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.