Gentle Giant was, is, and always will be my favorite progressive group. When I discovered them, they were on their way down and I was just beginning to get into the genre. My close buddies were getting into Yes and I was not quick to get on the bandwagon. I was, am, and always will be a Brian Wilson fanatic and I could not easily make the transition from the "pocket symphonies" (not my term) of Pet Sounds to 20-minute opuses with obtuse lyrics and long guitar and synthesizer solos.
And yet it was due to Brian's sphere of influence that I first heard Gentle Giant's music. I was watching an episode of Don Kirshner's Rock Concert one day specifically to see Jan and Dean. As it turned out, they were on last so I had to watch the whole show, which also included Herbie Mann and Gentle Giant. The program aired the two short promotional films (later to be known as videos) from Giant's 1978 album, Giant for a Day: Words From The Wise and the title track. I can't describe what I liked about the songs or the group, but I did like it very much and promptly bought the album.
That summer, an older friend of mine turned me on to Giant's earlier catalog, including 1971's Acquiring the Taste, 1972's [octopus.html Octopus], and their most popular album (and rightfully so), 1975's Free Hand. I knew I was hooked when I began scrounging through import bins to find their eponymous first album from 1970 and what I consider their groove-to-groove best album, 1973's In a Glass House. Although they released only one more album after Giant for a Day, I knew that Gentle Giant's music would remain alive in me.
One day, I decided that I would publish a Gentle Giant newsletter, a chance for collectors and aficionados to come together to share stories, trade tapes, and get to know each other. I would call the newsletter On Reflection, after a song on Free Hand. Outside of my close friends, I didn't know anyone else personally who was into progressive rock and while we all came to know bands like Genesis, King Crimson, Nektar, and ELP, to us Gentle Giant had to be one of the most obscure groups on the planet (having been born from the ashes of Simon Dupree and the Big Sound, an even more obscure British soul band of the late '60s). I despaired of reaching any significant number of people with so narrowly focused a periodical so I decided that On Reflection would cover the entire genre of progressive rock, the editor's oft-stated bias notwithstanding.
Needless to say, I never entertained any hopes that I could ever meet any members of the band or even see them perform live since they broke up just before I became old enough to patronize the clubs in which they appeared. They had all gone their separate ways and while lead singer Derek Shulman's whereabouts were the best-known (he was President of Atco Records), it seemed unlikely someone like me with my little rag could get an audience with him. But a subscriber named Louie Mastropasqua has what is known as balls, and with his initiative and, I believe, a contact somewhere at the label, the appointment was made.
I took a train down to New York City, met up with Louie for a beer, and then we walked down to Rockefeller Center. As we sat in the reception area, I became extremely nervous. I was about to meet and talk to Derek Shulman! What would I say? What would this progressive- rocker-turned-major-label-executive be like?
When we finally went into his office, he was tired. It had been a long day, but I think he appreciated being with people who didn't deal with him as the big executive he was but rather as the performer he had been in his "glory days." He showed us gifts that other Giant fans had sent him over the years. Clearly, while he was responsible for the signing of such common bands as Kingdom Come and Cinderella, he never lost his pride in Giant's uniqueness.
At the end, we took pictures and he signed autographs for us. No matter what else happens with this newsletter, I said to myself, this has made it all worthwhile. And I still believe that. When I was feeling down on progressive rock, down on the newsletter, down especially on all the lousy newer bands who sounded just like the '70s bands, I always found something fresh and exciting about Gentle Giant - and I've never forgotten the thrill of meeting its leader.
Bands have copied Yes, Genesis, ELP, and others, but no one has ever copied Giant's style of white hot chamber rock. Their mix of violin, cello, vibraphone, recorder, and brass on top of the usual progressive arsenal of multiple keyboards, guitars, bass, and drums - plus the highly complex four-part vocal lines that linked the group psychically with Brian Wilson - has never been duplicated. It was, perhaps, the key to Giant's credo, printed in the liner notes of Acquiring the Taste: "It is our goal to expand the frontiers of contemporary popular music at the risk of being very unpopular."
If we accept that progressive rock is a '70s genre (and I know there are many who do not and perhaps never will; but I certainly do), and we note that Gentle Giant's life span was from 1970-1980, then it is clear that the band Derek Shulman formed with his brothers Ray and Phil (which also included the multi-talented Kerry Minnear, guitarist Gary Green, and a succession of drummers: Martin Smith, Malcolm Mortimore, and Giant's definitive beat-driver, John Weathers), was, on reflection, one of the definitive progressive bands. A Gentle Giant newsletter wouldn't have been such a bad idea after all.