Gentle Giant; King Arthur’s House Band


Gentle Giant (1970) CoverArtPlaying The Fool (1977) CoverArt

Well, if King Arthur could have had a house band it definitely would have been these guys! Certainly one of the more quirky, crafty and complex Prog bands of their time and for today even. More than a thinking man’s band but a sophisticated collaboration of sound and lyrics and style that put them a cut above the rest but ultimately was their downfall as well in 1980. To compare them to bands today it would be classified as “Math Rock” (The Cancer Conspiracy, Because of Ghosts, Heavy Vegetable, The Mars Volta etc) with their offbeat time signatures, complex rhythm patterns and drawing on classical elements fused in to a genre of Prog-Neo-Classical-Mayhem-Coolness! Not exactly something you tap your feet to in 22 time but a band that went past the envelope pushing perimeters to bring us something that made you forget that you wore glasses! Releasing twelve albums in ten years (11 Studio, 1 Live) is impressive and all are worthwhile listens but GG are more over a live band with a list of equally impressive multi-instrumentalists in the group. I love their music right up to about 1977 then it became a more hit and miss for me sadly but they are still one of the best examples of Progressive Rock of the 20th century.

Their live performances really captivated the raw energy and power of their music as opposed to the studio albums that I feel compressed that energy in to something that made them a harder band to get in to and listen to. Certain bands could swing it both live and in the studio, Pink Floyd being a perfect example both visually and audibly appealing and similar bands of the scene but for Gentle Giant it was something that you had to experience live to really get that feeling of greatness that they exuded. The surviving underground recordings of the bootleg world has given us the blessing of being able to hear the band at and in their element best. Also rarely changing members except for drummers, two different ones between 1970-1972 and then from 1972-1980 the same drummer stuck through it all. Not an easy band to be a drummer in that’s for sure but then again, not an easy band to be in period, the complexity of their music is enough to drive you to drink at times I’m certain of that! I can only imagine the drunken fun they may have had during rehearsals in some far off European studio or wherever it happened.

As I mentioned just earlier, the bootleg records have given us an eye to the soul of their live repertoire and energetic power being able to play multiple instruments and remember what to do with each one for each song you switched out in. Unfortunately there isn’t a terrible lot of bootleg video footage out there and the band themselves have released or bootleggers have released box sets of video montages, mostly comprised of television appearances that really allow us to see the stamina, stability AND mayhem (watch Kerry Minnear’s xylophone solo on the Long Beach ’75 film!) they radiated on stage. A lot of the early 1971 bootlegs are barely audible and sound like a the kamikaze mission of an old coffee percolator on its last legs than a live recording! Two that stand out as tolerable and worthwhile searching out are; February 12th 1971 King Alfred’s College in Winchester, England UK (first performance of the band as a 5 piece) and April 1971 Philipshalle, Dusseldorf, West Germany both albums are complete performances and do have rarely played live songs such as City Hermit, Why Not and Hometown Special. Gentle Giant played Convocation Hall, University of Toronto January 24th 1975 in Toronto, Ontario Canada and the bootleg in circulation of their soundcheck. There’s no vocals on here which is common in a lot of soundcheck bootlegs I have found and the band does plenty of the typical noodling around you’d expect. But you can recognize a little of the song “So Sincere”. The highlight, however, is a small section of “No God’s a Man”, a tune they never played in concert. A rarity indeed to hear! There are definitely notably better sounding shows from the 1975 era of the band,(one of my favs) the October 7th 1975 Ultrasonic Studios, Hempstead, New York USA, a radio program that presented bands such as GG and also Tangerine Dream etc in FM Broadcasts that had a live audience as well as being soundboarded to the listening masses around to whatever states could draw it in. The band always gave it 110% on stage and in the studio but still…. I digress.

