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Grand Funk Railroad: We're An American Band - Album Of The Week Club review

Hated by the critics and operating with low expectations, Grand Funk brought in production guru Todd Rundgren for We're An American Band

Grand Funk Railroad: We're An American Band
(Image: © Grand Funk Railroad)
Alice In Chains - Facelift

(Image credit: Grand Funk Railroad)

We're an American Band
Stop Lookin Back
Creepin'
Black Licorice
The Railroad
Ain't Got Nobody
Walk Like a Man
Loneliest Rider

“We’re coming to your town we’re gonna party down.” The song We're An American Band has become a classic: The bozo-ish party anthem from Michigan rockers Grand Funk Railroad captured an era. 

It starts with some glorious cowbell, then settles into a fairly slick rock groove that feels as sleazy as the unashamed hedonism of the lyrics, where “booze and ladies keep me right”. Well of course!

It's easy to forget that We're An American Band was also the name of an album, as although the song may have become part of rock's glorious canon, Grand Funk were largely ignored by rock journalists. 

"They need help from nobody," wrote Rolling Stone, bemoaning the band's success. "Certainly not music critics, who almost without exception have treated the arrival of each new Grand Funk album like a kick in the shin." 

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Background

In July 1971, Grand Funk Railroad played a massive free concert in London’s Hyde Park, supported by Humble Pie and Head Hands & Feet. Thousands of early-generation headbangers witnessed a truly awe-inspiring set by the definitive American blue-collar rock band.

However, this monumental event has been largely erased from rock history because: a) Grand Funk weren’t The Who or the Rolling Stones, and b) critics abhorred them as much as fans adored them.

Two years later they released We're An American Band. "It was one of the easiest things I ever did," said producer Todd Rundgren. "It simply required my normal sensibility, particularly because the band was operating with such low expectations. They’d had some great success but they were not well-regarded critically. 

"They had a huge live following but were excessively jammy, and if you compared them to real jam bands like Cream they really didn’t hold up. To compound things their manager insisted on producing their records, and he was terrible at it. So by the time I worked with them their expectations for the record were so low I couldn’t fail."

Other albums released in July 1973

  • Life and Times - Jim Croce
  • A Passion Play - Jethro Tull
  • Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid - Bob Dylan
  • Queen - Queen
  • Genesis Live - Genesis
  • Love Devotion Surrender - Carlos Santana and John McLaughlin
  • Mott - Mott the Hoople
  • Foreigner - Cat Stevens
  • Tres Hombres - ZZ Top
  • New York Dolls - New York Dolls
  • 10cc - 10cc
  • Berlin - Lou Reed
  • Countdown to Ecstasy - Steely Dan
  • Moontan - Golden Earring
  • Styx II - Styx
  • Whatever Turns You On - West, Bruce and Laing

What they said...

"If it takes me three months to decide that this is a listenable hard rock record, just how listenable can it be? Well, Todd Rundgren has done remarkable things, that's for sure--the drumming has real punch, the organ fills attractively, and Don Brewer's singing is a relief. Great single, too. (Robert Christgau)

"Rolling Stone’s David Fricke once said, “You cannot talk about rock in the 1970’s without talking about Grand Funk Railroad!” I always thought that was the craziest thing I ever heard, and Fricke is currently residing in an asylum for the musically insane in South Dakota. But I have to concede that at least on We’re An American Band, they bring far more to the party than just the title track. (Vinyl District)

"We're an American Band sounded nothing like its muddy, plodding predecessors. Sonically, the record was sharp and detailed and the band's playing was far tighter and more accomplished. Most important, someone, whether the band or Rundgren, decided that gruff-voiced drummer Don Brewer should be employed as a lead singer as often as guitarist Mark Farner." (AllMusic

What you said...

Bill Griffin: Not my favourite Grand Funk album (they were my favourite band at the time though), that would be one or two of those terribly-produced records by Terry Knight, but a fine effort by a band still easing in a fourth member on keyboards. Maybe their best as a four piece. Todd helped them sophisticate their sound immensely, bringing in all manner of percussion instruments and keyboard sounds. He made them into a tighter band (and I'm still waiting for someone to release a live bootleg from the ensuing tour). It saved the band for another two to three years.

Joe Cogan: A taskmaster like Rundgren was exactly what a band like Grand Funk needed. Their attempt at being a jam band with their sub-bar band chops was ludicrous from the start, but they did have the ability to write a catchy tune, and he was able to harness that and pull them together for what's easily their most cohesive album, with a minimum of the overreach that had damaged even their best previous work (I'm Your Captain being the most prominent example, with the final section at least four minutes longer than it needed to be).

Maxwell Martello: With the possible exception of Mel, they were not virtuosos, but that did not prevent them from being able to unleash pure mayhem on the stage. I don’t care if they were basic and primitive, their jams could knock me out alright.

There is absolutely northing wrong with every single one of their Terry-produced albums. Their first misstep, if you ask me, was the self-produced Phoenix.

We’re an American Band was a great record, but an “institutionalized” one.

Richard Cardenas: Great record. I’m really not sure what to say about it except, to me, it sounds dated and not in a bad way. Every time I listen to it I feel like I’m back in middle school starting to develop my identity. They certainly became a favourite and eventually became the first band I ever went to see in concert. I can still remember the vibe and sweet smell of 1974.

Brad Kyle: Absolutely the best-sounding hard rock album of it’s era or since. My favourite record from Grand Funk and I still play it frequently.

