Gentle Giant was a British progressive rock band active between 1970 and 1980. The band was notable for the particular complexity and sophistication of its musical material and for the diverse musical skills of its members (all of whom, bar the first two drummers, were accomplished multi-instrumentalists).
The band's onetime stated aim was to "expand the frontiers of contemporary popular music at the risk of becoming very unpopular," although this stance was to alter significantly with time. While never achieving the commercial heights of progressive rock contemporaries such as Genesis, Yes or Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Gentle Giant was considered to be one of the most experimental bands in the genre (as well as one of the most experimental rock bands of the 1970s).
Gentle Giant's music was considered complex even by progressive rock standards, drawing on a broad swathe of music including folk, soul, jazz and classical music. Unlike many of their progressive rock contemporaries, their "classical" influences ranged beyond the Romantic and incorporated mediaeval, baroque, and modernist chamber music elements. The band also had a taste for broad themes for their lyrics, drawing inspiration not only from personal events but from philosophy and the works of both François Rabelais and R. D. Laing.
The core of what was to become Gentle Giant were the three Shulman brothers: Phil (born 1937), Derek (born 1947) and Ray (born 1949). The brothers were originally of Scottish-Jewish extraction (the Shulman family's original hometown was Glasgow, Scotland, where both Phil and Derek were born in the notorious Gorbals slum) but were mostly brought up in Portsmouth, England. Their father was an army musician turned jazz trumpeter who continued his musical work down in Portsmouth and encouraged his sons to learn various instruments during their childhood. Ray Shulman recalls "(a) house full of musicians and instruments... I started learning trumpet when I was five just because it was there and then took up violin when I was seven. We were made to practice for an hour a day at least, when we really wanted to go out and play. I suppose it was a good thing we were really, and eventually I wanted to do it anyway... I wasn't formally taught at all." All three boys consequently became multi-instrumentalists.
During the early 1960s, Derek and Ray became interested in playing rhythm-and-blues and formed a band in order to do so. Phil — originally acting as a manager figure in order to look after his much younger brothers — gradually became a band member himself. By 1966, the Shulmans' band — initially called The Howling Wolves, then The Road Runners — had taken on the name of Simon Dupree and the Big Sound and was pursuing more of a soul/pop direction. As lead singer and frontman, Derek Shulman took on the "Simon Dupree" pseudonym while Phil played saxophone and trumpet, and youngest brother Ray played guitar and violin. (Both Ray and Phil also played trumpet and sang backing vocals for the group which, during its lifetime, briefly featured the future Elton John as pianist as well as recording a single with Dudley Moore as guest).
Signing to EMI, Simon Dupree and the Big Sound produced several non-charting singles before being pushed by their management and label in the direction of psychedelia. This resulted in the Top 10 UK hit 'Kites' in the autumn of 1967 (and the release of the Without Reservation album later in the year). Success only served to frustrate the Shulman brothers, who considered themselves to be blue-eyed soul singers and felt that their change of style was insincere and insubstantial. Derek Shulman was later to describe 'Kites' as "utter shit."
The Shulmans' opinion was confirmed, in their eyes, by the successive failure of follow-up singles to 'Kites'. Attempting to escape their new image, they released a pseudonymous double A-side single in late 1968 as The Moles - 'We Are The Moles (parts 1 & 2)'. This compounded their identity crisis as the single was subsequently caught up in a rumour that The Moles were, in fact, The Beatles recording under a different name and with Ringo Starr as lead singer. The rumour was eventually debunked by Pink Floyd leader Syd Barrett, who outed Simon Dupree and the Big Sound as the band behind the record.
In 1969, the Shulman brothers finally dissolved the group in order to escape the pop music environment that had frustrated them. Surprisingly, they did not return directly to rhythm and blues or soul, but chose to pursue a more complicated direction. Ray Shulman later stated "We knew we couldn't continue with the musicians we'd had before. We weren't interested in the other musicians in the band — they couldn't contribute anything. We had to teach them what to do. It got rather heavy when we could play drums better than the drummer, and even on record we were doing more and more of it with overdubs. It got stupid having a band like (that). The first thing was to get some musicians of a higher standard."
