KamerTunesBlog

Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time

Forty Year Friday – GENTLE GIANT “THE MISSING PIECE” AND “PLAYING THE FOOL (LIVE)”

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.

 

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21 comments on “Forty Year Friday – GENTLE GIANT “THE MISSING PIECE” AND “PLAYING THE FOOL (LIVE)”

  1. critterjams
    June 30, 2017

    Great write up. A long time ago I met a friend-of-a-friend who had, I shit you not, a Foxtrot tattoo on his right arm. Talk about finding a kindred soul. Anyway we chatted for a while and at some point he made the claim that Gentle Giant were the greatest of all the proggers, and I was like…whoa…whoa!! That’s a pretty massive claim there. I knew of some of their music but mostly I didn’t really give them a shot. They felt kind of gimmicky to me. Regardless he motivated me to relisten to the albums I’d gotten, and…..yeah. Absolutely incredible.

    So yes, along those lines, I think Playing the Fool is one of the best of the epoch-defining double-plus live albums. I love it not only for how well played the tunes are but also how much different they are than the studio versions. It’s a live album you really can listen to over and over again. As for Missing Piece…y’know I’m conflicted there. I do like it and I wish their label had shelled out some $$ to make it sound better. You say “I’m Turning Around” could’ve been a hit but…not produced like that. Sounds like it was recorded in a paper bag. The first side is kind of silly but I like it. Second side is legitimately good, though to me it sounds like the sort of thing they’d have put out after several successful pop albums, throwing a bone to their old fans – “remember when we were progressive?” To do those songs one year after Interview is…kinda odd to me. But hey, I’ll take it. I mean this easily could’ve been their Love Beach.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for the feedback, Nik. That’s a cool story about your friend-of-a-friend. I’m always amazed at how far some fans will go to show off their love of a particular artist. Foxtrot probably looked really good as a tattoo. I guess it holds up better than an Invisible Touch tattoo. 😀

      I love Gentle Giant and they’re one of my favorite prog bands. I can’t argue with someone who claims they’re the “best” of that genre, although I rarely speak in absolutes. They are certainly one of the proggiest of prog bands, if not THE proggiest. They’ve also influenced a ton of modern-day prog artists, especially with their vocals. I’m glad you came around to them after thinking they were gimmicky (which I can understand). I still don’t know how they pulled off their music on stage. You make excellent points about The Missing Piece. I would probably feel the same way had I been following them in real time, but coming to their music (mostly) at one time made me appreciate the more direct approach of this album without feeling like they were selling out.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. stephen1001
    June 30, 2017

    I appreciate the closing warning/recommendation Rich – enjoy with caution!

    Like

  3. kevin
    June 30, 2017

    Ah! I was hoping you would go here, Rich. These guys made Yes and Genesis sound like The Ramones. Crazy time signatures, polyrhytms, dissonant counter-melodies, head scratching vocal arrangements (the fugue on “On Reflection”), each member a multi-instrumentalist, – this stuff is prog-porn. I love this band!

    Even more impressive is, no matter how intricate the arrangements are, they actually play them better live, which is evident on Playing The Fool. I believe every song on that album betters it’s studio counterpart.

    As far as The Missing Piece goes, it is certainly the best of their failed “commercial” period. Half of it is pretty great and “Memories Of Old Days” is one of their best. It’s too bad these guys don’t get the kind of recognition some of their prog peers get (I use the term ‘recognition’ loosely when talking about Prog), but it makes sense; these guys truly are an acquired taste. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hey Kevin. Haha…I love your Ramones comment. Perhaps an exaggeration but still very funny. I agree that the live versions exceed their studio counterparts. It still boggles my mind how they were able to perform those songs so effortlessly. I’m guessing a lot of effort went in to making that happen. It’s also probably one of the reasons they’ve never reunited. To get back into that musical mindset years later would be near-impossible. I don’t see those later albums as “failed commercial” but I understand why you (and others) feel that way. The Missing Piece is certainly the strongest of their latter period albums and I think it stands strong among their best early work (maybe like comparing A Trick Of The Tail…or perhaps Duke…to Foxtrot).

      I love the way you wrapped up your comment. Well done, sir.

      Like

  4. zumpoems
    June 30, 2017

    Great to hear you are a Gentle Giant fan! Very good post! I am a big Gentle Giant fan and have to rate them rather highly. Interestingly when I was a music major there were those that dismissed the group as pretentious — as did several music critics. Gentle Giant’s rebuttal to such nonsense was to release a best of album entitled “Pretentious for the Sake of It”

    Of course, these were serious musicians just trying to make music — as noted in the lyrics of Interview: “Want to be seen rock and roll music, don’t take us something that we’re not.” I once shared a bus trip and resulting conversation with Kerry Minnear and his wife from Angel Stadium to L.A. Airport and can vouch for him being very down to earth.

