Hello there! This week features one of the iconic ‘garage band’ tunes, We’re An American Band. We will first review the original song by Grand Funk Railroad. Next we will discuss covers of this song by Poison and by The Electric Amish.
Grand Funk Railroad and We’re An American Band:
Grand Funk Railroad is an American power-pop trio. We previously discussed their cover of The Loco-Motion. So here we will briefly review the history of this rock band.
Grand Funk Railroad appeared on the music scene shortly after the Beatles had broken up. Guiarist Mark Farner and drummer Don Brewer from the band Terry Knight and the Pack teamed up with bassist Mel Schacher from Question Mark and the Mysterians. The afore-mentioned Terry Knight became the group’s manager.
Here is a photo of Grand Funk Railroad in action. From L: Mel Schacher, Mark Farner, Don Brewer.Embed from Getty Images
The name of the group was very witty – it was named after Michigan’s Grand Trunk Western Railroad. The group was modeled after Cream, the original hard-rocking power trio. However, GFR offered nothing like the blazing, dazzling blues-rock guitar licks of Eric Clapton, the blistering bass lines of Jack Bruce, nor the creative, jazz-inspired drumming of Ginger Baker.
No, Grand Funk was just a really great garage band, producing pulsating, straight-ahead power rock with few frills. As a result, the critics treated Grand Funk fairly harshly. One British critic (I haven’t been able to find his name) said that
‘All three are pretty bad, but outstanding in his awfulness is Brewer, whose drumming is so pedestrian it’s laughable… the riffs they play are simple in the extreme, verging on the monotonous. Vocals are flat, but usually mercifully short introductions to dire lead guitar solos.’
Hey man, don’t sugar-coat your review, tell us what you really think!
Grand Funk Railroad first gained public attention for their appearance at the 1969 Atlanta Pop Festival. That concert, which took place just a month before Woodstock, featured twenty different acts, including Booker T and the MGs, Janis Joplin, CCR, Joe Cocker and Canned Heat. The unknown GFR appeared first on the bill, and apparently their act was extremely popular.
Following the appearance in Atlanta, Grand Funk Railroad became a hot ticket, and soon began headlining shows. Despite the reviewers’ negative comments, Grand Funk consistently sold out huge arenas – and the 70s were the days of mega-tours in gigantic venues.
Part of the success of Grand Funk was due to Terry Knight’s over-the-top, aggressive style of promotion. He seemed to enjoy needling the group’s critics, while trumpeting the band’s achievements.
For example, Knight claimed that Grand Funk Railroad sold more albums than anyone else in the 70s. Well, they did sell a ton of albums. They produced a string of solid hits that remain staples on classic-rock radio stations.
And they were widely copied by other heavy-metal acts.
We’re An American Band was written by drummer Don Brewer in 1973.
This was a tumultuous period for Grand Funk. In early 1972 they hit a stretch of bad track, so to speak, when the band members began to question Terry Knight’s micro-managing style. In addition, they became convinced that Knight was also cooking the books and short-sheeting the revenue owed to the band.
This resulted in a bitter series of legal claims and counter-claims. You can watch an episode of VH1’s Behind The Music to see that both parties remain angry about the breakup – you can find the documentary here — while both sides stick to completely incompatible stories regarding the situation.
In the midst of all their legal troubles, Grand Funk was in desperate need of a big hit, and this is where We’re An American Band came in. Brewer wrote an autobiographical account of life on the road for Grand Funk (they dropped the “Railroad” from their name, in part to avoid legal issues with Knight). Brewer catalogued some adventures in the life of a rowdy, raucous party band.
Out on the road for forty days
Last night in Little Rock put me in a haze
Sweet, sweet Connie, was doin’ her act
She had the whole show and that’s a natural fact
Up all night with Freddie King
I got to tell you, poker’s his thing
Booze and ladies, keep me right
As long as we can make it to the show tonight
[CHORUS] We’re an American band, we’re an American band
We’re comin’ to your town, we’ll help you party it down
We’re an American band
On the rebound from Terry Knight, Grand Funk had the great good fortune to work with producer Todd Rundgren. Todd is an incredibly versatile artist and a pivotal figure in the world of rock and roll. He was an extraordinary producer, and was also in the forefront of several technological innovations in the music business.