Gentle Giant was formed in 1970 when the Shulman brothers teamed up with two other multi-instrumentalists, Gary Green (guitar, mandolin, recorder etc.) and Kerry Minnear (keyboards, vibraphone, cello etc.), plus drummer Martin Smith, who had previously drummed for Simon Dupree and the Big Sound. The classically-trained Minnear had recently graduated from the Royal College of Music with a degree in composition, and had played with the band Rust. Green was essentially a blues player and had never worked with a band above the semi-professional level, but adapted readily to the demanding music of the new band. The Shulman brothers, meanwhile, settled into typically multi-instrumental roles of their own: Derek on saxophone and recorder; Ray on bass and violin; Phil on saxophone, trumpet and clarinet.
The new band also featured three lead vocalists: Derek Shulman (who sang in a tough rhythm-and-blues style and who generally handled the more rock-oriented vocals); Phil Shulman (who had a softer voice and handled the more folk-influenced leads); and Kerry Minnear (who had a particularly delicate voice and sang lighter folk and chamber-classical lead vocals). However, Minnear did not sing lead vocals at live concerts, due to his inability to support and project his voice at a level suitable for live amplification (Derek and Phil Shulman handled Minnear's lead vocal parts when the band played live).
From the start, Gentle Giant was a particularly flexible band due to the exceptionally broad musical skills of its members. One Gentle Giant album would list a total of forty-six instruments in the musician credits — all of which had been played by group members — and five of the six members sang, enabling the band to write and perform detailed vocal harmony and counterpoint.
Equally diverse was the band's approach to songwriting. As Derek Shulman recalls, "it was like this big funnel, really. We all had these varied influences, whether it be pop, classical, rock, jazz, or whatever, and we just came together and created what we did. A lot of the bands who were doing prog rock back then were doing long songs that in many cases were just filler, but we never tried to impress anyone with our talents, maybe we were just trying to impress each other! What to us just seemed like some clever songs really touched a lot of people it seems, which never fails to amaze me."
The band's first album was the self-titled Gentle Giant in 1970. Combining the collective band members' influences of rock, blues, classical and 1960s British soul, it was an immediately challenging effort, though sometimes criticised for a slightly disappointing recording quality.
Gentle Giant was followed in 1971 by Acquiring the Taste. This second album showcased a band who were developing rapidly. Far more experimental and dissonant than its predecessor, it was shaped primarily by Kerry Minnear's broad classical and contemporary classical music training and also showed the band diversifying in their already impressive instrumentation (although many years later Derek Shulman would admit "we recorded (Acquiring The Taste) without any idea of what it would be like before we got into the studio. It was a very experimental album and we still didn't have an ultimate direction.") The band's sense of challenge was made evident in the album's liner notes, which were a particularly lofty statement of intent even by progressive rock standards:
"Acquiring the taste is the second phase of sensory pleasure. If you've gorged yourself on our first album, then relish the finer flavours (we hope) of this, our second offering. It is our goal to expand the frontiers of contemporary music at the risk of being very unpopular. We have recorded each composition with the one thought - that it should be unique, adventurous and fascinating. It has taken every shred of our combined musical and technical knowledge to achieve this. From the outset we have abandoned all preconceived thoughts on blatant commercialism. Instead we hope to give you something far more substantial and fulfilling. All you need to do is sit back, and acquire the taste."
After Acquiring The Taste, Martin Smith left the band, following apparent disagreements with both Ray and Phil Shulman. He was replaced as drummer by Malcolm Mortimore, with whom the band recorded Three Friends (1972). This was the band's first concept album, and was based around the theme of three boys who are "inevitably separated by chance, skill and fate" as they become men. Over the course of the album, the three friends travel on from being childhood schoolfriends to become, respectively, a road digger, an artist and a white-collar worker. In the process, they lose their ability to relate to each other or understand each other's lifestyles. The development and fate of each character is musically represented by separate yet integrated styles from hard rhythm-and-blues-edged rock to symphonic classical stylings.
In March 1972, Malcolm Mortimore injured himself in a motorcycle accident. To fulfil tour obligations in April, Gentle Giant hired ex-Grease Band/Wild Turkey/Graham Bond's Magic member John "Pugwash" Weathers, the man who was to become the band's third and final drummer. Weathers was a harder-hitting player who also sang and played melodic percussion and guitar, further expanding Gentle Giant's multi-instrumental performance options. Due to Mortimore's extended convalescence, the band opted to formally replace him with Weathers at the end of the 1972 April tour.
