reDiscover Gentle Giant’s ‘Civilian’

February 1, 2018

Even by prog’s rigorous standards, prolific shapeshifters Gentle Giant were almost unassailably virtuosic. Long-serving guitarist Gary Green and multi-instrumentalist sibling founder members Phil, Derek and Ray Shulman were all well-versed in blues, rock and soul, while the presence of classically trained keyboardist Kerry Minnear allowed them to stir exotic medieval and chamber music flavours into their eccentric melting pot. But after a number of albums that pushed towards ever further complexities, with 1980’s Civilian, Gentle Giant started to focus on a more streamlined songwriting process.

Signing with Chrysalis in 1970, the band initially recorded a string of eclectic, reputation-establishing concept LPs, including fan favourites such as Octopus, In A Glass House and The Power And The Glory, before hitting a commercial peak with 1975’s jazz-rock-inclined Free Hand, which cracked the Top 50 of North America’s Billboard 200.

Gentle Giant Civilian era

Seemingly oblivious to the punk storm brewing on the horizon, however, they lost ground with 1976’s underrated Interview: a satirical (if acutely observed) concept album examining how a rock group’s relationship with the music press could either make or break their career. While the record contained some of Gentle Giant’s most accessible music, it received mixed reviews and stalled at No.137 in the US.

Attempting to respond to changing market tastes, the band assembled 1977’s schizophrenic The Missing Piece – which included straighter pop-rock cuts and the punky, zeitgeist-chasing ‘For Nobody’ – before they changed tack and went headlong in pursuit of radio-friendly soft rock on 1978’s Giant For A Day! Despite these compromises, neither of these records arrested the band’s commercial slide, and a demoralised Gentle Giant split in the summer of 1980 after touring their final studio LP.

The product of Californian studio sessions with The Beatles’ former engineer Geoff Emerick manning the console, this swansong album, Civilian, could potentially have reversed the band’s fortunes. It proffered an unashamedly linear collection of hooky, chorus-heavy rock/pop songs, but it was poorly received by the critics and is still widely regarded as the runt of the band’s singular litter.

All Through The Night label, 1980Admittedly, Civilian couldn’t hope to satisfy die-hards craving the arcane thrills of Gentle Giant’s ambitious early LPs, but it’s nonetheless a consistent and compelling rock record. With hindsight, its abject failure is hard to fathom, especially because, when it was issued early in 1980, several of the band’s prog-rock contemporaries were breaking through with conventionally structured rock/pop hits. It’s not, after all, such a leap of faith to imagine the infectious ‘All Through The Night’ or the muscular, riff-driven ‘Number One’ translating into crossover hits akin to Genesis’ ‘Turn It On Again’ or Rush’s ‘Spirit Of Radio’.

In addition, the tribal codes of the day worked against the band. The punks could forgive The Stranglers their virtuosity, for example, but they couldn’t have accepted Gentle Giant. This is ironic in retrospect, as Civilian was bookended by two brilliant tracks, ‘Convenient (Clean & Easy)’ and ‘It’s Not Imagination’, which were just as visceral as anything from The Men In Black’s then current opus, The Raven.

Follow the Prog Rocks playlist here.

Share this story

2 comments

  1. Christopher Gunther
    Reply

    Though Civilian received mainly negative reviews, it became one of my favorite Gentle Giant albums. That’s saying a lot, considering I’m an old school guy who worshipped The Power & the Glory and In a Glass House. Giant For a Day is considered the weak spot because it was an attempt at commercial success. But Civilian was, in my opinion, destined to be the final LP due to the fact that some members were ready to retire from the road, plus it was obvious that GG were better off staying true rather than embracing the changes of the times like Yes, Genesis, etc. I think it was their way of “blowing it out,” and just getting back to the raw rock principles (by their standards) in an effort to maximize their final tour. Having personally witnessed the band in their final weeks, I can attest that they were on top of their game, and the Civilian tunes, in particular, rocked the house.

  2. Brian Hickey
    Reply

    For people who don’t know this band’s challenging, stunning music let me just say that although Civlian might have disapointed some fans expecting Gentle Giant- style from 1970, this album is very solid indeed. What had always eluded the band was a (fluke?) hit single like Yes’s “Roundabout”, which makes me smile at the simularities with “Underground” on this album. As good as some of the old prog bands were nobody could match the compositional daring of GG, let alone their superb vocals, unlimited tonal.variety, humor and I could go on but they were simply incapable of releasing a bland album. Somewhat whittled down arrangments don’t hamper their drive or huge sound (“Inside Out”, “Convenience”). Their high standands remained even by their finale.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *