Gentle Giant, possibly the most musically and instrumentally diverse group in all of progressive rock, actually had its roots in rhythm and blues. Like so many UK youth in the Sixties, the Shulman brothers were fans of American soul and blues artists, and wanted to emulate them. Their first band was initially known as The Howling Wolves, a name that was subsequently changed to The Roadrunners R&B Band.
Philip, Derek, and Ray Shulman were raised in a musical household. Sons of a jazz trumpeter, each became proficient on multiple instruments at an early age. Guitar, bass, saxophone, trumpet, recorder, and violin were among the many others they would ultimately incorporate into Gentle Giant compositions.
Things didn’t start happening for the group until, at the suggestion of their manager, they were renamed Simon Dupree and the Big Sound and began working in the pop/psychedelia genre. EMI Records gave them a contract, and 1967 saw them landing a UK top ten single with “Kites,” a track that was not included on their album Without Reservations. None of the other singles charted nearly as well as “Kites.”
Here are two examples of the Simon Dupree sound:
Despite their initial success, the Shulmans were unhappy with the new direction. They even went so far as to put out a single under the pseudonym The Moles. “We Are the Moles” was a fairly forgettable bit of psychedelia that may have been the inspiration (along with “I Am the Walrus”) for “The Mole From the Ministry,” from XTC’s psychedelic tribute incarnation as The Dukes of Stratosphear.
Although Simon Dupree had incorporated a much wider range of instrumentation than most groups of the era, frustration on the part of the brothers led them to disband in 1969 in hopes of finding even more accomplished and adventurous musicians with whom to write and perform. Gentle Giant took shape with the addition of Kerry Minnear, a Royal Academy of Music alumnus who played keyboards, cello, tuned percussion, and recorder, and Gary Green, a blues-based guitarist who also played mandolin and recorder. Drummer Martin Smith was the only holdover from the previous band.
The band signed with UK label Vertigo Records, and the legendary Tony Visconti, who was featured in Copper issues 96 & 97, produced their first album. Roy Thomas Baker (of Queen fame) engineered their eponymous debut LP, which was not released in the U.S.
Gentle Giant features cover art nearly as arresting (though not so disturbing) as the first King Crimson album. The friendly face that fills the front is part of an illustrated aerial view of the giant holding the band members in his hands. The cover unfolds vertically to reveal the complete image. Liner notes inside tell the fanciful tale of the giant.
That album was the ambitious (and auspicious) debut of a band that would expand the boundaries of rock music through diverse instrumentation and changing moods. The opening track, “Giant” (what else?), begins with a quiet organ bit before plunging into heavier territory featuring Derek Shulman’s forceful vocals. Soon, that power yields to more contemplative, almost spacey, passages before returning to the heavy riffs.
The next track, “Funny Ways,” brings a complete change of style. Violin and cello evoke a chamber music feel, complimented by Phil Shulman’s softer vocals. More mood and tempo shifts follow, even including a bit of bluesy electric guitar. Because this piece so perfectly captures their range, it became a staple of their live shows for years.
“Alucard” is a darker work, with angular and extended riffs using bass, saxophone, guitar and Moog. “Isn’t It Quiet and Cold?” finishes side one on a lighter note, with strings alternating 3/4 and 4/4 time, and even features a xylophone solo.
Side Two begins sweetly enough with acoustic guitars, bass, and vocals on “Nothing at All.” True to the “Giant style,” it soon goes off into unexpected places, including a heavily phased drum solo/piano freak-out. The overall effect is not nearly so disjointed as it may seem.
The last significant cut on the album (it actually ends with a brief throwaway rendition of “God Save the Queen” and some synthesizer noodling) is “Why Not?,” a rocker that includes some fine blues guitar from Gary Green.
Acquiring the Taste, their second LP, would be worthy of a feature all on its own. It represented a major step in their musical evolution. To quote their liner notes: “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 musical and technical knowledge to achieve this. From the outset we have abandoned all preconceived thoughts on 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.”
With Visconti again producing, and new engineer Martin Rushent working the board at Advision Studios, the album is a tour de force. No two tracks are remotely similar in mood or instrumentation, although sophisticated vocal arrangements featuring harmony and counterpoint find their way into many of the songs and each one goes in multiple directions. Acquiring the Taste was their first LP to be released in the USA (on Vertigo through Mercury), and is an album best appreciated through good headphones.
“Pantagruel’s Nativity” tells the story of the giant conceived (along with Gargantua) by François Rabelais in the 1600s. Nearly every instrument in their arsenal is put to use in this difficult-to-describe track.
“Edge of Twilight” is a softer piece featuring some very creative engineering. The percussion break in the middle utilizes snare drum, tympani, and xylophone.
“The House The Street The Room” darkens the mood, obliquely describing a tale of drug use in the dealer’s home. An off-kilter middle section mixing recorder (played by Visconti), piano, trumpet, violin, clavichord, and xylophone leads to a very heavy riff.
