They did not achieve the success of some of their Prog Rock contemporaries, and especially on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. But English band Gentle Giant had (and have) a hardcore fan base of their experimental music during their 1970s lifespan. Even if there was no such thing as the term “Prog Rock” at the time.
“When we started, there was no such thing as that. It wasn’t a bag we were looking to put into in the same way when Black Sabbath came out, there was no term for ‘heavy metal,’” vocalist/instrumentalist Derek Shulman says. “We just wrote on a blank page, and that’s
The origins and early music of Gentle Giant are unearthed in a new box set Three Piece Suite (Alucard). It features Blu-ray versions of the original album mixes for their first three records: Gentle Giant (1970), Acquiring the Taste (1971), and Three Friends (1972). Filling out the other discs are highlights from those records remixed by Steven Wilson in regular CD and Blu-ray, along with instrumental tracks. It serves both as a treasure trove for fans and with the highlight disc, an intro for newbies.
The idea started when Shulman began looking for the master multi-tracks for those first three records as part of an ongoing reissue campaign of the band’s catalog. Finding some of them gone or damaged, they brought in Wilson. He’s a musician from new Prog band Porcupine Tree who has also done extensive remixing for reissues by Jethro Tull, Yes, King Crimson, and ELP, making him the go-to guy for Prog reissues.
“It was Steven’s idea to put it together as kind of a box set to show the childhood and adolescence of the band. He is very respectful and a real muso,” Shulman says. “He doesn’t put a personal stamp on the mixes, he embellishes some of the levels and EQ things that we would have done ourselves if we had the technology or the time at the time.”
Formed in 1970, Gentle Giant came out of the ashes of a much more traditional British “show band” who specialized in energetic covers, Simon Dupree and the Big Sound (though there was no “Simon” – it was Shulman playing a role). The core of the band also included his two brothers Phil (vocalist, brass) and Ray (bass, brass, strings).
They had an idea for a more advanced and experimental sound, adding Gary Green (guitar) and Kerry Minnear (keyboards, other instruments). A Spinal Tap-like succession of drummers in their first three years included Martin Smith, Malcolm Mortimore, and John “Pugwash” Weathers. Gentle Giant would release many albums in the ‘70s, but disbanded in 1980 and have not had a full reunion since.
For his part, Derek Shulman is amazed that he’s on the phone even talking about the band’s first record some 47 years after its release, and he says he holds a particular fondness for that initial trio of works. The first lyric on the first song on the first album is “the birth of a realization,” which he says also neatly sums up what Gentle Giant was to him and the members at the time.
Another realization they had early on is that the keyboard player for Simon Dupree and the Big Sound – a guy by the name of Reg Dwight – wouldn’t be making the transition to the new group. But no worries, Dwight did OK for himself during the decade after he changed his name to Elton John.
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“He actually auditioned for this band, and he started playing things like ‘Your Song’ and ‘Skyline Pigeon’ and we knew it wouldn’t work for us,” Shulman laughs. “Thank god for him, because two years late he’s on top of the world and we’re struggling to get gigs!”
After his performing days, Shulman went over to “the dark side” to become an A&R person and high ranking music executive at a series of labels including Polygram, Atco, Mercury, and Roadrunner. A quick student, he says he learned something the very first day he walked into Polygram.
“I found out that it’s not the music business, it’s the business of music. That was a big eye-opener for me,” he says. “It wasn’t about the music, it was about the people behind it and their priorities. I tried my best to understand both sides of the equation and what it actually took to make things happen.”
Finally, Shulman notes on a personal level that he married his Dallas-native wife in the city in 1978. And a brother-in law-based in Houston was the consul general for Israel for years. “I have very fond memories of Texas and Houston and we used to go there quite often, he says. “I love the state.”