The new line-up of the band delivered the Octopus album later in 1972, generally considered to represent the start of the band's peak period. The hardest and most "rocking" Gentle Giant album to date, Octopus was allegedly named by Phil Shulman's wife Roberta as a pun on "octo opus" (eight musical works, reflecting the album's eight tracks). In 2004, Ray Shulman commented '(Octopus) was probably our best album, with the exception, perhaps of Acquiring the Taste. We started with the idea of writing a song about each member of the band. Having a concept in mind was a good starting point for writing. I don't know why, but despite the impact of The Who's Tommy and Quadrophenia, almost overnight concept albums were suddenly perceived as rather naff and pretentious." The album maintained Gentle Giant's trademark of broad and challengingly integrated styles. One of the highlights was the intricate madrigal-styled vocal workout "Knots", lyrically inspired by the work of R. D. Laing.
Before embarking on the Octopus tour, the band played a gruelling set of dates supporting Black Sabbath, during which they proved to be very unpopular with the majority of the headlining band's fans. In 2005, Derek Shulman recalled:
"It was perhaps the most ridiculous pairing of groups ever in the history of show business. For the most part we got booed off the stage... At a show at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, we went on stage and the Sabbath fans were shouting "get off, we want Sabbath" and we were just getting set to play 'Funny Ways'. We pulled out the cellos and violins, and the crowd starting heckling immediately, but we were gradually starting to get past it, when someone threw a cherry bomb on stage. (Phil Shulman) made sure we all stopped playing and said we needed to get off the stage. As we were leaving the stage, Phil grabbed the mic and said to the crowd "you guys are a bunch of fucking cunts!", and the boo that went up after that was enormous! To this day I'll never forget it! We were sort of vindicated later on, as we thought we were never going to play Los Angeles again after the cherry bomb incident, but later on the Octopus tour we were able to sell out consistently there, so something clicked with the fans."
Gentle Giant underwent its most significant line-up change following the tour supporting Octopus. Burnt out and discouraged (especially after the difficult dates with Black Sabbath) Phil Shulman left the band following disagreements with his brothers.
Gary Green later recalled "As I remember it, when Phil announced it at the end of an Italian tour, he said he would leave the band. He couldn't continue on. There was too much stress being on the road and the family. Plus the brothers were having a bit of a difficult time. They're brothers and they argued like hell, sometimes to the point where you thought they were going to hit each other. But I guess it was brotherly love (laughs). But when Phil said he was going to leave, we were all like stumped, "Oh! What are we going to do? All right we'll buy a Moog synthesizer!" That's kind of trite; I don't mean it quite like that. We had to do something.
In August 2008, Phil Shulman expanded on his reasons for departure in a podcast interview conducted by his son Damon and grandson Elliot, posted on Damon Shulman's website and MySpace page. In the interview, he states that the main impetus was because he had realised that the lifestyle of a touring musician was damaging his family life.
"Growing up, family, two sons, lovely little daughter, a wife who was getting lonelier and lonelier… No decision really, it was a foregone conclusion. My brothers, in fact, quite frankly wouldn’t speak to me for years afterwards because I said "that’s it, I’m going. I’ve got to go back to my family and I’ve got to go back and be a normal man."... I’m not saying how important (or not important) I was to the group, or anything like that, but my brothers thought that that was the end of the band. And that’s absurd. When five-sixths of the band are still there, (and) I go - no trouble. And they did: they carried on for seven more years, folks, and that was touring the world and getting great acclaim as a very fine five-piece outfit. But for me it was the only thing to do. It obviously took something away because I wasn’t able to listen to music for a few years afterwards."
In 2003, Gary Green recalled "John (Weathers) and I really pushed for the band to continue at that point because it looked like we were going to fold. And that seemed just ludicrous – I mean we had Kerry at full strength and Ray writing great. We were really strong live and we were about to get stronger. I think we became a stronger band after Phil left. And that's nothing against Phil. We had just been just hitting our stride as players."
The two blocs of Shulman brothers - with Phil on one side and Ray and Derek on the other - eventually resolved their differences and healed their relationship, although Phil neither rejoined the band nor returned to music as a career. Ray Shulman has subsequently assisted Phil's son Damon Shulman with his own music.
Following Phil's departure, Derek Shulman took over all lead vocals for live concerts and became Gentle Giant's de facto lead singer (although Kerry Minnear continued to sing his own share of lead vocals on record).
The remaining quintet regrouped to record the harder-rocking In a Glass House, which was released in 1973. A complex and determined concept album - named for the aphorism that "people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones" - it was the band's most directly psychological effort to date. The album was also notable for its intriguing three-dimensional cover, using a cellophane overlay (replicated using the CD jewel case on the Terrapin CD reissue, and via a custom digipak for the later Alucard CD reissue). In a Glass House was never released in the USA, but was in great demand as an import.
