson of a shoemaker from Naples, I was quite taken aback when I saw people identifying themselves and others as “Guidos” or “Guidettes.” These guys seemed to have nothing in common with the people in the Italian side of my family; that was certain. But the phenomenon was very popular around New York, especially at the small college on Staten Island which I attended from 1975 until 1979.

So, what exactly was a Guido? And why did the phenomenon catch on? Being a sociology major at the time, I decided there were three basic kinds of Guidos:

First, there were the Fonzie Clones. A character on the popular TV series “Happy Days” (played by Henry Winkler, a Jewish actor), The Fonz (Alfonso Fonzerelli) was a stereotypical greaser from the 1950s – during a time when there was a lot of nostalgia for that period. The Guidos who adopted the Fonz look wore leather jackets, sported 1950s style haircuts, and often wore a horn-shaped amulet around their necks that is called a “cornu.” (Interestingly, I did some research on this, and found out that the cornu had its origins in Greece). Such young men were into conspicuous consumption and typically drove big cars. My friend JT used to joke that we could make a fortune if we could find a vintage Fifties convertible, park it by the school, and charge these guys a few bucks to have their pictures taken behind the wheel or leaning on the fender. Although typically conservative on political or social issues, some adopted superficial rebellious attitudes, would join fraternities and act up in class. A professor who taught a course in Women’s Studies often found these …errr… men passing by her classroom door and making silly gestures.

Second, there were the Rocky Clones. These were similar to the Fonzies, but more athletic. They hung out in the weight room.

Finally, we had the Travolta Clones, who dressed like the lead character in That Certain Seventies Movie, instead of like greasers. These young men were very into disco music, and would often don leisure suits when they went out dancing. A favorite tune you’d hear at school parties was Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music, White Boy.”

So, what about the women? I’ve heard the term “Guidette” used all the time, but always in reference to someone other than the speaker. The only thing that such women seemed to have in common was that they tended to date Guidos. The changes in sex roles often associated with the Sixties and Seventies were not fully grasped by these couples, who tended to act in accordance with the old stereotypes.

Like my friend Mario, I often wondered just what Guidohood had to do with being Italian-American. (Mario told me that people in Italy laughed at such behavior). Looking back on the whole phenomenon I’ve come to two conclusions. First, people were seeking a sense of identity, a way of connecting with a larger community. Being “Guidoed-out” was their way of trying to belong to a group, even though it had nothing to do with being Italian-American. Secondly, Guido culture can be seen as a reaction against the rapid changes occurring in our larger society, especially regarding gender roles and expectations. To quote those great sociologists Archie and Edith Bunker, in their world “Girls were girls and men were men.”

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Re-reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Most of us have heard of this 1943 novel by Betty Smith, which details the struggles of a young girl and her family in Williamsburg during the period surrounding World War I. If you haven't read it now is the time to do so. Not only is ATGIB a great novel (IMHO), but it provides a great deal of information as to how working class families lived during that era. Indeed, one reason why I decided to re-read the book was to learn about the world which my Italian immigrant ancestors inhabited during the same time frame.

The Williamsburg in which Francie Nolan (the central character) and her family lived and worked is not the trendy, gentrified area we know of today, but rather a collection of immigrant enclaves (some with un-PC nicknames such as "Jew Town") where Life was a daily struggle and Death a regular visitor. Anyone hoping for nostalgia would be most disappointed by Smith's work. But the Nolans, like our ancestors, managed to survive and maintain their dignity.

Some people have described ATGIB as an "Oprah" book, perhaps meaning that it was both written from a woman's perspective and is somewhat optimistic in tone. In that sense, they're right, although it most certainly is not a work full of "affirmations" or other staples of "human potential" literature. People like the Nolans were pragmatists above all else.

If you like audio books, I suggest's edition of ATGIB, which is terrific.

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Friday, September 14, 2012

The Anti-Landmarking Fearmongers Were Wrong!

Remember all the hoopla concerning the Landmarks Preservation Commission's designation of Sunnyside Gardens as a Historic District? Landmarking, opponents said, would lead to terrible hardships for residents, especially the poor and elderly, many of whom would be forced to leave the area because they could not afford to maintain their homes if they had to follow LPC regulations. 

Well, SG has been a Historic District for several years now, and of course the fearmongers' propaganda has proven to be groundless.  Not only has there not been a mass exodus of residents who could not afford to maintain their homes, but the additional protection offered by landmark status has prevented unscrupulous homeowners from making ugly "improvements" such as car ports, high fences and extensions.  

Some critics not ready to give up the ship will protest that home prices in Sunnyside Gardens have been increasing, and from what I have heard they are.  But is that not the case in all of Western Queens, indeed, most of NYC? 

Saturday, April 21, 2012

I'm Back

I've decided to give this blog another whirl.

Today I went to a street fair in Queens.  What used to be fun events have turned into cheesy outdoor malls completely lacking in local character.  Everywhere you go to a street fair in this town it's the same old rides, food stands and merchants selling cheap junk.  Local businesses and services are in short supply.

Whoever coordinates these fairs for our fair City should see to it that they better reflect the communities where they are located.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Behind the brownstone veneer

This partially demolished wall at the General Theological Seminary in Chelsea is an excellent illustration of how brownstone structures were made. 

Brownstone is essentially sandstone, a form of sedimentary rock composed of layers of sand. The rich brown color of much of the material seen in buildings around town comes from the presence of iron ore. Widely used in 19th century New York (it was cheaper than other stones and readily available in New Jersey and Connecticut) brownstone was primarily used as a veneer over brick walls. My first photo illustrates this, with a layer of brownstone blocks about 4 inches thick cemented to brick. The close-up shot of a broken brownstone block shows how the sandstone is composed of layers.