The year is 1967. ‘Blue-eyed’ soul group, Simon Dupree and the Big Sound, have just had their first major breakthrough in the realm of psychedelia with a little piece of sunshine pop known as “Kites” and have made the British Top 10. The only problem? They aren’t satisfied. They are a soul group and are now being pressured by their record company to churn out more psychedelic hits. The core of the band, the three Shulman brothers (Derek, Phil, and Ray), are serious instrumentalists with a desire to produce music with a higher caliber of musicians. Experimental, challenging music. After a couple of unsuccessful singles, a sole record Without Reservation (1967), and an unsuccessful stint under the pseudonym The Moles, the brothers Shulman dissolved Simon Dupree name in 1969 to pursue their more experimental ventures. Inspired by groups such as King Crimson and The Moody Blues, the Shulman’s enlisted a team of top shelf musicians, Gary Green (guitar), Kerry Minnear (Keyboards, vibraphone), and Martin Smith (drums), along with Derek, Phil and Ray on vocals, saxophones, and bass and viola, respectively.
In 1970, they formed Gentle Giant and cut their first, self-entitled record on Vertigo records. The record, though not in their fully formed progressive rock phase, retained a lot of their soul and rhythm and blues influences (“Why Not?”), but also showcased their interest in Classical music (“Isn’t it Quiet and Cold?”), and full-fledged progressive rock (“Alucard”). A strong record, but merely a warmup for perhaps their strongest work, 1971’s Acquiring the Taste, the record is still worthy of every serious prog rock fan’s collection. Acquiring the Taste, however, displays one of the most ‘deliciously’ punny (but far from subtle) illustrations of what exactly it takes to get ahead in the record business, which folds out on the original vinyl to reveal a peach and a Giant salivating tongue. British wit at its finest … or worst, depending on your point of view. Accompanying the infamous cover art, the band also provided one of the most famous sleeve notes in all of Progdom: “Acquiring the taste is the second phase of sensory pleasure. If you’ve gorged yourself on our first album, then relish the finer flavours (we hope) of this, our second offering. It is our goal to expand the frontiers of contemporary music at the risk of being very unpopular. we have recorded each composition with the one thought – that it should be unique, adventurous and fascinating. It has taken every shred of our combined musical and technical knowledge to achieve this. “From the outset we have abandoned all preconceived thoughts on blatant commercialism. Instead we hope to give you something far more substantial and fulfilling. All you need to do is sit back, and acquire the taste.” From the sleeve, Gentle Giant make a big promise which they fulfill and then some.
Last night, after finally procuring a new stylus so as to play my records (think John Noble’s Walter character’s quote from the all-too short lived Fox sci-fi show, Fringe, “imagine the agony of having an extensive record collection and having no means to play it…”), I placed Acquiring the Taste on the turntable. After carefully dropping the needle, I immediately knew what was missing from all of my prior CD excursions with this progressive rock classic, the mesmerizing spin of the Twilight Zone-esque Vertigo label. Somehow, the trance of watching the label spiral away at 33 1/3 RPM was only improved by the opening keyboard riff that kicks off Side 1, track 1 – “Pantagruel’s Nativity”, inspired by the books of Gargantua and Pantagruel by François Rabelais, which always seems to whisk me away from planet earth and into the Giants’ world. The lyrics follow Rabelais’ adventures of two giants, a theme Gentle Giant returned to the following year on Octopus with “Advent of Panurge”, but where the piece triumphs is in the musical passages. Musically, the piece is essentially mid tempo, but contains some exemplary trumpet and recorder interplay in the beginning, with some rising guitar-led crescendos and operatic, layered vocals. Another point that never fails to put a smile on my face is the short, jazzy vibraphone solo that leads headlong into a guitar solo that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Jethro Tull record of the period. The tune closes with some regal trumpet melodies and sweeping mellotron chords, before settling on a single resonating guitar note. Powerful, spine-chilling music.
The next piece, “Edge of Twilight”, begins with some clarinet and spacey keyboards. The mood seems to be the name of the game with this composition, which conjures up imagery of some medieval gathering in the dead of night. After some keyboard and acoustic guitar arpeggios, we are taken to a trio among the vibes, timpani, and snare drum, before reprising the melody and ending solemnly on a swirling Fender Rhodes lead. It’s pieces like these that tap into areas that most rock bands simply couldn’t dream of attempting – pieces that evoke emotion and atmosphere. Following this is “The House, The Street, and The Room”, perhaps the most rock and soul influenced tune on the album so far, which contains some excellent band interplay between the reprising heavier sections. The middle section allows guitarist Gary Green to shine, with a spotlight wah-guitar solo that is marked by both tone and interesting improvised ideas over top of a heavy rock organ vamp. With this tune, Gentle Giant prove that in addition to being complex and intricate, they can rock out too … in the same song.
After the short, Baroque-influenced title track, performed entirely by Mini-Moog, Side 2 opens with the sea-shanty inspired “Wreck”, which begins up with some excellent bass playing and accompanying guitar riff. For the first time this record, violin shows up underneath the vocals during the verses and choruses. At times, by either design or coincidence, the weaving of instrumental lines and swirling strings evokes Procol Harum’s song with a similar theme, “Wreck of the Hesperus”, but the middle section with dueling Renaissance-style recorders is pure Gentle Giant. At 4:36, the song’s only downfall is that it’s simply not long enough and fades out prematurely to the dissonant saxophone opening of “The Moon is Down”. This piece took me the longest to appreciate on this record, as it is undoubtedly one of the strangest things the Giant committed to record, but after a shaky start, Giant somehow recover. What saves it is the utterly compelling acoustic guitar lines in the middle and Genesis-like interplay and stunning genre hopping that takes place in the second half of the tune. The strength Giant display in this piece is their knack for compositional development, something that many progressive rock bands of any era fail to understand the importance of.
The next tune, “Black Cat”, is probably my favorite piece on the record, particularly Gary Green’s ‘purring’ guitar. The imagery that Gentle Giant manage to capture in their music is what sets them aside from their peers … even if this song were an instrumental, it would evoke the scene of a cat, particularly in the prowling and swaying middle section. The final tune on the album, “Plain Truth” is undoubtedly the most soul-inspired piece on the record. Starting with some bluesy violin and a spoken part that sounds like the band ordering lunch, the piece kicks into pure blues-rock mode. At 7:36, it’s both the longest and perhaps most straight-forward piece on the album, but that in no way takes away from my enjoyment of it. Sure, it’s not as intricate and endlessly complex as the others, but it’s still an excellent rocker with some great band interplay and improvised violin solos.
At a runtime of 39:26, 1971’s Acquiring the Taste is Gentle Giant’s longest record, but somehow feels far too short – the mark of a great recording. I’ve read many online reviewers who feel as though Gentle Giant were an ‘also-ran’ when compared to their more successful peers. I dispute this. Though perhaps not as groundbreaking as King Crimson or as influential as Genesis, Gentle Giant were experts in their craft and could create an atmosphere like none other. When listening to Acquiring the Taste, I get an autumnal feeling that pervades the entire recording and compositions that actually reflect their accompanying lyrics. That is the sign of true excellence in music. Though I have an extensive collection of music, Acquiring the Taste remains one of my absolute favorites and it is an essential addition to any prog fan’s collection.