Gentle Giant

Gentle Giant were a British progressive rock band active between 1970 and 1980. The band is known as the paradigmatic progressive rock band. With an uncomparable musicianship, they went as far as no one ever did into unexplored grounds in the progressive music. The band was known for the complexity and sophistication of its music and for the varied musical skills of its members. All of the band members, except the first two drummers, were multi-instrumentalists. The multi-instrumentation capabilities of the musicians gave such dynamic to their music, which set parameters to a whole coming generation up to these very days. Although not commercially successful, they did achieve a cult following. 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 Jethro Tull, 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. Gentle Giant was able to come across the 70's maintaining an outstanding level on their music, altering their style over the years and keeping the quality as only a few bands were able to do. 


Derek Shulman: lead vocals, saxophone, recorder, keyboards, bass, drums, percussion, "Shulberry" (3-string custom electric ukulele) (1970–1980)
Ray Shulman: bass, trumpet, violin, vocals, viola, drums, percussion, recorder, guitar (1970–1980)
Kerry Minnear: keyboards, lead vocals (on recordings only), cello, vibraphone, xylophone, recorder, guitar, bass, drums (1970–1980)
Gary Green: guitar, mandolin, vocals, recorder, bass, drums, xylophone (1970–1980)
John "Pugwash" Weathers: drums, percussion, vibraphone, xylophone, vocals, guitar (1972–1980)
Phil Shulman: lead vocals, saxophone, trumpet, clarinet, recorder, percussion (1970–72)
Martin Smith: drums, percussion (1970–1971)
Malcolm Mortimore: drums, percussion (1971–1972)


Gentle Giant's music was mostly composed by Kerry Minnear and Ray Shulman, with additional musical ideas contributed by Derek Shulman (who was also known to contribute entire songs). Lyrics were written by Phil Shulman and Derek Shulman up until Phil's departure following the release of Octopus. All subsequent lyrics were written by Derek Shulman. By the standards of progressive rock, Gentle Giant’s music is generally considered to be particularly complex and demanding. It shares several aspects with that of other progressive rock bands, including:
-multi-part vocal harmonies
-complex lyrics
-organisation into concept album form (on occasion)
-frequent changes in tempo
-frequent use of syncopation and non-standard time signatures, including polymeters (two or more time signatures played simultaneously)
-use of complex melodies, frequently contrasting harmonies with dissonance
-extensive use of instrumental and vocal counterpoint
-use of musical structures typically associated with classical music (for example, madrigal form on "Knots", fugal exposition in "On Reflection" and the consistent use of stated, exchanged and recapitulated musical themes exchanged between instruments)
-use of classical and medieval instrumentation not generally associated with rock music

However, it has been noted that in spite of the comparatively complex initial sound, Gentle Giant’s music is in fact fairly traditional in terms of harmony and features relatively few complex chords. In common with most 1970s progressive rock, Gentle Giant compositions are closer to early 20th century neoclassicism than to contemporary classical music. (Some Gentle Giant songs, such as "Black Cat", "Proclamation" and "So Sincere", do utilise more complicated modernist harmonics.) In general, the band relied on sudden and unexpected compositional twists and turns to stimulate their audience, including:
-unusual chord progressions
-breaking up and tonally re-voicing patterns of initially simple chords (with the chords subtly altering from repetition to repetition)
-accelerating and decelerating duration of musical themes
-rapid and frequent key changes (sometimes within a single bar)
-division of vocal lines between different singers (including staggered rhythms)
-clever handling of transitions between sections (such as a hard-rock guitar riff being immediately substituted by a medieval choral)


Phil Shulman
The core of what was to become Gentle Giant were the three Shulman brothers born in Glasgow, Scotland: Phil, Derek and Ray. Their father was an army musician turned jazz trumpeter. He encouraged his sons to learn various instruments and Phil, Derek, and Ray all 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.
Derek Shulman
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 the EMI record label, Simon Dupree and the Big Sound produced several non-charting singles before being pushed by their management and label in the direction of psychedelia.
Ray Shulman
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. 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)'. In 1969, the Shulman brothers finally dissolved the group in order to escape the pop music environment that had frustrated them and they chose to pursue a more complicated direction. Ray Shulman later stated "We knew we couldn't continue with the musicians we'd had before. 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."

Simon Dupree and the Big Sound
Kerry Minnear
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.
Gary Green
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). It has been reported that Elton John unsuccessfully auditioned for lead vocalist with the newly formed group. According to a booklet that was included in their first album, their name was a reference to a fictional character, a "gentle giant" that happens upon a band of musicians and is enthralled with their music. The character is reminiscent of those from the Renaissance tales of Francois Rabelais. 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. The band's approach to songwriting was equally diverse, blending a wide variety of ideas and influences whether they were considered commercial or otherwise.

