Three Friends performed the music of Gentle Giant at the Cruise to the Edge voyage April 7-12, doing 3 sets on different dates, and in the process reinforcing the preeminent place where Gentle Giant belongs on the progressive rock mantle. I had the chance to see all three shows and interview Gary for Gonzo Weekly magazine, and it’s a week I’ll never forget. The shows were exciting, diverse, and precise yet rocking, featuring Gary, Malcolm and all their friends, expertly arranging and performing these brilliant compositions.
The full band were led by Gary Green, the guitarist from all Gentle Giant albums, and Malcolm Mortimore who was the drummer on the 1973 album Three Friends. As the story goes, after recording the nuanced, boyant drum tracks on that album and beginning the live gigs, Malcolm had to leave mid tour after a motorcycle accident that led to a broken arm and leg. He went on to play with dozens of famous musicians including Ian Dury, Tom Jones, Van Morrison and many others, while the band went on with John Weathers.
For these shows, Gary and Malcolm were joined by a fantastic band of musicians including Charlotte Glasson on violin and winds of all kinds (recently winner of the Best Newcomer Award at Marlborough Jazz Festival,) Neil Angilley on keyboards, who has recently been touring with the War of the Worlds extravaganza, and Mick Wilson on vocals, who has also been touring with 10CC and as a solo artist, and Jonathan Noyce on bass, known by many from his years playing with Jethro Tull. The band obviously worked hard to master the clever, intricate parts originally played by composer/multi-instrumentalist Kerry Minnear and the Shulman brothers, Derek, Ray, and in the beginning, Phil.
I sat down for a chat with Gary on April 8, 2014 on the voyage:
D: When you look back, at the various stages of the bands career what’s your perspective now on the band’s history, which ended a couple of years after punk hit in Britain. Your swan song, Civilian, which I saw performed at the Roxy (their last ever show) seemed an apt title and a bit polarizing for fans.
G: Music is a product, like art is a product of who you are at a given time, it does reflect the times – and everything we went through. Certain of the albums were named because of knee jerk reactions– like In a Glass House was named precisely that because we felt that anything we were doing would be [shot down] by someone else. So IAGH seemed like a totally appropriate name. For Free Hand – we just joined Chrysalis and thought, they’re so good for us – they were letting us do what we want, and the music reflected those times. It did change – as a band we got a little frustrated that all our peers where getting fame and playing big gigs and we were lumbering on producing what we thought was good music to deaf ears –there’s pressure from the record company a bit to produce a hit, and punk had come out. Ray was always keeping his ears to the ground for what was new and happening and steered it that way. But really the best period was the early-middle third of the band.
D: Three Friends seemed like the album where the band was really coming together, after the very experimental Acquiring the Taste. And then new drummer Malcolm had to leave the group mid tour.
G: Yes, Malcolm had a motorcycle accident right when we were on an upswing. When John came in a started playing with us it just fell together. Malcolm went on to do a lot better than us – he was with Gary Moore, Ian Dury, and he’s done great.
D: The opening track from Three Friends, “Prologue,” is heard live from New Orleans in 1972 as an extra on the latest re-master of that album – and is performed very aggressively – was your playing different at that time?
G: Oh, the breakneck speed version – there’s a certain adrenalin – especially when we were playing an opening set for somebody – we had 40 minutes to do something. If you have a violin and cello opening for Black Sabbath, you had to do that. Then even if it didn’t rock, it was enthusiastic!
D: After Octopus Phil left, and In a Glass House not released in America (though it did great here as an import) What was the impact of that?
G: Phil really was the original leader of Gentle Giant and forged the direction with that statement on Acquiring the Taste (The statement: “It is our goal to expand the frontiers of contemporary popular music at the risk of being very unpopular”) That’s complete Phil and though I did not like it too much at the time, now I think that was a great statement to have made because that’s really the truth – we lost that kind of literal import to the words and philosophy of the band with Phil’s leaving. At the same time he and his the other two brothers were always rubbing up against each other – so it was sometimes difficult to be around all that. When he left, there was an initial “oh my God the band’s gonna break up thing” and I think Ray and Derek actually did think that might be it. We loved Phil, but determined he was not critical to the band’s live success. We became a very strong 5 piece as a result of that and Derek took to fill his shoes with the lyrics.
D: For live performances, Derek would often sing Kerry’s parts – did they agree on that?
G: Kerry does not have a loud voice, and is not a strong live vocal performer – he has a high register with not a lot of force and in those days we had really crappy monitor systems– you couldn’t hear it well enough to do it – had it been today with in ear monitors – different thing probably.
D: With Three Friends did he do some lead vocals?
G: We didn’t do a lot of shows – but he did do “Think of Me with Kindness” live which was sweet – with Kerry singing it was lovely.
D: Why did Kerry stop playing in Three Friends?
