I’m going to try to stay away from talking about genre too much in these – I have plenty of views on labelling music, not all of them consistent. Fencing certain types of music off from others puts up barriers but having a label to put on something you don’t know can be helpful – it’s perfectly valid do ask what kind of music this is when it’s something you’ve never heard.
Equally, it’s often fun to go into something completely blind, and I’ve discovered some things I love by just taking a chance, knowing nothing in advance.
All of which is to say that I do want to talk a little about Prog Rock as a genre (or a label if you prefer) so I can talk about Gentle Giant, and why you may never have heard of them.
Every genre, I think, has a Gentle Giant – a band who fit all the defining characteristics; who should be talked about in the same breath as the really big names, yet who somehow never quite grow beyond their core fanbase, all of whom will tell you unprompted about what you’re missing and how they should have been as big as the bands you were all talking about.
The bands we were all talking about in our Year Areas (that’s what we called them; you may have had Form Rooms or Common Rooms, or you may not have had anything, come to think of it) were Pink Floyd, Yes, Genesis and so on. There were one or two devotees of the Canterbury scene who had Caravan and Camel albums; I even remember seeing Barclay James Harvest lurking among the inevitable copies of Supertramp’s Crime of the Century. I don’t, however, remember ever seeing anyone clutching a Gentle Giant album. They didn’t appear in the fairly eclectic selection available to borrow in the library, and while I was aware of the cover of Octopus, for example, they otherwise passed me by.
So this isn’t a tale of how I heard Proclamation on ‘Fluff’ Freeman’s Saturday afternoon radio show, or of how I discovered Acquiring the Taste in a pile of records being passed around school, or in a friend’s brother’s collection; it’s the story of how it’s never too late to find a new favourite band, and why their most difficult album may just be their best.
On the first Christmas after we moved to Victoria (that’s Victoria, BC in Canada, if you’re wondering – a long way from that Year Area where we were swapping ELP albums), my children, who clearly know me well, presented me with what I insisted on calling a Record Player – it may have a Bluetooth connection for significantly improved sound, and it may have more features and functions, and be altogether a significant upgrade, but in principle, it’s a turntable, an arm with a needle at the end, and therefore not so different from my faithful old red plastic player from forty years before, and suddenly I was back in a world I hadn’t known I’d missed so badly.
The first time I went back into what I now have to call a record store was at once disorienting and comfortingly familiar. I genuinely hadn’t understood that vinyl was back and in a way which resembles strongly the way it was when I was a teenager – there, among the racks of familiar sleeves, were hundreds of album covers I’d either only seen in miniature as CD sleeves, or as digital images. Alongside those, whole areas of music which I knew nothing about – there were genres which hadn’t existed the last time I’d flipped through racks of vinyl albums, and I’m pretty sure none of the staff had been born then either.
Of course, I had spent many happy hours in record stores since the advent of the CD, but there’s no comparison between clacking through piles of plastic squinting at the text on the back to being able to see the whole sleeve the way the designer imagined; to be able to read the track listing and sleeve notes without having to get out your magnifying glass (did I mention I’m nearly 60?).
That first time back in a record store was disorienting. I felt like some alien intruder into a world I didn’t properly understand – it looked familiar, but it had been so long since I’d done this, I wasn’t sure of the etiquette – was I supposed to be pulling gatefold sleeves out of their plastic to inspect the inside? Should I be sliding the second-hand albums out to check the quality? Was I still supposed to be carefully leaning everything back in place so the weight was distributed evenly? (Obviously, yes, but some people seemed not to worry about that). Most importantly, was it OK to crouch down and pull out those crates tucked below the racks to poke around looking for something which I hadn’t found in the main stack?
That first time back was also comforting, though. Here were all those Frank Zappa albums I used to pore over without ever buying one; the smell of the records, and the feel of them, even the way I kept my place in the stack with one hand, while pulling something out and flipping it over to read the back felt so completely familiar; a muscle memory which had never gone away. I could have spent all day in there just reorienting myself to it all and getting lost in rediscovering all those albums I used to own, and which I could now revisit.
That, too was disorienting – where to start? Did I work my way through all those albums which I used to own and rebuild my collection like that? Did I look for albums which I loved, but had only ever owned on cassette - either as original or copy - or CD? What about all those classic albums I had never quite got round to buying but which I clearly should own? Then there was the whole sub-category of albums which had come out long after the demise of vinyl and were here in a format they had never been designed for? Did I want to own a vinyl copy of OK Computer which was a double album, but with each side shorter than it would have been if it had been planned as a double vinyl album?
