Mark Farner, guitarist and songwriter, himself does not explicitly state what the song is about, and indeed prefers that listeners be able to use their own imaginations when listening to songs in general. Nor did the other band members have any real idea of what Farner was getting at; Drummer Don Brewer has said, “I think it can mean a lot of different things to a lot of people.”
Mark Farner wrote the lyrics of this song before he wrote the music, which was opposite of how he usually composed most of his songs. He explained to Nightwatcher’s House of Rock:
I had gone to bed and prayed. Our mother had taught us kids to pray the ‘Now I lay me down to sleep,’ so I finished that part of the prayer, and put a P.S. at the end of it, and I asked the Creator to give me a song which would reach and touch the hearts of people that he wanted to touch. With love, because I just felt the love. I just felt for my good friends, my high school buddies who had died in Vietnam. I saw their parents, and I saw their families, and I think that’s what inspired it.
It came in the middle of night to me as words, and I didn’t even realize it was a song, because I write words all the time. In fact, my wife has a file that she has where she’s picked up napkins and notes here and there that have all these words that come out. At least we have a place to start putting them together, like a puzzle. But I grabbed those words in the morning, because I was playing my guitar in the kitchen of the farm. I was sipping on my coffee, had my feet kicked up in the chair, and I had my flattop guitar. As I was strumming the intro chords to ‘I’m Your Captain,’ I went, ‘Hey man, maybe this is a song.’ So I went and got the words, and started constructing the song out of it. I took it to rehearsal that day and the guys said, ‘Man, this song’s a hit.’ And, lo and behold they were right.
Approaching the rest of the band, drummer Don Brewer and bassist Mel Schacher, Farner had the “I’m Your Captain” part of the song fairly completed. The idea of extending it came about as they rehearsed it the first few times. Don Brewer, in a Songfacts interview, explained:
We used to rehearse at a place called The Musicians Union Hall in Flint, Michigan. We used to work all of our stuff out there. Mark came in one day with basically the beginning of the song, the ‘I’m your captain part.’ We always worked out everything with a jam – he would have an idea, somebody would have an idea for a bass part of whatever, and we’d just kind of work on these things and jam out. For a day or two we worked on this song and it just didn’t go any place, that was about as far as we could get with it.
One day, coming out of a jam that we were working on, we fell into that half time part, and that’s when Mark came up with the lyrics, ‘I’m getting closer to…’ So we had that, and we all felt, ‘Oh man, that’s great, we’ll put that piece together with that, and that’s going to work,’ then we said, ‘What are we going to do from there?’ So we got into the guitar part where it breaks into full time again. Then we had a brainstorming session, ‘What are we going to do for the rest of the song?’
At the time, rock bands had experimented with orchestras, and we said, ‘Let’s put an orchestra on this thing, we’ll just play endlessly, and we’ll get Tommy Baker, our friend down in Cleveland, to write the score for it, and we’ll put an orchestra on it. It was a new thing for us, kind of new for the day – there hadn’t been too many bands using orchestras. When we recorded the song in Cleveland, we didn’t have the orchestra there, we didn’t know what the final outcome was going to be, we hadn’t even recorded the string arrangements, we just recorded the end of the song on and on and on over and over, knowing they were going to come in and put an orchestra on it later. When we finally heard the song about two weeks later, it just blew us all away. It was a religious experience.
Inspired by groups like The Moody Blues, they came upon the idea of using an orchestra, and hired Tommy Baker, an arranger and trumpet player who was working on the Cleveland television series Upbeat. He suggested they extend the ending so that his orchestral score would have space to develop in, so the band extended the jam on it. Producer Terry Knight brought in the Cleveland Orchestra to record it. The band members never heard the full version until Knight played it for them back in Flint. Farner nearly cried when he heard it, and Brewer has said of their reactions, “We were just like, ‘Wow!'” and “Oh my God, it was magnificent.”
Some stations played an edited version that was cut to about 5 minutes, eliminating most of the fadeout. This truncated version of the song was a modest hit single when first released, but the track achieved greater airplay on progressive FM rock radio stations as they tended to play longer, more involved tracks. It has become a classic rock staple and has appeared on several audience-selected lists as one of the best rock songs of all time. In 1988, the listeners of New York rock station WNEW-FM ranked it the 71st best song of all time, while twenty years later in 2008, New York classic rock station Q104.3’s listeners ranked it the 112th best song of all time and by 2015 listeners of the same station had voted it up to being the 9th best of all time.
We weren’t concerned with FM radio, we knew FM radio could play 7 or 8-minute songs. It wasn’t a matter of being confined to anything, so we knew it could get airplay – that wasn’t a restriction. Capitol wanted to cut it and do an edited version for a single, and we said, ‘No, you can’t edit that song, just leave it alone.’
