By Peter Lindblad
Gentle Giant had lost a brother … literally.
After touring in support of perhaps the British progressive-rock voyageurs’ finest hour, that sublime fusion of classical and rock elements that magically combined in 1973’s Octopus, Phil Shulman, feeling the tug of familial obligations, decided to part ways with the band he’d helped found.
His two siblings, Derek and Ray, were left behind to pick up the pieces.
“Our brother Phil was about 10 years older than us, and at the time, I think he had three kids at home,” recalls Ray. “We were on the road trying to develop a career, to get attention. For Phil that was just too much. And there was pressure for us. But actually, when he said he was quitting, we were filled with sadness, but there was relief there as well.”
Gentle Giant almost called it a day.
“There were times when, and certainly right after, we were talking about, ‘Are we going to split up? Is this the end?’” says Derek. “And we put our heads down and said, ‘You know, what the hell? Let’s carry on.’ And we developed into this five-piece … but it was a hard transition, and it was hard for Phil, too. I mean, I understand that.”
Scaled down to a five-piece, with original members Kerry Minnear (keyboards) and Gary Green (guitars) and new drummer John Weathers rounding out the band, they continued blending jazz, pop, British soul, blues and even medieval music in fascinating new ways.
The coming years would find them releasing challenging albums like In A Glass House, The Power & The Glory, Free Hand, Interview, Playing The Fool — The Official Live, The Missing Piece and Giant For A Day. In November, all seven of those LPs were released in digital form for the first time ever through the band’s own Alucard label via EMI Music’s Label Services Unit.
Derek and Ray reflected on each of those albums recently for Goldmine:
In A Glass House
Derek Shulman: I actually really like this record in retrospect … now that I’m hearing it, after we’ve done it how many years later, I think it shows an incredible amount of tension. And I think the tension comes through in a positive way, as opposed to a negative way.
When we were doing it, that was a time after Phil had left, and we’d decided to continue, and it was written with all of these influences and all these things going on: When were we going to tour? How were we going to tour? How can we make ourselves a five-piece with as much … hopefully, with as much energy and being able to project ourselves live …
Ray Shulman: Not to mention, the lyrical responsibilities fell on you.
DS: That’s right. And even the composition part, it was … we were trying to hold it down. So I just remember, just as an atmospheric situation, everything surrounding the album was extremely tense as far as I was concerned. And the whole transition from a six-piece to a five-piece was, I think … ultimately, it turned out well, but it wasn’t an evolution, it was a revolution. And we had to do it quickly.
The Power and the Glory
DS: [About its themes of power and corruption] All of these issues [the Nixon scandal] were happening, and it affected everything, but it’s not as if it’s a new subject. And subsequently, since then, it’s a subject which is ongoing and unfortunately, something that people … continue to write about, because absolute power absolutely corrupts, if you let it. And I think it was probably just an observation on what was happening politically but also [on] people that we thought had become friends who were becoming more powerful [and] suddenly disowned you or didn’t want to be part of what world you were in.
RS: Well, I like the album now. I like The Power And The Glory. I think it worked really well. It was great having a concept album, composition-wise. For me and Kerry, at the time, having a theme from the start was great really because you could actually outline [it]. I know the concept album kind of got much maligned after that.
But having a framework for, you know, this song has to capture this kind of mood … it was almost in a way like a musical, and you have to have a cycle through it.
DS: I like that album a lot, because I think the reason why it’s called Free Hand is I remember we had extricated ourselves from management, and we were kind of able to do certain things our way.
We were pretty stubborn and obstinate, and that probably is to our detriment, too, but it worked as far as the lyrical content was concerned. And I think that album came together extremely well lyrically and musically, because I think that was one where the rock element and the orchestral element and all the other instrumental influences that we had really gelled.
RS: [Talking about the synthesis of classical and rock elements on Free Hand] I think it’s a good combination. We probably lost a bit of the kind of ethereal-ness of maybe Octopus, but we actually sounded more like a band or more like a group. It sounds like a record that was made by a group rather as opposed to a band of individuals.
DS: Interview was of its time. Was it as good, if you like, or as well put together as Free Hand? Probably not, but I listened to it just recently in the last couple of weeks, and I liked it (laughs), as opposed to thinking it was OK. It’s not the same as Free Hand. It’s kind of pushing towards a new avenue to a certain degree, but I think, as Ray [has said], we moved generally. I mean, we didn’t stay in one place and become this band that did this kind of music all the way through. So this is moving the band into somewhere else. Maybe it was a dark hole, or maybe a blind alley, but it’s okay.
RS: Yeah, I don’t think it’s as cohesive as Free Hand. I think it’s a bit more disparate, all the bits. Individually, they stand up on their own, but as an album, it doesn’t quite hold together as a whole as well. “Design” is on that. Now “Design’ is a curious piece. I think it’s a bizarre piece.
DS: Yeah, you’re right, Ray. The elements were there, but they were more fractured. Maybe that’s why I like it, because it’s interesting to hear the fractured parts.
RS: What else was on there?
DS: “Empty City” … eh, iffy. “Another Show” … that was kind of bizarre timing. “I Lost My Head” was quite good. I like that song, that one for me personally.
Playing The Fool — Live
DS: I don’t know why we did it, but I’m glad we did it. Why? I don’t know, but it was good we did it then, because it was a culmination of the maturity of the group.
We’d taken the two major parts of being in the group, the recorded part and the live part, as being totally separate entities. We never tried to replicate the music which we recorded for our albums onstage.
RS: We’d have needed quite a few more people for that.
DS: Exactly. An orchestra. Actually, we did need an orchestra. That’s why we did [swap] all [our] instruments, because there were so many parts in there. It was, “OK, who’s going to do what? Well, Ray, you’ve got to play the trumpet now. And I’ll pick up the bass. What the hell? Why not?”
The Missing Piece
RS: In that year, ’77, there again you talk about the big cultural shift in the U.K. that was punk and a general derision of progressive music. I think we just didn’t know what to do, and we tried. I don’t know if it’s a good record or not, but it’s OK.
DS: I think fans, for the most part, who are ardent fans don’t think it’s a great record, but there are some things in that album that I think are very good. It’s actually well-played. I’ve got to tell you that.
Giant For A Day
RS: [Derek once said he felt Giant For A Day was contrived. Ray responded] Yeah, it was actually. I think it was. We had in mind a kind of sound we wanted to go for as well, which was probably too contrived.
I mean, we’d never been that way before. We’d never gone into the studio with a kind of sound in our heads, where we wanted to open up the drum sounds and all that kind of thing … It was a bad idea, but we did it.
DS: We did it. It was an idea. We tried it, and it didn’t work. I mean, some parts did work … yeah, there were elements of contrivance. However, there are some songs on there which are actually pretty good. I mean, believe it or not, I think one of the best songs on the album is the instrumental, “Spooky Boogie.” It is dumb, but it’s really clever. I mean, we’re not talking about timing all over the place, and multi-instrumental stuff …
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