Inner sleeve art to platinum-selling Mark, Don & Me
interview by Barry Stoller
It has often been said that art becomes great not when it is "good" or "bad," but only when it absolutely cannot be ignored.
Thus spake Terry Knight in 1972 on the infamous liner notes to Mark, Don & Mel. Those were the days - the sunburst finish of rock n' roll - when Knight was the evil genius of heavy metal and Rolling Stone was the royal guardian of bourgeoisied counterculture. It was Grand Funk Railroad (fist-pumping noise for eternal adolescents) versus James Taylor (narcissistic lullabies for me-decade dullards) - and, back then, the outcome was anything but certain.
As Rolling Stone, reviewing Mark, Don & Mel, put it:
Virtually every practicing rock critic worth his sneer, of course, has sought to explicate Grand Funk's ascent to commercial ultra-gargantuanity over countless identically horrible Cream legatees, but no one, to my mind, has paid sufficient attention to the important role played in that ascent by producer/manager/mastermind Terry Knight's apparently innate gaucheness, and the unflinchingly humorless conviction with which he wielded that gaucheness.
The "gaucheness" in question included the in-your-face brilliance of Knight's LP cover designs - such as the Survival cover where our hard-rockin' heroes from Michigan survived all the critics' predictions they would be passé within a year. The cover photo showed them as cavemen feeding off of the flesh of the weak. Knight's liner notes amplified the theme, merging Woodstock nostalgia with Biblical mythology. The three inserted color photos of the boys in solo poses (a lá the White Album) suggested the Beatles were reborn as a proletarian power-trio. In a manner they were: record packaging hadn't been this psychologically evocative - or idol-making - since Abbey Road.
And no band had made as much money since the Fabs, either. After selling some eleven million LPs in one year - an incredible feat in rock n' roll's pre-corporate era - Grand Funk Railroad, in a hailstorm of hoopla, proceeded to sell out Shea Stadium faster than the Beatles. Knight was on a roll: his following LP cover was crafted as a coin - a round cover with embossed silver paper - featuring the boys as Founding Fathers on one side, Shea Stadium as the White House on the other. Talk about youthquake - the disc even featured one of the most smokin' anti-war songs of all time. Not bad for a band singularly known for punk musicianship (in an era when 'punk' was a sour insult).
Things got punker, though. While Knight and his charges were embroiled in bitter - and absurdly publicized - litigation to dissolve their partnership, out came the inevitable greatest hits to milk another few million bucks. Entitled Mark, Don & Mel, Knight's liner notes, typeset on a flaming faux parchment, compared GFR to the Beatles - as well as Shakespearean heroes and Biblical figures. Rolling Stone, already deep in a protracted media feud with Knight, went ballistic:
Genius! Never mind that only a very few people have it in them, to begin with, to suggest that Mel, say, ranks right up there with Cleopatra, say, as an historic tag. Who but Terry Knight would fail to reject out of hand the idea of putting that suggestion on a scroll as just too agonizingly corny? Can there be any wonder, in view of such things, about Funk having recorded in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S.A.?
Cleveland, Ohio, did they say?
And, now that Rolling Stone sponsors such loser dingbats as Billy Joel into the 'Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame' - in Cleveland, Ohio of all places - who might be having the last laugh now? If Rolling Stone once thought it pretentious arrogance to suggest that rock n' roll (even that represented by GFR) might one day be timeless art - and that idea is the thread which joins every PR effort of Terry Knight - then what could possibly top such pretentious arrogance - genius! - as a Rock Museum?
So here I am, on the phone, talking to the "enfant terrible of the heavies for Capitol Records" (as Rolling Stone once called him), the dude who "masterminded" all those spine-tingling, bone-crushing records I bought decades ago when I was 13 years old.
Was he the villain in the black hat, as GFR fans would have it, the sinister manager who defalcated his young impressionable charges of untold riches? Was he, as the critics would have it, the impossible cynic who hyped some crap band and made off with a million dollars even as he had the nerve to package the crap in the very newspaper clippings which warned of the hype?
I don't really know. The person I spoke to was a nice guy. A polite, likable guy. At times, a guy with a bit of a glint in his eye as he remembered a far away era in which heavy metal was busy being born. And, every now and then, I'd remember this was the guy who once took out a full-page ad in Rolling Stone just to feature a photo of himself giving Rolling Stone the finger. Dream on, Axel Rose - here was someone who practically invented heavy metal.
Knight, circa 1971
PSF: Andrew Loog Oldham - an obvious inspiration - said in 1965 'the Rolling Stones are more than just a group - they are a way of life.' An obvious blueprint for GFR's marketing...
TK: I met Andrew back in the 1960's - he was first on tour with the Beatles' manager. The Stones played Cleveland, Detroit and Chicago [where Terry Knight & the Pack opened those shows]. Great guy. I hear he's living in Colombia now, very well enhanced.
PSF: Do you remember meeting Phil Spector [in 1963]?
