For one reason or another I’d been searching for the Grand Funk Live Album since birth. Well, at least since 1982. That’s the year I decided I’d been too judgmental about the hard rock genre in general and Grand Funk specifically. Sure, I “boogied” to Grand Funk’s cover of The Loco-Motion in third grade. I tapped my foot in time with the cow bell propelled We’re An American Band. Seems like those two songs kept my brother Tim and me toe-tapping whenever they came on my old man’s AM radio in his yacht of a car (a ‘69 Pontiac Catalina). After all, with no air conditioning in the car (or at home!) it mostly took our minds off the oppressive heat during the summers of our youth. It also kept us from punching each other which never ended well.
But first, let’s back up my friend. In 1978 I was the luckiest ten year old in Chicago’s western suburbs. For good reason. I acted older than my age by thinking like a twelve year old and pretending to have a girlfriend. And boy did it work. People treated me like a seventh grader and before I knew it I was moving beyond the musical comfort zone of Brownsville Station, The Bay City Rollers, The Beach Boys and KISS (to this day I love everything KISS recorded between ‘74 and ‘78). Admittedly, I couldn’t have made the transition without the help of an older guy who worked at The Music Shop in downtown Downers Grove. He not only turned me on to The Sex Pistols, The Cramps, The B-52s, Devo, AC/DC and The Clash, he actually sold me all those records between ‘78 and ‘80. Incidentally, years later I did the math and realized that this experienced, world-weary, expert rock ‘n’ roller of a record store clerk was only about six or seven years older than me.
Sadly, at some point in junior high school, I became one of those loathsome pubescent music-exclusive prima donnas. I’d only listen to something if it was in Trouser Press magazine, Rolling Stone (depending on the reviewer) and if my mom and dad said it sounded like crap. I’d claim to love groups specifically because my mom heard from WGN radio’s Wally Phillips that listening to it would lead directly to America slouching its way into something like East Berlin. In my defense, who wasn’t some sort of insufferable little bastard at this time? Kids couldn’t trust anybody. We had hostages in Iran, gas cost over a buck and moms everywhere were still telling their kids to do old-fashioned and quaint 1950s things like “go play tag with the dog in the yard.” America had traded a peanut munching smiley face President for a helmet-haired former actor and it seemed like every top 40 record had ten synthesizers smeared all over it.
Which brings me back to Grand Funk Railroad. The Live Album. Released two years deep into the funk of Richard Nixon’s presidency. War raged in Southeast Asia. Bras burned in the Midwest. The Midwest! And yet, there’s not one synthesizer on this record. I think the only weirdos in rock music who knew what a synth was in 1970 were the Tangerine Dream and Soft Machine types. There was no room for that sort of prancing keyboard frippery in Grand Funk’s America. No way. Remember that Mark Farner (lead guitarist) didn’t even own a shirt in 1970. His body heat and raw emotion enough to warm him on even the coldest Midwestern winter tour dates. With Mel Schacher beating his bass into submission and Don Brewer destroying his drums in this very power trio, who’d have time to play a keyboard anyway. For now. In a scant two years Grand Funk would realize a ten minute keyboard solo could afford them the ability to sip a cold one, kiss a couple groupies or send out for a stunt-shirt if the mood called for it.
Speaking of live records, this one boasts that it’s a “…true historical documentation of this group in person…” and that there’s been “…no technical assistance added to this recording…” Probably a mistake given my one hour and twenty minute ride with my new, used LP. Even though it’s some sort of unadulterated live document, Grand Funk Railroad should have considered heading back into the studio to drop in a few key overdubs and edits in my opinion. Not that those could improve the “recorded over the telephone onto a portable cassette player” fidelity of this record. Put simply, this double record makes Black Sabbath Vol. 4 sound like The Royal Opera House Covent Garden Orchestra performing Verdi as conducted by Sir Georg Solti. And yet, I still enjoy it. The songs are played with intensity and care. Sort of. Any way you look at it, it rocks. Hard. Another thing. Records like this are party records out of their time. People just don’t throw the carefree, wild, packed garage and basement parties that records like this were created for. But I didn’t come to this conclusion alone.
And that brings me to the ten minute conversation I had with the owner of the record store where I bought this record last week. I’d had a long day of doing nothing. Woke up late. Ate lunch late. The type of day where heavy decisions needed to be made. Not the type involving my wife or daughter. They had a bunch of girly stuff to do on that day. So what would it be? Would I clean up some more of the 175 jazz records I bought from a nice baker lady in Florida or would I try my hand at crate digging through records at my local Goodwill store hoping to score some 99 cent black gold? I’d munch the better part of a bag of Taco Flavored Doritos and drink a few Cokes while I mulled it over. Best to slow things down a bit, not overthink it and dig in to the first two Aerosmith records with a focus on Mama Kin and Train Kept A-Rollin’. Next thing I knew I had about 30 minutes before I had to meet a couple guys for some BBQ and beers. We’d have to talk some business. Future business. In the surly ad game. But now I had to get down to a different kind of business. I had just enough time to hit a used record store and comb through the discount bins looking for underpriced gems.
A few minutes into perusing what seemed like hundreds of copies of Oklahoma! and The Very Best of The Rest of Lawrence Welk I spotted the Grand Funk Live Album. A clean looking double record. Cover in perfect shape. A mixed blessing. That usually means at least one of the records was used as an ashtray. Nope. The records were perfect. And this double set also included a kickass rocking poster. All for $3.99. I fondled the record a few minutes wondering if Record Store Guy mis-priced it. Thought about what type of defense I’d throw out there if during the course of purchase I was told “somebody made a mistake on this price” or worse “did you pull a switcheroo on the price tag?”
After all, this record is NEVER in good shape. Ever. I looked at the clock on the wall. I was due for BBQ in five minutes. I took the record to Record Store Guy’s perch. The type that puts his head several feet above your head so he can watch cheats, chiselers and other chumps trying to rip him off. He rang me up and I did what I do so often. I began waxing eloquent about the record. How I’d never seen a copy of Live Album in such great shape. That most copies of this record must’ve been used in the war effort. Or beat to death at pre-bicentennial parties and never afforded a proper burial. Record Store Guy agreed with me. We talked about how certain records were miraculously preserved while others should have been ground up, melted and turned into Goody combs decades ago.
At this point I became aware of another shopper’s gaze. He obviously had no time for something as low brow as Grand Funk Railroad. He shot me a look so dismissive I figured him for a Kings Of Convenience or Bon Iver fan. I was talking too loudly. Too passionately. About hard rock records. AGAIN! As tough as it is to admit, I felt weird for a few seconds. Self conscious. Until I realized this chappy was shopping for and selecting video tapes priced at fifty cents apiece. Record Store Guy and I got back to business. Party Enabler Records vs. Party Killer Records. His theory was that way back in the day you drop on a party record by a group like Grand Funk or Sly and the Family Stone and amp things up. Take the party higher. Put on a Black Sabbath or Judas Priest album and people split. Too risky. Not because they’re not good groups but because they’re more polarizing. Fair enough I thought. I’d done a lot of listening to Sabbath and Priest. Some of it with headphones. Some of it with a small group of carefully curated cats. Never at a huge party. He was right. And I needed to split for the meet-up. But not before I shot the VHS Weirdo a look as I strutted out onto the greasy, mean streets of west suburban Chicago with Grand Funk firmly in hand. It was the kind of look that made it abundantly clear that I could buy and sell VHS Weirdo’s mustache many, many times over. And that’s factual. It’s actual.