Gary James' Interview With Don Brewer Of
Do you want to know what the definition of a Rock Group is? It's Grand Funk Railroad.
In 1970, they sold more albums than any other group in America. The next year, they broke The Beatles' ticket sales at Shea Stadium, selling out their two day stand in 48 hours and grossing over $300,000.
There is still a Grand Funk Railroad today and we spoke with drummer Don Brewer.
Q - Last time I saw you and Grand Funk was at the Onondaga County War Memorial in Syracuse, New York in October of 1972.
A - Oh, my God.
Q - I'll never forget that night, because Grand Funk had the audience mesmerized.
A - Wow.
Q - People just stood there and looked. They couldn't believe what they were seeing, but they knew these guys were rock stars.
A - (laughs)
Q - I have to tell you...Grand Funk was one of the loudest groups I ever heard!
A - (laughs) Well, that's not that hard to do. The hard part is coming up with the music and putting on a show. It's not hard to be loud.
Q - That's right. Somebody else turns up the dials.
A - Yeah.
Q - Were you wearing ear plugs back then?
A - No, I wasn't. I never wore them back then. I've taken to wearing them now. Over the years, I've had my hearing checked. It's taken its toll. I'm trying to preserve whatever I've got left to last as long as I can.
Q - So, have you lost some of your hearing?
A - Yeah, mostly in the upper range and the high end.
Q - In this current line-up of Grand Funk, Mark Farner is not part of it?
A - No, he's not.
Q - Well, how can there be a Grand Funk without Mark Farner?
A - (laughs) Well, that's a good question. How can there be a Grand Funk without Mel Schacher, without Don Brewer? Life goes on. People make decisions and that's the way it goes, you know. Hardly any of the classic rock bands that are out there now have the same guys that they started with. That's just the way things go. I think the music has a right to live on and as long as you're true to the spirit of what your band is all about and the audience gets their moneys worth, I see it really as a positive. Most of the audiences that come to see the classic rock bands now, aren't really classic rock audiences. They just, in general, like classic rock music. It's not like when the bands were in their particular hey-day, whether it be the 70s, 80s or the 90s, where they have a real strong following and everybody knows everybody's name in the band. It's just not like that anymore. So, that's really why all the bands go on. I think it's fair to the music, and I like it.
Q - So, Mark Farner would be content to pursue a solo career then?
A - Well, that's what he chose to do. At the end of '98, he wanted to go back to being a solo act and move on, and that's what he did. Mel and I kind of put everything on the back burner for a couple of years. We just happened by happenstance to run into some great people, and started talking about doing Grand Funk. We got Max Carl from .38 Special and Max is probably one of the best blue-eyed soul singers on the planet. If anybody can do that Detroit R&B thing, it's Max. What we do is very good.
Q - What kinds of places are you performing in these days?
A - Mostly fairs and festivals and casino showrooms, some theaters. Over the Winter, we do some theaters. We played a couple of performing arts theaters out in California last year. So, it's anywhere from 2,000 seats up to 10 - 20 thousand people. We had 25,000 people up in North Townawanda, outside of Buffalo, New York for their Canal Molson series last Summer. It was a big show. Mostly in the Winter, we'll hit casinos.
Q - Do you ever watch American Idol?
A - As little as possible. (laughs) I'm not a big fan of the talent show stuff or the reality TV shows. It's not that I dislike it, it's just that I'm not a fan of it. I just don't pay attention to it.
Q - Would you think this is a good way to find future recording artists?
A - Sure. Anything where there's some competition and people that are supposedly amateurs can get exposure to record companies. It turned a career for Reuben Stoddard and Clay Aiken. They got some career out of it. I don't know whether they'll be lasting careers.
Q - I have this fantasy where a famous person, maybe you, will be able to get in front of the judges and perform, in disguise of course. And hopefully they, especially Simon Cowell, would dis you and you could then reveal who you really are!!
A - (laughs) They probably wouldn't care. They're putting on a show. The whole point of the show is to be demeaning to some of the people that deserve it and to be overboard, and then to show praise to the ones that have some talent. They're putting on a show, so everything is going to be exaggerated. It would be boring if it was just straight-up. (laughs) When you ask me if I watch those kind of programs, to me, everybody is just an actor. They're just putting on an act.
Q - How successful do you think the Grand Funk of 1970 would be in today's world?
