Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
Artist: GENTLE GIANT
Album: THE MISSING PIECE and PLAYING THE FOOL (LIVE)
[Welcome to Forty Year Friday, the weekly series on my favorite albums of 1977]
1977 was a great year to be a fan of progressive rock, despite what punk-loving music critics had to say. With studio or live albums by Rush, Yes, Jethro Tull, Genesis, Kansas, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Utopia, Pink Floyd, Styx, The Alan Parsons Project and many more, this wide-ranging genre was in great shape. It would be another couple of years before I started listening to these artists & accumulating their discographies, and even longer until I heard them described as “progressive” or “prog.” I just knew what I liked and, in addition to other styles & genres I embraced, I was constantly drawn to challenging music written & performed by gifted musicians. One of the most brilliant, original, head-scratching & uncategorizable bands of that (or any) era was Gentle Giant, the British collective that combined rock, jazz, classical, psychedelia, medieval and any other music they fancied into their own unique sound. A Jethro Tull-loving high school friend introduced me to their music via 1972’s Three Friends album, and for many years I only had that record and a later live album (to be discussed below). Fast-forward to the mid-‘90s, as I approached my 30th birthday, when a co-worker (now a longtime friend) who was old enough to see all the prog legends in their prime pointed out that the Gentle Giant catalog was bigger than I thought. It took just a few late nights at the office playing the stack of CDs he lent me to become a full-fledged Gentle Giant fan, and within weeks I bought them all for my collection. Tricky time signatures, complex vocal harmonies and on-stage instrument swapping are just some of their defining attributes. What they lacked, unfortunately, was a true frontman that audiences could easily identify. They also shied away from anything that might be construed as too commercial, which kept them from having the kind of radio hits that their prog counterparts managed, allowing those bands to enjoy decades-long careers with money in their bank accounts. For Gentle Giant it was always about the music & nothing else, although by the time they recorded their ninth studio album there was pressure from their record company to have a hit, or at least something more immediate & easily digestible.
None of their albums sounds quite like the one that preceded it, but with The Missing Piece they made an obvious attempt to appeal to a larger audience, resulting in a distinctly different sound on a number of songs than anything they had done before. Some longtime fans dismiss this and the two subsequent albums they released prior disbanding in 1980, but discovering most of their music in one fell swoop gave me a slightly different perspective, and it’s become one of my most revisited GG albums. It’s also among a handful that I would recommend most to anyone exploring the world of Gentle Giant for the first time. Originally a sextet, by 1973 they were reduced to the quintet that would remain intact for their final seven studio albums: Derek Shulman on lead vocals, Kerry Minnear on keys & synthesizer, Gary Green on guitar, Ray Shulman on bass and John Weathers on drums & percussion. “Two Weeks In Spain” is bouncy & seemingly straightforward but filled with lots of quirkiness. I love Derek’s overly-British vocals and the funky half-time sections. The pretty ballad “I’m Turning Around” could have been an FM radio hit. It’s one of the most direct & commercial songs they ever recorded. I believe Kerry handles lead vocals on “As Old As You’re Young,” which features a quintessentially off-kilter Gentle Giant arrangement and hints of Jethro Tull’s more esoteric music. “Mountain Time” features a pulsing rhythm with bouncy piano & lyrical guitar, as well as strong vocals from Derek: “Mountain time, mountain date.” Atypically for a prog band, most tracks here are 4-1/2 minutes or less, with one exception: “Memories Of Old Days.” This haunting track begins as a lovely dual acoustic guitar conversation with a synth joining in to introduce the memorable chorus melody. It has a dark, floating, almost formless feeling, with no drums or percussion to anchor the other instruments, along with elements of avant-garde folk. The silly-but-fun “Betcha Thought We Couldn’t Do It” was their response to critics who claimed that they were incapable of writing simple music with punk energy. The twin guitars on “Who Do You Think You Are” give it a slightly southern- or pub-rock vibe during the intro & instrumental sections, while the rest of the song is art-rock a la 10cc. The Missing Piece closes on a high note with the effervescent “For Nobody.” The melody & arrangement are fantastic, and I especially love the tight, driving rhythm with funky synth & organ.
Earlier that year they released Playing The Fool – The Official Live Gentle Giant, comprising concert recordings from four European venues in September & October 1976. Like most of their contemporaries, Gentle Giant used the 2-LP live album as a career summary, a gap-filler between studio albums and a quasi-“Best Of” collection. What set them apart was the technical proficiency on display, without the use of any sweetening or overdubs (to the best of my knowledge). Anyone already impressed with the studio recordings has to marvel at their ability to pull off those crazy arrangements on stage, and the vivid production allows each musician’s contributions to shine through. Almost all of their albums are represented by at least one track, and it’s hard to argue with their song choices. Highlights for me include “Just The Same,” “On Reflection” & “Free Hand” (from Free Hand); “Proclamation” & “So Sincere” (from The Power And The Glory); “Excerpts From Octopus” (from Octopus); and “Funny Ways” (from Gentle Giant). Each time I play this record I constantly scratch my head, wondering not only how they managed to perform these songs & execute those intricate vocals harmonies, but how they came up with them in the first place. There are now several career-spanning compilations on the market to satisfy newbies & casual fans, but I would offer up Playing The Fool as an equally strong primer. Beware, however, because once their music finds its way into your brain you’ll likely want to hear it all.