G: He felt and feels an allegiance to Ray and Derek, who are not terribly happy about us doing this – not obstructionist, but they are not sentimental about these things. Kerry decided in respect to that he could not faithfully continue – and he never liked playing live a lot and hated travel – we went to Japan to Canada and he remembered “I don’t like this.” For me, I think, yes they wrote the music, but it took me and John to inject a lot of life to it – great work takes some great interpretation.
D: Do you think you will take this band out again?
G: Yes we are going week after next to Portugal – a nice little festival. The band does not play a lot purely because everybody is busy doing other projects. Everyone is busy doing other stuff. Mick is with 10CC – Jon Noyce [with several projects]. Neil Angilley with the War of the Worlds tour – phenomenal stuff. Honestly so many promoters we talk to want to say “we’d like to have you but we want to call it Gentle Giant” and I won’t have that cause it isn’t because there’s only that one Gentle Giant and there could never be another one. But there could be really good interpretations of the music by people who know how to play it and love to play it.
D: It seems this music can live on like classical music played into the future.
G: I think so and it deserves to, you know, and that was my and Malcolm’s whole reason for doing this again – yeah there was a resurgence of interest because of the internet and everybody enjoyed that – but I never felt Giant music in its day got a wide enough listen, and even those who heard it perhaps didn’t quite get it, and time has moved on and perhaps there’s another generation or two who have decided that Gentle Giant has subtle influences on what they’ve done. I’d like to say “okay then, this is how it’s supposed to be played,” while I can still do it and I love doing it. I’m totally respectful of the music. Some of the recordings really irk me- I listen to it and think “I really rushed that phrase” – so now there’s a chance to correct some of those things and I find that really cool! It’s not to be perfect, but music lives and music deserves to be heard – especially this as its very wide ranging – Giants music – its got many styles and it goes to many emotional areas and I find that fascinating. And it’s a complete challenge to play. When you play something like “Schooldays” live it’s a bastard of a tune to play really and when you pull it off it’s like climbing a hill and thinking – I didn’t have a heart attack!
D: There has been a lot of reissue work and scraping of the barrel – both audio and video, which is so important to us who did not see those shows
G: I was the archivist for the video – I was the one who went to the BBC after the show saying we need a copy of that. There is not any more that I’ve found – wish there were. We are talking ancient history – there’s little video back then.
D: Are you involved in the Steve Wilson re-master of Power and the Glory?
G: The rights to Power and the Glory have reverted back to us – so we own it thank God, and we don’t own all of them by any means, but this we’ve got and Steve Wilson is working on it with Ray for a 5.1 surround sound remix – I’m as anxious to hear that as anyone else cause I love that album
D: How did it come to pass that the “title track” single was left off the LP?
G: It was made as a single – it was obviously and determinedly meant as a single but it seemed to me and all of us that it’s not really part of the album.
D: In preparing for the Three Friends shows, what’s been hardest or most rewarding track to go back and play now?
G: “Schooldays” is very rewarding – we did it only a few times back then – we had decided it was not a good thing for a live audience because often times we were opening up for somebody. It’s good for a headliner where you have an audience and do what you want. Also now the technology is so different – it’s a whole different world of noises and the monitors are good – better at least. We just learned “The Moon is Down” – I never played on it originally – the guitar you hear is Ray and now I’m singing it with Mick – I’m not a great singer but I’m giving it a go! A lot of them are hard to play and some are challenging or both – the best might be “Free Hand” which is both.
Gary’s words rang so sincerely during the three sets that unfolded over the week. For the record, included in one of more of the shows was a cross section of some of the most complex and rewarding prog rock ever committed to record:
“Alucard” / Gentle Giant (1970)
“Pantagruel’s Nativity”, “The Moon is Down”, “Wreck”, and “The House The Street The Room” / Acquiring The Taste (1971)
“Prologue”, “Schooldays”, “Mr. Class and Quality”, “Three Friends” / Three Friends (1972)
“The Advent of Panurge”, “The Boys in the Band”, “Think of Me With Kindness” / Octopus (1972)
“In a Glass House” / In a Glass House (1973)
“Proclamation”, “Playing the Game” / Power and the Glory (1974)
“Free Hand”, “Just the Same”, “Mobile” / Free Hand (1975)
“I Lost My Head” / Interview (1976)
It was beyond expectations that a band of such diverse musicians could pull off these tracks with such accuracy and enthusiasm. The only thing that felt missing at all was Kerry’s vibraphones, though they were replicated by Neil’s exciting performances on keyboards. Also for this fan the lack of medleys was a real plus as I’d always felt some of those detracted from the original compositions. Top that off with the set lists being so faithful to the core period of Giant’s catalog after so many years and you realized this was a new historical milestone for this music.
Hopefully not the last voyage for these many friends.