CONFESSIONS OF A GENTLE GIANT FAN
(Dig the original price sticker!)
I've known Chris M for some time now; he's a coupla years older than me and is my Yeovil-based mentor for all things Prog, Fusion and Jazz-Rock based. It's like having a personal trainer or something. He's always said that, for him, Gentle Giant, are the Pinacle of Prog (wh/ I found hard to reconcile w/ my own memories of listening to "Octopus" in '78 in a college friend's pad at the height of my own Punk fixation, and finding it, er, soft going (tho, paradoxically, I can also remember buying fusion albums by bands like Isotope n Nucleus and late-era Softs round that period, so go figure...maybe I was just born contrary))...
So it was kind'va a half-expected confirmation for me when Woebot did his first TV blog-post and his own (re-)assessment of Gentle Giant ran pretty parallel to Chris' own. When I mentioned Matt's blog-piece, Chris was curious to find out more, seeing as (there's no polite way to put this) most sane people don't tend to broadcast (literally, in Matt's case) their love of Prog. If anything, Chris is a wee bit more hardcore in his choice of their best albums; he agrees broadly w/ Matt's selection, but places the bandwidth of their best albums as being one or two records narrower.
In truth, my own tastes have been growing increasingly Prog-ier over the last couple years (tho I confess to being extremely cautious, as I had some reservations about where this might inevitably lead me...I started off with the spikier, more sourly embittered end of the spectrum (Van Der Graf, Comus, Curved Air, etc) but then I started picking up softer stuff like the odd PFM album and so forth)...curiously, I haven't seen any Gentle Giant vinyl in any of my usual West Country vinyl haunts for some months now: it was almost as if they disappeared as soon as they registered on my radar.
But it's been a twin-pronged approach with me: it wasn't just Prog that I was cautiously orbiting, but the Hard Psych Blues/proto-Metal era of '69-'73 (Man, Budgie, Groundhogs, blahblahblah) was also drawing me in faster'n a collapsing neutron star...and that too had started innocently enuff w/ the odd early Purple LP (I always liked Hawkwind, Sabaff, etc but never Purple, curiously enough...I'm starting to wonder whether I never really had a problem with these bands; but that, actually, it was some of the people I knew who liked them that I had a problem with...)
...so, anyway, earlier this week, Chris (totally unbidden) lends me one of his prized, much-loved copies (he has two of each album) of "Playing the Fool", the official live album, telling me to check it out, 'cause the versions were a bit rockier than the studio albums and I might dig 'em. Frankly, I am fucking honoured.
My first mistake was playing it too quietly. It's a common enough error that relatively complex music should be played quietly, almost reverently. This is a common misconception; Prog should be played loud; not deafeningly so, but at levels sufficient to hear the music crunch. (And if it ain't got crunch, then it ain't for me) You should turn it up until you hear the hiss and rattle of the cymbals.
What surprised me is how funky some of the passages are; there's some nice punchy bass gtr/clavinet interplay at points (tho' not quite as nice, I think as the George Duke/Walt Fowler Mothers of Invention axis). I like the off-kilter syncopation of some of the electric piano playing too: it sounds like Supertramp on Nescafe. And the drummer's really bloody great.
The band twist & spin restlessly from one set piece to another and aren't afraid to rock out either. I'm finding the more I play this, the more I like it. I'll be honest and say that my own personal tastes are slightly heavier and weirder (Acid Rock, bro!), but I'm getting totally sucked into this...at points they sound like a, erm, hyper-active Steeleye Span. Given a choice between this and the lumpen new offering by fucking Bloc Party, Gentle Giant win by several lengths. Ain't it tha truth.
Chris caught up w/ me today and asked me how I was getting on with it. He's got a particular fondness for this LP, he tells me, as he caught them in Bristol in Dec '75 at the start of their World Tour, and again in Southampton in '76 on their way back into the UK: two gigs that helped mould his own sensibilities (he also saw Hatfield and the North when they played Yeovil in '72 and '73, I think (just before I started going to gigs), and he also ran away to London with a mate and no money in the early 70s to see Humble Pie; his parents reported him missing and, unable to get back to Yeovil, he kipped in a garden shed round the back of The House of Parliament). He's also got a couple of live vinyl boots from this era.
Kerry Minnear, he tells me, brought a softer quasi-classical sensibility to the band, along w/ Folkish, pseudo-medieval vibes. I think he lived for a while in Sturminster Newton, Dorset, (or "Stuuuuuur", as we call it) which is down the road from us and the former home of Spike's wife Rae. John "Pugwash" Weathers, who was playing with the band in this incarnation, really gives the skins some serious thumping; the drums are heavier than you would expect for Prog, man, so it's no surprise he eventually joined an eighties/nineties line-up of Man.
Chris says that they were never quite as good following the tour. Maybe all those months on the road soured relationships between band-members or burned them out a little. They never broke America, so maybe they decided to ease back on the complex arrangements that they were spending ages developing, but which were falling increasingly on deaf ears. Other theories are that the increasing popularity of Punk/New Wave put record company pressure on them to strip back their sound n simplify it. In the end they went for a rockier, 'live' sound which erased most of the elements that made them unique and which I now find so endearing.
When their penultimate album came out, Chris was so outraged that wrote to Chrysalis, their record label, demanding to be put in contact with the band: he then fired off a letter of complaint! The album was substandard, he told the band, and they needed to pull their socks up (see, I told you he was hardcore!). "They responded," he told me this morning, "by releasing an album that was even worse, then they split up."