The special jubilee issue of ‘Acid Dragon’ released in February, 1998 had a special feature on what Christian Staebler described as the ‘forgotten’ giant. ‘How can it be?’ asked Christian ‘that such a major group in terms of innovation never reached big success like other ‘classic rock’ groups?
I still refer you to Christian’s article for a history of the band but, as a quick reminder and update, will briefly sketch the history of Gentle Giant from my own perspective before going onto to have a chat with John Weathers drummer with the band from ‘Octopus’ onwards (to be read in our new issue).
‘Acquiring the Taste’
A study by Phil Jackson
GENTLE GIANT MARK 35TH ANNIVERSARY WITH RELEASE OF REMASTERED CATALOG FEATURING UNRELEASED MATERIAL
“Iconic progressive rock band Gentle Giant will mark the 35th anniversary of their formation with the release of seven of their albums, all re-mastered and re-packaged in a special 35th anniversary edition and containing previously unreleased material. The first two releases scheduled are ‘Free Hand’ and ‘In A Glass House’, both due in-stores May 10, 2005.”
Thus reads the press release on the official Gentle Giant website www.blazemonger.com/GG/
Now seems as good time as any to have a retrospective look at one of progressive rock’s most innovative, intricate and influential groups!
The early days: Simon Dupree and the Big Sound
Gentle Giant is described by Bill Martin in his book ‘Listening to the Future’ as ‘perhaps the most eclectic progressive rock band of all’.
There was little hint of what was to come between 1966 and 1969 when Simon Dupree and the Big Sound, the Giant’s predecessors, were very much a ‘pop group’ whose strongest creations like ‘Kites’ owe more to the ‘proto progressive’ Moody Blues than to any unique early manifestation of the progressive rock genre. Kites’ was in fact not typical of the band’s general output and it may surprise those unacquainted with the fact that the song was originally written by the same guy who wrote ‘Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini’. That is before the Big Sound applied their unique touch to produce a number that has become a ‘standard’ on flower power sixties music compilations! The band adopted the number reluctantly under considerable duress from their manager and, according to David Wells, transformed it from a ‘traditional romantic pop ballad to a spellbinding slice of British flower power pop, replete with gongs, woodblocks, finger cymbals, mellotron and swirling wind effects’. ‘Kites’ apart it appears as if Gentle Giant was a quantum leap away! However, on closer inspection of the EMI retrospective of Simon Dupree all the ingredients that were to be developed to produce the distinctive Gentle Giant were already there.
The reference point for the catalogue of Simon Dupree and the Big Sound is the ‘Part of My Past’ anthology on EMI. A marathon two CD set begins with their first single ‘I See the Light’, championed by pirate radio stations like Radio Caroline and, as with many major acts including The Beatles, by Brian Matthew on BBC’s ‘Saturday Club’. (To this day Brian’s ‘Sounds of the Sixties’ remains one of the best shows on mainstream radio and is broadcast on BBC Radio 2 between 8 and 10 am on Saturday mornings GMT). ‘Part of My Past’ includes the bands’ only released album ‘Without Reservations’ in mono and stereo as well as the singles and a host of unreleased tracks that were originally intended for a second album ‘Once More Unto the Breach, Dear Friends’. While some of the material might make you cringe with slight embarrassment (like an early Shulman attempt at song writing in ‘Teacher, Teacher’ that sounds like an anaemic pastiche of The Hollies and the bubblegum pop of ‘Broken Hearted Pirates’ described by Ray Shulman as ‘terrible’!) as with most music emanating from the period of ‘flower power’ there are plenty of psychedelic and classic pop nuggets to keep me, for one, very satisfied! If you get the chance have a listen to keyboard player Eric Hine’s ‘There’s a Little Picture Playhouse’, the trumpet driven ‘What is Soul?’. a good time ska version of Sam Cooke’s ‘Amen’ and ‘Velvet and Lace’, a satisfying mixture of The Beach Boys and The Moody Blues. The inclusion of mellotron on numerous songs adds greatly to the atmosphere and, incidentally, the mellotron was used so much, according to Phil Shulman, because ‘it was around Studio Two at Abbey Road, and the Beatles had used it heavily on Sergeant Pepper’s’.