So here is a music video of Grand Funk Railroad playing We’re An American Band in the studio, interspersed with shots of the band members goofing around.
Isn’t this a great “garage band” classic? The song starts out with Don Brewer whacking a cowbell, followed by a fusillade on the drums. Then a bit of guitar and bass, followed by some heavy lines from bass and drums that immediately precede Brewer’s vocals.
The band added musician Craig Frost on this record; he plays organ, clavinet and Moog synthesizer on the album named after this song. The group blasts through the tune in straight-ahead classic rock style.
The song provides details of the band’s previous tour. They discuss stops in Little Rock, Arkansas, playing poker with fellow headliner Freddie King, sexual favors from legendary groupie “Sweet Connie” Hamzy, and a rowdy party with four groupies in Omaha, Nebraska.
Todd Rundgren’s production of this song paid off immediately. The song We’re An American Band was produced in just two days, and was released as a single while the remainder of the album was being recorded. The song shot up to #1 on the Billboard pop charts, the first #1 hit for Grand Funk.
The album We’re An American Band was covered in gold foil, as shown in the image at left. It was a major hit and was certified “gold” quickly after its release. The production values for We’re An American Band were noticeably more professional than previous releases from Grand Funk.
Todd Rundgren also produced the 1974 Shinin’ On album, which contained The Loco-Motion that also became a #1 single.
A few years ago, my colleagues Glenn Gass and Bernice Pescosolido created a class that featured the music of Todd Rundgren. I helped organize the course as part of my work as Director of Indiana University’s Wells Scholars Program. Todd visited Indiana University for two weeks as a guest professor for that class. What a treat!
Grand Funk Railroad broke up in 1976, and pursued their separate interests. Mark Farner became a born-again Christian and wrote a book, From Grand Funk to Grace. For several years now, Don Brewer has been a drummer with Bob Seger’s Silver Bullet Band.
In 1996 Grand Funk reunited and began to tour again; however, Farner left in 1998. Brewer and Schacher subsequently assembled a group of musicians that currently tours as Grand Funk Railroad. I notice that they are scheduled to appear this week at the Indiana State Fair. Party on, Hoosiers!
Poison and We’re An American Band:
Poison is an American hard-rock band, formed in 1983 in Mechanicsville, PA with lead singer Bret Michaels, guitarist Matt Smith, bassist Bobby Dall and drummer Ricki Rocketts.
They moved to L.A. in search of fame and fortune, but initially found themselves barely hanging on while waiting for one big hit. After original guitarist Matt Smith quit the group, he was replaced with C. C. DeVille.
In 1986 Poison signed with the small record company Enigma Records, and released an album Look What The Cat Dragged In. This was the MTV era, and the group profited by heavy rotation of their music videos on MTV.
The photo below shows Poison in concert at Madison Square Garden. From L: C. C. DeVille; Bret Michaels; Bobby Dall.Embed from Getty Images
Poison became one of a series of “big hair” bands that proliferated in the mid-80s. They appeared on the West Coast along with groups such as Ratt, Quiet Riot, Warrant and Dokken. All of these bands benefited enormously from their exposure on MTV. Their over-the-top videos featured lascivious young girls, quick video cuts and hard-rock party anthems.
I had considerable difficulty telling one group from another. With one or two exceptions (notably, Van Halen and Guns ‘n Roses), the music quality seemed fairly terrible. Furthermore, the band members were determined to live up to their reputations as hard-partying, hedonistic louts.
Poison did stand out somewhat from other “big-hair” bands in both their musical ability and their longevity. They scored a #1 hit with the 1988 release Every Rose Has Its Thorn. Furthermore, they managed to score 9 songs in the Billboard Top 20 pop charts, and they are reputed to have sold 45 million records worldwide, so they were plugged in to whatever resonated with teenagers at that time.
Those were the days of big arena shows and concert tours with like-minded bands, so Poison went along for the ride. However, they took their “work hard, party hard” mantra quite literally. C.C. DeVille dropped out in 1991, in large part because of a serious cocaine addiction.
Then in 1994, Bret Michaels ran his Ferrari into a tree, suffering several broken ribs and fingers and a broken nose. Michaels has also spent a considerable amount of time in hospital, including an emergency appendectomy in 2010 and a potentially fatal brain hemorrhage the same year.