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. 

Quiet and cold

Funny ways

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, Acquiring the Taste 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. The band's sense of challenge was made evident in the liner notes to Acquiring the Taste, which contained a particularly lofty statement of intent even by progressive rock standards. 

The house, the street, the room 

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.

Mister class and quality

John Weathers
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. 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). The album's release is generally considered to date the start of the band's peak period. 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". "Knots" was lyrically inspired by the writings and word play of R. D. Laing, according to the liner notes on the back cover of the North American version of the 1972 Octopus album. One of Laing's books is entitled Knots. Before embarking on the Octopus tour, the band played a grueling set of dates supporting Black Sabbath, during which they proved to be very unpopular with the majority of the headlining band's fans.

Advent of panurge


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. Derek Shulman took over all lead vocals for live concerts and consequently became Gentle Giant's de facto lead singer (although Kerry Minnear continued to sing his own share of lead vocals on record). 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". The remaining quintet regrouped to record the harder-rocking In a Glass House, which was released in 1973. They played their first gig as a five-piece at King Alfred's College, Winchester. In a Glass House is 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. In a Glass House was never released in the USA, but was in great demand as an import. 

The runaway \ Experience

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. 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.

Cogs in cogs \ Proclamation
So sincere

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. 

On reflection

Free hand

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 No. 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.

I lost my head

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.

Two weeks in Spain

For nobody / Mountain time

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.  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". In the summer of 1980, the group quietly disbanded. 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".

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 new music company 2Plus Music & 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 Glenn Cornick's Wild Turkey again (2006). Gary Green (having settled in America, near Chicago) went on to play with various Illinois bands (including Blind Dates, The Elvis Brothers, Big Hello, and Mother Tongue) and guest on recordings and at concerts by Eddie Jobson and Divae. Kerry Minnear returned to the UK and settled in Cornwall, spending many years working in gospel music. He now runs Alucard Music, the organization 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 was briefly in a band with his son Damon Shulman and recorded several pieces with him.

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. 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 involved the creation of a new band called Rentle Giant in order to play Gentle Giant material. This band featured two other former members of Gentle Giant (guitarist Gary Green and drummer Malcolm Mortimore) who recruited three noted jazz-fusion musicians to complete the band: 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. About six months later, it was announced that Minnear was leaving the band for personal reasons, and that Three Friends planned to continue as a six-piece. Minnear later revealed that the split was amicable and that he had left for reasons of respect (as the Shulman brothers had "not been particularly enthusiastic" about the existence of Three Friends).

(Studio albums)

Gentle Giant (1970):
1. Giant
2. Funny Ways
3. Alucard
4. Isn't It Quiet and Cold?
5. Nothing At All
6. Why Not?
7. The Queen

Acquiring the Taste (1971):
1. Pantagruel's Nativity
2. Edge of Twilight
3. The House, The Street, The Room
4. Acquiring the Taste
5. Wreck
6. The Moon Is Down
7. Black Cat
8. Plain Truth

Three Friends (1972):
1. Prologue
2. Schooldays
3. Working All Day
4. Peel the Paint
5. Mister Class and Quality?
6. Three Friends

Octopus (1972):
1. The Advent of Panurge
2. Raconteur, Troubadour
3. A Cry for Everyone
4. Knots
5. The Boys in the Band
6. Dog's Life
7. Think of Me with Kindness
8. River

In a Glass House (1973):
1. The Runaway
2. An Inmate's Lullaby
3. Way of Life
4. Experience
5. A Reunion
6. In a Glass House

The Power and the Glory (1974):
1. Proclamation
2. So Sincere
3. Aspirations
4. Playing the Game
5. Cogs in Cogs
6. No God's a Man
7. The Face
8. Valedictory

Free Hand (1975):
1. Just The Same
2. On Reflection
3. Free Hand
4. Time To Kill
5. His Last Voyage
6. Talybont
7. Mobile

Interview (1976):
1. Interview
2. Give It Back
3. Design
4. Another Show
5. Empty City
6. Timing
7. I Lost My Head

The Missing Piece (1977):
1. Two Weeks in Spain
2. I'm Turning Around
3. Betcha Thought We Couldn't Do It
4. Who Do You Think You Are?
5. Mountain Time
6. As Old as You're Young
7. Memories of Old Days
8. Winning
9. For Nobody

Giant for a Day (1978):
1. Words From The Wise
2. Thank You
3. Giant For A Day
4. Spooky Boogie
5. Take Me
6. Little Brown Bag
7. Friends
8. No Stranger
9. It's Only Goodbye
10. Rock Climber

Civilian (1980):
1. Convenience (Clean And Easy)
2. All Through The Night
3. Shadows On The Street
4. Number One
5. Underground
6. I Am A Camera
7. Inside Out
8. It's Not Imagination