A short history of Gentle Giant
Copyright © 2001 Geir Hasnes
The three Shulman brothers had previously formed Simon Dupree and the Big Sound with three others in 1966. They cut 9 singles 1966-69 (and one as The Moles in 1968) and one album in 1967, all for Parlophone. The act played R&B and soul and ventured into psychedelia and pop. After disbanding late 1969, the three brothers formed Gentle Giant Feb 1970, bringing drummer Martin Smith, who had joined Simon Dupree early 1969, with them. Kerry Minnear, who had graduated from the Academy of Music in 1969 with a degree in composition, joined them on keyboards and vocals, and guitarist Gary Green was brought in to complete the lineup in March. The group were then signed to progressive label Vertigo.
Their first album displayed their thorough arrangements, utilizing counterpoint and polyphony like no other groups within rock had ever done and would ever do until this day. Their multipart singing and use of classical instruments were in line with the current scene, only that they brought these aspects much farther.The group toured extensively mostly in the UK and built a cult following.
Their next album, Acquiring the Taste (1971), expanded their frontiers further, dipping into jazz, folk and complicated harmonies and chord progressions, but the satiric cover art and their vow inside to run the risk of being unpopular with their musical experimentation failed its target and gave them a somewhat pretentious image, which they never managed to get rid of. Nevertheless, the album impressed Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, who asked the group to support them on their European tour in early 1972. Drummer Martin Smith then left to lead a quieter life as drummer in various outfits on the south coast. Young and aspiring Malcolm Mortimore replaced him and the next album, Three Friends, was recorded. This was the group's first concept album with a rockier edge and longer compositions.
As they were to embark on the promotional tour in the Spring of 1972, Mortimore had a motorcycle accident and John Weathers was brought in, to replace him permanently. After recovering, Mortimore continued to play and record professionally, and still does Weathers brought a solid foundation to the group’s complexity and they achieved enormous popularity particularly in Germany and Italy. They hastened back to record Octopus, their last album for Vertigo, with the famous Roger Dean cover, for many their ultimate achievement, displaying a versatility and blending the various styles into an ultra-progressive album. They then embarked on their first US tour with Black Sabbath, to promote Three Friends that had been released by Columbia with heavy promotion, but the two acts didn’t fit together. They were saved by Ian Anderson who asked them to support Tull on their US tour and the group finally broke through in the USA, though not on a large scale.
The group then went home to support Groundhogs and promote Octopus which was released late 1972. Sadly, in the USA the record company chose not to use the Dean cover, didn’t release the record until the following year, and then Phil Shulman handed in his resignation. He was 10 years older than the rest of the band and although the band’s musical leader, he chose his family above the music business and quit music altogether. Black Sabbath had formed their own company World Wide Artists (WWA) to re-release their whole catalogue, and Gentle Giant now moved to WWA with a view to doing the same.
Their fifth album, In a Glass House from 1973, was and is still awesome and among GG fans regarded as their best album, although the loss of Phil would come to mean toning down the gentler side and the use of the acoustic instruments. In the USA the record company refused to release the album on the ground that it was too eclectic and undigestible, but it then sold 250,000 on import. The group now headlined some of their tours and was particularly well received on the West Coast and in Canada. The extensive touring continued and the next album, The Power and the Glory, brought their complex rhythmic and atonal experimentation to new heights. This album was released in the USA by Capitol and sold well, but the group was being ripped off by WWA in the UK, who folded shortly thereafter.
In 1975 Gentle Giant headlined most of their concerts and released Free Hand on Chrysalis which made it to top 30 in the UK and the top 50 in the USA, making it their best selling album ever. The album probably represents the height of their sophisticated techniques, the atonality had been toned down and the tremendous interplay was taken to its extreme. To cash in on the success they rushed the recording of the next album and the end result, Interview, which was released in 1976, failed to some extent although charting in various European countries. It was based upon silly questions made by music journalists, but this backfired as it was too introspective and not as developed as previous albums. Some of the acoustic instruments had been excluded as the group opted for more of a rock image, but the cover art failed to reflect this. The group thus gave up on England after touring in the Summer. A double live album, Playing the Fool, recorded at their European tour in the Autumn was released in 1977 and showed the group’s rearrangements of studio material for live purposes. It was stunning to know that the band members actually performed their incredibly complex tunes on stage. The album probably represents the group at their peak of popularity, and subsequently they made a decision to play their new material live before recording it.
At this time, many progressive acts had given up or given in to a more commercial style, and the Shulman brothers chose midway in making their next album to go for a simpler, more AOR oriented approach, to follow the musical trend. The Missing Piece, released at the end of 1977, contained their last progressive excursions and their first singles material, which, of course, failed to make the expected impression on the young. Meanwhile, other progressive rock acts either gave up or gave in and the same happened to Gentle Giant. They quit touring for a while and recorded Giant for a Day, which contained short songs to cash in on the new wave and bring the group new fans while the cover art was deliberately made un-progressive to show the new direction. The record which was released in 1978 and its ill-conceived cover sadly show their lack of understanding basic rock’n’roll and appalled their fans while attracting no one else. In 1979 the group made a final attempt to obtain commercial success with the hard-rock stadium oriented Civilian. It was released in 1980 accompanied by a US tour, but the approach failed once again and the group disbanded at the end of the tour.
Derek Shulman became A&R man for Atco and has been in the business on the executive side since. Ray Shulman and Gary Green made another attempt together under the band name Shout, but their only single released in 1982 bombed without a trace. Ray Shulman then made television and advertising music, in 1987 started producing and in 1994 started making computer games music. Gary Green only plays for a hobby, after having recorded with Eddie Jobson in 1983. Kerry Minnear played for a church until 1988 when he started composing TV series music and teaching music. John Weathers played with Welsh rockers Man until 1997 when he quit in order to play and record as a freelancer.
Many attempts to bring the band together again have not brought fruit, apart from having resulted in re-releases of the whole catalogue on CD and thorough release of previously unreleased material.The upsurge of interest in progressive rock music in the 90s has seen a renewed interest in the group and they arguably were surpassed by none in utilizing classical composition techniques within a rock framework. Their instrumental skill has made them a favourite musicians’ band and they have influenced a huge number of bands within the progressive rock context in the 90s.
- August 2001