In the end, I settled for a pattern of partly recreating my old collection – there were a significant number of dreadful albums I owned in the early eighties which I had no particular desire to ever hear again, but a lot I really wanted back in my life – and filling the gaps in the ‘I really ought to own a copy of that’ section. This mainly worked well, and I quickly came to understand two things: I’d mostly rather own a second-hand copy of the appropriate vintage than a new re-press; and I now lived in a different continent, where the subtle differences between the album I remembered and the one I now owned were at once intriguing and unsettling.
There are several excellent record stores in Victoria – it’s that kind of place – each with its own unique approach to making me feel at once old and a kid again. On one of my first forays into the largest of them, I decided that I should fill one of the gaps in my rapidly-increasing pile of albums with a Gentle Giant LP. I had, by this time, heard quite a bit, partly thanks to the marvellous Steven Wilson remixes. I had been enthralled by the songs I’d heard from Three Friends, so that was the album I looked for.
I was then plunged into the whole confused and confusing saga of Gentle Giant releases in North America. I couldn’t find a copy of Three Friends because I was looking for the UK sleeve – in Canada and the US, the cover of Three Friends is the same as the cover of the first album, but with the words ‘Three Friends’ inked over the forehead of the giant (look it up if you don’t believe me). Having discovered how much I actually loved the sound of this band – in spite of the warnings in the sleevenotes of Acquiring the Taste which specifically advise against buying the album (again, look it up), and the fact that it remains dense, complex music which requires concentration and study rather than casual listening, I decided I needed to hear more, and to hear it in its original condition, un-remixed and un-repackaged.
Which led me on a tour of all the record stores in town before tracking down a copy of Octopus (I really wish I had the space to explain why that album title speaks to me) in Turntable Records, surely the most claustrophobic and wondrous record store in the world. I took Octopus to the counter, whereupon I was engaged in conversation about all things Gentle Giant – just like in the seventies, record stores now are owned and staffed by enthusiasts; people who will recommend things to you; ask if you’ve heard this or that; and have lengthy conversations about seeing Rory Gallagher in concert in 1979. I was told that, while Octopus is a wonderful album (as it is), I really should hear this one, and had a copy of In A Glass House pressed upon me, along with an anecdote about seeing the band perform it live.
It was a little more expensive than the others I was buying that day, but this was, of course, because it was an import, the original never having been released in North America, because the record company thought it ‘uncommercial’.
Exactly my kind of thing, then.
By all accounts, the band themselves aren’t fans of In A Glass House, it having been recorded in a period of turmoil with founding member and eldest of the three Shulman brothers, Phil, having quit to go back to civilian life. This only makes me like it more, of course. I have a decent collection of Gentle Giant albums now, but this is the one I come back to most often. I love the craft of the sleeve, with its plastic window featuring the band playing their instruments and the cardboard insert which features the band playing their other instruments, for reasons lost to the mists of time. I love the look and feel of the whole thing; the lyrics printed on the paper inner sleeve which has miraculously survived all this time, and the terrifying flimsiness of the vinyl itself; none of your 180 gram modern stuff here; this wobbles as you take it out of the sleeve, as records always used to.
It sounds, however, like few records ever did.
It starts with sounds of destruction – breaking glass and hammers resolving into a rhythm which is itself overtaken by the first song, The Runaway. Gentle Giant songs don’t sound like anyone else – some of the rhythmic devices could have come from a Frank Zappa album, but the instruments – some of them easier to identify than others – are always a little off-kilter, each phrase establishing itself only to be rephrased by some other part of the orchestra and then taken off in a different direction, while the vocals do whatever it is that Gentle Giant vocals do.
The Runaway is a perfect example of why it’s so hard to describe a Gentle Giant vocal line. The phrasing, right from the first line, is off; emphasis appears on all the wrong syllables, and some lines change pace halfway through, compressing half the meaning into an almost garbled string of sounds. Meanwhile, most of the lines are sung by two voices in harmonies which owe their origin to plainchant, and there are, likely as not, a pair of recorders playing an entirely different melody underneath.
Honestly, I could spend the rest of my life listening to just this one song, and not be confident of having heard everything going on in it.
An Inmate’s Lullaby is percussion-driven, hopping from rhythmic pattern to rhythmic pattern without ever settling on anything you could tap your toes to. As a portrait of insanity, it’s terrifyingly plausible, while managing to be whimsical and even fun in places – the rapidly detuned tympanum at the climax makes me laugh every time.