Another interesting project was ‘We Are The Moles’ Parts One and Two’ (released as The Moles in 1968) rumoured at the time to be a pseudonymous Beatles release but revealed by none other than Syd Barrett backstage at a Top of the Pops show to be Simon Dupree and the Big Sound! It would influence an early song by XIC’s psychedelic project The Dukes of Stratosphere and go on to be covered by The Residents. It’s well worth checking out as probably the band’s finest moment outside of ‘Kites’. The charming pathos of another original composition ‘Please Come Back’ is also worth investigation as is ‘Castle in the Sky’ a song that would have graced the repertoire of The Moody Blues. Also of interest is Reg Dwight (Elton John’s) brief appearance on a few songs particularly the unreleased (at the time) self penned ‘I’m Going Home’. As David Wells points out in his sleeve notes though, Simon Dupree and the Big Sound were too like many other bands at the time like Manfred Mann (who had stronger material) and, towards the end, ‘they were being pushed into a similar kind of direction to the Love Affair, with strident, big production pop arrangements augmented by girlie backing vocals’. Before we leave Simon Dupree, Eric Hine went on to produce and contribute to overlooked RCA band The Shape of the Rain whose previously unreleased recordings were released in 2001 on Background, a subsidiary of Hi-Note Music.
Early Gentle Giant: life before ‘Octopus’
Maybe it’s the nostalgia of discovery, of being in on something right at the start, but I still consider Gentle Giant’s 1970 debut album to be one of the band’s finest achievements. The ‘concept’ is provided in the tongue in cheek fairy tale depicted by producer/ musician Tony Visconti in words on the sleeve and by the band in the fantastic heavy rocking opening track ‘Giant’ with wonderful organ and mellotron from ex Royal Academy of Music student Kerry Minnear in its middle section. ‘Funny Ways’ has the band sounding like a string quartet with Minnear on cello and Ray Shulman providing a deft touch on plucked and bowed violin while the ‘Latin rock’ of the chorus is inspired and Gary Green gets an early solo as Phil Shulman’s brass comes to the fore. The jaunty ‘Isn’t It Quiet and Cold?’ also with plucked violin, a vibes solo that should have been longer and some memorable cello playing by Claire Denis also became an established song in the band’s repertoire. This album really rocks with stunning organ and bass driven pieces like ‘Alucard’ (the name of the Shulman’s publishing company as Simon Dupree and also a supernatural narrative like Procol Harum’s ‘Dead Man’s Dream’ or Renaissance’s ‘A Trip to the Fair’ according to writer and musician Ed Macan in his book ‘Rocking The Classics’). Part of Alucard’s impact derives from its crazy synth solo and clever phased vocals. By the way try reading the word backwards! ‘Nothing At All’ comes next, a straightforward piece by the band’s standards with its bluesy soulful chorus and a Gary Green solo that doesn’t quite get off the ground, a phased drum solo lifting the momentum and a little classical piano reminiscent of another Vertigo band Gracious. This slips effortlessly into ‘Why Not?’ with classical organ, Phil Shulman’s recorder, and some intriguing lyrics leading to two guitar solos by Gary Green that this time go all the way! A twelve bar rock out concludes the track! 1 minute 40 seconds of ‘God Save the Queen’ concludes the album five years before Queen recorded it!
Gary Green commented ‘I wanted to lay down the expression I was putting into blues into another art of music’ Of course, it be must remembered that the Shulmans’ first incarnation was as The Howlin’ Wolves!
The liner notes to 1971’s ‘Acquiring the Taste’ describe the band’s musical ambition thus: ‘unique, adventurous and fascinating abandoning all preconceived thoughts on blatant commercialism. Instead we hope to give you something far more substantial and fulfilling, more experimental, more dissonant, and even more diverse instrumentation’.
