Multi-instrumentalist siblings Phil, Derek and Ray Shulman enjoyed mixed fortunes in the late 60s. As part of pop-soul act Simon Dupree And The Big Sound they released several non-charting singles for EMI. Later, on the advice of their management, they embraced psychedelia and scored a UK Top 10 hit with ‘Kites’ in 1967. However, the brothers hated the song and, fed up with both the mechanisations of the pop music machine and with the poor musicianship of most of their bandmates, they quit the group in 1969. They formed Gentle Giant the following year, enlisting former Big Sound man Martin Smith on drums, alongside virtuoso guitarist Gary Green and classically trained pianist Kerry Minnear. Continuing to play a multitude of instruments themselves, Derek took charge of saxophone duties, with Ray playing bass and violin, and Phil also on saxophone. Snapped up by Philips/Phonogram offshoot Vertigo, the label arranged for David Bowie producer Tony Visconti to oversee recording of the Gentle Giant debut album.
What emerged from the sessions was a radical departure from their previous work, as the Gentle Giant debut album, released on 27 November 1970, saw the group immersed in the nascent prog rock sound, expanding the genre’s horizons with a variety of different styles and influences. Hard rocking opener ‘Giant’ signalled their seriousness as musicians, with a host of complex tempo changes, while the gentle ‘Funny Ways’ utilised folk, medieval and classical music tropes – all styles to which the band would return to repeatedly over their subsequent career. ‘Alucard’ (“Dracula” spelt backwards) found Kerry Minnear taking centre stage, with his riotously inventive synth- and organ-playing punctuated with blasts of horn and Gary Green’s bluesy guitar. Best of all, though, was the epic ‘Nothing At All’, whose stunning mix of multiple vocal harmonies and epic guitar riffs manages to recall both Crosby, Stills, Nash And Young, and Led Zepellin’s ‘Stairway To Heaven’.
Released as a gatefold LP adorned with an iconic cover illustration of the titular giant holding the band in the palm of his hand, the album established the group as one of the most distinctive and forward-thinking of the new wave of prog rock bands to emerge that year. While the decade that followed confirmed Gentle Giant’s greatness with a wave of brilliant, if commercially unsuccessful, works, their self-titled debut contains the genesis of all that followed, and remains a rewarding and vital listen to this day.