The album’s title track is a short synthesizer solo straight out of Bach’s baroque work.
Side Two begins with “Wreck,” which chronicles a shipwreck with wailing vocals, and includes a multi-recorder passage that would be right at home on an album of Renaissance music. “The Moon is Down” goes down tempo, featuring woodwinds and harpsichord before breaking into a faster, jazzy middle section. “Black Cat” perfectly captures the seductive and unpredictable moves of a feline, at times using instruments to mimic a cat’s cry.
“Plain Truth” is the album’s most obvious rocker. It opens with violin played through a wah-wah pedal, then introduces a rock riff that alternates between 5/4 and 4/4 time signatures. The violin solos through most of the rest of the track.
Gentle Giant’s third album marks their initial attempt at a concept album. Three Friends explores the lives of schoolmates who grow apart, with one becoming a road digger, another an artist, and the third pursuing a white-collar career. It coincided with some major changes for the band. They switched labels in the USA, signing with Columbia. Original drummer Martin Smith left, and was replaced by Malcolm Mortimore. For the first time, the album was self-produced, resulting in a somewhat more homogenized sound, although Martin Rushent (misspelled on the cover as Martin Rushkent) again served as engineer.
The UK release on Vertigo featured a somewhat stylized drawing of three figures, but for the US version, Columbia decided to use the more arresting illustration of the giant from their first album.
The opening track, “Prologue,” is just that, an introduction to the story. Quirky rhythms and instrumental interplay are juxtaposed with intricate vocal arrangements.
“Schooldays” is a beautiful piece of music, describing the innocence and friendships of childhood. Along the way, Philip Shulman’s son Calvin provides a sweet counterpoint to his father’s vocals, accompanied by mellotron and piano. There’s a nice jazzy vibraphone solo in there, too.
“Working All Day” gives voice to the frustrations of the blue-collar worker. Derek Shulman’s gruff vocals play well off of Philip’s baritone sax work. “Peel the Paint” starts out all sweetness and light before descending into madness, representing the artist’s inner demons with a free-form, Hendrix-y guitar and drum sequence.
The white-collar worker’s story is heard in “Mister Class and Quality?” The bass line that provides counterpoint to the guitar and organ at the opening will re-emerge as the main theme in the album-ending title track, “Three Friends.”
Gentle Giant toured the States off and on beginning in mid-1972. They first opened for Black Sabbath, with whom they shared management. The situation was not ideal – the Sabbath crowds were generally hostile, even to the point of throwing a cherry bomb onstage during Gentle Giant’s set at one gig, prompting them to leave the stage with some choice words.
Later tours saw them paired with more compatible artists, among them Jethro Tull, Yes, and The Strawbs, yet even then, they were not always well received. There is an incredible website filled with news clippings, show flyers, and recollections detailing their tour history at: http://ggconcerts.on-reflection.org.
The UK version of their fourth album, Octopus, bore a beautiful foldout cover painting of an octopus done by Yes artist Roger Dean. For some reason, when it was released here by Columbia, it was given a completely different cover. The illustration is that of an octopus in a canning jar, with the band’s name written along the lid and “Octopus” seemingly embossed on the side. Initial runs were die-cut with ridges like the profile of the jar.
Prior to recording the album, drummer Malcolm Mortimore had been seriously injured in a motorcycle accident, forcing yet another change of percussionists. John “Pugwash” Weathers, a veteran of numerous Welsh bands, was brought in. He would prove to be the permanent member the band needed.
Octopus could be reasonably described as an extension of Acquiring the Taste – mirroring that album’s incredible range of styles and sounds. The opening track, “The Advent of Panurge,” introduces a companion giant to Pantagruel. “Raconteur Troubador” incorporates violins, bass drum, tambourine, keyboards, trumpet, and echoing vocals.
One of the heavier tracks is “A Cry for Everyone,” full of rhythmic variations and complex instrumental interplay, with lyrics inspired by the literature and philosophy of Albert Camus. “Knots” showcases their propensity for intricate vocal arrangements.
The album’s lone instrumental piece, “The Boys in the Band,” is explained in the liner notes as using the full band, including engineer Martin Rushent (who once again suffers the indignity of having his name misspelled – this time as “Rushant”). It opens with a laugh and the sound of a coin being spun on a tabletop. What follows is a high-energy, ever-changing romp. The next track, “Dog’s Life,” is described as a “backhanded tribute to our roadies.” The odd sound of a reed organ combined with strings makes for a unique sonic experience.
“Think of Me With Kindness” is a sweet lament featuring piano and solo voice before adding drums and brass – the most straightforward arrangement of all on the LP. “River” closes out the record by “creating several atmospheres within the boundaries of one song by using the various electronic devices at our disposal in the recording studio.”
Of course, that description could apply to almost any piece of music created by this most versatile and virtuosic group of musicians. The second phase of their career will be covered in a subsequent article.
Header image: Gentle Giant promo photo, 1975.