Mark Farner was a primal voice of early-'70s rock. Hailing from Flint, Michigan, Farner blended '60s R&B and British blues rock alongside Mel Schacher (bass) and Don Brewer (drums), touring up a musical cocktail via power trio Grand Funk Railroad. Albums like On Time (1969) and Grand Funk (1969) showed promise, but it wasn't until Closer to Home (1971) and We're an American Band (1973) dropped that Grand Funk shook the world.
When asked if those classic staples are Grand Funk's definitive statements, Farner tells Guitar World, "I think so. But as far as getting a following and radio play, We're an American Band was big. I wrote a lot of that album, but I gave Don Brewer a fair amount of credit for it."
He continues, "Don came to me after a session in Miami, Florida, saying, 'Mark, I've never had 100% songwriting credit on a song – do you mind if I take We're an American Band?' And I said, 'Sure, go ahead,' because I'm a nice guy at heart, but it's been repeatedly used against me. But I will never say I made the wrong decision because that decision came from my heart."
As high as Closer to Home and We're an American Band took Grand Funk, the lowest of lows was just around the corner. A classic case of infighting, reunions gone wrong, legal spats, and frosty relations has kept Farner, Schacher, and Brewer from touring together since their '90s recoupling.
As for Farner, he's kept busy with various solo projects, but the fire still burns.
"The way it is now is not mainstream; it's what I call 'lamestream'," he says. "It's owned and operated by drama queens. But it's not much different than Foreigner, who doesn't have an original member but calls it 'Foreigner'. And it's the same with Journey, who I don't care how good they sound, that's not Journey."
"So, Grand Funk might legally be called that, and they can present it that way, but it's not real. It's been turned into a corporate conglomerate. And people ask, "Why aren't you in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?" It's because I don't have a brown ring around my lips. I don't bow to that God; that God can piss up a rope."
What was the blueprint for putting Grand Funk Railroad together?
"It came about through an adventure we took to Boston to make some money. Early on, we did some promotional gigs to influence people and show them what we could do, and then, we'd be able to go back and finally make some money. So, we said, 'Let's get the hell outta Flint, and give this a try.' And then, we had the worst snowstorm ever in '69, which left us stuck in Cape Cod in one of those little cottages people use in the summer.
"We were stranded there for two weeks, and this was before cell phones, so there were no calling wives, which meant the girls were back home threatening divorce [laughs]. So, I looked at Don [Brewer] and said, 'We need to keep it simple. Let's make this a three-piece, and whoever we get, they can't have a girl in their lives, let alone a wife.' We didn't want any of that ruining the band. So, that was the blueprint. That, and all the rock and R&B we were listening to."
Grand Funk's early records sold well despite a lack of mainstream radio play. How?
"By doing pop festivals where there were hundreds of thousands of people! They heard us and loved our message. And if you listen to the message in those songs, it's all about love, freedom, and asking the right questions. Many people were asking those same sorts of questions at that time, like, 'Why isn't freedom for me? Why isn't it for all of us?' and they followed what we were doing.
"They knew we were about love because we stated our intent in the songs. I was just a kid out of a garage in Flint, Michigan. But there I had a message, and there was something to it. Those people felt it, too. I think back to singing those songs over the PA at Shea Stadium and the fans singing it back at me, and man, I've got goosebumps as I'm talking to you."
So, Grand Funk's Shea Stadium performance was a turning point?
"Yeah, it was. And if you look at what the Beatles did, it took them two weeks to sell Shea Stadium. But I think it took us just a couple of days. And like I said, I was singing those songs over the PA like I'm Your Captain (Closer to Home), and, man, I'm telling you, it was an emotional high that comes when you're the guy who wrote the song, and you're singing it with everything you've got to people who love it as much as you do. They believed in the songs. Many Vietnam veterans have told me that those songs brought them home."
What led to the end of Grand Funk in the '70s?
"It was when Don Brewer came to rehearsal one day in '76, walked in, and said, 'I have to find something stable to do with my life. I quit.' He came in over an hour late, which was weird because he was never late. We were waiting there, and then he showed up in the control room and said, 'I'm done.' So, I started making phone calls because I knew I had to keep going, which led me to form my solo band."
