In order to tell you about what I have been listening to for the past week, I have to tell you about someone I haven’t spoken to in 20 years.
As most of you probably know, I began this column with Face Magazine in Portland, Maine. Face was an independent music mag that came out every two weeks. it had a gritty, homemade quality to it that mirrored the DIY scene it covered. The Face folks hired me right out of college, and I spent four years with them, asking people what they’ve been listening to and writing features on local artists. Two years in I noticed that while we had a lot of regular columns, none of them were dedicated to the new music that drove my interests. So I started one.
But I don’t want to recount all of that here. I do want to tell you about one of those regular columnists, a guy named Seth Berner. Seth wrote the punk column, called Undertones, and he was pretty much born for that. His tastes tended toward the fast and sloppy and counter-cultural, and he happened to encounter me at the height of my “social context doesn’t matter, it’s the MUSIC, man” late adolescence. I argued with Seth about a lot of things that, these days, I would not, and he was right about much more than I ever told him.
Anyway, the one time Seth ever surprised the hell out of me was when he recommended Gentle Giant. I had been so used to him extoling the virtues of six-minute seven-inches made by people who just learned their instruments an hour ago, and so used to him dismissing the (I thought) extraordinary musical skill of my favorite musicians. I thought I had him pegged. So when he, of all people, introduced me to one of the greatest obscure progressive rock bands in history, I was gobsmacked.
And I remain grateful to him. My two-decades-strong Gentle Giant fandom is entirely down to Seth, who made me cassette copies of his favorite albums. Tops on his list was their fifth, In a Glass House, and I can’t argue. (The fact that it had never been released in the United States at that time, I’m sure, only made Seth love it more.) Glass House was the first one I heard, and frankly, I’d never encountered music quite like it. Can you imagine music that is equal parts Yes and centuries-old folk? I couldn’t either, but that’s what much of Glass House sounds like.
Why am I telling you about a band that broke up in 1980? Well, a couple weeks ago I received something I’d been eyeing for months – an all-in-one Gentle Giant box set called Unburied Treasure. This thing represents the most money I’ve ever dropped on a single item of music, and I thought I’d missed out on it – the first pressing came out in December and sold out almost immediately. The band organized an even more limited second pressing, and that’s the one I picked up.
And I’ve spent the last week or so listening to it. This is no mean feat – Unburied Treasure is 29 CDs, consisting of all 12 officially released albums, 15 full live shows (most of which were unreleased) and a disc of rehearsal recordings. It also includes a gorgeous hardbound book with a full history of the band, a tour book with notes on every show the band played, several other mementos, including a puzzle with a missing piece (produced to promote 1977’s The Missing Piece) and a full giant-head mask. All of this is packaged in a beautiful box that is the largest brick in my collection. Seriously, it’s so much bigger than I expected it would be.
After listening to all of it, I can only say that this extravagant package feels like giving an unjustly ignored band its due, finally. Gentle Giant grew out of Simon Dupree and the Big Sound in 1969. Its core was the Shulman brothers: Derek, Ray and (for a time) Phil, along with Gary Green and Kerry Minnear. There were a few drummers through the years, but when they found John Weathers in 1972, they stuck with him. The Shulmans, Green and Minnear were all multi-instrumentalists, which means on stage they would swap constantly, or bring out the horns or vibes or other orchestral elements.
I can’t say I’m surprised that this music has largely been lost to the winds of time. Almost none of it is what you would call accessible. Gentle Giant began and ended their career playing more straightforward rock, but in between constructed songs like no one ever has before or since. Complex multi-part harmonies, ornate arrangements, demanding instrumental sections, melodies that only step forward and make themselves familiar over time. It’s incredibly demanding stuff, both to play and to listen to, but it’s also immensely rewarding once its contours and shapes map themselves out for you.
I won’t go album by album here, but I will mention some songs that stood out to me this time. Before acquiring the box I’d never heard Acquiring the Taste, the band’s second record, and it’s easily one of their weirdest and least inhibited. But here’s the thing about Gentle Giant – their music never feels self-indulgent. Their records hover around half an hour in length, their songs usually about four minutes. Acquiring has a few longer ones, but the longest is seven and a half. This album is pure artistic freedom, and I’m still parsing it, but the string section on “Black Cat” is a firm favorite already.
