Gentle Giant – Sight an Sound in Concert
Gentle Giant were a British progressive rock band active between 1970 and 1980. 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 were multi-instrumentalists. Although not commercially successful, they did achieve a cult following.
The band stated that its 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.
Gentle Giant’s music was considered complex even by progressive rock standards, drawing on a broad swath 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 medieval, baroque, and modernist chamber music elements. The band also had a taste for broad themes for their lyrics, drawing inspiration not only from personal experiences but from philosophy and the works of both François Rabelais and R. D. Laing. In 2015 they were recognised with the lifetime achievement award at the Progressive Music Awards.
Prehistory (including Simon Dupree and the Big Sound)
The core of what was to become Gentle Giant comprised three brothers: Phil Shulman (born 27 August 1937), Derek Shulman (born 11 February 1947) and Ray Shulman (born 8 December 1949).The brothers were of Scottish-Jewish descent. Phil and Derek were born in Glasgow, Scotland, in the Gorbals, which was then a notorious slum. The family moved to Portsmouth, England, where Ray was born. Their father was an army musician turned jazz trumpeter, who continued his musical work in Portsmouth. 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 together. Phil — originally acting as a manager figure in order to look after his much younger brothers — eventually became a band member himself.
Ray Shulman on the musical upbringing of the Shulman brothers
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. 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. This resulted in the UK Top 10 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. Derek Shulman was later to describe “Kites” as “utter shit.” 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)”. This compounded their identity crisis as the single was subsequently caught up in a rumour that the Moles were, in fact, the Beatles recording under a different name and with Ringo Starr as lead singer. The rumour was eventually debunked by Pink Floyd leader Syd Barrett, who outed Simon Dupree and the Big Sound as the band behind the record.
In 1969, the Shulman brothers finally dissolved the group in order to escape the pop music environment that had frustrated them. Surprisingly, they did not return directly to rhythm and blues or soul, but chose to pursue a more complicated direction. Ray Shulman later stated, “We knew we couldn’t continue with the musicians we’d had before. We weren’t interested in the other musicians in the band — 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.”