    Many of us established Gentle Giant fans were very discouraged when “The Missing Piece” came out — It was almost certain that this shift of direction would not only be permanent but work decisively against their future commercial prospects. As you note, they lay down their motivation in “Betcha Thought We Couldn’t Do It”:

    “I betcha thought we couldn’t do it. And if you did we wouldn’t try
    I betcha thought we couldn’t do it. But if we didn’t we would die
    We built our house stone by stone. Little help, we were on our own
    Made the town, torn it down. Now you know, tell me how it feels
    I betcha thought we couldn’t do it. And if you did we wouldn’t try
    I betcha thought we couldn’t do it. But if we didn’t we would die
    We’ve been waiting such a long long time. To fit the pattern, fill the rhyme
    Now we can’t stick in our old ways. Now it’s out we’ll see how you feel
    I betcha thought we couldn’t do it. And if you did we wouldn’t try
    I betcha thought we couldn’t do it. But if we didn’t we would die”

    Nonetheless it is much better than your average rock album and I re-listen to it now and then, particularly “Memories of Old Age”. The two albums that follow this are worse, with “Giant for a Day” being close to unlistenable.”

    Thanks for the Gentle Giant post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your feedback regarding Gentle Giant. You make some excellent points. I understand that my perspective on their discography differs from fans who followed them in real time, so I tend to appreciate the later albums a lot more than older fans. I consider The Missing Piece to be among their best work, while the last two are inferior but still interesting. Have you heard any of the surround sound mixes of GG albums that have been released in the last couple of years? They’re stunning, and worth getting a surround sound set-up for if you don’t already have one.

      Liked by 1 person

      • zumpoems
        July 21, 2017

        Didn’t know about the surround-sound releases. Don’t have a surround sound system, but did get to see them live a number of times.

        Like

      • I’m envious that you got to experience the brilliance of Gentle Giant in person. I have several of their live DVDs and my jaw drops every time I watch them. If you ever get a surround sound set-up, those GG titles would be great choices to test out your system. I can’t wait to hear Octopus in 5.1. That was released after I moved about two years ago, and my stereo has been in limbo ever since. It will be back in action when my current renovations are completed later this year, and I have plenty of music to catch up on. I’ve already told my wife I’ll be locked in my media room for about the first year.

        Like

  5. Phillip Helbig
    June 30, 2017

    Is their cartoon-like mascot based on the appearance of the chap on the right in the photo above?

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s a good theory, Phillip, although I believe the gentleman on the right is drummer John Weathers, who was not an original band member. Their mascot appeared on the first album so it must have been inspired by someone else.

      Like

      • Phillip Helbig
        July 3, 2017

        The resemblance is uncanny. Maybe he joined the band because he looked like the mascot?

        Like

      • Well, I once got a job as an usher in a movie theater because I was the same size as the guy who had just quit and his snazzy red jacket would fit me. So anything’s possible.

        Like

  6. Vinyl Connection
    June 30, 2017

    This one flushed me out, Rich! And wonderful to see other GG fans step forward from the shadows.
    Have always been fond of ‘Playing the Fool’ (though some of the archival releases sound a bit cleaner) and don’t really like ‘Missing’ much at all. Thus proving your thesis!

    Like

    • Thanks for popping up, Bruce. I know we’re always following each other’s posts & chiming in when we have something worth sharing, while staying in the background at other times. I knew you had to be a fan of these guys, and I’m not surprised that you lost interest when they started taking a slightly more commercial approach. I love The Missing Piece as much as almost all of their previous albums, since the quirkiness we all love about them is on full display. It’s also a great album for the uninitiated, or anyone who’s prog-shy.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Vinyl Connection
        July 1, 2017

        Yes, that was an excellent point in your post. “Enter here for Gentle Giant, Ye of non-Prog Leandings”

        Like

      • “Ye” being the key to that recommendation. Ironically, that album would be mega-prog to such people…and then their heads could explode upon a deeper discography dive.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Alyson
    July 1, 2017

    I’ll be honest – This 1977 album (and band) passed me by BUT good to see that you have “flushed out” so many fellow fans. Nice when that happens.

    Like

    • I’m not surprised at your reaction, Alyson, but thanks for checking out this post and sharing your thoughts. I have a feeling we’ll have a Rich-Alyson musical connection next week. Time will tell.

      Like

  8. Pingback: Forty Year Friday – GENESIS “SECONDS OUT” | KamerTunesBlog

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