In promotion of the song the band bought a 60-foot Times Square billboard advertising Grand Funk’s 1970 “Closer to Home” album that cost an estimated $100,000. The stunt unexpectedly benefited from a New York City workers strike that caused the billboard to stay up several months after it should have been taken down.
Guitarist and singer Mark Farner, drummer Don Brewer and bassist Mel Schacher started 1969 as unknown musician in Flint, Mich., and, by the end of 1971, they had released six albums that incredibly had all gone gold – without the benefit of a hit song. The band was formed as a trio in 1969 by Mark Farner (guitar, vocals) and Don Brewer (drums, vocals), both from a band called Terry Knight and the Pack, and Mel Schacher (bass) from Question Mark & the Mysterians. Knight soon became the band’s manager, as well as naming the band as a play on words for the Grand Trunk Western Railroad, a well-known rail line in Michigan. First achieving recognition at the 1969 Atlanta International Pop Festival I, the band was signed by Capitol Records. After a raucous, well-received set on the first day of the festival, the group was asked back to play at the 1970 Atlanta International Pop Festival II the following year. Patterned after hard-rock power trios such as Cream, the band, with Terry Knight’s marketing savvy, developed its own popular style. In August 1969, the band released its first album titled “On Time”, which sold over one million copies, and was awarded a gold record in 1970. In February 1970, a second album, Grand Funk (or The Red Album), was awarded gold status. Despite critical pans and a lack of airplay, the group’s first six albums (five studio releases and one live album) were quite successful.
Grand Funk Railroad came into being when Brewer and Farner, both struggling to make it as musicians, contacted Terry Knight, the former frontman of their old band the Pack. They were at such a desperate point that they agreed to sign with Knight as their “manager, producer, press spokesman and musical mentor,” even though Farner thought Knight was a chameleon and a con man.
Knight initially had little luck interesting record labels in Grand Funk. He did manage to score them the opening slot at the Atlanta International. Pop Festival on July 4, 1969, which led to the band getting a deal with Capitol Records. The Capitol deal, in fact, was with Knight’s production company, which Grand Funk was signed to. This arrangement would become more significant later on.
Once described as someone who “fancied himself as the Colonel Tom Parker of the ’70s,” Knight took a very hands-on approach with Grand Funk Railroad. Knight produced their albums, helped write the songs and even designed the album covers. He kept Farner, Brewer and Schacher away from the press and handled the interviews himself. Unlike most managers, Knight didn’t try to befriend rock critics. In fact, he seemed to revel in antagonizing them and he used the negative-to-vicious reviews (Rolling Stone called them the “worst band in the world”) to promote Grand Funk as a the “people’s band.”
Nearly two years to the day from their Atlanta debut, Grand Funk Railroad became the first band since the Beatles to play Shea Stadium — and they sold out Shea in 72 hours, faster than the Beatles did. This crowning achievement, however, also started the cracks that soon derailed Grand Funk Railroad’s meteoric rise to super-stardom.
Knight, however, still saw Grand Funk Railroad as his gravy train as 1971 ended. The band’s sixth album, “E Pluribus Funk”, released that November, reached No. 5 on the Billboard chart, and Grand Funk had sold more than 20 million records in less than three years. In early 1972, Knight met with the band to share his idea to top the Shea Stadium success: a five-night stand at Madison Square Garden. Although Farner, Brewer and Schacher dutifully signed the paperwork for the concerts, they were starting to question Knight’s autocratic control. They griped about their touring and complained about his producing skills and songs he wouldn’t let them record.
Their biggest beef involved money. In early March, the band had found out that Knight, through his production deal with Capitol, was getting 16 percent of the album profits while they were receiving only 6 percent. Knight also had his cut as their manager, as well as a share in the song royalties and had 21 percent of GFR Enterprises, the corporation Knight created to handle Grand Funk Railroad’s business. This didn’t sit right with the trio. They were generating a lot of money but getting only a couple hundred dollars in a weekly stipend from GFR. As Brewer explained to Rolling Stone in 1972, “We wanted to hear what was happening with the money and Terry didn’t give us the right answers. He gave us the runaround.” Knight, meanwhile, believed the guys simply “began to believe their own press.” He told his side to Rolling Stone, explaining that Farner, Brewer and Schacher could have been more involved in their financials and the making their albums, but “they had a Lear jet sitting at the airport the night the “E Pluribus Funk” album was finished.”
