Gentle Giant

TrackAlbum
GiantGentle Giant
Why Not?Gentle Giant
WreckAcquiring The Taste
Peel The PaintThree Friends
Think Of Me With KindnessOctopus
A Cry For EveryoneOctopus
No God’'s A ManThe Power And The Glory
His Last VoyageFree Hand
On ReflectionPlaying The Fool
As Old As You'’re YoungThe Missing Piece

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Contributor: Ian Ashleigh

Even by prog-rock standards some of Gentle Giant’s music was complex. They didn’t tend to go in for suites that took up a side or two of a twelve inch vinyl LP, instead they produced albums of relatively short songs. But they were a band of skilled multi-instrumentalists all of whom could sing and they knew the sound they wanted to produce.

As complicated as the underlying music became, drawing as it did from a multitude of influences, there were always clever vocals and some of the vocal arrangements were as complex as the instrumentation. Extended improvised solos and interplay were hinted at on record but generally left to live concerts.

It wasn’t ever thus.

Gentle Giant had enjoyed hit single success as Simon Dupree and the Big Sound with the psychedelic Kites in 1967, a song they maintained was foisted on them by the record company. They saw themselves as a blue-eyed soul band. When Simon Dupree disbanded and re-emerged as the progressive rock outfit Gentle Giant, it was something of a surprise.

The core of both bands were the Shulman brothers – Phil, Derek and Ray – whose father had been a musician in the Army then turned jazz trumpeter. Phil was ten years older than his brothers and left the band in 1972 leaving the remaining five as what is considered the classic line up:

Derek Shulman: lead vocals, saxophone, recorder, keyboards, bass, drums, percussion, “Shulberry”(a 3-string custom electric ukulele); Ray Shulman: bass, trumpet, violin, vocals, viola, drums, percussion, recorder, guitar; Kerry Minnear: keyboards, lead vocals (on recordings only), cello, vibraphone, xylophone, recorder, guitar, bass, drums; Gary Green: guitar, mandolin, vocals, recorder, bass, drums, xylophone; and John “Pugwash” Weathers: drums, percussion, vibraphone, xylophone, vocals, guitar.

Kerry Minnear’s voice was not strong enough to take the lead in the live arena hence the reference to lead vocals on recordings only. The Wikipedia entry for Gentle Giant is very comprehensive and appears to have been constructed with a certain amount of co-operation from band members so I would point readers to that for a full background. The band’s own website is informative, if a little eccentric.

According to a booklet that was included in their first album from 1970, the band’s name was a reference to a fictional character, a ‘gentle giant’ that happens upon a band of musicians and is enthralled with their music. The character is reminiscent of those from the Renaissance tales of Francois Rabelais. It is to this eponymous first album we turn for our first track. The band were all experienced musicians prior to forming Gentle Giant and this is borne out by the quality of the music. This is as strong a first album as you could want. Six perfectly crafted songs and a strange take on the UK National Anthem make up the album. We will open with the first track on the first album; Giant sets the scene for the sounds that are to come. Why Not? is a guitar led jazz-rock piece that takes some cues from some Big Band vocal pieces in which there is interplay between the lead singer and the band. The third track on side one, Alucard, was to give its name to the company that now looks after the legal and royalty issues surrounding Gentle Giant’s music run by Kerry Minnear.

The band’s statement of intent was printed on the sleeve of the next album Acquiring The Taste:

It is our goal to expand the frontiers of contemporary popular music at the risk of being very unpopular. We have recorded each composition with the one thought – that it should be unique, adventurous and fascinating. It has taken every shred of our combined musical and technical knowledge to achieve this. From the outset we have abandoned all preconceived thoughts of blatant commercialism. Instead we hope to give you something far more substantial and fulfilling. All you need to do is sit back, and acquire the taste.”

It is a brave declaration but one the band delivered on with this and with subsequent albums.

Wreck, as the name suggests, tells the story of a shipwreck. The song shows yet more disparate influences, sounding as it does like a sea shanty dressed up like a rock song that transmogrifies into an Elizabethan dance tune and back again like the waves coming in and out. Listening with hindsight you believe that only Gentle Giant could get away with such contrasting styles within one song that is just short of 5 minutes.On the final track, Plain Truth, I believe we have the first use of electric violin played through a wha-wha pedal, before Dave Swarbrick used it with Fairport Convention.

