“We’re an American Band” is rock’n’roll in its purest, uncut form. Big, loud and unapologetically primal, with the style and sophistication of a club-wielding caveman bludgeoning a sabertooth tiger, Grand Funk Railroad’s first number one single is an unabashed love letter to rock music as both lifestyle and lifeforce, a lurid yet lucid celebration of stardom in all its bacchanalian glory.
Grand Funk Railroad recorded the We’re an American Band album at Miami’s Criteria Studio between June 12–15, 1973. The group — formed in Flint, Mich. in 1969 by singer/guitarist Mark Farner, bassist Mel Schacher and drummer Don Brewer, and joined in 1972 by keyboardist Craig Frost — was named by svengali manager and producer Terry Knight, who took inspiration from the Great Lakes area’s Grand Trunk Western Railroad rail line.
Following a breakout performance at the 1969 Atlanta International Pop Festival, Grand Funk Railroad signed to Capitol Records to release its debut album On Time, a million-selling set beloved by fans for its Cream-influenced, meat-and-potatoes riffage (and derided by critics for the same reasons). “People loved this band because some record company didn’t concoct it. Image consultants didn’t choreograph it,” proclaimed avowed Grand Funk fan Michael Moore, the Flint-born documentarian and activist behind films including Roger and Me and Bowling for Columbine. “This was a people’s band that just wanted to rock. A hard-driving, industrial rock’n’roll band that related to the average hard-working American.”
By the summer of 1971, Grand Funk Railroad ranked among the biggest acts in the nation despite minimal radio support, with LPs like Closer to Home, Survival and Live Album reaching the Billboard Top Ten on the strength of relentless touring. A July 9 performance at New York’s Shea Stadium famously sold out all 55,000 tickets in just 72 hours, far outpacing the Beatles’ historic 1965 Shea appearance, which took weeks to reach the same milestone. However, Knight’s brash managerial style (e.g., commissioning a 60-foot high, block-long Times Square billboard to promote Closer to Home) and questionable accounting practices were sources of increasing tension, and in early 1972, Grand Funk terminated his services. Knight responded by suing the trio for breach of contract, resulting in a protracted legal battle.
In Knight’s absence, Grand Funk Railroad made a conscious effort to broaden its commercial appeal. In his liner notes for the 2022 Ace Records compilation The Studio Wizardry of Todd Rundgren, Dave Burke writes “At an appearance on ABC TV’s In Concert series, [Grand Funk] met photographer and program director Lynn Goldsmith, who listened to their worries about declining sales, the lack of respect they faced and, above all else, how they yearned for a Number One single. She had the perfect solution: engage her friend Todd Rundgren to produce their next album.” Rundgren — the soundboard savant responsible for solo efforts like the classic Something/Anything? as well as an impressively eclectic roster of productions for acts ranging from Badfinger to Fanny to the New York Dolls — flew out to Michigan to meet Grand Funk, and “was pleasantly surprised to hear how open they were to his input,” Burke notes.
Work on We’re an American Band‘s anthemic title cut commenced the Criteria sessions, for which Rundgren was paid a then-unprecedented $50,000. Brewer, who sang lead on the song, was inspired to write “We’re an American Band” following Grand Funk’s tour in support of the 1972 album Phoenix, its first post-Knight release.
“We were just going from town to town and we were having lawsuits flying all over the place. It was a very tumultuous time period,” Brewer told Songfacts. “I remember us having lots of discussions in the backs of cars going, ‘What are we going to do next?’ And our manager kept saying ‘Why don’t you just write songs about what you do? Look, you’re out here on the road, you’re going to this hotel, you’re going to the place, there’s people, you’re coming into town.’ So the thought came to my mind: ‘We’re coming to your town, we’ll help you party it down.’ That’s really what we were doing — we were coming into towns, and we were the party. So that’s where the line came from. And the next thought that I had was, ‘We’re an American band.’ And it wasn’t, like, to wave the flag or anything. It was just simply that’s what we were.”
“We’re an American Band” does in three and a half minutes what takes filmmaker and former music critic Cameron Crowe two hours to accomplish with Almost Famous, his autobiographical 2000 feature about a teenaged Rolling Stone reporter on tour with Stillwater, a fictional band indulging in everything and everyone fame pulls into its orbit. Typical of Grand Funk’s no-bullshit ethos, Brewer’s lyrics obscure few details of the band’s exploits onstage or off, from all-night poker games with bluesman Freddie King (the opening act on the Phoenix tour) to the ministrations of legendary Little Rock groupie “Sweet Connie” Hamzy, who “had the whole show, and that’s a natural fact.” But inevitably, the time comes for these working-class heroes to punch the clock: “Booze and ladies keep me right,” Brewer testifies. “As long as we can make it to the show tonight.”
To the uninitiated, “We’re an American Band” could easily pass for something from the Tenacious D catalog: Brewer’s bellowing lead turn almost certainly influenced Jack Black’s arched-eyebrow frontman flourishes, for that matter. The song’s macho bombast and locker-room sensibilities teeter on the brink of parody, especially when Brewer recounts the tale of “Four young chiquitas in Omaha/Waitin’ for the band to return from the show.” (There’s a hotel detective mixed up in all this, too.) But if complexity and subtlety are what you want, the Steely Dan records are a few aisles over. Grand Funk Railroad is coming to your town for one reason, and one reason only. Real American bands don’t make excuses, and they don’t offer apologies, either.
Even so, “We’re an American Band” heralds a tighter, more focused Grand Funk Railroad than ever before. Rundgren’s AM radio-optimized production reins in the group’s worst excesses, but the sound is still massive, galvanized by Farner’s blistering guitar and Frost’s roller-rink keys.
“[Rundgren] would just kind of sit there and let us do our thing and work our way through all of the arrangements. And every now and then he’d drop in a suggestion,” Brewer later recalled. “His real thing was the sound. I mean, he just had a way of turning knobs that would make everything sound huge. Even in the headphones — a lot of engineers would come in and they’d go, ‘Oh, I’ve got to record everything flat. Don’t worry about what it sounds like in the headphones, I’ll make it sound great later.’ Well, Todd was of the school that ‘I’m going to make it sound that way right now. It’s going to tape right now that way. I’m not going to screw around with it later and have a whole different sound. You guys are going to hear the way it’s going to sound on the record in your headphones.'”
Released July 2, 1973 and credited to simply Grand Funk (sans “Railroad”), “We’re an American Band” topped the U.S. pop charts on Sept. 29, Farner’s 25th birthday. Cher’s “Half Breed” usurped its position a week later. And while Grand Funk Railroad’s critical stock has risen only marginally in the decades to follow, “We’re an American Band” continues to attract admirers: metal bands Poison, Autograph and Jackyl have all recorded covers, Kid Rock performed the song live during the 2000 MTV Music Video Awards, and everyone from Phish to the Village People added it to their touring repertoires over the ensuing years.
“I didn’t really realize the power of the song until I first heard it on the radio,” Brewer told American Songwriter in 2020. “I was driving from my house down these country roads and it came on the radio in my car. This is the first time I heard it on the radio. I pulled off the side of the road and I cranked it up. And I just sat there and I couldn’t believe how good it sounded on the radio. It just had that thing. And that’s when I knew — that’s a hit record. That’s what a hit record sounds like.”
We’re an American Band (KORD-0025)