Hey, all! My name is David, and this week I’ll be hijacking, er, “curating” OWOB with a feature on the band Gentle Giant.
For the curious and impatient, here’s some raw stats on the group: English progressive rock, active 1970-1980, 6 members (became 5), 3 brothers (became 2), 11 studio albums, 0 hits, and a few rabid fans left to show for it. Their lack of commercial success was due primarily to the brand of music they played - an extraordinary complex, uncompromising, thorny, and dissonant variety of prog. Yes, it’s going to be a lovely week indeed.
But what you get in exchange, I’d argue, makes it worth it. Namely, among other things -
1. Mind-bending genre hopping (and genre twisting) over those 11 years, everything from hard rock to british blues to jazz to 20th century classical music all put through a fine filter of weirdness.
2. Incredible musicianship, and I really do mean incredible - all the band members sang and played multiple instruments at a professional level (guitars, keyboards, trumpet, sax, xylophone, violin, and cello to name a few) and would often switch instruments with one another mid-concert!
3. A real sense of humor, believe it or not, which was a prized rarity among 70s prog acts. The band was dead serious (and very pretentious) about their music, but very playful within it. The end result of all this is
4. An utterly unique sort of music within the rock canon. No one has sounded or ever will sound like this band. It just takes a little work (and a fair amount of tolerance) for the listener to get there.
Finally, a quick but necessary disclaimer, if only for my own sanity. In case you’ve somehow not noticed by now, I am not a great or natural or polished writer like so many of this site’s previously featured authors. I’m hoping to make up in enthusiasm what I lack in ability, but things might get rough out there. I ask for your patience and understanding.
If you have any feedback, comments, or criticisms, I’d love love love for you to shoot me a line here.
On with the show!
Let’s start at the beginning, a very good place to start. Before there was Gentle Giant, there was Simon Dupree and the Big Sound - pictured above in 1967. The Big Sound (guh, what a name) was the first musical incarnation of the three Shulman brothers, who would later form the core of Gentle Giant.
The important players here are Derek “Simon Dupree” Shulman (b. 1947) on the far right, the lead singer. Ray (b. 1949) is on the far left, bassist and backup vocals. And Phil (b. 1937) is second from left - originally their manager, he eventually jumped in and played pretty much whatever odd instrument they needed at the moment.
Here’s Simon Dupree and the Big Sound performing their only hit, “Kites”, in 1968. A thoroughly mediocre single designed to capitalize on the burgeoning psychedelic movement with Orientalist trappings, it somehow - astoundingly - reached #9 UK. The band hated it, and its mild success led to them being pigeonholed as cabaret balladeers, which then led to them breaking up. This single would end up being more popular and charting higher than anything the future Gentle Giant would ever put out.
It’s kind of interesting to note in this video that after “Kites” (which was written for them) the band plays a song that they wrote themselves called ”Thinking About My Life” - and it’s really quite good! They also, not coincidentally, start looking like they’re actually having fun during the second song.
Yikes. A lot of PR nonsense on this page. Let’s see, we have
- Playing up the death of the Shulman patriarch for sympathy points
- Wrong about the writer of “Kites” (it was by some guys named Lee Pockriss and Hal Hackaday, not Eve King)
- Wrong about “For Whom the Bell Tolls” (it didn’t chart)
- Wrong about Jacqui Chan (born in Trinidad and living in England, she spoke no Chinese.)
Pretty standard nonsense, but it drove the guys in the band crazy. They were not cut out for 60s stardom, to say the least.
(Gentle Giant in 1970. From L to R: guitarist Gary Green, Phil Shulman, Ray Shulman, keyboard player Kerry Minnear, Derek Shulman, drummer Martin Smith)
Ok, so imagine you are the brothers Shulman in 1969/70. You’ve just gotten out of a wretched experience in a pop group that’s pretty much soured you (wrongly, I might add!) on the possibility of commercial success without sacrificing integrity. In the mind of the band, they absolutely must at all cost be seen as Serious Independent Musicians. What direction are you going to take? I suppose they could have retreated into the counterculture, but it was never really their scene - too loose, too drug-addled, and by 1970 too commercialized to boot.
There was at the time, however, this nifty band called King Crimson that put out an album in ‘69, and that path looked awfully intriguing. In the Court of the Crimson King was, and is, a thrilling and bombastic record. A unique blend of rock tradition with classical and jazz elements, it practically screamed “serious music” - 5 songs in 40 minutes, long and difficult instrumental passages, pompous poetic lyrics. For a talented band with what, at that time, amounted to disdain for practically all popular music, it was a way forward.
Hey guys, we could totally make a record like that!
So they did! Gentle Giant’s first self-titled album came out in 1970, and bore more than a passing resemblance to King Crimson’s first record, right down to the album cover. The sound they achieve at times, with swirling jazz horns behind rock instrumental passages, is basically a King Crimson ripoff.
But that’s not to say that it’s bad! This album is, in my opinion, neither as good nor as important as In the Court…, but it’s a great deal more diverse and charming. The modest production (by Tony Visconti!) robs the music of some punch, but it gives back a warmth to the sound that would be pretty much absent in all future releases. It’s a short record, less than 37 minutes, which is almost never a bad thing in the progressive rock world. And the stylistic range they cover for a debut is very impressive, although you could argue that they don’t successfully integrate all the sounds they’re trying out into something cohesive.
Most importantly, every song is Good. Let’s hear a few.
Nothing at All is the longest track on their debut, and it’s a good representation of what the record sounds like - lots of nice moments and almost always enjoyable, even if it doesn’t all come together in the end. The track starts with a lovely atmospheric passage with layered guitars and vocal harmonies, then gives way to some tasty straight up blues riffing, which then leads to a very pointless drum solo and Kerry Minnear playing Liszt for no apparent reason, and eventually devolvs into some atonal piano noodling. It’s all over the map, needless to say, but for the most part they pull it off, even if the song overstays its welcome by a few minutes. What’s most impressive to me is the ability to, in one track, ape CSN, early Fleetwood Mac, AND Cecil Taylor with their respectability intact.