For the majority of their career, Gentle Giant was that rarest of breeds: uniquely challenging, singularly unlike any other rock band, with no hit singles or radio airplay, or anything approaching ‘danceable’. Yet they garnered and cultivated a fiercely loyal, almost ravenous core of fans and admirers. These listeners weren’t content to settle for standard verse-chorus-Baby-I-love-you three-chord rock. They wanted more, and Gentle Giant offered much more, blending rock with flavours of jazz, folk, classical, medieval and chamber music into a swirling, potent cocktail. Fans delighted in the majesty of the compositions, gazed at the unusual cover artwork and pored over the lyrics of songs with titles such as Pantagruel’s Nativity and The Advent Of Panurge.
One wonders in this modern age of streaming and digital downloading of music: why the unwavering popularity of the physical media boxed set, ever increasing in size and scope? Probably anybody’s guess, but it’s safe to say that there are still those who feel that the process of obtaining a group of ones and zeros on an electronic device cannot hold a candle to the tactile experience of opening an expansive box from their favourite artist and gleefully exploring the riches contained within. Gentle Giant fans can certainly attest to that. If such collections over the years have inevitably been described as ‘holy grails’, then Unburied Treasure – Madfish’s colossal 30 disc assemblage of live and studio recordings out on the 6th December – must be the Ark of the Covenant.
Limited to 2000 copies worldwide, all eleven studio albums are presented here, newly remastered, as well as a blu-ray disc with the complete Steven Wilson remix of the band’s debut album. An astonishing sixteen live concerts are here too, each cleaned up and presented with their own artwork. Stop and consider that number for a moment. How many bands, no matter their longevity, have sixteen live albums in total? Simply incredible. Furthermore, not one, but two books totaling 232 pages are a part of this set: a coffee table book covering the history of the band, and a separate touring history, with in-depth interviews. Outtakes, signed photos, replica posters and various other goodies round out this extravagant collection. Singer and multi-instrumentalist Derek Shulman (later a major record executive who signed a great number of famous musicians and launched many careers) was happy to talk to me about this new chest of wonders and other moments in the history of Gentle Giant.
VT: Well, Unburied Treasure is soon to be unveiled, and it looks to be one of the most lavish boxed sets I’ve ever seen, an absolute bounty for the die-hard Giant-head. You must be pleased with it.
DS: Yeah, I am! I’m dying to see what it’s like and how it sounds. I saw the actual box itself a couple of weeks ago in New Jersey, a kind of opening ceremony in front of a few fans at an annual get-together called GORGG. I saw what was inside, but didn’t get time to peruse what it was. Certainly it looks like a beautiful package.
VT: Obviously one of the main attractions here will be the inclusion of the live concerts, and from what I’ve listened to so far, they sound great! A big step up from your average bootleg recording.
DS: Right, I think the live material that was found for this set was mostly either board mixes or radio shows, they weren’t just like a cassette in front of the band or from the back of the arena. From what I understand, they’re good recordings.
VT: One of the live pieces that always stands out to me is the medley you used to perform of the excerpts from the Octopus album. I was just listening to one from the show in Italy, 1973 and it’s a real cracker.
DS: Yeah, we did excerpts from various albums in our live shows, and in fact what I tell people – and it’s going to be clichéd now – is that the material we recorded for an album was effectively a sketch for the painting which was the live show. So the Octopus medleys and the other medleys that we did were more expanded versions of what we did on the album. Elongated, or shortened, or bits and pieces that we couldn’t, wouldn’t, or didn’t think about doing when we recorded the albums. Also, they were being seen as well as being heard by an audience, so it was a very different kind of experience, if you like.
VT: Going through all of this stuff for a big project like this must have been quite a jolt for the old memories. Do you recall a lot of these live shows, do any of these dates or cities stand out in your memory for one reason or another?
