Favorite bands: Gentle Giant

This is something I’ve wanted to do with this blog for a long time now; use it to try to turn people on to favorite bands of mine.  Anyway, I thought I’d start here, with Gentle Giant.

Gentle Giant were the quintessential mid-seventies progressive (prog) rock band. To quote Bob Stanley’s invaluable (and infuriating) new history of pop music, Yeah Yeah Yeah:

Groups used instrumentation, phrasing and rhythms that they had learned playing folk, jazz and blues; inevitably, many of the musicians had been trained in classical music.  Much maligned since, it can be very beautiful.  On the other hand, musical chops were essential, which resulted in some of the most tedious, self-indulgent music ever, and this has led to the whole genre being sharply unfashionable ever since.

And since this is in a chapter that begins with a quotation knocking Gentle Giant, I assume that Stanley intends ‘tedious and self-indulgent’ to refer to Giant, who he otherwise does not discuss at all.  They were the proggest of the progs, the most self-consciously intellectual and show-offy group of musicians perhaps ever assembled (aside from maybe the worst excesses of Frank Zappa, or possibly the Mahavishnu Orchestra).  On the cover of Gentle Giant’s second album, Acquiring the Taste (an album intended to introduce you to the pleasures of their music and genre), we find this pronouncement: “it is our intention to expand the frontiers of contemporary popular music, at the risk of being very unpopular.”  They never were afraid.  Their entire approach was very much ‘this is what we do.  Like it, or not.  We don’t much care.” Later, that changed; they wanted to be more popular, to sell more records, to make more money, and their music changed too, became more accessible, more commercial.  It didn’t work, and I think they knew it wouldn’t.  They had the most unique sound in the world, and not everyone was going to embrace it.

And I loved it.  I owned all their albums at one time, and listened to them a lot, and saw them in concert twice, once as the warm-up band for Yes, and the second time, as warm-up band for Jethro Tull.  Both concerts, something very strange happened; thousands of fans came for the warm-up band, and left after Giant left the stage.  We were there to hear Giant.  Fact was, I like Yes and Tull a lot too, and stayed both times, but I was in a minority.  Both times, easily half the audience scarpered after Gentle Giant’s set.

Here’s a song from Acquiring the Taste: “The House, The Street, The Room.” Give it a listen.  It starts with a long bass line, augmented by keyboard, and eventually guitar, but almost spooky, like the sound track to a particularly Grand Guignol horror movie.  We then hear Derek Shulman’s strong voice, with those enigmatic lyrics, harmonized by Ray Shulman with Kerry Minnear’s light tenor on the high notes.  (In performance, Minnear rarely sang). Then comes an instrumental interlude, with everything from pizzicato strings, some glockenspiel, some mandolin, very tight, very focused.  Then out of nowhere, a hard blues guitar solo, with Gary Green rocking out.  This is typical Giant.  Chamber music at times, but also unmistakably rock and roll.

The lineup kept changing, but the heart of the band were always three brothers, Phil, Ray and Derek Shulman.  Their father was a professional trumpeter, and insisted, growing up, that the boys learn multiple instruments: Ray started trumpet lessons at five, then violin lessons at seven.  They were joined by a friend, Kerry Minnear, who played keyboard and percussion; those four, the Shulmans and Minnear, all wrote the songs.  They added Gary Green, a blues guitarist who also could play mandolin, and drummer Martin Smith.  Between the six of them, they could play 43 instruments with professional competence; their musical chops are uncanny.  In concert, half the fun was watching them dash from instrument to instrument.

Most prog bands were British, for some reason, and fascinated by English myth and legend. So was Giant. A thread through many albums is the story of Pantagruel, a gentle giant who goes about the countryside helping (but also inadvertently scaring) the local citizenry.  Here’s Pantagruel’s Nativity from Acquiring the Taste. It starts with mellotron, adds some synthesizer, and is one of the rare Giant songs to feature Minnear’s voice. What I especially love is the three and four part harmonies they create, a Giant trademark.