The Power and the Glory followed in 1974. This was Gentle Giant's third concept album, this time taking power and corruption as the linking theme. The band also wrote a separate single with the same title. According to Derek Shulman, "WWA said, "Now boys, you've got to be commercial, you've gotta make singles. Now you run away and write us a single." So we did three atrocious numbers. This song's the worst - "You've got it lads!" - and we went into the studio and handed over the tapes when we came out. They put it out, we yelled at them, and they gave it back - took it off the market." (The single was added to CD reissues of the album).
At this point, Gentle Giant were slightly simplifying their complicated music in order to reach a wider (and American) audience, although at this point the band's music could be said to be being "polished" rather than "compromised". Compared to other rock artists at the time, Gentle Giant's music was still very complex. However, the process itself seemed successful enough to get 1975's Free Hand into the Top 50 album chart in the USA. Strongly influenced by the music of the Renaissance and Middle Ages, the album's songs reflected on lost love and damaged relationships (including the breakdown of the band's relationship with their former manager). Regardless of the issues of simplification, it became one of the band's most popular and accessible releases.
Gentle Giant's next release was 1976's Interview - another concept album, this time based around an imaginary interview with the band. The music pointedly poked fun at the state of the music industry and at the silly questions that rock stars are repeatedly asked in order to construct an image for marketing. Ironically, this more satirical and subversive approach ultimately proved to be a symptom of the undermining of the band's work and artistic integrity. Derek Shulman later admitted "I think Interview was the start of the erosion. I think the creative juices were starting to wane a little bit... I think Interview was the start of the slide towards the realization that this is a business now, and that's also a part of what the business had become. I was managing the band at the time and music business became a major business." Despite this approach, the album did not repeat its predecessor's American chart success, peaking at #137.
In the same year, Gentle Giant's notoriously virtuosic live act (featuring rapid-fire instrument swapping and equally demanding rearrangements of the already complex studio pieces) was captured on the live album Playing the Fool.
While the band's skill as performers remained undiminished, their creative peak was now behind them. Momentum of a kind was kept up by two considerably poppier albums - The Missing Piece (1977) and Giant for a Day (1978) - which showed evidence of being aimed at a market now shifting towards pop. Derek Shulman was later to describe Giant for a Day as being "real contrived."
In 1979, they relocated their centre of operations to America in order to record their twelfth and most mainstream album, Civilian , a record of short rock songs. Ray Shulman later admitted "I hated making (that) last record, I hated being involved with it." In 2005, Derek Shulman reflected " Civilian was done with less passion than some of the other albums. As it turns out we as a band were just not good at being rock or pop stars. We would have loved to be as popular as a Genesis or Rush or Yes. In hindsight, I sometimes think that Gentle Giant was wrongfully put into the progressive rock category. Much of what we did was very clever, but we certainly didn't do these long complex tunes like Yes or Genesis did."
In the summer of 1980, the group quietly disbanded. Gary Green recalls "We had a meeting in New York when we started the tour over here. We met in New York to get together and see it as a launch-off place. Kind of had a talk about what we were going to do. At that meeting Kerry and Derek said this was going to be the last tour and they didn't want to be on the road anymore. And you understand it; they had families. Kerry had just had a baby and Derek was just getting married. But having said that, I was married and so was John. You can change things like that; there are ways to work around that. You don't have to tour. I don't think we really toured an awful lot as Giant. I think we could have worked a lot harder at touring. We toured perhaps five or six months of the year. The rest of the year we didn't tour, which seemed a bit silly if you really want to make it or break the market. So let's go ahead and do it and capitalize on this rush we got. So it all seemed a little odd to me. It was sad."
In an interview with Mojo in 2000, Kerry Minnear asserted "it wasn't because of punk, it was because we had lost our way musically." Ray Shulman has commented "There was definitely the decision that the last tour would be the last tour. Once we knew that, we enjoyed ourselves. We decided to quit then rather than let it go on too long."
In 2005, Derek Shulman commented "The creative juices just weren't flowing. I was living in Los Angeles at the time when we broke up. We weren't really sure what direction to take. I don't regret the decision we made to disband, and I'd do it again if we were to do the whole thing all over again."
