An audience with Gentle Giant

gentle giantAnd so at some point I was ready to attend my first gig.

I cant remember how it happened but as is often the case in adolescence my first gig was really the result of one of my peers deciding to go and me deciding to tag along. As a consequence of this rather than seeing Little Feet,Lou Reed or even Ducks Deluxe my first live band was……..

Gentle Giant!

I knew very little about GG, to this day I cant hum more than a couple of bars of their music (there’s a reason for this as we will discover) I cant remember much about the gig or even who I went with but who were this band?

Gentle Giant existed for the entire decade but like so many of their contemporaries they were pretty much wiped out by punk in the late 70’s. The heart of the band were the three Shulman brothers two of whom were born in the Goblals home, of course of Alex Harvey, but they moved to Portsmouth before the birth of the youngest Ray. Daddy Shulman was a musician and the three siblings followed in his footsteps and by their teens were talented multi instrumentalist.

Their first (only) instance of chart bothering was as Simon Dupree and the Big Sound who had a hit with ‘Kites’. This was a typically 60’s situation where what was essentially a soul band ended recording a bit a psychedelia at the record company’s bidding and ended up with a hit they didn’t really want. The Shulman’s had their own plans and broke up the band to form Gentle Giant.

gentle giant band

First recruit was Kerry Minnear who had been at the Royal Academy of Music and then starving with a rock band in Germany. He played literally everything and naturally with a classical education he was mainly the keyboard player but was prone to whip out a cello at a moment’s notice.

Next in line was Gary Green who essentially was a blues guitarist who was not even a professional musician when he joined the band ( apparently he was about the 45th to be auditioned but asked to tune up before he started playing which impressed the others no end). For some reason he slotted in perfectly and provided some of the band’s more accessible moments.

Out of the Shulman brothers Phil played trumpet and sax,Ray played bass with ample opportunity to show off on trumpet and violin and Derek did most of the singing, waved his arms about quite a bit and played the other’s instruments when they felt like swapping.

The drummer situation took a while to sort out, they finally ended up with John ‘Pugwash’ Weathers who was a teenage hooligan from Carmarthen South Wales. Weathers was a fine drummer who had played in the Grease Band among others and was a vital member of the band in that he tethered their sometimes rather ethereal compositions with something resembling a rock beat.

Phil left after having to tour the states supporting Black Sabbath, you can see his point. He was 10 years older than some of the other members and ended up running a gift shop in Hampshire so perhaps the rock and roll life was not for him.

So the line up I got to see was the classic one and I probably, accidentally, caught the band in its prime. I tried to be enthusiastic, there was a good bit where Ray dicked about on his violin and the sound echoed all round the room including behind us. There was a bit where the recorded sound of glass being broken woke me up a bit and occasionally they hit a good groove where I could nod my head appreciatively.

But

It wasn’t rock and roll and that is what I wanted at this time in my life. I suppose that GG were very much a progressive band, they played most styles at some point (country and disco being notable exceptions) but you could always see the join, when Ray picked up the violin, Minnear lugged his cello out and you noticed that Green had switched to mandolin the anticipated classical interlude was always under way. Strangely they weren’t a million miles away from Yes who kept going through the hard times and became one of the biggest bands of all time. The Giant just didn’t have that level of commitment, the late 70’s were hard times for anyone with a cello and of course they made the classic error of trying to move with the times which just made them sound more out of touch. The thing is there is a huge level of support and fondness, usually it must be said by men of a certain age for Gentle Giant, Stuart Marconi for one being a big fan.

After the split the Shulmans did not follow the family gift shop route but developed big shot careers as record executive (Derek) and producer (Ray). The others predictably followed more low key musical careers. All are still alive and well although Weathers now has an illness akin to MS which means he’s had to slow down a bit.

Here is one of the shorter You Tube clips of the band doing their thing which includes some great clips of Weather’s ‘drummer face’. There is not such thing as a representative clip of the band as their songs tended to sound so different.

There is a rumour that Elton John auditioned for the band as vocalist, this may not be true!

Final weird fact, I remember an article in the music press about the youngest ever punk band. It transpired they were Phil Shulmans kids !

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