Anyone who wants to call 1972’s Octopus the band’s best will get no argument from me. I have loved songs like “The Advent of Panurge” and the insane, harmonically dizzying “Knots” for years, but this time the standout was “Think of Me With Kindness,” Kerry Minnear’s gorgeous song of separation. (I requested a cover of this from my friend Ian Tanner, and he obliged, and it was lovely.) Man, this melody is unbelievable. It’s on Brian Wilson’s level, and if you know me you know what a compliment that is.
I still think In a Glass House may be their best. The folksy elements are played up here, and good lord, does this stuff sound timeless. Out of time, really. There’s never been an album quite like this one, and the band would emphasize the rockier and funkier parts of their sound on subsequent efforts like the great The Power and the Glory. If I had to pick one song from this middle period, I would choose “His Last Voyage” on 1975’s Free Hand, though. Imagine a prog-rock Enya. That’s what this haunting acoustic tune is.
Of course, if I had more to choose, I’d throw in “Experience” and the dissonant “So Sincere” and “On Reflection” and “Timing” and and and. It’s really an unassailable run of records, through 1976’s Interview. This is not to say that the final three albums are bad, they’re just more straight-ahead. The Missing Piece contains a side of rock and a side of proggy folk, and that second side includes “Memories of Old Days,” the band’s last real classic. 1978’s Giant for a Day is the band’s worst, but it’s still a fun rock record, and 1980’s Civilian(which I had also never heard) goes out with a bang, bringing Gentle Giant roaring into the new wave moment. “All Through the Night” should have been a hit.
But it wasn’t. Gentle Giant had no hits, and went away as quietly as they’d arrived, as far as the general public is concerned. Those who got to see them live, however, know that there was nothing quiet about them. The 15 live shows included in Unburied Treasure span their entire existence, and range from audience recordings to the beautiful multi-tracks used for the four shows that were edited into their only official live album, Playing the Fool. Listening to these in chronological order was a treat – they prove beyond a doubt that the albums only tell half the story.
Gentle Giant live was loud and jammy, in ways I did not expect. Much of their more complex material never made it into their setlists, since it would have been nearly impossible to replicate night after night. Instead, the band picked a few favorites and messed with them throughout their live tenure. There are 14 renditions of “Funny Ways” here, for instance, and each one evolves into a fascinating vibraphone solo that is different every time. “Nothing At All” becomes an excuse for the whole band to play drums in an extended midsection. Octopus is mashed together into a 15-minute medley that changes over time, and is just maddeningly complicated.
Above all, Gentle Giant was fun live, something that may not come across on their studio records. They kept the joy of performing all the way to their final show from 1980, documented here on the set’s final disc. The band blasts through the Civilian material and mixes in some older classics (like “The Advent of Panurge,” played in full for the first time in ages), and they sound like they’re ready to go on and on, not call it quits. “We’ll see you again” is the last thing Derek Shulman says before leaving the stage for the final time.
The Shulmans, especially, have gone on to have quite an impact on the music world. Derek Shulman became an A&R representative for PolyGram and Atco, signing (among others) Bon Jovi, Dream Theater, Pantera and Slipknot. (And my boys Enuff Z’Nuff.) Ray Shulman produced albums from the Sugarcubes, the Sundays and Ian McCullough, to name a few. The rest of the band has pursued various and sundry musical projects, but none with the scope and breadth of Gentle Giant.
It would have been so easy for me to live my entire life without hearing a note of this band’s work. I imagine roughly 90 percent of the population remains unaware of them. So I am grateful for a big, lavish box like this one celebrating a catalog unlike any other I’m aware of. And I’m grateful to Seth Berner for making sure I heard In a Glass House all those years ago. My life is richer with this music in it.
There are still copies of Unburied Treasure left. Pick one up from Burning Shed here.
Next week, back to the new stuff. Indigo Girls, Lady Gaga, the 1975. So much to choose from.
See you in line Tuesday morning.