Feeling uneasy about Knight, Brewer contacted John Eastman, a respected music business lawyer who also had helped his brother-in-law Paul McCartney go solo from the Beatles. Knight was shocked when he discovered that the group had fired him as manager and backed out of the Madison Square Garden concerts. That’s when the writs hit the band. On March 21, 1972, Knight filed a lawsuit against Eastman, alleging interfered with Knight’s contractual arrangement with Grand Funk. A week later, Knight sued the band for fraud and breach of contract, with his suits adding up to approximately $57 million. Knight later proclaimed on Behind the Music that “if they’d have waited three months, they would have been out of the contract.” Grand Funk countered with their own $8 million lawsuit against Knight, charging him with defrauding them and misuse of their money. Knight would continue to file suits – one accused the band of trademark infringement and another charged Capitol Records with royalty illegalities. He sued retailers and concert venues that were dealing with Grand Funk. Two sides also played out their cases in the press, taking out ads to state their side of the lawsuits.
Knight’s most notorious move came on Dec. 23, 1972. Grand Funk were scheduled to perform a benefit concert at Madison Square Garden (where Knight had planned to have the band play a series of shows earlier in 1972). Knight arrived before the concert, with sheriff deputies and a court order authorizing the confiscation of the band’s equipment as part of what Knight alleged the band owed him. Fearing a cancellation would cause a riot, a compromise was reached with Knight taking the group’s gear after the show.
The legal battle of the bands eventually resolved in February 1974 with a settlement reached in the 30-plus lawsuits. The band got to keep its full name, Grand Funk Railroad, while Knight got a load of money, publishing rights and the group’s investments. Both Brewer and Farner stated in Behind the Music that they settled because the band wouldn’t have survived if a court fight lasted longer. For his part, Knight proclaimed that he didn’t mind wearing the black hat “as long as I can wear the black hat to the bank.”
Despite the lawsuits’ emotional and financial strain, Grand Funk ironically achieved their greatest popular success after they separated from Knight. The band, which had re-signed with Capitol in 1972, released their signature song “We’re an American Band” in 1973. The song hit No. 1 and their Todd Rundgren-produced album was their highest charter at No. 2. Their next album, Shinin’ On (also produced by Rundgren) spawned another No. 1 hit, a cover of the old Little Eva tune, “The Locomotion.” Another cover, “Some Kind of Wonderful,” reached No. 3 in 1974. But that year’s LP, “All The Girls in the World Beware!!!”, was their last gold album. While Knight might have won the legal battle, he lost the war. The other band he
managed, Bloodrock, also left him in 1972. He was dropped by Capitol, and Brown Bag Records, the label he started in 1972, closed shop by 1974, and Knight basically left show business soon after that. In 2004, Knight was stabbed to death while trying to protect his daughter from her boyfriend.
In 1972, Grand Funk Railroad added Craig Frost on keyboards full-time. Originally, they had attempted to attract Peter Frampton, late of Humble Pie; however, Frampton was not available, due to signing a solo-record deal with A&M Records. The addition of Frost, however, was a stylistic shift from Grand Funk’s original garage-band based rock and roll roots to a more rhythm and blues/pop rock-oriented style.
After Grand Funk initially disbanded in 1976, Farner released his first self-titled solo album in 1977, and his second, “No Frills”, in 1978. In 1981, Farner and Don Brewer launched a new Grand Funk line-up with bassist Dennis Bellinger and recorded two albums, “Grand Funk Lives” and “What’s Funk?”. Neither album achieved much critical acclaim; but the single “Queen Bee” was included in the film Heavy Metal and its soundtrack album. After they disbanded a second time in 1983, Brewer went on to tour with Bob Seger’s Silver Bullet Band.
Farner went solo again with 1988’s “Just Another Injustice” on Frontline Records. His third Frontline release was 1991’s “Some Kind of Wonderful”, which featured a revamped faith-inspired version of the Grand Funk classic of the same name. Farner enjoyed success with the John Beland composition “Isn’t it Amazing”, which earned him a Dove Award nomination and reached No. 2 on the Contemporary Christian music charts.
In 1996, Grand Funk Railroad’s three original members once again reunited and played to 250,000 people in 14 shows during a three-month period. In 1997, the band played three sold-out Bosnian benefit concerts. Two years passed before the two remaining members (Brewer, Schacher) recruited some well-regarded players to reform the band. Lead vocalist Max Carl (of 38 Special), former Kiss lead guitarist Bruce Kulick, and keyboardist Tim Cashion (Bob Seger, Robert Palmer) completed the new lineup. Grand Funk Railroad continues to tour.
In 2005, Grand Funk Railroad was voted into the Michigan Rock and Roll Legends Hall of Fame. Due to his heritage, Mark Farner was honored with the Lakota Sioux Elders Honor Mark in 1999. During the concert in Hankinson, North Dakota, a special presentation was held honoring Mark’s Native ancestry and his contributions. Members of the Lakota Nation presented him with a hand-made ceremonial quilt. He has also been honored with the Cherokee Medal of Honor by the Cherokee Honor Society.
(Partial writing credit to Michael Berick/ultimateclassicrock.com)