Sunday, August 15, 2010

Bad Time (To Be In Love), Grand Funk Railroad (1974)

Can I get a witness? Yeah!

Two bits of trivia for all y'all: First, 45 years ago today, the Beatles played Shea Stadium, the first-ever concert to be held in that type of venue, the original arena rock gig. Check out Ed Sullivan's elated smile while he's shaking hands with the lads as they took the stage - what a snapshot of history this 1:58 of video is! 

Tickets sold like hotcakes, of course, which in those days meant in 80 days!  But 6 years later, another group broke the Beatles' record for attendance and revenue generation at a Shea Stadium concert that sold out in 72 hours, and their Shea record has never been broken, nor ever will be.  The group: Grand Funk Railroad. 

Who knew? Grand Funk was, to me, the quintessential high-energy garage band of the early 70s. They hadn't crossed my mind for decades, probably, until a week or so ago when I was listening to a Jayhawks song on an old compilation CD I found.  It was Bad Time, and it elicited a flood of memories. For the life of me I couldn't remember who had sung the original power ballad at first, but I knew I'd always belted it out whenever I heard that first killer verse. And of course, the person I was belting it out with was Mark Farner, he of the open - or no - shirt and beautiful voice. (He has been called "a great communicator" by one of his protégés, Peter Frampton.)

As a live act, they had no peer in the minds of many (see this testimonial about the Shea concert from one who probably represents the consensus on this topic), and their music carried what is generally thought to have been a positive message. Read any interview with Mark Farner, old or new, and it's clear he always intended to be a change agent in society, not just a frontman, by encouraging young people to recognize their power and influence, albeit not violently.  It appears a lot of that ethos was misunderstood by The Establishment, and they were often marginalized and feared, including by the suits who ran American radio, even as the fans were welcoming them with open arms.

The group formed in blue collar Flint, Michigan, and its original members were Farner, drummer Don Brewer and Mel Schacher, who had played bass for Question Mark and the Mysterians. They had a publicity-savvy producer/manager in the early days, and after a rollicking show at the Atlanta International Pop Festival in 1969, were signed by Capitol Records (the Beatles' U.S. label). 

They achieved a meaningful chart position the next year with I'm Your Captain/Closer To Home. In 1972, they became a four-part band with the addition of a keyboardist, Craig Frost.  Their attempt to lure Peter Frampton for that fourth position failed due to his other contractual obligations. Frampton was well known to them; his earlier band Humble Pie had been a regular opening act for Grand Funk, including at Shea, and Frampton has credited the two bands' association with Humble Pie's ability to gain traction with audiences on both sides of the pond. 

Not until Todd Rundgren became their producer did they see a true hit, with 1973's We're An American Band, followed by The Loco-Motion, the Little Eva number written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin.

I hadn't realized how interesting their story was, frankly; I've been reading stuff all afternoon, and I could write a lot more. Unfortunately, this is another bad break-up story, where the original members of the group fight in court over the right to use the group name after a split.  But they had a very good ride indeed.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Beware of Darkness, George Harrison (1970)

I was very jazzed to hear that Martin Scorsese has directed a documentary, due out next year, on the one Beatle about whom I know the least and want to know the most.  Living in the Material World will be sort of a co-production with George Harrison, in that it will contain footage that George himself shot for a documentary that he intended to make someday.

Watching Paul McCartney receive his Gershwin Prize for Popular Song from the Library of Congress recently, I couldn't help but wonder what George's legacy would have been had he lived longer.  Because, of the four of them, George's body of post-Beatles work is more pleasing to me - by many orders of magnitude - than that of any of the others.  Paul's mostly goofy, saccharine songs ... John's mostly heavy-handed, take-no-prisoners songs ... Ringo's mostly, well, fluff songs - on the whole they've left me cold.  Not so with George's work, both as a solo artist and with his pals the Traveling Wilburys.  Marginalized though he was while a Beatle, I am convinced their sound would have been far less memorable without his particular touch, and that his musicianship was every bit as evolved, if not more so.

Beware of Darkness is just one of many examples of George's gift; I've already written about his masterpiece, While My Guitar Gently Weeps. His unusual nasal singing voice - pervasively Liverpudlian - and the breadth of the licks he charmed out of his guitars over the years were entrancing to me. A YouTube commenter called the song George's "musical instruction manual for living life." I never thought of him as preachy, but his songs always seemed to emanate from a deeper place, where he could transcend the madness of life as a Beatle, something he would always be to the rest of his days. 

The longer he was on his own, the more George seemed to become supremely comfortable in his own skin, whereas as a Beatle he always seemed quite the opposite. The others always projected an essential sameness - what they were like as Beatles, just more so.  Beatle George was "the quiet one," almost morose, he rarely smiled; he was the youngest, and he seemed no match in the charisma department for Lennon and McCartney. He looked like he didn't even want to try. It was always obvious that he was a guitarist of considerable talent, and his guitar leads were distinctive, to say the least, but it was a mystery why he was treated as a bit player by the two alpha dogs. (I'm sure I answered my own question there, but at the time ...)

So when the Beatles finally parted the ways amid tremendous acrimony, George went solo before the year was out. Talk about your pent-up demand!  He had a backlog of material that couldn't find an outlet as a Beatle, and the floodgates opened with a 3-album release in All Things Must Pass, a title probably chosen for its many potential meanings. Beatles fans didn't think the Beatles could break up; they were supposed to be permanent. Weren't they?

Sadly, no, and even sadder, George shuffled off this mortal coil in at the peak of his powers as an artist. It affected me badly - it was not long after my father died, so I was already predisposed to mourn, but I felt then and still do that we'd lost someone we hadn't known well enough. Those people he counted as friends - and there were many - did him proud when they joined Eric Clapton at the Royal Albert Hall the next year for the memorial Concert for George, one of the most moving tributes to a musician I've ever seen. And left me feeling even more than this was someone we needed to know better than we did. 
Maybe that will be rectified with the Scorsese doc. According to his wife Olivia, George didn't throw much out, so we should be treated to things we've never seen or heard before from all stages of his career. All things must pass, but sometimes what people have held on to give us a pathway to get back to where we once belonged.