TK: Yes, the president of A&M, Jerry Moss, sent me to Los Angeles to record a demo and knocking at my hotel door there was this little tiny mite and Rosy Grier - what a couple! - and I was strumming a guitar. I asked Phil if he played. He picked up that guitar and proceeded to play Bach's Tocata and Fugue in D minor - very well, too. Tremendous talent. Grier sat there doing needlepoint.
PSF: John Sinclair also had an in-your-face media style...
TK: Not really the same, our styles were at odds. I never let the foundation of his philosophy influence me, his adversarial support for marijuana - I stayed away from that arena. I didn't take one side or another with marijuana. I do remember the "Fuck Hudson's" ad, though - but that was the MC5, not Sinclair.
PSF: Ever heard of Malcolm McLaren?
TK: I wasn't a big fan of the Sex Pistols. I knew they were huge but they slipped by my radar at that point in my career. [Knight effectively retired from the music business in early 1974.]
PSF: Do you recall meeting McCartney [in 1968]?
TK: Yes, I recall meeting McCartney very well. We first met in Detroit and shared a brief hello. Later, he called me to England, Apple bought me a plane ticket, he invited me to sing. We had lunch in London with Linda and Twiggy, Roger Moore and Peter Sellers - and then I went to the studio where Yoko and Ringo and everyone else was assembled. It was the session where it was over [Ringo walked out during White Album sessions]. I went back to New York empty-handed and wrote the song "Saint Paul" on the flight.
PSF: Are you aware that the song is credited with starting the "Paul-is-dead" rumor?
TK: [Smile.] Oh, yes, I've heard that before.
PSF: I want to praise your production touches, such as the backwards guitar on Bloodrock's "Fatback" and the wind/chimes on "Sable & Pearl" - they seem to pick up from the Beatles, only with a 1970s dread...
TK: I recorded backwards guitar before the Beatles - back with the production for a band named the Jayhawkers. It's the producer's job to set up the sound on tape, record and mix that sound with the right equalization. It's the producer's duty to enhance that sound with whatever effects work to bring the performance about. I'm pleased and proud of the end results on the Bloodrock albums.
PSF: Your interview with Discoveries [February 2000] quotes you as saying that you came up with the name Bloodrock and that the "concept name" gave you an LP cover in mind...
TK: That first album [with the rock and the bloody smashed window], the cover was my design. I did not get the cover credit, though. George Osaka of the art department designed the second cover [with blood dripping over the band photo].
PSF: What were your favorite sessions?
TK: Well, that first Bloodrock LP - I stand behind that completely. Those are immemorial tracks. I loved the compositions on Bloodrock's second album, too. Good sessions. Then, there's [GFR's] "Closer To Home," that was a producer's composition. I edited that to add the lengthy ending recorded with the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra; GFR didn't even hear it until they were sitting around in Flint. "People, Let's Stop the War" - that, too; I edited that one line over and over to compose the chorus. And, "Paranoid" - the crying.
PSF: The first time I heard "I Can Feel Him in the Morning," a friend played the spoken word intro and when the music came on, he pulled the needle off the record, saying that we just heard the best part...
TK: [Laugh.] Well, thanks. That was [engineer] Kenneth Hamann's idea - we went outside the studio and found some kids on the sidewalk. We recorded them right there. The last line, "If you're good you'll live forever and if you're bad you'll die when you die" repeated over and over - Ken did that. That was the first time a GFR song painted a picture, that one. The innocence of the song suggested to me a grieving mother who lost a son in the Civil War - and we just took it from there. The backing singers on that, by the way, were hookers we found on the corner - they got $100 each for that session.
PSF: Survival was one of the first records to feature a mellow heavy metal sound. Coming off the success of GFR's earlier productions, that was a bit of a commercial risk.
TK: The group wanted a studio album, they were conscious to show some musicianship with that one.
PSF: How long did those albums take to record and mix?
TK: With Bloodrock, it was two days for an album. Each song was well-written out in advance and they played them all for me in rehearsal. They were pretty intricate performances, the placement of all the instruments was a challenging venture. I took liberties to rearrange some of them and they would come back in a week to play them for me the new way. I don't remember them ever challenging any of my suggestions. Mixing took about three weeks for each album. Grand Funk Railroad - they took about three days to record.
PSF: How would you compare the two bands?
TK: It was very different material with each band. They were both at the cutting edge of their style, though. GFR had a basic, uneducated, visceral style. Bloodrock's performances were studious and mathematical; their songs were like algebraic computations.
PSF: Do you recall the split with Bloodrock?
TK: We were growing closer with each album, as close as GFR was with me. They were pretty friendly with me, we were becoming good friends. So there were no hard feelings when their manager, Jack Calmes, wanted to go with a winner and continue with their relationship with Grand Funk. Capitol made the same decision, too.
PSF: E Pluribus Funk - there's a proto-grunge sound.
PSF: "People, Let's Stop the War" was the first single release from that album. Who made the choice?
TK: That was my choice - a groundbreaking choice, although it was a mistake as the 45 failed. That surprised me - the song had a good boogie beat and the message was spot-on. It gave them great exposure on the radio stations that did play it, though.