‘Acquiring the Taste’ is a curious album quite unlike its predecessor in many respects with Kerry Minnear expanding his list of instruments to include harpsichord, cello, xylophone, vibraphone, mellotron, moog, celeste, electric piano, organ and piano! The multi-part vocals on ‘Pantagruel’s Nativity’ give the impression of listening to medieval monks and is a strong way of opening the album. ‘Edge of Twilight’ has a percussion section that should really be filed under ‘classical’ with Tony Visconti adding recorder. The title track is a solo Minnear piece that gives the impression of Walter/ Wendy Carlos’ ‘Switched on Bach’ while ‘Wreck’ could almost be a sea shanty! The album is to me disjointed and doesn’t segue the way their debut does. I may be wrong here but I detect little sense of fun and enjoyment compared with the freshness and excitement of ‘Gentle Giant’ and I sense some of the frustration of Harry Doherty writing in Melody Maker who, after witnessing a live performance stated that, although as usual Giant had proved themselves as versatile musicians ‘somewhere along the line they’ve forgotten to sit down and assess what they’re up to’ Nevertheless the album does begin to define the classic Gentle Giant sound that would emerge on the acknowledged classic ‘Octopus’ where the music would come into sharper focus and the listener would be engaged at a more visceral level. I kind of like Progression editor John Collinge’s description of Gentle Giant’s style as ‘arcane’ and ‘hybridized’. He says, “Acquiring the Taste’ didn’t come easily for me; the band always sounded overly quirky, odd and a bit annoying, especially the off-kilter vocal pattering it’s perhaps best known for.” However, “once these seemingly random complexities coalesce, you’re hooked’”. Maybe I need to listen that one extra time!
Certainly Gentle Giant biographer for Record Collector magazine and Vertigo chronicler Barry Winton doesn’t share my reservations giving the album ***** in the September 2005 edition and describing it as ‘musically an improvement on the first album, with the musicians working increasingly well together’. In his original feature on the band in ‘Record Collector’ #137 (Jan, 1991), Barry’s enthusiasm was unbounded describing the record as ‘a triumph’.
1972’s ‘Three Friends’ tells the story of three classmates and their destinies. Its obtuse overlong prologue leaves the listener frustrated, the promise of an energising guitar sequence unfulfilled. Somehow the minor chords and doom laden vocals of ‘Schooldays’ cry out for a more psychedelic treatment. ‘Three Friends’ does have its moments but even the breakneck vibe solo by Kerry Minnear lacks the impact of, say, Poli Palmer of Family’s brilliant break on ‘In My Own Time’. The direct approach of ‘Working All Day’ is much better but flounders on, not a rock (perhaps a lack of rock!) in the rather laboured organ and sax work- nothing wrong with the solos, just the tempo! Side two is much stronger the ‘big guitar riff’ brought to fruition on the much covered ‘Peel the Paint’- at last Gary Green, a bluesman at heart, is given free reign and produces a blazing blues rock guitar solo! Ray Shulman’s violin really swings as well! The title track reprises parts of what precedes it and is perplexingly anti-climatic. In short ‘Three Friends’ sounds like a band trying to find its way, on the verge of something utterly new and totally convincing nut not quite there yet. Its strange rhythmic and melodic changes serve only to confuse me after many attempts to ‘get into’ the album! Bill Martin describes the album as ‘eclecticism taken to the point of distraction’. Nevertheless, ‘Three Friends’ has many advocates and is a particular favourite of Kerry Minnear to this day so please make up your own minds!”
Gentle Giant comes of age: Octopus
‘Octopus’, also released in 1972, is generally accepted as a favourite among Gentle Giant and prog rock fans in general but it does have its detractors like Bill Martin who describes it as ‘overwhelmingly mechanical’ and lacking in charm. The ‘injections’ of early music (medieval western classical music) often referred to in any analysis of ‘Octopus’ started earlier than the ‘Octopus’ album, for example on ‘Edge of Twilight’ from ‘Acquiring the Taste’ but the defining Gentle Giant sound certainly seems to peak on this album and classically trained keyboard player Kerry Minnear is credited as being a driving force behind the development of this sound.