Three Friends followed and tells the story of three school-friends whose lives take them on differing, and unfulfilling, journeys until they meet up again and achieve as a trio more than they could have individually. It is said on Peel The Paint that Gary Green’s guitar solo is played through an echoplex that had been borrowed from Soft Machine’s Mike Ratledge.

The title of the next release, Octopus, is a pun on octo opus, a reference to the eight tracks on the album. Once again there are eight different pieces of music all unmistakably with the Gentle Giant hallmark. Ray Shulman is quoted as saying it was probably the band’s best album. Think Of Me With Kindness showcases Kerry Minnear’s voice which is more delicate that Derek Shulman’s and is the lightest track on what is a rock masterpiece as evidenced by A Cry For Everyone.

In A Glass House was recorded in the wake of Phil Shulman’s departure from the band and is based around the concept that people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. This was followed by The Power And The Glory. Considered to be the most musically complex of the band’s albums it was a fan’s favourite. The album focuses on an individual who means to do good using political power. He finds himself tempted to abuse the power, as have all of those who have come before. Ultimately, he becomes what he fought against. No God’s A Man illustrates the band at perhaps their most complex, both musically and vocally.

Free Hand was more accessible than its predecessor. His Last Voyage is another example of the band at their best vocally and instrumentally. Unlike Free Hand, the next album, Interview, was less accessible, tracing as it did a fictitious interview with the band. It was not well received by fans or critics.

Playing The Fool was recorded on a European tour in Autumn 1976 and showcases the band’s ability to recreate their studio sound on stage. On Reflection (originally the second track on Free Hand) contains a spectacular multi-layered vocal that shows how the band blended their voices to such good effect, and that they could do it live. I will point readers to Excerpts From Octopus on the 35th anniversary CD of Playing The Fool that summarises Octopus into a 15 minute set. Further evidence of Gentle Giant’s live set can be found on a BBC Sight and Sound In Concert from January 1979; although this is towards the end of the band’s career, it shows them having fun on stage as well as still producing some great music. It also illustrates Derek Shulman’s stage presence. The whole concert can also be found on CD4 of a 5 CD box set, Memories Of Old Days.

It was after this that Gentle Giant started to lose their way, commencing with The Missing Piece (1977) on which there were a number of competing styles including an attempt at punk rock! Betcha Thought We Couldn’t Do It is very tongue in cheek as you would expect from Gentle Giant. There was a move towards a more commercial direction at odds with the ‘statement of intent’ on the sleeve for Acquiring The Taste. On Giant For A Day, they sounded even more like any other rock band trying to be commercial, and not what the fanbase had come to expect. After the release of Civilian (1980), which was a partial return to form although the spark had well and truly gone, the band fragmented and went their separate ways. The members of Gentle Giant have consistently refused to reunite although a number of partial reunions have taken place under the name Rentle Giant (a pun on the word ‘rental’).

So our ten completes with a track from The Missing Piece. I like As Old As You’re Young. It retains the joy that was in many of the earlier recordings as well as the Gentle Giant elegance, and, for all the complexity, there was always an elegance to the music.

The official Gentle Giant web site

Gentle Giant biography (iTunes)

TopperPost #297

2 Comments

  1. Peter V
    Jun 10, 2014

    I’m an avid Simon Dupree and The Big Sound fan who was never really into Gentle Giant. Simon Dupree were a major live attraction, like The Alan Bown Set, and that was regardless of hit records. They boast of going out for more than The Who or The Kinks on the college live circuit, and that is true. They always brought the house down. I saw them several times. As I have looked more into Simon Dupree, I made a mental note to re-investigate Gentle Giant, so thanks for the guidelines.

    • Ian Ashleigh
      Jun 11, 2014

      I had great fun compiling this ten so thanks for your comments Peter. I have a number of Alan Bown LPs that could be dusted off and form the basis for a 10.

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