A - I don't see any groups making it the way bands of the past made it. I don't see the big careers being created. I don't see huge followings behind a particular artist. Not for very long. It comes and goes pretty quick. It's like a piece of candy. The public consumes the piece of candy and then they're ready to move on. It's not like when we grew up. We grew up in the era when you followed bands. You looked at all the liner notes. You read who the engineer was and where it was recorded. Nobody does that anymore. I've never seen my daughter look at a CD cover and go through it and find out who played that. Nobody cares. I don't see careers being created with bands. Once again, it's just a consumer product. It's consumed and they're ready to move on.
Q - For all the success of Grand Funk, you were largely ignored by publications like Rolling Stone, weren't you?
A - Well, not ignored, more like hammered. (laughs) They hated us.
Q - Why do you suppose that was?
A - My feeling is that they didn't really hate the band, they hated Terry Knight. Terry Knight has since passed away, recently. I don't know if you heard about that.
Q - No, I have not.
A - Yeah, it was a tragic situation. He was murdered. It wasn't big news. Just recently, like a month ago. (Early November, 2004) The story goes, he's got a daughter, a 16 year old. This was from a second marriage or whatever. He had custody of the daughter. She had a boyfriend, 27. Supposedly, all three were living in the same apartment down in Temple, Texas. That sounds pretty weird to me. The girl was threatening to run away if she couldn't be with her boyfriend. Something happened. There was a major fight that broke out between Terry and the boyfriend over the daughter. The boyfriend I guess had some drug problems. He got a knife and stabbed Terry in front of the daughter. It's tragic. Anyway, to get back to the Rolling Stone thing, Terry had a way of aggravating situations. Terry wanted to make everybody think he was the whole reason behind Grand Funk and that we were puppets. And that we were just a manufactured band out of his mind. So, he would not let Rolling Stone or anybody interview the band. They all had to interview Terry. He took out an ad one year in Billboard Magazine, giving everybody the finger. So, he had a very bad relationship with the press. Terry's view on that was, any press is good press, so even if they hate you, you're getting press!! So, he would make the press hate the band...and they did. When we got rid of Terry as manager, we had to change our whole way of doing things...doing music. We started getting better praise from the press, just because the Terry Knight factor wasn't there.
Q - Since we're talking about Terry Knight, what was the actual contribution of Terry Knight to Grand Funk?
A - Well, Terry was very instrumental in helping us get a deal with Capitol Records. He was very instrumental in getting through all the doors that needed to be gotten open for a new band to break out of Michigan. And that was really his job. When we were The Pack...Mark and I were in The Pack, Terry was in The Pack. The band broke up. We moved on as just The Pack. We were just local and in Flint, or out of Michigan and we couldn't get anywhere. When we changed our name to Grand Funk Railroad, we were still just The Pack. We had to get out of Michigan and get exposure other places and Terry was key. He had a position as an A&R guy at Capitol Records and he was able to break open some doors and get us some opportunities. That's really what happened. He got those opportunities. He really was a Barnum and Bailey type guy. He never saw anything small. He looked big. He really passed that on to us too. Like you said, when you saw this band, you saw stars. You saw rock 'n roll stars. Terry was very good at helping coach us and telling us "when you're onstage, you gotta play to the back row. Don't play to the first couple of people in the audience. Play to the back row. Exaggerate everything you do." That was just a small thing. He was also the producer of the records. I think a lot of those early records weren't produced very well technically, but they sure did get the point across. They had a very raw, a very honest sound and I really think that's what people picked up on.
Q - Did Terry Knight show you the moves he wanted the band to make onstage? Coaching in this case wouldn't seem like it's enough.
A - Coaching isn't necessarily instructing..."here, do this. Watch me do this step and you do that." It's a matter of coming to you after the show and saying "you know when you did this at the end of a particular song? Well, do it more! Do it more exaggerated." It was just coaching. Bringing out of you what you can do better. He did that with Mark. He did that with Mel. He did that with me. He was very instrumental in making us bigger than life.
Q - In every success story, there's a talent and there's a hype. He was a hype.
A - He was the hype guy. Sure he was. And you have to have that in this business. You have to have hype. You have to have it in any business. Look at politics. Look at all the spin and hype that comes out of Washington. That's what it takes to reach the public.
Q - The Rolling Stone Encylopedia of Rock 'n Roll said of Grand Funk, "The members were all millionaires within two yeas of their debut." Is that true?
