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Gentle Giant

Missing pieces in the link between bubblegum psychedelia and classical prog-rock, the towering GENTLE GIANT (and previous incarnation SIMON DUPREE…) were shoe-ins to be the next big thing, however, alongside the likes of 70s stars JETHRO TULL, YES, KING CRIMSON, GENESIS and an over-saturated market for the genre, the playful outfit were squeezed out of the prizes.
Formed late 1969 in Portsmouth, England, out of the blossoming one-hit-wonders, SIMON DUPREE AND THE BIG SOUND, multi-instrumentalist brothers Derek (also lead vocals), Ray and Phil had been on top of the world (and the Top 10 in 1967) for their three minutes of flower-power fame, `Kites’. Subsequently enlisting three new recruits, Kerry Minnear (a keyboard playing graduate from the Royal Academy of Music), Gary Green (guitar) and Martin Smith (drums), re-launched themselves as the more experimental GENTLE GIANT.
A year later, the sextet appeared on the pivotal Vertigo roster, their eponymous GENTLE GIANT (1970) {*8} debut album, garnering sustenance from stalwart BBC Radio One DJ, Alan “Fluff” Freeman. Steeped in synths and Mellotron, their medieval miasmas, jarring hi-jinx and haunting harmonies were their forte, although variation came here in the shape of complex opener, `Giant’, and follow-on pastoral `Funny Ways’. The doom-laden but funky `Alucard’ blasted out like some kooky KING CRIMSON cut, tempered only by the old-timey feel of novelty-like `Isn’t It Quiet And Cold’ – side one over. Flip over to side two for the 9-minute tour de force `Nothing At All’, and but for end-of-set fillers, this record was an outstanding introduction – miles apart from their “Simon Dupree” days.
The fact that Derek’s high-octave vox had matured with each passing year, alongside the band’s Gregorian chant-like harmonies, growling guitar riffs et al, it was no shock when sophomore set ACQUIRING THE TASTE (1971) {*7} received high praise in most quarters. Typical of GG’s ghostly essays was the record’s opener, `Pantagruel’s Nativity’, followed in no short measure by folkie-from-hell sea shanty, `Wreck’, the paranoia-fuelled `Black Cat’ and flexible finale `Plain Truth’. Drummer/percussionist Malcolm Mortimore was duly drafted in to supersede Smith; the latter incidentally, died 2nd March 1997 of an internal haemorrhage.
Produced by Tony Visconti, THREE FRIENDS (1972) {*9} was almost immediately picked up by Columbia Records in America where in-roads were being made on the profitable live circuit. At times arranged in the direction of a concept album, the quirky staccato battles between maniacal melody and medieval musings were overpowering at first, but given the test of time, `Prologue’, `Schooldays’ and `Working All Day’ (side one in fact) engaged even the most discerning listener into their web. Equally innovative and powerful, side two also shined throughout its elasticated artistry; `Peel The Paint’, `Mister Class And Quality’ and the title track, serene and celestial like all good prog should be.
Seasoned Welsh journeyman, John “Pugwash” Weathers was on board as Mortimore’s replacement for GENTLE GIANT’s fourth album, OCTOPUS (1972) {*7}, another not to become a major commercial success in Britain, although it went higher than its predecessor (No.170) in the States. Spreading 8 tracks over 34 minutes was an achievement in itself for the ‘Giant, but it cut most of the overly self-indulgent chaff and saved the extras for live shows. From `The Advent Of Panurge’ to the exuberant and playful `A Cry For Everyone’ (via the fiddle-friendly and mind-blowing `Raconteur Troubadour’), side one delivered at least three more friends for their fans. Side two on the other hand was showcased by at least another couple of quirky gems in `The Boys In The Band’ and longest piece here at 6 minutes, `River’.
Regretting the loss of elder brother Phil who embarked on a teaching career, the slimmed-down GENTLE GIANT might’ve built upon this Stateside interest but for Columbia’s decision not to release their next project, IN A GLASS HOUSE (1973) {*5} – issued in Britain for W.W.A. The cracks were indeed showing as even their ardent of followers thought it a tad decadent and self-indulgent; but for `The Runaway’, `Experience’ and `Way Of Life’, this set could’ve shattered their careers.
However, all was restored somewhat in 1974, when they finally cracked the elusive US Top 100 spot with their slightly-improved THE POWER AND THE GLORY {*6}. Issued on Capitol Records, songs such as the almost funky and YES-like `Proclamation’, `Cogs In Cogs’ and the skewed `So Sincere’ were the power, but one thinks the glory was in the beholder for tracks such as `Playing The Game’.
Duly signing a new deal in Britain with Chrysalis Records, their seventh album FREE HAND (1975) {*9}, again only found a paying audience (and Top 50 status) across the water. However, it did contain impressive vocal gymnastics, much in evidence on jewels in the crown, `Just The Same’ and the renaissance/retro, part a cappella/part folk-rocker `On Reflection’; the latter combining four pieces of group scribed fugue. Minnear’s un-medieval meanderings on the ivories for the pure-prog title track was just the ticket for a group still going strong despite others such as ELP and the aforementioned GENESIS and KING CRIMSON were collapsing under rock’s evolution. Although at times exquisitely off-kilter, tracks such as `Time To Kill’, the beautiful `His Last Voyage’, the folkie `Mobile’ and Tudor-esque instrumental ditty `Talybont’, gave the set an aura of accessibility – a classic!
Pity then for the almost-rushed concept, IN’TERVIEW (1976) {*4}, an attempt at marrying weak fiction with over-elaborate and ambitious musical passages. But for the opening title track and the difficult `Design’, but not the 10CC-like cod-reggae of `Give It Back’ (why did every group of the day try this?), the record could’ve quite easily filled the bargain bins sooner – in stark contrast to its predecessor. Time then for a career-saving concert double-LP courtesy of PLAYING THE FOOL: THE OFFICIAL “LIVE” (1977) {*6} to beat the bootleggers who’d taped this made-for-FM Radio concert the previous autumn.
GENTLE GIANT and their final US Top 100 strike, THE MISSING PIECE (1977) {*4} filled a void for YES or GENESIS fans; Minnear’s keyboard exercises the saving grace on the mainstream pop-fuelled `Two Weeks In Spain’ and `I’m Turning Around’ respectively. Crushed under the jack-booted heels of punk rock, they’d soldier on until 1980, by which time the GG balladeers had subjected dismayed acolytes to two further chapters in GIANT FOR A DAY! (1978) {*3} and CIVILIAN (1980) {*3}. Their fall from grace was now complete, and while their aforementioned rivals (GENESIS, YES and KING CRIMSON) rode the speed-bumps of time, GENTLE GIANT’s journey was over.
Derek Shulman moved to New York, becoming an A&R company executive and going on to sign hard-rock acts, CINDERELLA and KINGDOM COME, while back in Old Blighty he was the man at giving The SUNDAYS and The SUGARCUBES their first big breaks.
© MC Strong 1994-2000/GRD // rev-up MCS Aug2012

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