But you reunited in '96…
"Yeah, the wind kinda got knocked out my sails after we were apart. So, we did the reunion thing in '96, '97, and '98, but that was only because Mel [Schacher] came to me and said, 'Man, we need to put the band back together,' and I said, 'Yeah, okay; if you can get Don, I'm down to do it.' I felt like the fans wanted to see the original Grand Funk; no other group of guys can make those sounds. People can imitate it, but that's all it is: imitation. People say that's the highest form of flattery, but it's not true duplication."
And why did the reunion break down?
"Well, Don came to my room one night after a concert and said, 'Hey, Mark, we need to sign individual ownership of the trademark for Grand Funk Railroad into the corporation,' then he goes, 'We're going to have a protective umbrella.' And look, I didn't finish high school, and Don had taken law school classes, so I figured, 'Okay, he's out to protect the band.' I honestly thought Don was out to protect our best interests. Well, man, he had me fooled.
"So, I said, 'Yeah, okay, I'll do that.' Don said, 'Alright, I'll go to my room and get the papers.' And as he left, I thought, 'That's weird… why the hell didn't he just bring the papers with him?' but it didn't dawn on me. So, we had a party after the show and a few drinks; I was under the influence of happiness. I signed on the dotted line, and I signed the whole damn thing away."
What are your thoughts on Grand Funk continuing with Bruce Kulick and Max Carl in your place?
"It doesn't surprise me. I was doing some Rock 'n' Roll Fantasy Camp stuff and Bruce Kulick came to a couple. He played guitar with me at a few and on the Howard Stern Show. I love Bruce; what a nice guy he is. He's a great guy and just out making his money. Bruce is down to earth and has a great heart.
"I don't even hold anything against Bruce or Max. I don't even hold anything against Don or Mel. I can't because I forgive the same way I'd like to be forgiven. I don't care who they hire because it doesn't do much to hold anything against another person. We're only here for a little while; eternity is on the other side, and I plan to live on the other side with love, music, and positive energy."
Have you ruled out a reunion?
"Brother, for the last 24 years, I have been trying with everything I've got to put it back together. I present it to Mel and Don every year, and it gets shot down. It ain't me holding it up; it's Don Brewer. People tell me, 'Oh, Don is the never-say-never kind of guy,' but it doesn't happen. It's all hot air.
"If Don meant it, the fans would be seeing the real Grand Funk Railroad. They'd see the band they've been waiting on all these years, and we'd be satisfying them. When the Beatles were all alive and still sucking air, I wanted to see them. I always said, 'Why don't they bury the hatchet?' If ZZ Top can hold it together by showing up on different tour buses, why can't we?"
As I understand it, you've got a guitar now that rivals your favored Strat – is that right?
"I do. Kenny Parker of Parker Fly gave it to me. He sent me a handmade guitar covered in stars and stripes, which looks like my old one except that the body is more like a Tele and has flames, too."
Considering your back issues, is the guitar lighter to help relieve stress?
"Yes. This guitar is just over five pounds, so I can stand there and play my whole set with it. I had an operation where two of my vertebrae were fused, and the doctor told me, 'No more heavy guitars.' He rattled off a ton of guitars I couldn't play, and I said, 'Doc, what can I play?!'
"What he told me was I needed to have a guitar that was around five pounds. I remembered that when I was in Japan, I saw guitars by Parker Fly made from basswood. They were light and sounded like heavier guitars. So, I called Kenny, and he sent me a bunch of lightweight guitars with a single-coil pickup by Seymour Duncan in the bridge and a humbucker in the neck."
Do you still have your old Strat?
"Oh yeah, I still do. I love my Parker Fly guitars, but I still bring my Strat on stage because it has a neck like greased lightning. To this day, the neck on that guitar is the slickest I've ever played with. And that's what I need. I don't want anything that's causing my hand not to move freely. But with many old guitars, sometimes they get gummed up and sticky; I do not need that, either.
"I love that guitar, and while I can't play it for a whole show, I can't wait to get it out each night and rock it for my fans, who love to see me play it."
- Mark Farner plays select US dates in October and November 2023 – see MarkFarner.com for details.