John Weathers, the subject of our interview (replacing the incapacitated Malcolm Mortimore on drums) was also to exert a great influence on the album. ‘Pugwash’ had learned well from his time with the Graham Bond Organisation, his crisp drumming providing the driving force the band so badly needed. Kerry Minnear commented, “It wasn’t until Octopus when John Weathers arrived that I really woke up to it as he offered a different type of drumming to anything I’d heard before.” In his words Gentle Giant became more of a rock ‘n’ roll band.
Starting off as an attempt to write 8 songs about 8 different individuals an ‘octo opus’, a bit like Elgar’s ‘Enigma Variations’ according to Kerry Minnear, the writers drew their inspiration from literary and philosophical figures like Albert Camus on ‘A Cry for Everyone’, one of the band’s finest songs, and from the psychiatrist R D Laing on ‘Knots’, a ‘latter day madrigal’ described in a MOJO magazine appreciation of the album as ‘a vocal jigsaw’. There is also a song about the satirical Rabelaisian giant Pantagruel in ‘Advent of Panurge’. It’s hard to believe that, with the exception of ‘River’ the tracks are only 3 to 4 minutes long- there’s so much going on. Martin Rushant’s ‘laugh’ and much rehearsed spinning coin (An approach the band would use to good effect with the shattering glass on ‘In A Glass House’) bring a reality to the music (put it ‘in your face’ so to speak), something that was missing on the previous two releases while ‘The Boys in the Band’, apart from being a fine piece of music and favourite of cover artists on tribute albums gave the group a chance to show off their musical prowess and ‘have a blow’. ‘Think of Me With Kindness’ is one of the band’s most beautiful creations and Phil Shulman’s incisive trumpet break maximises its impact while ‘Dog’s Life’, a back handed tribute to those unseen heroes, roadies, offers some humour. ‘Racounter Troubador’ with Derek Shulman’s lead vocal and brother Rays’ violin notable, provided the medieval touch, an ever present now in the band’s sound.
Hard times: Gentle Giant in the glass house
At the time of their next album Gentle Giant were going through a hard time. Speaking to MOJO magazine Kerry Minnear said, “We just about gave up with England in 1973. The last straw was when they sent us out on tour supporting a film- yes, just a film- of Jimi Hendrix.”(According to Barry Winton this occurred during the promotional tour for ‘Three Friends’ dating it probably to 1972 and the film was ‘Hendrix Plays Berkerley’)
Ray Telford, writing in ‘Sounds’ music paper shortly before the release of ‘Octopus’, states that ‘Gentle Giant are part of that small clique of British bands who seem to have a great deal more going for them on the continent and America than they do at home.”
Having left Vertigo and now recording on World Wide Artists (WWA), 1973’s ‘In A Glass House’ draws great strength from its strong conceptual base and is also remembered for its ‘silkscreen’ sleeve. However, the difficulties the band was experiencing were affecting the distribution of this excellent album. In the USA, despite a successful tour with Jethro Tull (with whom the band formed a close bond) and Black Sabbath, Columbia Records refused to release the album, considering it too uncommercial! It went on to sell in excess of 150,000 copies as an import!
