Gentle Giant were a rather more determined beast than their name suggested when they released their second album, Acquiring The Taste, on 16 July 1971. Setting out their stall before the record even started, the liner notes brazenly proclaimed a modus operandi of expanding “the frontiers of contemporary popular music at the risk of being very unpopular”, declaring that each song on the album “should be unique, adventurous and fascinating”, abandoning “all preconceived thoughts of blatant commercialism”.
Indeed, the only thing blatant about Acquiring The Taste was the group’s refusal to compromise. While the visual gag on the album’s front cover certainly ensured that, in some circles, the band were “very unpopular” indeed (not least with the top brass at their record label, Vertigo), choosing to open the record with ‘Pantagruel’s Nativity’, a seven-minute excursion built around primitive Moog and Gregorian chants, and taking for its inspiration series of 16th-century French novels written by François Rabelais, was hardly a moderate start. (In fact, the song seems to have been so perplexing to some that it’s mis-spelt as ‘Pentagruel’s Nativity’ on the original A-aide label.)
That’s not to say that the album is entirely unfathomable. In fact, when they lock into a groove, as on ‘The House The Street The Room’, Gentle Giant prove themselves as capable of rocking hard as they are of devising labyrinthine song structures that leave you scratching your head. Give it a bit of an edit (its full six minutes include a free jazz coda and the band’s patented excursions into neo-classical terrain), and they might even have had a single on their hands, with a – whisper it – catchy vocal melody. (Closer ‘Plain Truth’ is also dangerously catchy in the vocals department, while guitarist Gary Green deploys a wah-wah riff that owes no small debt to Hendrix.) Elsewhere, ‘Edge Of Twilight’ provides a comparatively brief flirtation with pastoral folk (you could easily have heard this on The Wicker Man), while ‘Wreck’ provides a mid-way point between sea shanty and ambitious prog-rock. (Interestingly, it’s been claimed that the instrumental title track was later used as background music on an animated children’s Christmas special, A Cosmic Christmas.)
Penultimate track ‘Black Cat’ might mark the point where the group’s wilful determination got the better of them, arguably tipping too far into the neo-classical realm in its attempts to prove just how many ideas Gentle Giant could fit onto two sides of vinyl. But, given their self-imposed brief, it’s fair to say that Acquiring The Taste succeeds on all counts. The group weren’t being deliberately abrasive, just demanding that listeners fully engage with their work – and, after all, isn’t that what the best art does? Time has proven them right: original Vertigo pressings of the album have become much sought-after by fans, changing hands for up to £175.
An acquired taste? Certainly. But one which, once you’re used to it, leaves you hungry for more.
Purchase Acquiring The Taste here.