A - No. (laughs)
Q - Was your first gig in Buffalo, New York? Do you remember where you performed?
A - Yeah, it was a small auditorium of some kind. Terry knew a couple of people who used to own a coffee house. It's one of those things that Terry got us plugged in and on this show. And it really was kind of a non-event, but by God, Terry made it look like a huge event when we got out of there. He went back to New York and told everybody that the girls were ripping off their blouses and throwing their bras onstage, which wasn't true, but that's what he told people. (laughs)
Q - The genius of Terry Knight at work! When you guys played Shea Stadium, you broke the previous record held by The Beatles.
A - In terms of tickets sold, and how fast they were sold. (laughs) And as we have joked in the past, yeah, it must've been they got the ticketing down better than when they were selling them for The Beatles. But that was our claim to fame with that. We sold it out faster than The Beatles.
Q - When that happened, what did you think?
A - Oh, my God, that whole time period with the huge billboard in Times Square...it was a block long. It was the first time a billboard in Times Square that size had been used for a band. To have that in Times Square with our three faces on it and be brought in, in a limousine, we're flown around in a helicopter, we're playing Shea Stadium...it was a dream!
Q - That record that you set at Shea Stadium still holds today, doesn't it?
A - That we sold it out faster than The Beatles? I don't know. I know a lot of people have sold out Shea Stadium plenty of times.
Q - The music of Grand Funk started to change in 1975 when you were doing songs like "Locomotion" and "Some Kind Of Wonderful".
A - Well, I think it really changed a few times. It changed after we fired Terry. The very first album we did after we fired Terry was "Phoenix". And we tried to self-produce it, in Nashville of all places...a country engineer to do it. It was just a completely, total radical departure from what Grand Funk Railroad was all about. We added a fourth guy, Craig Frost. The music was much softer on the album. Everybody was like "whoa! What happened to Grand Funk?" Well, we were searching for a new way to go. We also knew that we had to start working on coming up with more commercial material. We could not do album oriented material anymore because FM radio was no longer album oriented. It was becoming a hit single format. So, we had to head in that direction. So, that was our first kind of step in the more commercial vein. It was a very radical departure. Then we employed Todd Rundgren for our next couple of albums. Once again, we were going after hit singles and that's what we did. We hit with "We're An American Band", with "Walk Like A Man". We hit with "Locomotion". We hit with "Shinin' On". Not that those are necessarily great Grand Funk, wonderful, classic pieces of music, but, we had to have hit records and we made hit records, or we weren't going to make the change. That was a major change for us. I started writing more. I started singing more. We had Todd Rundgren involved. You know, it was a completely different band. Then, we changed again because in 1975, disco music was coming. Well, we couldn't go after the disco market. That was not going to be our deal. So, we felt maybe we could go back in more of an R&B vein, which is what we always loved being anyway. That's when we did "Some Kind Of Wonderful". We had a hit with that. We had "Bad Time", which was a great pop song. Most people can't even believe that was Grand Funk Railroad at that time. It was such a radical departure. But again, we were trying to stay alive, through a very difficult time period...and that's what we had to do.
Q - Did you know that according to Dan Akyrod, John Belushi was a big fan of Grand Funk?
A - I had heard that.
Q - You must've had fans in all layers of the entertainment world.
A - Yeah. I think our music went through that whole time period, from the Anti-war movement, actually starting in the Hippie movement in '69, through the Anti-war movement up to '72 - '73. Then things started getting very commercial. A lot of people saw Grand Funk in different facets, and it meant different things to their lives.
Q - How did you get into playing drums?
A - I actually started playing drums in the high school band. I got into a fight with the instructor, the band leader. I used to play clarinet. I hated the fact that all he ever wanted to do was John Philip Sousa marches and waltzes and classical music. So, I was always raggin' him to do some rock stuff. He and I just didn't get along. Actually, I worked my way up to first chair in the clarinet department and then I lost interest in it and worked my way down to the last chair. One day, he just kind of threw out to the whole band that there were only girls in the drum section and they needed some guys to volunteer to switch instruments and go back to playing drums because nobody could carry the bass drum in the marching band. I volunteered immediately 'cause I was fed up with the clarinet and the whole thing...I said "I'll do it. I'll go back." Of course it was a great idea anyway to play with a bunch of girls. (laughs) So, that's how I started playing drums. And my Dad used to be a drummer in Swing Bands during the Depression. And, when he found out I was playing drums, he went right out, got a set of drums and we went down into the basement and he'd sit there and show me how to play a kit. We'd listen to records...Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, all the early rock stuff and I'd learn how to play that stuff. That's really when I started playing drums as a kit. This is actually junior high, not high school. I started my first band. That band actually became The Pack and that band eventually became Grand Funk Railroad. So, it really kind of all started in my basement.
