Saturday, February 11, 2023

Dancing in the street?

"It started just a little bit north of Detroit," but for The Fabulous Pack it stayed there 

Sometimes, a backing group can become this year's model. The Fabulous Pack were left behind in Flint, Michigan when their lead singer, songwriter, and megalomaniac visionary Terry Knight departed for New York City and a production and solo career. Terry Knight and The Pack were thus abbreviated to The Pack, and then in a last-ditch bid for excitement, to the Fabulous Pack. Their first single, a cover of "Harlem Shuffle," was enthusiastically hailed in the June 3, 1967 Billboard as a "wild, wailing rock number" that was "loaded with teen appeal."

Alas, the single didn't ignite the charts, so to bolster their commercial potential for their follow-up, the Fab Pack enlisted the writing services of local luminary Dick Wagner (soon to form The Frost, which in 1970 would issue one of my favorite criminally-obscure songs of the era, "Fifteen Hundred Miles (Through the Eye of a Beatle)"). For the Fab Pack, Wagner penned a tune optimistically aligned with a venerable local institution: the automobile industry. In the late 1960s, Pontiac was heavily promoting the catch phrase "wide tracking," alluding to the extra five-inch width of its cars, the better to balance the vehicle on the road. According to Gary Johnson in Michigan Rock and Roll Legends, Wagner wrote "Wide Trackin'" in the hopes of landing it in Pontiac car commercial, a coup that would guarantee instant Midwestern cachet and ramp up the chances for national distribution for the single and higher visibility for the band; other sources suggest that the song was simply inspired by the ad campaign. Either way, the Fab Pack certainly hoped that the single would cruise up the charts, screeching to a halt at the top. Billboard was again hopeful, predicting in September that "Wide Trackin'" would land in the Top 100.

In 1967 even square songs could groove a little bit. Though releasing a "dance craze" single was more than a bit pass√© in the Summer of Love, the Fab Pack give it their hopeful best. If you vaguely recognize the singer's voice, you'll be forgiven if you had to add a little more hair and strip off his shirt for him to come into clearer focus. That is indeed Mark Farner inviting you to dance the Wide Track. After the Fab Pack's implosion following the commercial thud of their third and final single, a cover of Jimi Hendrix's "Fire," Farner and drummer Don Brewer enlisted bassist Mel Schacher from ? and The Mysterians and formed Grand Funk Railroad, to be railroaded—that is, managed—by a returning Terry Knight. 

All joking aside about the competent drum work of Don Brewer, "Wide Trackin'" kicks off with a nice groove, guitarist Curt Johnson laying down a fuzz line on top, then settling into a syncopation with organist Bobby Caldwell and later some mildly propulsive horns. Instantly danceable, if overly cordial. The harmony in the title phrase is bright and terrific, but the lyrics are standard issue for a dance record hoping to be in vogue "from New York to L.A.", with a few Motor City tweaks: the dance is "custom-made for every boy and girl," you'll find yourself "dancing in the street." Farner drops a cool, minor-shaded "yea-ah" at the end of each chorus, but the diminishing returns of the desperate "dance, dance, dance!" command prove too much for this politely-played and -produced record to overcome. Producer Jerry Tuttle and engineer Wayne Moss fail to open the throttle on this one.

In An American Band: The Story of Grand Funk Railroad, Billy James notes that the picture sleeve for "Wide Trackin'" (above) shows the band gamely playing while standing on Wide Track Boulevard in downtown Pontiac, Michigan, clearly an attempt to align the song with the automobile manufacturer. One has to stretch to see a connection between Wagner's lyrics and mild tune and the Pontiac "wide track" ad campaign, as chassis width doesn't exactly scream, Hey kids, get up and dance! In the event, Pontiac, still hopeful to attract a young and sporty demographic, went with commercials like this one:

"Let's you and me go wide tracking, near and far!" I don't see how that jolly invitation is any improvement over Wagner's. Pontiac preferred this robot spokesman, the very essence of anti-fun, over The Fabulous Pack's call to the dance floor? Don't trust anyone over 30, man. 

"Wide Trackin'"'s ultimate obscurity only deepens its melancholy for me. Against the cheery teen-dance beat is the failure of the song to gain any traction, with Pontiac or with record or auto buyers. "The beat is spreading farther every day," Farner warbles, barely believing the line himself. The Fabulous Pack and Lucky Eleven can't be knocked for trying to make some coin, for hoping to round the bend with the help of a mega corporation. Dance, dance, dance.

Burned by The Fabulous Pack's failed attempt to court the automobile industry, Grand Funk would opt to shill for groupies instead.

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