Gary Green's opinion of the split differs. In 2003 he commented "My own personal opinion is that the band broke up because Derek really wanted a hit album, and I think Ray did too, and they were fed up. They had been musicians longer than I had, and they had tasted it pretty good when they were with Simon Dupree, at least in Britain. And they were looking for some of that in Giant too. My feeling is that we could have continued on as PFM did, or Yes, and still continue. If we had adhered to the statement we started out with, we could still be playing that, and still be earning a reasonable living. That's all water under the bridge and that's fine now. It seemed a bit silly to cut off your creativity for that kind of thing."
Following the dissolution of the band, Derek Shulman went on to a highly successful career in the organisational side of the music business (initially promotion and artist development for PolyGram, followed by A&R at Mercury, becoming president of Atco Records, after which he became President of Roadrunner Records. He now is the owner of independent Hard Rock music company DRT Entertainment.
Ray Shulman moved into soundtrack work for television and advertising before becoming a record producer (working with, amongst others, Echo & The Bunnymen, The Sundays and The Sugarcubes). He has written soundtracks for computer games, as well as producing DVDs for artists such as Genesis and Queen.
John Weathers went on to drum for Man (an association that lasted until 1996) and most recently was spotted playing drums for Wild Turkey again (2006).
Having settled in America (near Chicago), Gary Green went on to play with various Illinois bands including Blind Dates, The Elvis Brothers, Big Hello and Mother Tongue. (He has also guested on recordings and at concerts by Eddie Jobson and Divae.)
Returning to the UK and settling in Cornwall, Kerry Minnear spent many years working in gospel music and now runs Alucard Music (the organisation supervising the legal and royalty issues regarding Gentle Giant's music)
Phil Shulman retired entirely from the music business following his time in Gentle Giant. He subsequently worked as a teacher, in retail, and ran a gift shop in Gosport, Hampshire, UK prior to his retirement. He was briefly in a band with his son Damon Shulman and recorded several pieces with him. Several of these (under the collective title of Then) were spoken-word pieces in which he reminisced about his upbringing in the Glasgow slums. One of these pieces - Rats - appeared on Damon Shulman's solo album In Pieces and can be heard as an audio stream on Damon Shulman's homepage and MySpace page (made available in April 2008).
Original Gentle Giant drummer Martin Smith settled in Southampton and drummed with various bands there - he died on March 2, 1997.
Second Gentle Giant drummer Malcolm Mortimore has continued to work as a successful sessions drummer in the rock, jazz and theatre fields.
Despite having seen many of their progressive rock contemporaries reunite for moneyspinning tours, Gentle Giant are notable for having consistently refused to reunite as a full band.
In 1997, the Gentle Giant fanbase attempted - unsuccessfully - to persuade the members to perform a reunion concert. Reasons cited by members for rejecting the reunion include busy schedules, health problems, lack of practice on instruments, and other personal reasons.
Asked about a possible reunion in 1995, Phil Shulman replied "we lead such disparate lives now and different lifestyles, different attitudes... I think it's impossible." In 1998, Ray Shulman asserted "For me and Derek, the disruption to our lives now, I can't see how it would be worth it. It would be very difficult. The whole process would take such a long time and you would have to give up what ever you are doing. We both have careers independent of GG."
There have, however, been two partial reunions, both featuring between two and four of the band members and with neither event being identified as a formal reunion of Gentle Giant. The first of these took place in 2004 and the second in 2008 (developing further in 2009).
The 2004 partial reunion featured four former Gentle Giant members - Kerry Minnear, John Weathers, Gary Green and Phil Shulman (who only participated as a lyricist). This quartet reunited as a studio-only project solely in order to record three new compositions for the Scraping The Barrel box set ("Home Again", "Moog Fugue", and "Move Over"). There was no live activity and the quartet disbanded immediately after the recordings.
The 2008 partial reunion featured two other former members of Gentle Giant - guitarist Gary Green and the band's second drummer Malcolm Mortimore - who formed a new band called Rentle Giant in order to play Gentle Giant material. To complete the band, they recruited three noted jazz-fusion musicians - Roger Carey (bass and vocals, from Liane Carroll's band), Andy Williams (guitar, collaborator with Carey in the Engine Clutch And Gearbox trio) and John Donaldson (piano and keyboards). Green also contributed lead vocals to some of the songs.
In March 2009, Green and Mortimore were joined by a third Gentle Giant member - Kerry Minnear - and Rentle Giant consequently changed its name to Three Friends. At the same time, the band expanded to a seven-piece by adding current 10cc vocalist Mick Wilson as dedicated lead singer.