I remember my first introduction to Gentle Giant as if it was yesterday. The lending of a cassette of In a Glass House. I was gobsmacked. Still am, in fact. I always remained miffed that Fluff never played them as much on his shows as he did some others I thought deserved less limelight.
The irony of it is that I came in part way through their musical journey, and only occasionally dipped into their back catalogue. But here it is. Loud and Proud. Or rather sometimes loud, sometimes proud, often complicated, and always clever.
So the background is: the three Shulman brothers had previously formed Simon Dupree and the Big Sound with three other musicians back in in 1966, signed to Parlaphone for 9 singles 1966-69 (and one as The Moles in 1968) and one 1967 album. Disbanding late 1969, the three brothers formed Gentle Giant Feb in 1970, taking on drummer Martin Smith (a later Simon Dupree band member) and Kerry Minnear. The latter had graduated from the Academy of Music in 1969 with a degree in composition, joined them on keyboards and vocals, and guitarist Gary Green completed the lineup in March 1969. The group signed to progressive label Vertigo. How apt – their music can be dizzying, even if they never reached the dizzying heights they deserved.
Other musicians on the album included Paul Cosh (tenor horn) on Giant and Claire Deniz (cello) on Isn’t It Quiet And Cold?. But here’s what surprises me. The album is not that well recorded (in my opinion) and doesn’t display their musical talent to the best, and yet who was engineer and producer? Roy Baker and Tony Visconti respectively. Well I never. Was it simply because this band were so unique, with such compact, complicated, thorough arrangements, using counterpoint and polyphony unlike anyone else?
“Giant” as elsewhere underlines the inherent jazz grooves that the band would use to such good effect, with Kerry’s use of organ simply clever. “Funny Ways” is a classic appearing on compilations to this day. Classical instruments – Ray’s gorgeous violin and Kerry’s cello for goodness sake, providing that unique selling point. Worth mentioning that their musical diversity was matched by their use of different vocalists in the band as well – another usp. Touching and clever and a future vibes showcase for Kerry.
“Alucard” (somebody says everyone knows it is Dracula spelled backwards – erm I didn’t, but now it makes sense!) is a playful piece that allows the band free reign. The processing of voices and instruments within the mix, the solid but jazzy drumming, the wild organ, the cacophonous free for all, make this a riotous release. “Isn’t It Quiet and Cold” could almost be a bit of Vivian Stanshall or McCartney nonsense, violin, cello, acoustic guitar, brushed drums with a bouncy marimba solo. The sort of thing Queen would evoke with the likes of ‘Seaside Rendevouz’ in similarly contrary track-listings between epics.
Back in the day, “Nothing at All” would have been at the start of side 2 of an LP. It is a nine-minute highlight. Descending delicate figures and lovely Derek vocal with occasional harmonies suggest a sunny, slightly psychedelic tone and almost a bit Trespass Genesis or CSNY/America at times. Increased vocal harmonies help develop the tune before the key riff comes through in some delicious interplay. The heavier section of screamed vocals, multi-tracked guitar parts has a slight Jethro Tull edge to it before an extended solo section featuring heavily processed drums raises and lowers the mood. You then get Kerry playing a Liszt section contrary to Martin’s energy, clashing and counter intuitive, before the return to the earlier pastoral theme.
“Why Not” is a full-on blues-laden number, typically complex for the rhythm section, and some nice organ playing alongside a classic guitar riff, and a delicious woodwind break giving a hint of their medieval leanings before a later full on blues rock out to close. Or nearly to close, because…… the ending tune, “The Queen” – which predates the band Queen’s similar but better-known irreverent take on the national anthem by five years – provides the tongue in cheek close.
So, bearing in mind the difference in the Simon Dupree sound – very different (and to be honest, more basic) compared to this newly emerging group, this was an astonishing leap, in fact. The band sounds quite fully formed, at ease with themselves, deep into instrument experimentation, complexity of song structure and thematic drama. A confident starter indeed.
Gary Green – lead guitar, 12 string guitar
Kerry Minnear – keyboard, some bass, cello, lead vocals, backing vocals, some tuned percussion
Derek Shulman – lead vocals, backing vocals, some bass
Phil Shulman – sax, trumpet, recorder, lead vocals, backing vocals
Ray Shulman – most bass, violin, some guitar, percussion, backing vocals
Martin Smith – drums, percussion
- Giant (6:22)
- Funny Ways (4:21)
- Alucard (6:00)
- Isn’t It Quiet And Cold? (3:51)
- Nothing At All (9:08)
- Why Not (5:31)
- The Queen (1:40)