Having written pop fantasies set in the fall of 1979 and the spring of 1975, we now go back to this time of year in 1970. I was too busy having a functional, pleasant visit with my family to get this written in time for Thanksgiving, but I like to imagine no one will really care.
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The mood in the three-bedroom ranch house has already been festering for months. There have been harsh words back and forth, and insults, and silent rejection, and tears.
It’s 11:30 on Thanksgiving morning — November 26, 1970, to be specific — and the teenage boy of the family still hasn’t made an appearance. His father begins to pace around the living room, an increasingly familiar anger building inside him; the relatives will be here soon.
Then, from the farthest room down the hall, a muffled, distorted din erupts … a sound that combines rolling tanks and roaring voices and mass frenzy.
Dad runs down the hall at a sprint and throws the door open, bringing the sound into point-blank trebly sharpness.
He has not heard a cacophony quite like it since he shouldered a rifle for Uncle Sam … and out of reflexive habit, he summons a voice he has not used since the last time he had to make himself heard over enemy fire.
“WHAT … IN THE FUCK … IS THAT NOISY SHIT?”
His son, slumped on the bed in a pool of long hair, doesn’t say anything. He just lets his dad get an abrasive faceful of the noise.
And it sounds …
(this is the point in the story where you turn the speakers on your computer up real, real high)
… like this.
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Lester Bangs once described Metal Machine Music as “the all-time guaranteed lease breaker.” I believe Grand Funk’s altogether less heralded Live Album might have been — as described above — one of the all-time guaranteed Thanksgiving breakers.
Here are the ingredients that make up my theory:
The generation gap. It’s pretty well-established at this point that the Greatest Generation and the Baby Boomers didn’t see eye to eye on a lot of things in the late ’60s and early ’70s.
That’s not to overstate things — not every household was a generational war zone — but there were plenty of homes where parents and kids saw life from vastly different, and difficult-to-reconcile, perspectives.
The voice of teenage America. Every Grand Funk review I’ve read from the group’s first period of success (1969 to 1971) comments on the band’s remarkable connection with a youthful audience, and its complete inability to connect with anyone older. It’s as if Mark, Don and Mel broadcast on a frequency that didn’t come through clearly unless you were somewhere between 13 and 21.
So great was the disconnect that Lenny Kaye, reviewing Live Album for Rolling Stone, devoted 95 percent of his review to verbatim quotes from Grand Funk fans explaining why they liked the band — closing with the logic, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”
Or, take the aforementioned Lester Bangs, reviewing the Survival album in Rolling Stone later that same year:
“Grand Funk are one of the very few groups rising recently that do reflect the aspirations and attitudes of their audience in that most basic way. And they’ve achieved that vast consensus not only through hype but because they are that audience, are the rallying point for any sense of mass identity and community in Teenage America circa 1971.”
So, in a nation divided along generational lines (among others), Grand Funk carried the banner for one side about as strongly and divisively as any other American band.
Timing. After releasing three successful studio albums in a year’s time, GFR decided to commit its live show to vinyl. Two shows in Florida were recorded in June 1970, and the resultant live double album was released on Nov. 16 of that year — with no overdubs or other fancy sonic processing, according to the liner notes.
According to the RIAA’s searchable database of gold and platinum records, Live Album was certified gold on Nov. 23.
This suggests that a decent number of those American teens who’d tuned in to Grand Funk’s frequency had the record in their hands by Thanksgiving, and were primed and ready to give it a good loud spin if they wanted to.
Pure din. None of the above would have been an issue had Grand Funk gone back and neatly recut all their parts in the studio, the way major artists were already doing on their live albums in 1970. (GFR appears to have given in to the overdub temptation on its second live album, 1975’s well-manicured Caught In The Act.)
Instead, Live Album is — with a few exceptions — pretty much sheer jet takeoff from start to finish.
Grand Funk was never blessed with lyrical or melodic excellence. But they had amps enough to reach the back row of any festival, enough to make Nigel Tufnel look like Bert Jansch, and they didn’t believe in letting anyone in the same area code go home without getting the full experience.
Check out the version of “Paranoid” from Live Album — in particular, the point starting at about 3:40, when Mel Schacher’s overloaded-truck bass and Mark Farner’s thousand-pound-violin guitar get moments in the spotlight:
Out of concern that computer speakers do not do Live Album justice, I step in with a first-person testimonial, as someone who owns the record on original vinyl:
This is as grungy and simplistic as a major American rock band has ever gotten on record. And when played through a half-decent stereo system — or, even better, a deficient one — this is music to make the Sinatra generation feel like they’re passing through a garbage disposal, headfirst and slo-mo.
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Which brings us back to our aggrieved father and his passive-aggressive son, in their ranch house in Agawam or Omaha or Fresno or wherever.
What they do in the short term — at very least a pulled power cord, at most a fistfight — doesn’t really matter that much.
Nor does what they do in the long run. (I like to imagine the kid grows up and gets a job on the line at the local brewery, and years later, before lung cancer kills the old man, they share six-packs and shake their heads at the emotions that used to feel so strong.)
Instead, we’ll leave the moment unresolved on the knife’s edge, with rage surging on both sides, family ties forgotten, and the clamor of festival-level tube-driven white noise claiming sensory primacy over the scent of roasting turkey.