On ‘In A Glass House’ the band use their by now famous ‘barber shop quartet’ vocals to devastating effect on ‘Runaway’ and the scene is set right away, the listener immediately engaged by a powerhouse rhythm section, biting guitar and the usual bewildering extent of the instrumental variety and creativity. According to prog writer Jerry Lucky the band weren’t entirely happy with the album but ‘it remains a fan’s favourite’. Certainly ‘Way of Life’ was added to the growing list of ‘standards’, a complex yet catchy number that is a good example of Gary Green’s growing stature as a guitar player adding licks that suggest jazz and ‘Frippisms’ as well as the more customary blues- and there some beautiful variations, an auditory feast contained within its 5 or 6 minutes! Note that the band was now again giving itself the space to expand into! ‘Experience’ has one of those stunning rhythm driven riffs leading to a stirring guitar break that would come to pre-eminence in ‘The Power and the Glory’ issued the following year. ‘An Inmate’s Lullaby’ is a very affecting piece, the darkness and desperation perfectly portrayed by the starkness Derek Shulman’s vocal accompanied only by tuned percussion.
The power and the glory
‘The Power and the Glory’ (1974) was released shortly after the conclusion of the Watergate scandal-and takes ‘politics and the Machiavellian attitude of those who dabble in it’ as its theme.
From the opening electric piano of ‘Proclamation’ you detect what Derek Shulman called the ‘more spontaneous feel’ on the album with many tracks laid down in 1 or 2 takes. ‘Playing the Game’ illustrates that often the simplest things work the best. ‘Aspirations’ is one of Gentle Giant’s finest reflective pieces with a touching lead vocal by Kerry Minnear and is quite jazz like in places. ‘Cogs in Cogs’, on the other hand, is 100 miles an hour stuff packing in many clever developments in almost staccato fashion- brilliant but, occasionally infuriating depending on what mood you’re in! All in all though ‘The Power and the Glory’ was a stunning achievement that proved the band could really rock- in their own inimitable way of course!
From Vertigo via WWA to Chrysalis: Gentle Giant take a ‘free hand’
The next development for Gentle Giant was when Terry Ellis signed the band to Chrysalis Records and their first album on the new label, ‘Free Hand’ was released in 1975. ‘Free Hand’ has been described as their ‘last good album’. Ed Macan, author of ‘Rocking the Classics’ for one, is a champion of this album (and of ‘Octopus’) suggesting that it further develops the approach by the Moody Blues using four vocalists to create a choral effect heard to good effect for example on ‘Legend of the Mind’ on ‘In Search of the Lost Chord’. Gentle Giant, he says, used ‘contrapuntal arrangements where two and even three separate vocal melodies are presented at the same time’ citing in particular ‘Knots’ (from ‘Octopus’) and ‘On Reflection’ as extending this to four-part vocal counterpoint of staggering complexity’- the opening and closing sections of the latter classified by Macan as fugues. Also the influence of medieval/ Renaissance music- ‘madrigal-like a capella vocal passages’ in the vein of Jethro Tull’s ‘Songs From The Wood’ and the music of Steeleye Span- is recognised.
Certainly ‘Freehand’ contains many strong songs like ‘Just The Same’ (sounding like Focus in places) ‘On Reflection’ and the title track, one of my favourite Giant numbers, a raw expression of anger and disillusionment. ‘Time to Kill’ repeats the old trick of engaging the listener by a sound sample, not of breaking glass this time, but by the irritating sound of that horrible bat ‘n’ ball game we used to play on our television sets. ‘Talybont’ is memorable for its use of recorder and harpsichord and perhaps Gentle Giant should be thought of as a ‘progressive folk’ band just as much as a ‘progressive rock’ band. My one reservation is the over elaborate arrangement that curtails the guitar solo on ‘His Last Voyage’ just as it begins to take off. Gentle Giant’s music can be tantalising and pulling off what Tony Mecca describes in Progression magazine as acquainting the ‘harder edge’ with ‘the customary use of syncopated rhythms and off-kilter time signatures’ can be a tricky business!
