Three Friends review by Mathew Reynolds

From The Gentle Giant Home Page

Three Friends is my all time favourite album ever. I saw Gentle Giant twice (the Glasshouse and Freehand tours) and any reservations I had that they wouldn't come up with the goods live were completely and utterly misplaced.

From what I've read, I don't think the band rated this album much, so I'm sure they would be surprised to think anyone would rate it as their best. I have also read on another site that they didn't perform much of this album live because it didn't go down too well and I can sort of understand this. Maybe they played it at a time when they were still building their fan base; I reckon if they'd revisited a few tracks live in 1975/76 they would have had a different response. It's also worth a mention, that Malcolm Mortimore who plays on this album is my favourite Giant drummer, much as I rate the others, he just seems more inventive to me.

The opener Prologue starts with the best drum roll ever which leads into an inventive extended riff/theme. The song verses contains some interesting alternately voiced vocal effects and a trademark "And now for something competely different" middle section. These sections don't always work, the song "Think of me with Kindness" from Octopus is a beauty sullied by the same tendency, but in Prologue it works for me. It's as perfect an example of a marriage of whimsical organ, synth, bass, guitar and gentle drumming I've ever heard, the song fades out to the opening theme.

Next up is Schooldays, a perfect evocation of the experience of a genteel holiday spent at a British Seaside resort, think St Ives, Penzance, Aldeburgh rather than Blackpool. So nostalgic it transports me to my childhood/adolescence every time I hear it. Exquisite jazz tinged Guitar/Vibraphone interplay, and nice soft vocals eventually give way to a velvety, double-chocolate Grand-Piano section during which Kerry Minnear goes all "Slow Movement Concerto on us". Here he demonstrates that he can do melody as well as anyone. This progresses to a fast jazzy section and an ending only Giant could have conceived. If you know this song and you've heard it 1000 times already, listen again and focus on Ray Shulman's bass playing, it's out of this World!

Working All Day is announced with contrapuntal passage which has had a variable pitch-shift trick played on it by a tape machine. It's a good enough song, heavy production coupled with Derek Shulman singing as only he could, like Peter Gabriel with Balls. I don't have much else to say about it except it contains the best Organ solo I've ever heard. It's totally emotive and used to make my spine tingle every listen in my younger days, and still touches a nerve. Why did Kerry Minnear never bother much with emotive Hammond solos after this? Apart from a brief flirtation in the middle section of "Playing the Game" from "The Power and the Glory", during which the Organ sounds like an early solid-state attempt to recreate the Hammond sound to me. In my mind, the Working All Day Organ solo sounds like a full-on love affair and any subsequent solos say,"I won't get hurt like that again".

Peel The Paint shows us early Giant Rocking at their best. OK, the riff doesn't fit under the hands as well as a Zeppelin riff, but augmented by the Macho Sax and Hammond and benefiting from a heavier production than later albums, it oozes power from every pore. Derek Shulman gives a rip-roaring almost wreckless performance and the Guitar/Drum solo sounds to me like Hendrix stripped of the crappy bits. When I was younger, I used to think this solo must have been scored it's so good, now I'm of the opinion that it must have evolved from several takes in the studio, surely it couldn't be just one take. I like the big ending to this song as well, they didn't do this often and generally I'm not a big fan of big endings, but this one is just right.

The intro to Mister Class And Quality starts with a quote from the Three Friends which is the next track. If I was being picky, I'd say that the intro doesn't gel with the rest of the song but I've grown to love it, like a Cat with 3 legs and a limp. The song proper is moderately paced and foursquare with a nice Derek Shulman vocal. Midway through, you get the sense the band have a few tricks up their collective sleeves as they set the scene for a carefully chaotic instrumental section. This is proceeding very nicely when out of nowhere, even though it's been hinted at before, comes a comical synth passage which culminates when most of the the rest of the band stop playing and the synth plays an ascending arpeggio ending on a long note. Don't ask me what it is it about this that is so unique, so Giant and so unexpected? It's like under-stated slapstick and so bloody funny. After this, comes a quasi-improvisational section containing some nice blues Guitar, occasionally doubled by voice, the section gets a bit blurred as if it's screaming for resolution, even though it doesn't outstay it's welcome. It's rescued by the 3rd and final verse, the last line of which sounds to me particularly plaintive, the instrumental suffix of the verse leads directly into the last song.

If Schooldays was the memory of a Holiday, Three Friends conjures The Beach complete with Seagulls, Waves, Deckchairs, people laughing and flying Kites, as well as Afternoon Cream-Tea, Ice-cream and even the bag of chips at the end of the day. With the Organ set firmly on the "Coastal Resort" Voice and the Strings sounding to me like they've been carefully voiced with the Organ part (I might be wrong), the Hymnal harmonies conjure up a moment of pure nostalgia. This is one track which even Giant can't write an end for; they have to repeat and fade-out in the yearning outro to end all yearning outros.

- Mathew Reynolds
20 December 2001