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The Beatles Red and Blue Boxsets
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The Beatles Red and Blue Boxsets

‘Three Friends’: Behind Gentle Giant’s First Ever Concept Album

The first concept album in Gentle Giant’s formidable body of work, ‘Three Friends’ remains a well-loved record that hints at greater glories to come.

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Gentle Giant Three Friends

Difficult as it may be to relate to such an arcane notion today, the ability to compose and perform brow-furrowing music of fractal intricacy was seen as an end in itself – and a badge of honor – for prog musicians in the early 70s. But even within this indulgent (and indulged) realm, Gentle Giant were on a different scale of accomplishment altogether. Founding brothers Derek, Phil, and Ray Shulman had already tasted fleeting chart success with the momentarily modish Simon Dupree & The Big Sound, but that group’s winningly febrile soul-pop-with-psych-trimmings provided approximately no clues as to the direction the Shulmans would pursue after forming Gentle Giant, in 1969, and embarking on a formidable journey that would see them create albums the likes of Three Friends, Octopus, and The Power And The Glory.

Signed to the Vertigo imprint, and enlisting the aid of guitarist Gary Green, multi-instrumentalist Kerry Minnear (a graduate of the Royal College Of Music) and drummer Martin Smith, the Shulmans wasted no time in establishing Gentle Giant as a musical throwdown – a forbidding (if exhilarating) showcase for a confounding skill set that saw the band members mastering almost 50 instruments between them.

By the time their third album, Three Friends, was released, on April 14, 1972, drummer Martin Smith had been replaced by the redoubtable Malcolm Mortimore, and the band’s reputation for assembling fascinatingly labyrinthine arrangements, bristling with intricate counter-melodies and shifting tempos, was already well established.

The Beatles - Now And Then
The Beatles - Now And Then
The Beatles - Now And Then

Simplicity itself

However, the irony in this instance was that the premise underlying Three Friends, the band’s first concept piece, was simplicity itself. According to the original sleevenotes, the album’s six songs trace the contrasting fortunes of three individuals who were “friends at school but inevitably separated by chance, skill, and fate.” As such, the strident introductory “Prologue” acts as a musical proscenium arch, and the airy “Schooldays” – built upon Kerry Minnear’s pulsing, shimmering vibraphone – forms the notional backdrop.

The remaining tracks, meanwhile, follow the friends into the wider world. One becomes a road mender (“Working All Day”), another becomes an artist (“Peel The Paint”), and the third becomes a captain of industry (“Mister Class And Quality”). The concluding title track discreetly ponders the inevitable class distinctions: the only time the three friends were in the same class was at school.

A well-loved entry in Gentle Giant’s portfolio, Three Friends bequeathed an enduring and emblematic showpiece in “Peel The Paint” – not least because of Gary Green’s bonfire of a solo, which takes full advantage of an Echoplex borrowed (according to reliable legend) from Mike Ratledge of Soft Machine.

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  1. Brian Thomas Hickey

    August 2, 2016 at 7:17 pm

    Thank you (J?)! A friend at the factory said “Your’e gonna love this”, and played the b-side “Boys in the Band”, which put the everlasting hook in me. Prog? I don’t think so, but biznes is biznes and just so glad to see this post when it comes. There are so many facets of this ensemble. I get called back to my choirschool days in Boston (Cambridge), where you worked 6 days a week, plus comuting, so things like “Design” and, well you know. Nice to hear about 3 friends as concept LP; we’re allowed our prefs but for me it was when Pugwash took the helm. Tit for tat; thanks again.

  2. Bob

    April 14, 2018 at 6:39 pm

    They were pretentious uninspireing rubbish. Totally insincere and simply jumped on the Progressive band wagon. Meanwhile, there were superb originators such as King Crimson, ELP and Yes.

    • jacob feldman

      April 15, 2018 at 4:55 pm

      Gentle giant were/are the greatest most crimininally underated band ever

    • RC2

      November 22, 2019 at 10:51 am

      Bull !

  3. Adrian Horn

    October 3, 2019 at 4:33 am

    Street: “Are there any major rock n’ roll bands aside from yourself that you do listen to?”
    Frank Zappa: “I like Queen. I like Gentle Giant.”

  4. Rik_K

    October 7, 2021 at 6:51 am

    In Canada this album was issued on Columbia Records, and the lazy buggers couldn’t be bothered to use the proper sleeve. Instead, they used the sleeve from the GG debut album and just stuck the title “Three Friends” on it. It literally took me decades to find an imported British copy with the right sleeve. A happy day at the record fair, that was.

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The Beatles Red and Blue Boxsets
The Beatles Red and Blue Boxsets
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