Way of Life is almost danceable – at least at first. It rollocks along, a song which you can follow and nod along to. Well, until it breaks down into a middle section featuring a pipe organ and the pure, calm voice of Kerry Minnear sounding like he’s dropped in from the thirteenth century. You close your eyes, ready to relax into this calm, pastoral vision only to have it explode into some kind of stadium rock anthem, where it only lingers long enough for you to get to your feet and attempt to sing along before seemingly forcing you to ride a bike with no suspension down a cobbled hill, before crashing into a church organ which moans at you wheezily until it expires, your front wheel still spinning while you stare up at the ceiling trying to figure out exactly what just happened.
And that’s just what’s happening in the left speaker…
The second side is even better. Experience is awash in keyboard lines which stutter along, punctuated by unidentifiable sounds under another intriguingly phrased vocal about…
It’s not clear what any of these songs are about, really. After dozens of listens, I came to the conclusion that it’s a picture of some kind of mental breakdown, seen from a number of angles and perspectives. It certainly would explain why the music leaps so effortlessly from one genre to another, from one rhythm to another, from the latest in electric and electronic sound to the recurring church organ; why the vocals head off in such wildly different directions, and why it’s all at once unsettling and enormously rewarding to listen to.
By the end of Experience, the modern rock song, complete with fluid and expressive guitar solo, is in all-out war with the harpsichord-driven madrigal. They come to a sort of uneasy peace by the end, and perhaps that is what this album’s about – figuring out how to reconcile all the different influences and experiences of everyone; how to cope with one piece missing.
Then A Reunion comes in and is basically a string quartet with electric bass and Minnear’s fragile voice pressed right up against the microphone so you can hear every breath. It is a welcome moment of calm before those same violins, now electrified, burst us into the title track and, perhaps, try to sum the whole thing up.
There’s no way to sum the whole thing up, though. In A Glass House the track, like In A Glass House the album, defies description – it lurches from moments of calm to passages of wild abandon. There’s melody which never quite manages to assert itself, and random instrumentation – saxophone and mandolin at one point – there are lyrics which pick out the themes of the whole thing without ever making themselves clear enough for you to nod sagely and say “oh, that’s what it’s all about”.
At times it sounds like pure 1973, all swampy guitars and pulsating bass, and in the next instant it leaps out of time altogether and wanders around the whole of musical history, trying things on and discarding them while always somehow managing to convince you that there’s a destination up ahead somewhere.
There is, to my great delight, a hidden track at the end of side two, featuring very short snippets form all six songs. It serves to illustrate that there has been a purpose to all of this, and it does have a thread running through it. It’s just that the thread is of some previously unknown material and quite possibly exists in a dimension we can’t quite perceive.
Another album released in 1973 touched on some of these same subjects and went on to dominate the musical landscape for decades; In A Glass House is the very definition of the road less travelled in comparison, but I’d argue that it’s just as deserving of your attention, and by virtue of it being largely unexplored territory, maybe has more to say.
Any other albums by this artist to consider?
Absolutely. In fact, I wouldn’t start here – Acquiring The Taste (if you can get past the frankly revolting cover), Three Friends, Octopus, The Power And The Glory, and Free Hand all have much to recommend them (listen to the first and last tracks on The Power and the Glory, for example) and perhaps should be tackled before diving headlong into this most complex of albums. Later albums try to adapt the Gentle Giant sound to move with the times, but don’t work for me – the joy and glory of this band is that they don’t try to fit in.
Compilations to consider?
For the usual Prog reasons, I am bound to say not really, but the aforementioned Steven Wilson remixes album, Three Piece Suite was my way in to the band, so maybe start there.
The only live album released in the band’s lifetime, Playing The Fool, gives a pretty good idea of what the live show was like around the time of Free Hand; it’s not on rotation like some of the other Prog live albums of the time are for me, despite the famous recorder quartet section on side two. There are a large number of other live albums out there, some of them more official than others, but I haven’t explored them. Yet. I feel like there’s still a lot to explore in the studio albums, so there’s time enough for all those….
Nothing written down (beyond things like this, and countless interviews and articles in the music press), but there are a couple of live DVDs available, and a few snippets on YouTube which serve to illustrate just how strangely compelling this band was.
Oh, and a kind of fan tribute / reunion video from the first COVID lockdown, which is just a delight.