Poison was also noted for fist fights between various band members, including Michaels and DeVille in 1991, and Michaels and Dall (this time onstage) in 2006.
In 2006, members of Poison went into the studio with legendary producer Don Was and recorded a cover of We’re An American Band. Here is the music video from that release, which was timed to celebrate 20 years since the group’s first record deal.
Given the lifestyle of Poison, the Grand Funk Railroad anthem could have been written especially for this group. Poison runs through an impressive cover of this song. The video mixes current film of the group with snippets from the band’s early history. There are brief cuts of the group performing in enormous stadiums, dressed in their finest glam-rock Spandex.
The band’s original lineup is still touring today. In the meantime, the various members have pursued their own musical projects. And Bret Michaels seems to remain constantly in the limelight.
Michaels has starred in a couple of reality shows, Rock of Love with Bret Michaels, and Bret Michaels: Life As I Know It. The former series was a riff on shows like The Bachelor, where a group of women competed to be chosen by a bachelor. On Rock of Love, the goal was to find a woman who could keep up with Michaels’ frenetic lifestyle.
My only comment about these Michaels projects is that his shows make the Kardashians, by comparison, appear dignified – and that is saying a lot. Michaels also competed on Celebrity Apprentice – and won.
Poison, living the dream of the “big hair” bands – fame, fortune, babes, trips to the emergency room.
The Electric Amish and We Are An Amish Band:
The Electric Amish are a parody rock trio from Indiana. They consist of Graeber Goodman (Dean Metcalf) on guitar, Carl Goodman (Barclay Grayson) on bass and Barry Goodman (Kyle Grayson) on drums.
The conceit is that these are three Amish brothers who have formed a rock band – part of the humor is that it is paradoxical for the Amish, many of whom don’t use electricity, to form a band that relies on electrified instruments. Moreover, the content of many heavy-metal tunes (sex, drugs, rock ‘n roll) is in direct opposition to a lifestyle that emphasizes piety, simplicity and manual labor.
The photo at left shows the Electric Amish. From L: Graeber; Carl and Barry. Note the obviously fake beards.
The Electric Amish first appeared on the syndicated comedy program The Bob and Tom Show on FM radio. That show was hosted by Bob Kevoian and Tom Griswold until Bob’s retirement at the end of 2015.
Dean Metcalf (who plays Graeber Goodman in this band) is the producer for the Bob and Tom Show. So here are the Electric Amish in a live performance of We Are An Amish Band.
As you can see, this was filmed on the Bob and Tom Show. The tune appeared on the 1995 Electric Amish album, Barn To Be Wild. The Electric Amish was a cute premise; the members pretend to be Amish, and the lyrics from the original songs are replaced by discussions of barn-raising, farm work and simple living, together with some wise cracks about Mennonites.
Once the tunes are announced (they are take-offs on classic-rock anthems), the songs pretty much write themselves. So one gets Mennonite Blues (a re-write of Eddie Cochran’s Summertime Blues); My Congregation (The Who, My Generation); Barn To Be Wild (Steppenwolf, Born To Be Wild); etc.
I was an avid listener of The Bob and Tom Show for a number of years. They created a number of comedy bits, many of which involved voices of both real and fictional characters. I was especially fond of Mark Patrick’s impersonations of sportscasters Harry Caray, Howard Cosell and Keith Jackson.
Another of my favorite bits was The Mr. Obvious Show, with Chick McGee as host Mr. Obvious fielding phone calls (from Dean Metcalf, “Long-time listener, first-time caller”) that featured incredibly stupid inquiries regarding home repairs.
Bob and Tom were real shock-radio stars. Their Indianapolis-based weekday radio program became nationally syndicated over 20 years ago, and also appears on Armed Forces Radio. Their comedy bits contained politically-incorrect material to offend nearly every focus group.
Bob and Tom regularly interviewed comedians who traveled through the Midwest. Several of these were relatively unknown comics, such as Tim Allen, Brad Garrett, Jim Gaffigan, Ellen DeGeneres, and George Lopez, who went on to become superstars in their field.
The Bob and Tom staff produced a library of comedy songs, skits and monologues that they compiled and issued as CDs. Bob and Tom have issued over 50 CDs, with the proceeds from those records being donated to charity.
I have since moved on to other morning-radio shows, but remember some of the classic “Bob and Tom” bits with great fondness.