Mythical Stature: Gentle Giant, Part Two

Mythical Stature: Gentle Giant, Part Two

Written by Rich Isaacs

In the first installment of this two-parter, the three Shulman Brothers, along with Gary Green, Kerry Minnear, and John Weathers had completed recording their fourth album, Octopus, in 1972. They began touring the States in support of their third album, Three Friends, as the opening act to Black Sabbath. This proved to be an unfortunate pairing, due to the stylistic mismatch of the acts. The heavy metal audiences were not kind to the band. One most unusual set of gigs found them (without Sabbath) opening in England for screenings of the Jimi Hendrix concert film, Jimi Plays Berkeley. Subsequent tours in later years saw them opening for more compatible groups such as Jethro Tull or Yes. Some of the Yes dates even included The Eagles taking the stage between Gentle Giant and Yes. (Only slightly less weird than a show I saw in 1973 with Lark’s Tongues in Aspic – era King Crimson opening for The Eagles.)

Citing a desire to spend more time with his family, Philip Shulman, the eldest of the brothers by ten years, decided to quit the group while touring Italy following the release of Octopus. Although there was talk of disbanding, Gentle Giant decided to continue as a five-piece. Their first album as a quintet, and their first on their management’s British label, WWA, was In a Glass House. Philip’s absence was reflected in a diminished use of various acoustic instruments and greater reliance on Derek’s harder-edged vocals. Columbia declined to release it in the US, believing (to put it kindly) there was little commercial potential. It ended up selling quite well as an import. The album also marked a parting of the ways with their supremely talented engineer, Martin Rushent (perhaps he grew tired of seeing his last name misspelled on the previous two LPs). Rushent would go on to a very successful career as a producer/engineer of punk and new wave bands such as The Stranglers and The Human League.

In a Glass House, a concept album dealing with psychological issues is, to be sure, a more challenging album than their previous works. The opening track, “The Runaway,” begins with the sound of breaking glass, which is looped into a rhythmic pattern (similar to the cash register sounds that open Pink Floyd’s “Money”).


“An Inmate’s Lullaby” is an odd piece written from the perspective of a patient in an insane asylum. The much more up-tempo “Way of Life” switches gears midway through with a classically-tinged passage sung by Kerry Minnear before returning to the less-melodic style of the first part. It finishes with a section laden with counterpoint leading into a repeating organ riff that might have one thinking that (on the LP) the record was sticking.


“Experience,” the track that opens side two of the album, shifts through so many moods that, well, you just have to “experience” it.


The album’s sweetest and most melodic track is “A Reunion,” sung by Minnear, whose vocals have a tentative, hesitant quality. It’s a short piece with delicate guitars, contrapuntal bass, and strings lending an almost chamber-music feel.


(Just for fun, here’s a very nice Chapman stick rendition of “A Reunion” done by Rob Martino)


In a Glass House closes with the title track, another romp through multiple moods replete with saxophones, heavy riffs, light moments, and even some acoustic slide guitar, all underpinned by John Weathers’ deceptively simple drumming.


Tacked on at the end is a very brief collage of bits from the songs, book-ended by the sound of breaking glass.

Special mention should be made of the album’s cover, which can be seen in the videos. A thick black border frames a clear window onto which have been silk-screened the negative images of the five members playing instruments. Through the window, an insert can be seen with similar images, slightly offset, depicting the members playing different instruments. Above the window, the group and album names are set in a classy, understated font. The actual inner sleeve features the lyrics superimposed over a screened full-size image of the giant from prior covers. Altogether, it is a beautiful package.

Gentle Giant’s sixth studio album, The Power and the Glory, also featured an unusual cover. The image was that of the king of spades from a deck of cards, with rounded upper corners and old English “G” letters where the “K” would normally be. The British release on the WWA label was laminated, giving it a glossy look. In the US, they were now signed to Capitol Records, who produced the cover in the standard matte finish.

The Power and the Glory was another concept album, exploring themes of power and corruption. “Proclamation” opens with the distant roar of a crowd and an oddly processed electric piano riff. Derek sings, “You may not have all you want or you need, all that you have has been due to my hand” – the declaration of a purportedly benevolent leader. The track features plenty of their complex instrumental interplay, but also contains an uncharacteristically dissonant vocal glissando passage at the 3:20 mark that goes on a bit too long.