Marco LG: Grand Funk Railroad are one of my personal favourites from the 70s, and although as an album We’re An American Band is not my favourite of theirs it remains their most iconic. 

The opening track is probably the most recognisable GFR song, rightfully a staple of classic rock radio. The lyrics might be silly, but whenever I hear those cowbells and that initial riff my heart opens up and I smile, and then I start shaking my body. It’s infectious! The rest of the album is however pretty solid, if not as famous and ubiquitous. The only criticism I have is that the energy levels are a bit inconsistent, and that’s why I prefer albums like E Pluribus Funk to this one.

Something I did not notice so clearly before is the production on this album is very polished. It might have been on purpose to make them more radio-friendly, and boy it worked! I can see how this evolution might have alienated some of the earlier fans, the first three albums sound a lot rougher, some may say more ‘real’. 

Knowing nothing about the evolution of production techniques, I might go as far as saying this sounds a lot like an album produced in the 80s, but without the added plastic provided by the synthesisers of that decade. I personally like it, but then again I grew up in the 80s.

In conclusion revisiting We’re An American Band has been a pleasure. It remains one of the greatest and most seminal albums of the 70s, with the title track being as infectious as ever. GFR are not virtuosos but know how to structure a song, and for me that’s what makes them so good. It might not be the best GFR album but it’s their most iconic and that can only be reflected in a high score.

John Davidson: Its not a bad album but nothing spectacular either. They were an American Band sums them up pretty neatly. Slightly funky, slightly bluesy early 1970s party rock.

Overall I can listen to this through without getting bored, but equally without remembering a single track beyond the first one by the time its finished..

Of its time, and not really my cup of tea, but not offensive either. 5/10. It's hard to credit how different music was in 1973 from 1977, particularly in the UK.

Carl Black: Never heard this album or band before. I saw a documentary once that said they were the forerunners of heavy metal. Not so sure but as ever, I go in with an open mind. I never wanted to skip any songs during this album, but I don't want to listen to the songs again. It's a use just once and then destroy. They jam, they play. It's cool. But it's was over when it was over. Too many keys.

Julie Plumpton: I was never really into GFR, but having listened to the album in its entirety I was quite impressed. I had obviously heard the first track, which is an ok rock tune, but was impressed with Stop Looking Back and Creepin'. Other favourite tracks were The Railroad and Loneliest Rider. Throughout, the album delivered some great guitar riffs, and the heavy bass at the start of The End, was very tasty.

Roland Bearne: I've had a couple of good runs with this and a couple of commutes. It's fine, nice, OK, not bad at all. I guess you probably had to grow up with it to heap on a gushing 9 or 10. Grand Funk have always been in my ken, about two songs, American Band and Walk like a Man. Both are on here so I'm happy! 

As for the rest, they are undoubtedly masters of setting up a groove and working with it but I'm not hearing grab-you-by-the-unmentionables song craft. Indeed at times I drift off, Licorice being a prime example. Yes , it's fine. Great classic rock beloved by some, a polite 7 for me.

Ken Jackson: It is what it is in a time when it was. It is a product of the era when it was made. We cannot judge it by standards of any time before or after when it was made. It was better than the garage band sound but not as slick as the over-produced sounds of bands with better talent backing them in the studio.

They sounded like a fun band to see live in smaller venues but a stadium show this album is not. The album also does not suggest a long afternoon at a music festival. A student lounge or maybe a state fair, a bar build to host bands. 

Maybe better production or a different time would have given them a far better reception with this album. It is a decent work and it is what it is. It is a great one to put into rotation during a summer bbq when everyone is looking to have some food, some drinks, maybe dance a bit and just be around friends and talk. It will not over power the event nor will it have anyone looking to change the music.

John Edgar: The Grand Funk Shinin' On LP was new when I first started taking an interest in music, and I was a big fan of that album. I started working when I was 16 years old, and with my earnings I quickly bought all the Grand Funk releases that had come before. 

The earlier, grittier Grand Funk was my favourite period, but the American Band album was definitely a milestone in their career. I enjoyed it then, and I enjoy it now. For me, there's not a bad tune on it. Like all GFR releases, it usually spends a week or so on my annual playlist.

Jonathan Novajosky: The album is pretty simple, but still groovy. I never was crazy about We're An American Band, but it's not bad. There is some nice organ action in songs like Creepin' that I enjoyed. I didn't expect to be blown away here, but that doesn't mean this isn't a fun album. 6/10

Mauricio Telles: Great album by a great band, both usually underrated. Grand Funk for me was always a band to have fun with it, alcohol, girls and laughters. Should not take them very seriously, specially compared with bands from the same era. To me this is their best album, very Motown influenced. I love Don Brewers singing, specially on Black Licorice. Another song I like is The Railroad, quite different from the others in this album.

If you like this, I also recommend the On Time and E Pluribus Funk albums.

Martin Millar: Terrible. Risible. "We're coming to your town we'll help you party it down." Awful record.

Nicholas Lane: It’s a solid rock'n;roll album with great guitar riffs and some excellent keyboards/organ parts. In fact, Black Licorice could have easily been on an early 70s Deep Purple Album. You can definitely hear the influence of producer Todd Rundgren on this album as The Railroad sounded more focused and played as a tighter, more cohesive unit. 7/10 from me.

Final Score: 7.70 ⁄10 (225 votes cast, with a total score of 1734)

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