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The 25 Best Live Rock Recordings
No. 24 - Grand Funk - Live Album (Capitol, 1970)
Sometimes it begins with a song: something primal and driving. A closed hi hat steadily struck as it opened, punctuated by a nuclear power G bar chord...
“...Well, I’m sittin’ here lonely / like a broken man / servin’ my time / doin’ the best I can...”
What follows is a 14-minute blues dirge, not exceptionally virtuosic, no, not at all. But it was a song of desparate want and need played by the very definition of a power trio, the most basic format of a rock band, led by a guitar god in Mark Farner, that looked every bit the threat to post-war American life that they were. The early Grand Funk Railroad mantra was “What one lacks in finesse, one makes up for with power.” This was a performance that did not passively appeal to or cajole its listener, but rather, beat them into merciless submission, making them enjoy it in the bargain.
“Inside Looking Out” fashioned itself a blues-inflected song composed by the father and son musicologists John and Alan Lomax along with its original singer, British Invasion star, Eric Burdon and Chas Chandler, bassist for Burdon’s band, the Animals. Tacitly based on a prison field holler “Rosie,” the song would be released as a single in 1966 and as part of the band’s third studio recording Animalisms (Decca, 1966). If Britain assimilated and transformed American music, shipping it back to America to see what she was taking for granted, then here is a case where American musicians reclaimed the music, showing Britain what they did wrong.
The Animals’ performance of “Inside Looking Out” smacks of its period. The song sounds uncannily like Bobby Darin’s recording of “Work Song” from his album Earthy! (Capitol Records, 1962). In both performances a certain popular/commercial production is used to round the sharp corners and sand the rough surface of the song’s sprison lament. The music was more scaffolding than the motorizing force Grand Funk would bring to it.
Grand Funk (The Red Album) was released December 29, 1969, a mere four months after the band’s debut On Time (Capitol, 1969) which was released August 26. The Red Album displayed significant growth and included a nine-minute cover of a very different performance of “Inside Looking Out,” one that was loud and coarse, urgently naked and stripped down. Feral and dangerous, Grand Funk Railroad’s follow-up to their debut took a promising band and jettisoned them into the superstar stratosphere.
The band’s first commercial live release, entitled “Live Album,” was recorded June 23-24, 1970 and released . The album was recorded at the Jacksonville Coliseum on June 23, 1970 except for "Paranoid" and "Inside Looking Out" which came from a performance at the West Palm Beach Civic Auditorium the next day. The original release was a two-LP gatefold containing nine songs and two selections of stage banter. Additionally, the band’s third studio album, Closer To Home (Capitol, 1970) had been released the week before these performances which included “Mean Mistreater” from the new recording. In round numbers, Grand Funk Railroad released four albums in 10 months. When was the last time a band did that?
Live Album revealed a disconnect between critical and popular acceptance. Panned by music writers, the recording was extremely successful in the United States, where it was certified gold (represented $1 million in sales) by the Recording Industry Association of America a week following its release. So, what of this? The music of Grand Funk was a departure from other contemporary power trios such as Cream, Blue Cheer, The James Gang, and The Jimi Hendrix Experience in that Grand Funk Railroad relied more on sheer power and volume than technical virtuosity or crack songwriting. The band had that thing, a raw, muscular, and sexual stage presence that made them a superb concert draw.
The band was not technically without merit. Mark Farner was a capable guitarist and songwriter, but the band’s secret weapon was bassist Mel Schacher, whose overdriven bass playing served as much as a rhythm guitar at the bottom of the band. With drummer Don Brewer, Schacher established a relentless momentum that allowed simply written songs to sound bigger and more important than they were. Grand Funk would not have existed without Schacher’s drive and timekeeping. Imagine “In Need,” “Heartbreaker,” or “Into The Sun” without him.
As a complete package, early Grand Funk Railroad was unsurpassable as a concert band. Few groups from the period could generate as much excitement. The band would go on to greater popularity with the LPs E Pluribus Funk (Capitol, 1971), Phoenix (Capitol, 1972), and We're an American Band ( Capitol, 1973) with the singles, “Foot Stompin’ Music,” “Rock ‘N Roll Soul,” and “We’re an American Band.” But Grand Funk Railroad’s later music would lack the visceral punch and hunger of the band when they were the new thing establishing themselves. It is this that makes Live Album a valuable document.