Beginning of the end for Gentle Giant
The media turned against prog rock in the mid to late 1970s and, in common with many other illustrious contemporaneous bands, their response to the rising tide of punk and New Wave was to release two rather lightweight albums in ‘Interview’ (1976) and ‘The Missing Piece’ (1977) described by Ed Macan as drawing on heavier, harder-edged sound (minus much of what set them apart and made them so unique) reminiscent of American stadium rock. Having released ‘Giant for a Day’ in 1978 to little response (despite the gimmick of where buyers were invited to make up their own mask from the sleeve and a US promo single from it coming as part of a Hallowe’en pack which included a trick or treat bag, a mask and a Gentle Giant lollipop!) they bowed out with ‘Civilian’ in 1980 by which time it was ‘clear that the change toward a simpler, harder-rocking style had been to no commercial avail’.
Despite the denigrations of these albums you will find advocates of songs from the period 1976-1980 on the excellent Gentle Giant website. Tony Mecca also picked out some songs worthy of the Gentle Giant name in the excellent Progression special ’35 Years of Gentle Giant’. For example, ‘I Lost My Head’ on ‘Interview’ ‘once again taps a medieval theme for its acoustically presented first half before morphing into an aggressive hard rocking and the ballad ‘I’m Turning Around’ on ‘The Missing Piece’ and the ‘understated and lovely’ ‘Shadows on the Street’ on ‘Civilian’ are also recommended.
Gentle Giant fan Diana Green singles out the reggae tinged protest song ‘Give It Back’ and ‘I Lost My Head’ from ‘Interview’. ‘Memories of Old Days’, inspired by George Orwell’s ‘Coming Up For Air’, from ‘The Missing Piece’ is described as ‘a perfect piece of music in every sense’. John Weathers’ ‘Friends’ from ‘Giant for a Day’ Diana considers to be ‘achingly beautiful’. ‘Shadows in the Street’ from ‘Civilian’ is ‘hopeful and uplifting’ while ‘Inside Out’ is a ‘haunting hypnotic whirlpool, a profound and moving examination of the emptiness of self’ and should be included on any ‘best of Gentle Giant’ anthology. It would of course be folly to ignore anything produced by this astounding band whatever the circumstances!
Gentle Giant’s place in progressive rock history
Musical analyst Ed Macan summarises the band’s music thus: “Gentle Giant added elements of cool jazz and renaissance music to the symphonic/ folk framework, creating a dauntingly complex approached characterised by spasmodic rhythms, dense textures and an extraordinarily varied instrumentation”.
Fan Diana Green, writing in ‘Progression’ says, “Gentle Giant stood musical convention on its ear by paradoxically deconstructing and simultaneously showing respect for a wide range of musical forms. Always exploring concepts of drama as well as subtly evoking humour, Gentle Giant made regular and effective use of pauses, changes in time signature, and development of different but related themes in pieces and in albums’.
Bill Martin seems less than enthusiastic, reticent even to include Gentle Giant as one of the giants of prog rock. Despite placing them firmly in the ‘elite’, his lack of analysis contrasts sharply with Macan’s. Bizarrely in the Billboard Guide to Progressive Rock (Bradley Smith, 1997) Gentle Giant are not even mentioned at all!
Although undoubtedly an acquired taste for some they surely deserve a place alongside the giants of prog rock like Yes, Genesis, King Crimson, Camel, ELP and Van Der Graaf Generator.
What is undeniable and remarkable is Gentle Giant’s continuing influence on major modern progressive artists like Spock’s Beard and Echolyn and on lesser known GG fanatics like Advent.
To hear the band at its best I recommend ‘Out of the Woods’, the BBC Sessions recordings on ‘Band of Joy’. If you do you’ll wonder why the song ‘City Hermit’ was never included on an album and marvel at the very different arrangement of ‘On Reflection’ and the ‘Octopus’ medley. Sadly for such an exciting and virtuosic band there are few live recordings of great quality, the standard reference being the double LP ‘Playing The Fool’ released in 1977. it seems unlikely that there will be any reunion of the band but fans and those interested in hearing one of the most unique bands in the history of music can turn to a DVD set entitled ‘Giant on the Box’ and a recently issued 4 CD set of unreleased material. Most of all though please check out Gentle Giant’s illustrious catalogue of releases, particularly between 1970 and 1975.
Read the interview in our new issue!