Here’s a third song from Acquiring the Taste; my son’s favorite Giant song: Wreck. It’s about a shipwreck, and is often the case with Giant, alternates hard rock sections with chamber music; Ray Shulman’s violin is especially lovely in the first instrumental break.

After Acquiring the Taste, they dropped Martin Smith as drummer, and replace him with Malcolm Mortimer. They then recorded a concept album: Three Friends. It followed the lives of three childhood friends who, as adults, each take their lives in different directions.  One of the friends becomes a painter; this song, Peel the Paint is about his life.  Again, Ray Shulman’s violin is featured, but also Green’s shockingly disruptive guitar solos, with Derek Shulman’s powerful vocals, laying bare the turmoil underneath the successful artist’s facade.

After Three Friends, Malcolm Mortimer was nearly killed in a motorcycle accident, and although they wanted to keep him, they had just gotten a record deal and were under pressure to record quickly.  They replaced him with John Weathers, which proved an inspired choice; Weathers was another multi-instrumentalist, a fine percussionist in addition to just drumming.  His work added another level of complexity to their sound, and the result was their finest album, Octopus.  Here’s Knots, from that album, inspired by the word games of R. D. Laing.  It begins with their most complex vocal harmonies, then adds Weathers’ percussion.  First time I heard it, I didn’t like it, but it is a song that rewards multiple hearings.  Also from Octopus, another chapter in the Pantagruel extended story, The Advent of Panurge.

Following Octopus, Phil Shulman, who was eight and ten years older than his brothers, decided that his membership in the band was putting too much pressure on his wife and children, and quit.  The other five members carried on, and the result was an album, In a Glass House, that sounds a bit more like rock music.  Not all that much; the rhythmic complexity and multi-instrumental virtuosity were still on display, as per In a Glass House, the eponymous track from the album, which to me has a stronger jazz influence than heard in other albums and songs.

Their next album, The Power and the Glory, was very much a turning point.  They’d signed with a recording label, World Wide Associates (WWA), which was also Black Sabbath’s label.  It was not a good match.  This song, The Power and the Glory, was written by Derek Shulman, who hated it, under pressure from the studio, which wanted, not unreasonably, something commercial.  I know GG fans who like it, and consider it among the band’s best songs.  I think it’s, at best, mediocre Giant.

They quit WWA, and signed with Chrysalis, and Free Hand is the album that resulted. One of the ironies of Giant is that they were a British band, but always more popular in America than in Britain.  Free Hand became their biggest selling US album.  Again, some Giant fans think it’s pretty compromised, but I rather like it.  They certainly sound more polished, and the music is plenty complex, as, for example, the song Free hand.  I love the contrast between the intensity of Derek Shulman’s voice, and Minnear’s playful piano licks.  If this is Giant trying to be commercial, well, that was probably never going to happen.

And it didn’t.  They compromised and compromised, even, eventually, dropping all strings and woodwinds and percussion and reinventing themselves as a typical guitar, bass, drums, keyboard rock band, for the album Civilian.  And yet, even then, they stayed interesting, as per this song, Inside Out.  They’re just too good as musicians to write a boring song.

Finally, they broke up, and the split was fairly amicable. Derek and Ray Shulman got into the business end of the music world, and Phil opened a gift shop.  Minnear went into gospel, and now, by mutual agreement, handles all business matters regarding Gentle Giant.  Gary Green remains a session guitarist, very much in demand.  They have resisted for years calls for a reunion album or tour.

I still listen to their music, and my oldest son has become a Gentle Giant fan. As a nerdy bookworm and theatre kid in high school, they spoke to me as no other band could have done.  I still think they’re remarkable.  Give ’em a listen.  It may take a little while to get into the sound; they’re not like anyone else. But what they are is amazing.




Leave a Reply