DS: Some do. To tell you the truth there’s always the highlights, and occasionally there’s a lowlight. One where it was just such a bummer, you can’t forget it. We toured a lot, as you’ll see in the book which is part of this package. We toured all over the place, and to be honest with you, a lot of places were kind of a blur. A blur of getting to a place by plane, or coach or whatever, checking in to the hotel, getting to the venue, doing a soundcheck, playing the show and getting back to the bus or the hotel and moving on. So there’s a lot of blur, but there are places that you remember because of the venue itself, or the fans, or certain shows that are outstanding in my memory, and others maybe for negative reasons.
‘Man, you must have been stoned to do that kind of music’
VT: Some of the music is quite challenging. How did you manage to balance the performance of those pieces with the duty of being a front man who also had to entertain a crowd?
DS: Well you’re right, it is a balance, but we were trained musicians. We rehearsed a great deal before we went on stage. It wasn’t just ‘Let’s go out and jam’. These were things we worked out in a pretty precise fashion, so it’s bizarre that some people who listen to our music and hear a kind of complex sound will say to me, or any member of the band: ‘Man, you must have been stoned to do that kind of music’. Well, the reverse is true, it’s a 180 because we had to be very focused on playing our parts. We weren’t shoe-starers, we wanted to entertain the audience with our personalities as well as just the music, so there was the combination of both. I think it stemmed from me and my brothers from the pop days, and to show our personalities but not take ourselves too seriously as people. Musically, yes, but as a band, projecting ourselves on stage – fun, if you like. Having fun.
VT: Anyone who knows anything about being stoned or about performing complicated music should know that you can’t do both at the same time. Perhaps in the writing stage…
DS: No, not even! Maybe a drink or two after a show. But we were actually a pretty hard working band. If you see the schedule in the book, when we weren’t touring we were rehearsing. We didn’t just sit around saying ‘What are we going to do next?’
VT: When Ian Anderson was asked about his memories of Jethro Tull touring with Gentle Giant in the early 1970s, he responded: ‘I have never heard a band scream, shout, rant and rave each other on an almost nightly basis as soon as they return to their dressing room.’
DS: Oh, well Ian could talk! But that’s okay. (Laughs) I guess in certain respects, we were… perfectionists, actually, so we wanted to sound and be – for each other – as good as we could be, and to project it to the audience. Sometimes someone will sing something out of tune, or do something that’s not rehearsed, and therefore it was not quite right. If it wasn’t perfect – well, nothing’s ever perfect – but if it wasn’t close to it, we’d pick it apart. And the worst time to do that is after a show when you’re hot and heated, and the adrenalin’s running. But in retrospect it made us better, because the next day we’d say ‘Okay, that went wrong, or this note was fluffed, let’s make sure it doesn’t happen tomorrow’. But yeah, we were pretty hard on ourselves.
VT: Well, you were passionate about what you were doing.
DS: Passionate! Exactly that, yeah.
VT: New fans seem to be discovering and being intrigued by Gentle Giant, even now. I suspect a big part of that interest and curiosity comes from the mystique that surrounds the band. You have a fairly large catalogue but no hit singles, you existed for ten years and then had a definitive conclusion, you never once re-formed, even for one show. That’s a mighty big difference to some of your contemporaries who have remained squarely in the public eye for forty or fifty years now, with their merry-go-round nostalgia tours.
DS: I think the good news for us and hopefully our new fans is that our music is still of interest to people. We didn’t put music together and say ‘Boy, I hope in fifty years some new fans show up!’ It was just who we were when were doing it. It was a fantastic period, but we decided to call it a day in 1980. Getting together for nostalgia’s sake, or a cash grab or just because the fans wanted it just wouldn’t feel right, because it was a chapter in our lives. Everyone has chapters, but trying to relive a chapter doesn’t work – you can’t repeat history. And we were put in a ‘progressive rock’ bag, but you know progression means to actually progress, to move forward. Who knows what the band would sound like if we’d continued through today? We’d probably be doing hip-hop and rap and getting booed off the stage – again! So it was the right thing to do at the time, to end it when we did and not try to be a nostalgia act, because that legacy, if you like, or that integrity remains intact. I hope it does, anyway.