“So Sincere” expands on the concept of the benevolent overseer. The track became a featured part of their live show, ending with a full-on percussion extravaganza. All five members pound away on various drums and, at one point, the guitarist, drummer, and keyboard player are all playing xylophones. Here’s a live-in-the-studio example from a German TV show in 1974:


“Aspirations” is sung from the perspective of the populace yearning for salvation. Sonically, it is a beautiful, dreamy piece.


There is also an instrumental outtake of “Aspirations” available on some of the digital re-issues with variations on the bass line.

Often cited as a standout track, “Playing the Game” starts out with a truly unusual rhythmic counterpoint that includes the use of a vibraphone, the ring of a telephone, and the sound of a drumstick hitting a violin. In the lyrics, the leader boasts of his power, influence, and infallibility.


Side Two (all of the band’s albums were released prior to the introduction of the Compact Disc) opens with “Cogs in Cogs,” one of the more up-tempo cuts. “No God’s a Man” is a mellower track beginning in 3/4 time before running through other time signatures.


“The Face” is, again, faster-paced with shifting time signatures and violin and guitar solos in the middle. “Valedictory” features a funky beat and a brief reprise of the vocal glissando from “Proclamation.”

Not included on the original LP is (surprisingly) a track called “The Power and the Glory.”  The band had been urged by their label to create something commercial, and they gave the label three more songs, of which this was “the worst “ according to Derek Shulman. When WWA released it, “we yelled at them, and they gave it back – took it off the market.”


Gentle Giant’s last great studio album, their seventh, was Free Hand. Understandably unhappy with WWA, they had now signed with Chrysalis in the UK and the album was released in the US on the Capitol label. The album was successful enough to crack the Top 50 on the Billboard chart.

In keeping with their penchant for unusual intros, “Just the Same” starts with finger snaps playing off each other in the left and right channels leading into a bouncy 6/8 rhythm. The instrumental interlude in the middle goes from dreamy to funky, with saxes, synths, guitar, and handclaps before returning to the vocals and finger snaps.


“On Reflection” begins with an a cappella contrapuntal choral passage before introducing piano and tuned percussion. This then fades into a very pretty section sung by Minnear.


The title track’s instrumental intro is reminiscent of their work on Three Friends. Old-school video game sounds provide the opening for “Time to Kill.”  It’s a tale of a life adrift, someone living for the day. On “His Last Voyage,” a solo bass guitar states the initial musical theme. Minnear handles the vocals on this song of an ill-fated ocean adventure.


“Talybont” is a short instrumental with a medieval/renaissance feel.


The album closes with “Mobile,” a rocking song that could be about the touring life.

(Personal story – when Free Hand was released in 1975, I had just graduated from San Francisco State University and was still working in a Wherehouse record store near campus. The neighborhood was predominantly African-American, so we sold a lot of soul and R&B records. Despite this, I had cultivated a small clientele of progressive rock fans. One day the phone rang, and a man asked if we had the new Gentle Giant album. I said we did, he asked how much, and said he’d be right down. This middle-aged white guy walks in and asks, “Where’s the new Gentle Giant album?” I led him to it and he said, “I’ll take it!”  I asked him, “Have you heard it?” and he said, “No,” so I just had to ask him why he was buying it. He replied, “Some of the boys in the band are my wife’s nephews.”

Shocked, I said, “you’re kidding – the Shulman brothers?” He said yes, and I told him I’d really like to talk with him some more. He said, “No problem, I run the barber shop down the street.” When Gentle Giant played the Berkeley Community Theatre a short time later, he had the band autograph my copy of In a Glass House, got me backstage, and I was able to do an interview with Derek Shulman. Sad to say, my tape of the interview was not listenable, due to the ambient noise and multiple conversations happening at the same time. I did feel a bit chagrined – though not directly responsible – when their next album, Interview, was a concept piece expressing their displeasure with the constant demands of promotion and the music press repetitively asking for information about the band.)

