Sunday, April 22, 2007

Lost Classics of Rock: "Inside Looking Out" by Grand Funk Railroad

Warning: this entry has cuss words in it.

Before "We're and American Band", before "I'm You're Captain/Closer to Home", Grand Funk (Railroad) originally hit the mainstream in 1970 with an album called simply Grand Funk, aka "The Red Album". Note that this was neither the band's debut album nor technically eponymous, since the band was still called Grand Funk Railroad at this time. They probably just couldn't think of a snappy title. (They did, after all, crank out an average of 2 studio albums a year throughout their existence as a band (not counting reunions), so they can't be expected to actually name all of them.)

If you read a lot of early-1970's rock criticism, Grand Funk seems to get more attention (though generally negative) than warranted. A band that, from a modern vantage point, appear to have been a (maybe) 4 hit wonder who occupy a minor if non-trivial place in rock history, are often vilified as the ultimate example of the stupid white rock band. Reviews of other bands that were generally not liked by the rock critic elite of their day (Zeppelin and Sabbath come to mind) almost always included an obligatory "well at least they're better than Grand Funk" disclaimer.

Being born in 1975, of course all of my information about this is second hand. But it would appear that Grand Funk is one of those bands that was more popular in their own day than the view from 30 years on would tend to suggest. (Sort of like the opposite of a cult movie that nobody saw when it came out, but 20 years later is one of everybody's favorites) A lot more popular. They wouldn't have cranked out so many albums if people weren't buying them. According to Wikipedia, they were the best-selling band in America and broke ticket-sales records set by the Beatles. The only thing to which I can attribute their currently mediocre reputation, is that all of their early-70's fans were too stoned to remember any of it later.

No, this little old band from Michigan probably didn't single-handedly kill the ideals of the 1960's (as depicted on The Wonder Years, American Dreams (btw, I'm not into guys but that kid who went on to be Peter Petrelli in Heroes is damn handsome)) and usher in the stoned, spoiled, lazy crassness of the 1970's (as depicted on That 70's Show). That dubious honor (or honorable dubiousness, depending on what you actually think about the "ideals" of the 60's) is unassailably shared by Zeppelin and the Stones, as well as by the public at large. But they played their part in the larger drama, and appear to have made off like bank robbers.

Scapegoats for everything that the 60's people hated about the 70's; in the end the criticism rings kinda true. Their music is so appropriate to its own time and place that it doesn't seem to have influenced any later bands. You know how you can hear pre-echos of all later metal in Sabbath, or distant early warnings of disco in early 70's soul? You can't hear the future like that in Grand Funk Railroad. It just is what it is.

All of which brings us to "Inside Looking Out", from the aforementioned "red album". A cover of a song by the Animals, but may as well be an old blues song. Compared to more respected power trios such as Cream or Zeppelin, Grand Funk didn't really take the blues/rock formula anyplace it hadn't been before. They just played it loud, long, and somewhat over the top. Not quite Zeppelin levels of over-the-top, mind you, but sufficiently over the top to make sure no one would mistake it for authentic blues. Over 9 minutes in the studio, and doubtlessly expanded to several times that length when they played live. The instruments are bass, drums, guitar, and I can't tell if I hear organ in there or not. No, I don't think so. I think it's just power trio.

The bass and drums are surprisingly, actually somewhat funky throughout. Not really funky like James Brown or George Clinton, obviously.. more like "Funk 49" by the James Gang kind of funky. "Long Train Running" by the Doobie Brothers kind of funky. "Let it Ride" by BTO funky. "Fly Like and Eagle" funky. (I've got a million of these kind of examples, btw) But still, much more so than you'd expect from having only heard "We're and American Band".

The song features a lot of guitar lines that are repeated for emphasis, apparently because you really wouldn't be impressed by them if you only heard them once, but when repeated about 4 times their impact finally sinks in. This is something that almost every improvising soloist does live (see any live Zeppelin recording), but here the process of creation-by-repeating-mistakes is literally laid bare in the studio.

Then right in the middle of solo, the unexpected happens. Around 4:40, Mark Farner appears to turn on some kind of fuzz pedal that was previously not being used. My guess is that in addition to distortion, this unknown device also rectifies his guitar signal. Full-wave rectification, unless my ears lie. (And they often do) Anyway, it fucking smokes. The pedestrian kinda-sorta-distorted, maybe-a-little-bit-heavy string-bending and pull-off-masturbation that has dominated the solo to this point gives way to some almost Hendrix-worthy new-asshole-ripping. If any of my songfight fans are reading this (and I know you are not), this is the kind of thing I am always trying to recreate in my guitar tracks. God damn, it makes the whole other 7 or 8 minutes of "doot doot doo doo" and "chucka chucka chucka" that comprises this song worthwhile. I only hope that if you saw this live, he stretched out this part into an entire symphony of fully-rectified rectal violation. (The song is about being in prison, after all)

The song then contains a necessarily anti-climactic harmonica solo. Nothing to see here, folks. I mean really, talk about bringing a knife to a gun fight.

The song ends with a completely non-distinguished rave-up. Sorta like this post. I don't really have anything snappy to end this with, so I'll do what bands do and just pad it out with random noodling.





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