In the late spring of my freshman year in high school in 1975, a short, plaintive pop song wormed its way into my consciousness. I first heard it on my favorite local radio station, WNEW-FM, then kept hearing it all over the place blaring out of transistors, until finally it repeated, as if on a constant loop, in my head as I took long walks. Misery has rarely sounded so wonderful.
“Bad Time” was written by Mark Farner of Grand Funk (or, as it had been known before, Grand Funk Railroad) and produced by Jimmy Ienner for the band’s All the Girls in the World Beware!!! LP. I didn’t know it at the time, but the two collaborated at a low point in the personal life of the former and a career zenith of the latter.
Farner, Grand Funk’s lead guitarist, could (and did) have just about any woman he wanted as part of a hugely successful hard-rock group, but it only resulted in disrupting his marriage to his first wife, Cheryl. (In the end, the two would divorce.) In contrast, Ienner was coming off a hot streak, producing Three Dog Night, the Bay City Rollers, the Raspberries and, when the latter band split, its lead singer, Eric Carmen.
The mid-70s—or, at least, for someone coming into the heart of his teens, like me—was the era of what I like to think of as “Anguish Pop.” There was Barry Manilow (“Mandy”) and his Gaelic counterpart, Gilbert O’Sullivan (“Alone Again, Naturally”). But, through Carmen's eponymous solo debut album, Ienner had mined a particularly strong vein of it, in the form of “Never Gonna Fall in Love Again” and “All by Myself.” He had figured out how to harness his artist’s skills (piano) and early musical training (classical) for a wide, mainstream pop audience.
He followed the same principle here with Farner and his bandmates. To maintain their commercial viability in the last couple of years in the face of changing musical tastes, their songs had become shorter and softer (although, to be sure, anything sounded softer compared with the band in its early years on the charts). And keyboards would prominently underscore the chorus of "Bad Time" (“I must have picked a bad time to be in love”).
But in the midst of this tightly coiled song, Ienner—or, more accurately, Farner—unleashed a ferocious guitar solo in the bridge, giving his outcry a harder, more painful edge. The entire song clocks in at 2:55—almost made to order, by single standards of the day—but it feels all too short, given the storm of emotion only briefly glimpsed here.
The band, like Farner’s marriage, was experiencing tensions, including over its musical direction in All the Girls in the World Beware!!! Decades later, longtime fans of Grand Funk expressed similar ambivalence—or even open dislike—of the band’s evolving sound in the mid-Seventies. Yet “Bad Time” itself contains to attract adherents like myself and Dave Swanson, who in this article for “Ultimate Classic Rock,” referred to it as a “genuine pop classic” for its “pop-meets-rock-meets-country-meets-garage style.”
YouTube contains a few live cover versions, but the one that feels the most accomplished, as if it can add something to the original, is this 2010 performance by The Jayhawks. It feels so special because the band had had time to think and refine it without boring themselves to tears. (This Twin Cities group performed it first on their 1995 studio CD, Tomorrow the Green Grass, but have gone through a number of lineup changes in their three-decade history.) But the band also exhibits a compelling commitment to this song, making it the only cover tune on Tomorrow the Green Grass.
Both in The Jayhawks’ studio and live performances, the song has more room to stretch out, to establish its emotional temperature—particularly on the 4:12 live version, where the jangling guitar kicks in. Moreover, while Grand Funk’s original was fueled entirely by male energy, The Jayhawks’ cover version afford a different dimension, through backing vocals by keyboardist Karen Grotberg.