Interview was their eighth studio album, and a disappointment. Musically, it broke no new ground, and everything that had been impressive and endearing about their instrumental and vocal interplay up to that point started sounding annoying and unmelodic. Even Derek Shulman later was quoted as saying it “was the start of the erosion.” Take a listen to the title track, “Interview,” and you will probably agree. It has many of the elements of classic Gentle Giant music, yet something is off.


The last album to showcase their progressive sound was the 1977 live double LP Playing the Fool. A number of bootleg albums had been produced from their live shows over the years, including one entitled Playing the Foole. Capitol Records felt the need to make a distinction by putting “The Official Live Gentle Giant” on the cover. The material skewed toward the latter phase of their career, but included a few earlier numbers as well as a brief acoustic instrumental version of “Sweet Georgia Brown” in the style of Django Reinhardt’s Quintet du Hot Club de France.


“Excerpts from Octopus,” is a medley of themes from that album featuring some precision acoustic guitar interplay from Gary Green and Ray Shulman, along with a recorder trio performed over very funky bass and drums. No other band could have done something like this. Here’s a smoking version from a 1974 performance on Belgian television.


Two double LP compilations had been released in the UK, 1975’s Giant Steps…the first five years and 1977’s facetiously titled Pretentious – For The Sake Of It.

Unfortunately, the punk rock movement had begun, and progressive bands were now considered “dinosaurs.”  Pressure to create shorter, simpler, more commercial songs resulted in their ninth studio LP, The Missing Piece. This was not the Gentle Giant sound their loyal audience had grown to appreciate. In those days, the record labels often came up with clever promotional items relating to the album in an effort to get the attention of radio station music directors and journalists. For this one, Capitol made a 12” by 12” jigsaw puzzle with the image of the giant (with a piece missing, of course). Despite their efforts, the album did poorly, appealing neither to the hoped-for new audience nor longtime fans.

The most appealing track, “Memories of Old Days,” is also the album’s longest, at just over seven minutes. Although lacking the complexity of their earlier work, it has some lovely acoustic guitar interplay.


In stark contrast with that dreamy piece, most of the other songs are upbeat, and clock in at around three minutes. One of the few songs on the LP to remind one of Gentle Giant’s halcyon days, “As Old As You’re Young” is a bouncy number, and the only one sung by Kerry Minnear.


There’s even a tongue-in-cheek attempt at the raw energy of punk in the aptly named “Betcha Thought We Couldn’t Do It.”


The band got one last shot with Capitol, 1978’s Giant for a Day. Unfortunately, it proved to be a continuation of their slide into irrelevance. Pedestrian rockers and lighter songs devoid of substance predominate, and none of them even approach the five-minute mark. Rather than pick out individual tracks, I’ll just link to the full album and let you click through.


Gentle Giant re-signed with Columbia records for Civilian, their eleventh and final studio album. It was their first to be recorded in the US, and utilized noted engineer Geoff Emerick (whose credits include The Beatles and many others). The sound, though, is denser and murkier than their earlier albums. Released in 1980, it was pretty much a straightforward rocker with no prog elements, but the songs were certainly an improvement on the previous disc. An air of cynicism and disillusionment permeates the lyrics of many of the tracks. A pounding drumbeat and synthesizer sequencing introduces “Convenience (Clean and Easy),” the album’s up-tempo first track.


“All Through the Night” features some tasty electric guitar from Gary Green.


The moody “Shadows on the Street,” is sung, of course, by Kerry Minnear. Despite the slightly dark lyrics, it’s quite pretty.


“Number One” is a pointed complaint about inconsiderate people. It starts with a very deceptive riff. See if you can find the downbeat before the drums come in.


On Side Two, the sound of a train in the London tube opens “Underground.”

“Inside Out” is the album’s other down-tempo track. The song features a haunting chorus line of “Do I need lifting.”


Subliminal messages in the media get exposure in “It’s Not Imagination.”


The original LP ends with a very brief sound collage of four words “That’s/All/There/Is” taken from the other songs on the album. The fact that the band broke up following the tour that promoted Civilian makes those words prophetic. There is a bonus track on some of the digital releases, “Heroes No More,” that could also be interpreted as self-referential.


Gentle Giant was an utterly unique band that deserved a much larger following. If you didn’t know about them before, I hope you’ve come to appreciate them.

Header image: Gentle Giant promo photo, 1976.

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