We didn’t put music together and say ‘Boy, I hope in fifty years some new fans show up!’
VT: The other major factor in this new boxed set is, of course, the complete catalogue of albums. We all have our favourites, but can you give us a glimpse of your personal high points of the Giant oeuvre?
DS: Well there are several. Over the ten and a half years we were together, we recorded eleven albums and one live album, in different periods. In the sort of ‘Birth-to-adolescence’ stage, I guess Octopus stands out, for me anyway, as the checkmark for the band growing up. And I think The Power And The Glory, which is when we were kind of an established band that had matured, if you like. And then towards the end, we delved into trying to do other various things, but my feeling – and I’m probably the one outcast as far as the band is concerned – is that I really like Civilian! It’s an album which is completely undersung. There aren’t many key changes or time changes, but I think it was well executed. The song Inside Out is… if there was any situation at all that we would go forward, we’d have progressed into something more like that. Now, we didn’t, but I do kind of like that album, I have to be honest with you! Other members of the band like Three Friends, or Acquiring The Taste, we all have different opinions.
VT: Do you think some of those later albums, like Giant For A Day, are unfairly maligned by the fans?
DS: Umm… (long pause) I don’t think anything’s unfair or fair, it’s up to the audience to decide whether they like them or not. But if you don’t try something, you’ll never know. So at times we tried different things, and if they worked, they worked, and if they didn’t – they didn’t. But again, we were never followers, we had to try something different. Sometimes we’d take the wrong path, and then try to regroup and take the right path. I think on Giant For A Day, we were probably trying to be a little more commercial, and obviously we weren’t very good at it. There’s a couple of songs, to tell you the truth, that I’m a little embarrassed by on that album. But if we didn’t try it, and didn’t go for it, we’d have never known, so you know what? It’s okay. We couldn’t do Acquiring The Taste for the next ten years and be personally, professionally and musically satisfied – it would be wrong for us.
VT: Speaking of Acquiring The Taste, I understand that album was recorded under unusual circumstances, with the band building the music up from nothing in the studio on top of a click track.
DS: Yeah, that album was done in a bit of a hurry, because with the first album it was the birth of the band – we’d put the band together, we’d rehearsed, and decided what songs should go on there. And then the album came out, we went on tour, and then we had to collectively put a new album together. To build the music and put it together in a hurry – and half of it wasn’t even written. So we literally had to go into the studio with Tony Visconti again… and in certain respects, improvise. Building musical parts into click tracks that became some of the songs you hear on that album. And in that respect it’s a very interesting album, because you can almost hear or feel that building of the tracks and the writing and recording process in the actual album itself. It was a very odd album to make, but it turned out to be something of interest to a lot of people. I’m intrigued by that album myself… it was a weird one to make, because we weren’t ready for it, but we did it, and we were able to pull it off.
VT: I gather the most pivotal moment in the band’s career came when your brother Phil left, and the creative balance shifted somewhat beginning with the writing of the next album In A Glass House?
DS: Yeah, it did. Phil is the elder brother – he’s ten years older than me, eleven years older than Ray, and well… it was fraternal. A family of brothers in a group has a well known dynamic of good and bad. Phil left, which in retrospect he had to, because he had a family at home and he felt that touring and leaving his family behind was wrong for his life. In retrospect, we understand completely, but at that point it kind of left us high and dry, and we were a little upset to say the least, and not sure how we’d go about becoming the band we were. So we were in a limbo-like state for a while – myself and Ray more than anyone. But then we said: ‘Listen, we’ve come so far, let’s gather ourselves and rethink the whole thing’. And what happened was, to be perfectly honest, I think because I’m the next eldest, I’m sort of the young lion against the older lion. And the young lions in a pride try to out-growl the older lion, and I guess I’m the younger lion who out-growled Phil. So I became the guy who sort of picked up the ball and did the things that Phil did – I played sax anyway, and sang, and did various other things… I played bass, of course. So we collectively put things together, and I think it streamlined the band, and made it much more of a rock band than what it had been. I think it focused the band much more.
