Thirty Years Of Funk 1969-1999
Capitol Records, 1999
REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 05/13/2002
I got to thinking about how I became such a music junkie - and I immediately have to blame my mother. She always had the radio tuned into WLS-AM when I was a child, and I remember happily bopping along to the tunes as we drove somewhere. She and my father got me my first little turntable, complete with some old beat-up records (nothing special - True Value specials, Ferrante & Teischer, and the like), but when my mom made the mistake of joining a record club when I was about five, she got me a copy of Grand Funk's We're An American Band that I had begged for, having fell in love with the title track when my aunt played it for me. (It's a day late for Mother's Day, but... thanks, Mom.)
This all came to mind after getting my hands on Thirty Years Of Funk 1969-1999, a three-disc compilation covering the highs and lows of Mark Farner and company. If all you know of this band is "We're An American Band," "Some Kind Of Wonderful" and "The Loco-Motion," then you're in for some surprises. And if you know the band inside and out, this set will probably be a trip down memory lane.
Formed in Flint, Michigan, Grand Funk (alternately with the word "Railroad" at the end of their name) were one of the three biggest practicioners of "blue-collar rock" of Michigan (the other two being Ted Nugent and Bob Seger). Originally guided by their producer/manager Terry Knight, Grand Funk quickly became a popular force in rock, though the band didn't enjoy the commercial success they might have hoped for. (Yes, they were charting albums left and right, but they really didn't have a hit single for the first portion of their career.)
That first portion is covered on disc one, including three songs from the pre-Grand Funk band The Pack. For the most part, this disc is well put together, sorting through Grand Funk's first three studio albums and pulling the better material. If it's been a while since you dusted off your copies of albums like On Time or Closer To Home, then hearing tracks like "Mr. Limousine Driver," "Time Machine" and "Aimless Lady" may make you want to head back up to the attic and give them another spin. Only the live tracks seem to dip a bit - two of which are taken from Live Album from 1970. The previously unreleased version of "Inside Looking Out" sometimes feels like it's stretched out far too long.
Disc two starts off weakly with two cover tracks from Survival, "Feelin' Alright" and "Gimme Shelter". Never mind the fact that two of Grand Funk's biggest hits would be cover versions, these came at a time when guitarist/vocalist Farner, bassist Mel Schacher and drummer/vocalist Don Brewer were trying to keep up with the frantic pace of putting out an album every few months - and Farner's creative well ran dry. One admitted surprise, though, is how good "Upsetter" - a track from E Pluribus Funk - is. I remember ripping this album when I reviewed it back in 1997; this track makes me want to give this disc a second listen to see if I was indeed missing something.
Grand Funk's superstar days came, of course, with We're An American Band and the production work of Todd Rundgren. Three tracks, including the title song, are pulled from this album - though I'll admit I wish a fourth song, "Stop Lookin' Back," had been included as well. The outtakes from the We're An American Band sessions are also intriguing; one wonders why these didn't make the cut.
Disc three of Thirty Years Of Funk 1969-1999 has some of the best surprises, as well as some of the weakest material. I had forgotten how great of a track "Shinin' On" was, making me want to dig that disc out of the Pierce Memorial Archives. And I have to admit, with no small deal of embarrassment, that I wasn't aware Farner wrote and Grand Funk performed "Bad Time" - until you hear it, you forget how good of a song it really is. The live tracks pulled from Caught In The Act are also enjoyable - now I know why the band didn't include the studio version of "Footstompin' Music".
Quite possibly their most forgotten album of the Seventies, the three tracks taken from Born To Die - "Take Me," "Sally" and "Love Is Dyin'" - are the most pleasant surprises. (Naturally, this is one of the two or three Grand Funk albums I don't own... that'll be changing soon.) But if these tracks show one side of the coin, the songs taken from Good Singin' Good Playin' (a disc I never was able to get into) and Grand Funk Lives (one of the two albums from the '80s reunion) show that the magic was dying. Even the live version of "We Gotta Get Out Of This Place" from 1982 doesn't really impress.
The three new tracks demonstrate that Grand Funk is still a very talented group of musicians, and if they were given a chance, they could still rip it out with the best of them. (I am disappointed, though, that no tracks were included from Bosnia, the 1997 live reunion disc. I have yet to hear this set, and it would have been nice to have been given a taste of it.)
Thirty Years Of Funk 1969-1999 will remind you why Grand Funk was so popular in their day, and it will also remind you at times of how mercurial this band could be. Still, it's a pleasant enough way to spend an afternoon, and is a great primer of the band for new generations of fans.