A recurring feature in which I look at something I enjoy but have never thought deeply about, and force myself to clearly state five reasons why I like it.
Today’s subject: Seventh studio album by Flint, Michigan-based rock band. Released July 1973. Produced by Todd Rundgren. Reached No. 2 on the album charts and spawned two Top 40 singles (the one you remember, and the one you probably don’t.) Kick-started GF(R)’s brief but lucrative run as a Top 40 teenybop-singles band.
And here’s why I like it:
1. None more gold. An American band? Perhaps. But there’s scarcely a shred of red, white or blue to be found anywhere on the album. (We’ll get back to this thought in a minute.)
Instead, the entire album cover is done in gold foil, with black lettering and some white inside the gatefold just to break things up a bit.
Redolent of gold albums, yes … but also of shiny, shiny bullion, and sleekness, power and fortune.
’73, you’ll remember, was also the year Alice Cooper released Billion Dollar Babies, whose art and design were based heavily on dollar bills. Grand Funk went Vince Furnier and the lads one better, with a design that evokes one of the world’s most sought-after universal currencies.
And, when you think about it, a lot of people laid out a lot of bank to buy copies of We’re An American Band (and Billion Dollar Babies, for that matter). Behind that shiny gold cover was/is a rich river of millions of dollars of American teenage cash.
It’s enough to make a man go all Scrooge McDuck.
2. Vinyl. This is the other album I own on colored vinyl. And colored vinyl, in all its showy glory, earns an automatic placement in any Five For The Record entry.
You can guess which color it is.
3. Starkers in a hayloft. Those among you who know We’re An American Band mentally corrected me a minute ago. There’s actually a fair amount of red, white and blue on the inside cover.
Though … well, that’s not where your eye is drawn when you look at the picture:
If you were gay in 1973, you could enjoy this picture as a rare over-the-counter glimpse of male nudity, as an old acquaintance of mine who was gay in 1973 (and still is now) once described it to me.
If you were straight, you could take droll pleasure in considering any one of a number of questions and considerations:
What is Craig Frost looking at (or for)? Is someone standing just out of shot holding up his clothes?
Could Mel Schacher look any more emaciated, or any more pissed off?
Is it coincidence that Mark Farner, who seems to be enjoying the moment the most, is also the band member with the least body showing?
Why do I get the feeling Don Brewer is about to offer me cab fare and an invitation to see him backstage the next time he’s in town?
Is there some corollary between “American” and “naked” I’m missing? Did someone think, “Nothing says ‘American band’ quite like going naked”? (I mean, they could have dressed up like Uncle Sam and had their pictures taken at the head of the Flint Fourth of July Parade or something.)
If this is what they opted for, what kinds of ideas do you think they rejected?
And, from a modern-day perspective: Should we all thank Rock n’ Roll Jesus that there were basically no music videos in 1973?
4. Empty calories. Every album, even the great ones, has some filler tracks — a couple tunes that don’t shine as brightly as the others, and are pretty much there so the record can reach the required running length.
For whatever reason, I long ago recognized “Ain’t Got Nobody” — which holds the ideal filler-track position of Side Two, Track Two — as the epitome of the Seventies album track.
It’s not bad; it’s not good; it transcends both badness and goodness and lands in a hollow, unfulfilling sort of Beigeville.
This is a slippery thing to define, of course. What constitutes true mediocrity? And if the song stands out for something in my head, then it cannot be truly and completely empty, can it?
All I can do is rattle off the factors that make “Ain’t Got Nobody” a definitive example of the genre.
There’s the banal lyrics (“If she don’t come back, I’ll have a love attack”) … and the way the tempo bounces between plodding and double-time just for the sake of changing … and the use of two repetitive chords for most of the song … and the double-negative title …
… and, I dunno. One man’s trash is another’s treasure, and maybe other people see “Ain’t Got Nobody” as a hidden gem. To me, it is a peak of professionally produced but totally forgettable Seventies rock.
It’s not embarrassing. It’s not a fiasco. It’s just … there. And the album got finished.
5. Continuity. We’re An American Band closes with “The Loneliest Rider,” a stomping paean to the plight of the American Indian that might have been a real knockout in the hands of a better band. (Farner, who wrote and sang it, is of partial Cherokee ancestry, which I suppose redeems the simplistic poetry of his lyrics.)
Whatever its faults, “The Loneliest Rider” is perfectly placed for some of the continuity games that we music bloggers love to play.
The album begins with Brewer singing about being “on the road for 40 days.” The album ends with the last Indian riding a grimmer road — a road to oblivion reminiscent of the Trail of Tears.
“The Loneliest Rider” explicitly reminds us that the America that party-hearty Brewer traverses in the opening song (Little Rock and Omaha, anyone?) is built on land taken from its earliest inhabitants.
The album also begins with the energetic cowbell-driven thump of Brewer’s unaccompanied drums … and ends with the gradually faded-up sound of unaccompanied Native American tribal drumming. (A suitable place for the American Band to bring it all back home, no?)
In the hands of any other band but Grand Funk, this sort of full-circle stuff would be seen as Important … and Thematic … and Strong Meat. It may well have been coincidental, but I’m willing to give them credit.