Q - Where did you meet up with Mark, Mel and Terry?
A - Well, Terry was in and out of the band The Pack. My band that I started was The Jazz Masters. We hooked up with Terry 'cause he was a DJ. We used to play sock hops and Terry was the DJ at the sock hops. He wanted to be a singer. So he approached us one day in The Jazz Masters and said "I want you guys to be my band. I want to be a singer." He had this reputation of traveling with The Rolling Stones. So, we tried it out and started playing some cover songs. He was a great front man. He really was. We started getting some great success regionally as Terry Knight and The Pack. I knew Mark from Battle Of The Bands experiences. When I had The Jazz Masters, he had a band called "The Derelicts". They would play on one side of the room and we'd play on the other side of the room and the audience would clap. Whoever had the most applause would win. That's where I knew Mark from...The Battle Of The Bands. We needed a bass player at one point in Terry Knight and The Pack. I suggested we get Mark to come into the band 'cause I knew he was a great singer and a great player. We just asked him if he could play bass. He said "Oh yeah, I can play bass." So, he came in and replaced Herman Jackson, the bass player in Terry Knight and The Pack. Then Herman came back and Mark left again. Then Mark came back later as a guitar player 'cause we had to replace Curt Johnson who was our guitar player. Then Mark came back as a guitar player in The Pack. Then Terry Knight left. Mark was the best singer, so we put Mark out in front, to be the front man. That's really kind of how Mark started carrying on the front man situation. When The Pack broke up, we picked up Mel Schacher. We were destitute when The Pack broke up. We went to our management company up in Bay City. We said "we gotta get our equipment back, you guys owe us money." Mel was playing with Question Mark and The Mysterians, who was also handled by the same management company. So, Mark and I were leaving there one day after unsuccessfully trying to get our equipment back, which they confiscated from us. We heard this band playing in this warehouse behind the office. We went back and stuck our head in there and it was Question Mark and The Mysterians playing. Mark said "I know that kid playing bass. Let's get him." (laughs) I said O.K. So, Mark knew him from school and contacted Mel. Mark and I wanted to kind of pursue the lines of Cream and Hendrix and what was on in '67, '68. So, we needed a bass player. We approached Mel and got him out of Question Mark and The Mysterians. We said "we're gonna start doing this real power trio kind of thing." We started rehearsing in the Union Hall of Flint, Michigan and working up new material. Mark would bring in a jam and we'd jam it for a couple of days and work a song out of it. Then he'd bring in another jam piece kind of thing and we'd hammer that thing out until we got it good. We had a few songs and finally suggested we call Terry Knight, who we heard had moved to New York and got a job at Capitol Records, and asked him if he could help us; could he get us any exposure. So, I wrote him a letter. He wrote me a letter back and said "sounds like a great thing what you guys got going on, why don't I come out and listen to it." So, he got on a plane and flew into Flint. He came in, sat down with us and that's where we put the whole thing together.
Q - Whose idea was it to write original music?
A - It was really a unified decision. At that time the whole hippie thing was going into ballrooms and theaters, The East Town Theater, The Fillmore East and West, The Rock Pile in Toronto. That was the movement. And all the bands that went in there weren't cover bands. They weren't bar bands. It was kind of like, if you were a bar band, you were looked down on if you were just doing cover stuff. So, it was like we had to decide, do we want to go and make a pay check every week playing bars and doing cover material and probably get nowhere or do we want to really try and give it a shot in the arm and do all original material or at least, if we do covers, they're original covers and really create a new kind of a thing. So that's what we decided to do...to be kind of an original, hippie rock band.
Q - How did you survive that in-between period...that period between starting the band up and getting a record deal? Did you get a day job?
A - No. We got enough gigs so that we could makes ends meet. But, it was pretty tough. There were times that we didn't have anything to get by on. I remember Mark and I went into Chicago one time. This guy was doing a Butterfinger candy bar commercial and he needed a couple of singers. We went in and did that Butterfinger candy bar commercial and got little royalty checks for years. That's the only way we had to put gas in our cars. Every now and then we'd get $20 or $30. (laughs) Other than that, we were living at home with our parents. Just trying to go out and play a couple of gigs here and there and make a little money. That's about it.