VT: One album that doesn’t seem to get mentioned quite as often is Interview, from 1976. But it has its share of ardent supporters too. How do you look back on that one now?
DS: That album is good, but again there are certain things… I think we were a little tired, actually, because we toured, we did the live album, and I think we were getting a little cynical – which is stupid in retrospect – about doing quite well as a live headliner in a lot of places, but still being considered a cult act (laughs). And interviewers asking ‘Uhhh… so who’s Gentle and who’s Giant?” and I think that’s a little bit of cynicism in the album. You know, some of the music I think is quite good. It’s a little less good than the prior album, but it has its very strong points and its weak points like most pieces of music. But again, to look back and say ‘why’ and ‘what’ and everything else, you have to understand where the band was physically, mentally, emotionally and where it stood in the world musically. Because all of these bands that are bagged in the ‘prog’ world – the Crimsons and Yesses and ELPs – we were all in the same bag, competing for that #1 spot, and some of those bands had hit singles, and we couldn’t get one. (Laughing) And so we were frustrated to a certain degree, even though we had our fan base.
VT: It’s strange that you get lumped in with those bands, you’re completely unlike any of them, and they are all completely unlike each other.
DS: I agree!
VT: In the early 1980s, after the band concluded and you made the switch from the creative side of music to the business side, you signed a ton of bands, all quite diverse. Whether it was Bon Jovi, or Pantera, or Dream Theater, or Tears For Fears, what was it you were looking for in young talent in those days?
DS: Before Gentle Giant, I was in a group called Simon Dupree And The Big Sound. I was ‘Simon Dupree’, and we had a huge pop single, we were on Top Of The Pops when I was at school. So I knew the feeling of fame (laughing)… you know, it’s crazy to say all this stuff! And then being in Gentle Giant, myself and Ray kind of took over halfway through the band’s life, sort of a quasi-direction/management/career development of the band, so having had that experience, I could bring that to the ‘dark side’ of the business, if you like. And what I would do is try to find artists that had some kind of appeal to an audience that I kind of understood from both ends, and put myself in their position, understand what I could do to help them with the power of a big company behind them. Because we’d never had that as a band, unfortunately. So I was lucky that I came from that world, and able to adapt to what’s called the music business. But I realized with a knot in my stomach when I first joined Polygram, that it wasn’t the ‘music business’ – it was the business of music, and I had to adapt very, very quickly. And I utilized my experience to hopefully help quite a few bands to make their careers as big as they could be, and ran a couple of major companies and enjoyed doing so.
I hope our legacy is integrity.
VT: Finally, what do you hope people remember about Gentle Giant in the distant future, when guys like you and I are no longer around?
DS: I hope that people will listen to the music and understand that we were not followers. We were musicians first. It wasn’t about the money, it wasn’t about the fame, and it wasn’t about the cash grab. We were trying to be musicians for each other first, and help to make ourselves be much, much better – for each other, as a group, as a musical entity. We had integrity, I think. I hope our legacy is integrity.
VT: Thank you so much for your time today, it was a great pleasure. And thank you for all that incredible music.
DS: It was my pleasure. Thanks very much.
Insusceptible to the trappings of (and wholly dissimilar to) many of their contemporaries, Gentle Giant did not venture into the realms of 20 minute outer space epics, multi-sectioned songs and flashy, overlong, ‘look at me’ solos from spotlight-craving superstars. If there was any immodesty to be found, it was a collective one, and it never came across as blind or bloated ego. This band was able to do extraordinary things – so they did, and they wanted the fans right there with them to witness, hear, and live their spectacle.
Unburied Treasure is a limited item, available now to pre-order on Burning Shed and elsewhere.