Sunday, July 3, 2011

July 3: Grand Funk Railroad, "We're An American Band"

Artist: Grand Funk Railroad
Song: "We're An American Band"
Album: We're An American Band
Year: 1973

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When one inspects the history of rock and roll, it is easy to make the case that until the late 1960's, nearly every song categorized as such could be largely grouped under the same definition.  While there were slight differences, the base of the songs were similar, and it was not until sounds like psychedelic, punk, and heavy metal began to take on their more modern definitions that one can begin to separate the sounds.  This led to massive sub-genres appearing throughout the first half of the 1970's, and one of the most important was the rise of what many now refer to as "arena rock."  Bringing a grandiose, yet hard driving sound, this term is largely used to define songs that could easily get an entire crowd singing along, or the sort of instrumentals that could get the same crowd dancing.  Though many acts had a song or two of such nature, few bands executed this formula as perfectly as Grand Funk Railroad, and a number of their songs remain in regular rotation to this day.  With this longevity to their music, these same songs are still just as powerful and relevant today as when they were first released, yet they were certain a band to which both radio stations and critics took while awhile to credit for their sound.  Though they had already scored a few hits previously, there was simply nothing that could have prepared the world for the straightforward "rock lifestyle" anthem that is Grand Funk Railroad's 1973 classic, "We're An American Band."

In many ways, "We're An American Band" takes a rather non-traditional opening approach, as the song kicks off with a quick cadence and drum intro from Don Brewer.  While such a progression would normally fall in the latter part of a rock song, it manages to work perfectly, setting up an ideal "drop in" moment for the rest of the band.  When the rest of the group enters the song, they are already at full power, and the first thing that catches the listener is the keyboards of Craig Frost.  There is a very unique tone to his playing, and though they are lower in the mix, it is very much his sound that drives much of the song.  They playful, high spirited keyboards is also where the "dance" element of "We're An American Band" resides, and there is an irresistible pop appeal to his performance.  Yet one simply cannot overlook or understand the brilliance of guitarist Mark Farner, and there is little question that this is one of his greatest performances.  Winding a spectacular solo around the keyboards, before dropping into a hard, edgy progression during the bridge and verse sections, it is his playing that surely brought the crowd to their feet, and one cannot help but air-guitar along with him, even after countless listenings.  Bassist Mel Schacher rounds out the group, and the heavy, funky groove he provides finishes off "We're An American Band" in a manner unlike anything else previously recorded.  There is an almost imposing presence that the combined sound brings, and yet "We're An American Band" is also one of the most inviting recordings in rock history.

"We're An American Band" stands out from the rest of the Grand Funk Railroad catalog in the fact that while Mark Farner usually handled lead vocals, on this song, it is Don Brewer who is up front in this case.  There is an edge and attitude to Brewer's voice that is completely captivating, and there is also a sense of honesty and authenticity which is what makes the song so much more appealing than a majority of the "songs of rock excess" that their peers were releasing at the time.  The "every man" and "working man" approach of the band is absolutely clear throughout "We're An American Band," and it is this tone that enabled so many to take it on as their own, personal anthem.  Along with his fantastic vocal performance, Brewer also wrote the song, and one would be hard pressed to find a more honest and straightforward account of "life on the road" than one finds here.  While many other bands tried to make themselves appear as far superior when singing of their conquests, there is more of a "matter of fact" feel to the lyrics on "We're An American Band," and this fits perfectly with the more humble persona of the band.  Though they were written nearly forty years ago, lines like, "...we're coming to your town, we'll help you party down..." are not only still relevant in terms of reality, but they are absolutely recognizable and heavily used within the current culture.  This longevity is the final piece of proof that one could need to cement the place of "We're An American Band" as one of the most important songs ever recorded.

Though it may be the most overlooked aspect of "We're An American Band," one can make the case that one of the essential differences in this recording in comparison to the rest of the Grand Funk Railroad catalog is the presence and influence of producer Todd Rundgren.  Clearly, he pushed the band to take on this "larger than life" sound and poise, and the overall mix of the sound is also a bit different from the groups other recordings.  Yet even without this knowledge, there is no arguing that "We're An American Band" has become a timeless part of popular culture, and it continues to be featured in movies and television shows, as well as being covered by a handful of artists in every generation that has followed.  Furthermore, it is the massive sound that Grand Funk Railroad created, as well as the way in which they deployed it on this song that largely serves as the blueprint for "arena rock" to this day.  While modern bands may have a drastically different musical sound, it is in the way that they present the music and themselves where one can find the link to Grand Funk Railroad.  Along with this influence on music, it is almost impossible to consider a time when the now-iconic lyrics of the song did not exist, and one can easily argue that they remain among the most recognized and oft-quoted lyrics in history.  Setting the stage for countless bands that followed, as well as giving the perfect definition of what it meant to be a hard working, touring rock and roll band, there is no other song in history that can quite compare to the tone and impact that Grand Funk Railroad brought with their unforgettable 1973 single, "We're An American Band."

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