Q - You played a lot of those Pop Festivals like the Atlanta Pop Festival, didn't you?
A - Yeah. That was the first one in 1969, in Byron, Georgia.
Q - Did you meet people like Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix?
A - Yeah, we did. Hendrix came to see us one night at the Fillmore East. We played Randall's Island with Jimi Hendrix. We played the Palm Beach International Pop Festival and Janis Joplin was on that show. Did we meet them and hang around with them? No. We would cross paths and see each other. We didn't really hang around. I would say no. We would know who they were.
Q - Did they know who you were? Did they say "nice set?"
A - No, not really. I mean, at that time we were the up and coming thing and they were already established. We were kind of second rate. (laughs) They weren't going to spend a lot of time watching us until we started making it in 1971. Like I said, Hendrix came to see us. He came to see what we were all about.
Q - Did he come backstage?
A - He did come backstage. He walked in the dressing room and I didn't even recognize him. He was so under dressed. He could've been any guy off the street in New York with a little baseball cap on and a t-shirt and jacket. He wasn't the flamboyant 'hey, I'm Jimi Hendrix' all decked out. He was incognito. It was a mind blower when he came back. Fat Mattress was the opening act. That was Noel Redding's band and that's why he was there. Obviously he had asked Jimi to come down and see his band, and he stayed to catch Grand Funk, and that was great.
Q - I recall reading something in, I believe it was Circus Magazine, about Grand Funk's roadies not having a very good reputation. Now, why was that?
A - Well, I don't think that's true. I thought we always had a great crew. We were one of the easiest bands to work with. We always kind of pursued that with our crew. When you walk into a place, you're gonna behave yourself. We're gonna please the promoter. I don't know where that came from. It's not true at all. (laughs) Our reputation with promoters was "God, you guys are easy to work with." Still is. The buyers love working with this band. We're very easy to get along with, whereas a lot of the bands come in and demand this and demand that and if they don't have that, they're not gonna go onstage until they get this stuff. If their rider isn't fulfilled, boy, all hell is gonna break loose.
Q - You played with Bob Seger in 1983, didn't you?
A - Actually, 1982, 1983 and then again in 1986 and 1987. I did two tours with those guys. It was a whole different kind of thing. It was very good for me. It was a good experience to play with those guys. A bunch of great musicians. Played a whole different kind of music.
Q - And how were you treated? As a sideman?
A - Yeah, as a band member. It was very nice though. A bunch of nice guys. A very professional operation. Punch Andrews is a good friend of mine. That's his manager. It was a great situation. I actually played with Bob when he was inducted into the Hall Of Fame this year. (2004)
Q - Has Grand Funk ever been nominated to this Rock and
Roll Hall of Fame?
A - Our fans have tried to get us nominated several times. It's run by Rolling Stone Magazine and that's all I have to say. (laughs)
Q - Does Grand Funk have a record deal as we speak?
A - We don't have a record deal and the way radio is right now, it wouldn't really do us any good to have a record deal. Classic Rock radio won't play anything new. We can't go to Adult Contemporary or to any of the new formats and ask them to play Grand Funk Railroad because they won't! "We can't play Grand Funk Railroad. That's a Classic Rock act." So, nobody gets any airplay. And that's just the way it is. It's the state of the business.
Q - Have you been writing new material?
A - Well, we have new material in the show. It's really kind of our best way to express what we do, is do it live. We open the show with a brand new song. "Sky High" is another new song we do in the middle of the show. We do a piece that's all percussion, after my drum solo where everybody's playing percussion. We do a rock ballad thing. That to me, is really the best test of a good song...if you can hold an audience and actually get them to applaud at the end of a brand new song, when they're really there to hear the hits. That's kind of a testament to how good the song is. We've kept these songs in the show for two years. They're great.
Q - There really is no more Rock and Roll anymore, is there?
A - No. There's a complete breakdown between radio and the recording industry. They used to be a part and parcel of the same thing, where everybody was kind of helping each other. Now it's not, with free download music. Now everybody can just record it at home. They don't need to go into a recording studio. Then they can offer it on their website. It's just a whole different thing. I mean, we're very fortunate that we have this live thing we can do. It's great. It's wonderful to be able to do this.