PSF: Your engineer at Cleveland Recording Company was always Kenneth Hamann...
TK: Ken was a genius - no doubt about it. He also did The Lemon Pipers' "Green Tambourine."
PSF: Hamann fronted you the studio time to record GFR's On Time.
TK: Yes, that was $3,000. All the studio time was billed after each record's release. That's pretty different from the way it is nowadays.
PSF: Who first heard "DOA" as a radio hit?
TK: It's the producer's job to hear hits. I took it to Capitol as a 45. It got some support, but it was not overwhelming. One can't underplay the importance of Bloodrock touring with Grand Funk Railroad - people responded to "DOA," the band would pick up a new radio station with every date on the tour.
PSF: Did you feel any pressure from Capitol to follow-up "DOA"?
TK: Yeah, Capitol did pressure us. They were amazed at the success of "DOA," they were dumbfounded. Nobody expected it - except, perhaps, me. I don't really remember if there was an attempt to follow it up, though.
PSF: Why do you think history has neglected Bloodrock?
TK: They made some great records, no doubt there. I would say they suffered from managerial problems. Jack Calmes, their manager, just wasn't strong enough to get their image, their demands, through to the label.
PSF: I noticed their album USA (the first without you as producer) was released within the same two weeks of E Pluribus Funk...
TK: Suicidal timing, that. I would have never allowed something like that. I made sure GFR didn't even put out a record at the same time as ... the Steve Miller band, anyone.
PSF: "The critics don't count, the kids do" - that line is credited to you.
TK: That's right. I noticed that the kids distrusted whatever the media said to them. This was the time of the generation gap. If the media said one thing, kids would believe the reverse. That included Rolling Stone - if the critics said Grand Funk was bad, I knew the kids would go for them. That was the Grand Funk marketing strategy: Distrust the media.
PSF: You took out a full-page ad in Rolling Stone in which you cut and pasted a Village Voice editorial stating that "James Taylor is playing and singing disposable music." Were you deliberately tweaking the editors of Rolling Stone with that?
TK: Probably - I was a bad boy at the time.
PSF: What's the story with "the finger" ad [Terry Knight flipping the bird]?
TK: Ah, that was just a snapshot of me goofing off, it was just a funny gesture about how terrible Terry Knight was. For all the critics, it was a big 1-800-FUCK-YOU. I ran it in Billboard and Cashbox as well as Rolling Stone.
PSF: That was very punk.
TK: Yes, it was.
PSF: Do you remember Lester Bangs's review of Survival in Rolling Stone?
TK: No, I missed that. It must have been horrible.
PSF: No, amazingly enough, he praised it - and for the right reasons, saying that GFR was down-to-earth with their audience.
TK: That's great to know.
PSF: The ads for E Pluribus Funk featured the slogan, "Render unto Caesar that which is is Caesar's." Rolling Stone must have popped their cork over that.
TK: Yeah, they gave me a real fucking over that. The Archdiocese of New York complained, too.
PSF: The cover to Mom's Apple Pie [a painting of a young lady offering a pie with a dripping vagina "slice"] - was that your best design?
TK: [Laugh.] Well, that was some slice of pie, eh? Craig Braun did that job, he did E Pluribus, too. We sent out piping hot apple pies in brown paper bags to all the DJs throughout New York to promote that record. That was a good campaign.
PSF: Brown Bag seemed to be following a trend away from heavy metal. You signed pop acts instead of heavy ones - anticipating moves made by Bloodrock and GFR. And the ecology angle, too - that was ahead of its time.
TK: Yes. Unfortunately, I had the wrong horses in the stable there. United Artists, who distributed Brown Bag, wasn't really behind it; they didn't have the muscle of Capitol. I had to fund a lot of the promotion.
PSF: After your retirement, did anyone approach you for management?
TK: Marty Thau made me an offer to manage a band called Kiss. I took a look at their makeup and heels and the tongue hanging out and said to him, "You gotta be crazy!" Well, the rest is history there.
PSF: Ever consider coming out of retirement?
PSF: I'm thinking of the cover designs to Survival, E Pluribus Funk and Mark, Don & Mel. The theme is permanence in popular music and culture.
TK: Yes, it's interesting you would pick up on that, because that was certainly there. The theme was solidity, the theme was staying power - it even had the U.S. mint to back it up.
PSF: And I would say that the gold campaign for We're An American Band continues the Knight theme, it's perfectly "Knight" in that it has the confidence to package the record as a gold record before it's even sold as such. They certainly learned from you.
TK: Yes - they did alright there, didn't they?
PSF: So - we have Rolling Stone mocking you for your claims to permanence in the 1970's and, thirty years later, anyone on any given day can turn on a radio and hear "Closer To Home."
TK: I'm humbled by my part in that piece of history. "Closer To Home" will never die, it'll be around forever.
Terry Knight on VH-1's Behind The Music, 1999
Barry Stoller is Bloodrock's biographer. He has previously published work on the
ideology of pop music in Monthly Review, Scram and Perfect Sound Forever.
Also see Barry's excerpt from his Terry Knight book
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