Octopus (1972) CoverArtThe Power And The Glory (1974) CoverArt

Their music: As I had mentioned, hard to tap your foot to all the way throughout an entire song without changing the time signature of your toes, they brought Prog Rock to its summit and stayed there until their untimely demise in 1980 thanks to the record company forcing them to write shorter and more radio friendly songs as early as of 1977; Two Weeks in Spain and Betcha Thought We Couldn’t Do It from the album, The Missing Piece (1977) of which every song was much shorter with the exception of Memories of Old Days at just over seven minutes. Catchy riff pop tunes that did not do the band any favours and threw them in to a washing machine of laundered musical messes. On top of that to add insult to injury earlier they were the opening act on Black Sabbath’s 1972 Volume 4 tour (eludes me still as to why!?) to which they were repeatedly booed at and thrown cherry bombs at not being welcomed at all.  Eventually landing spots with more Prog friendly camps such as Jethro Tull and Yes and reaching credited acclaim by the mid-late seventies only to be shot down in favour of the radio friendly song structure. Prior to this they would play some songs in what’s called Polymetres (two different time signatures play simultaneously) as well as; tempo changes, counterpoint in vocals and instruments, fugal expositions, syncopation, vocal harmonies including hocketing (Hocket is a technique using the alternation of notes, pitches, or chords. In medieval practice of hocketing, a single melody is shared between two (or occasionally more) voices such that alternately one voice sounds while the other rests with dissonance) and a wide range of instruments that left very little to nothing in the cupboards to spare. This added to the more madrigal sound and tone to their music giving them my epithet of being King Arthur’s House Band. No other band even remotely came close to their sound, perhaps with the minor exception to the Canterbury sound of Prog with bands like; Egg, Camel, Matching Mole, Soft Machine, Kevin Ayers and The World et al. but even then they didn’t hold a match to Gentle Giant, a class all on their own.

In 1973 Phil Shulman decided after three short years that he had had enough of touring and that it was affecting his family life and after their Italian tour decided to quit the band leaving Derek Shulman to be the primary lead vocalist with the others in the band still participating in their backing vocal parts. The other Shulman brothers considered t to be the end of the band but they still accelerated forwards to the demise of the Prog Rock machine in 1980.

With the onset of Punk, Disco and adult contemporary bands and artists Prog was slowly sinking in to the quagmire of unwanted souls in the music industry as record companies saw the “Chi-Ching” dollar signs in their eyes with these new bands/artists emerging with catchy songs, easy to sing lyrics, toe tapping and danceable making Prog fade away in to the shadows and die out like dinosaurs or bend their knee and become “soft”. RUBBISH! But bands did it, Gentle Giant wrote shorter songs, radio friendly clap traps and they weren’t the only ones to do it. Pink Floyd slipped a disco beat right under our noses with the quirky, “Another Brick in the Wall Part 2” becoming a massive hit for them and a single which they said they weren’t a singles band back in ’68. ELP may not have sunk in to shorter songs but fell in to that adult contemporary bowl with more ballads and love orientated songs leading to their awful cover and album of ’78, Love Beach. Genesis fell short too after Gabriel’s exit in ’75 with Phil Collins now at the vocal helm giving them the radio availability to be more rock radio gender fluid friendly. King Crimson halted their trucks in July of 1974 to reemerge in 1980 originally as “Discipline” but shortly reverting back to the Crimson moniker and evolving in to the Neo-Prog movement from 1980-1984 with three albums containing some more “catchy” tunes as well. So it wasn’t just Gentle Giant who crashed and burned on to the decks of AM radio audiences and mainstream FM listeners.

Still keeping some of the older songs in their set lists the flame was coming to the end of its wick for the band by middle of 1980 as with anything a door must close for a time being or permanently eventually. In 2008 a partial reunion was formed calling it Three Friends engaging some original members of the band and starting off with some shows here and there and then by 2011/2012 a European and North American tour was undertaken. In 2015 the band was to perform on the “Cruise to the Edge” performances, a large cruise ship that involved showcasing several Prog bands; Airbag, Anglagard, David Kerzner, Nektar, Yes, Martin Barre, Saga, PFM and Anathema to name a few. They did embark on that tour but Gary Green suffered a mild heart attack and did not make the performances but the band continued without a lead guitarist opting to fill in his guitar parts with sax  and keyboard solos. Green is expected to fully recover but his involvement in the band is currently up in the air. With several line up changes over the last few years in Three Friends is difficult to say whether or not the band will fold or carry onward and continue to perform. Time will tell if that missing piece is still left overturned or made to fill in and close the gap calling it a day for Gentle Giant and its Three Friends extension leaving us to the albums, legit and bootleg alike.

Published by OddsFiche, A Canadian Perspective