Monday, June 30, 2014

I'd Love to Turn You On #108 - Gentle Giant - Octopus

Many rock bands have either tried to play with classical musicians or play like they are classical musicians – mostly with dismal results. Gentle Giant played music that was firmly in the rock idiom, but they played with such virtuosity and composed music with such complexity that they are at the top of an extremely small list (along with maybe just Zappa) of those who successfully played rock music like they actually were classical musicians. Titled Octopus as a play on the idea that the band was composing 8 songs, each about a different member of the band or crew, each song is its own wildly ambitious symphony of musical ideas and masterful execution. Perhaps no song is more symbolic in their entire career (12 albums over a decade) than “Knots,” a miraculous number in which they employ the Madrigal (unaccompanied vocal composition) form to begin a song that then bursts into complex changes and time signatures hinting at jazz, classical, rock and avant-garde all at once. Every track on Octopus is equally sophisticated. This is not light music for the faint of heart. While every song bristles with musical invention and enough musical changes to give a careful listener whiplash, there is always a melodic core, as well as beautiful and complex vocals, and some rock star-worthy instrumental fireworks – although never at the expense of compositional integrity. This is one band that never jammed mindlessly.

Another factor that really sets Gentle Giant apart is their intensely personal, philosophical and literary lyrics. Hugely influenced by the works of several philosophers/authors the band always imbued their lyrics with an intellectual humanism that escaped most of their contemporaries. Take for example “A Cry For Everyone” which was influenced by the writings of Albert Camus. Demonstrating a sensibility far elevated from the typical rock fare the lyric warns:
“One day everyone dies
If only to justify life.
Live. I’ve lived a thousand lives: And anyone is the right, the just life.
If I could cry, I’d cry for everyone.”
Gentle Giant’s lyrics are filled with thought provoking insights and moral quandaries –some resolved, some left hanging. This alone makes their work worth exploring, and none of their albums is quite as cohesively successful as Octopus.

My first exposure to Gentle Giant was a strange and jarring one. In 1976 they were the opening act on Paul Simon’s tour for Still Crazy After All These Years. What marketing genius thought this pairing would be a good idea should have been fired immediately for surely most of the audience was baffled and/or annoyed by this frenetic prog-rock freak show. They did however convert one person. When they finished their set (which included a medley of songs from Octopus) I remember sitting there with my mouth hanging open wondering what I had just seen. I had no idea rock musicians were allowed to play with such accomplished fury. They weren’t goofing around up there, they were executing musical mazes which required the highest level of rehearsal and professional dexterity. I could barely pay attention to Paul Simon’s set (which I’m sure was great). I had to hear more from this band. I have cherished Gentle Giant’s albums since and hold them in a rare place of musical reverence, but I understand that this music is not for everyone. To illustrate this fact, vocalist/saxophone player Derek Shulman (one of three Shulman brothers in the band) became a respected A&R man for a well-known record label after the band broke up. He famously said (I paraphrase) “I would never sign a band like Gentle Giant.” It seems that sometimes even the most ambitious artists understand themselves that they are making music for the few and not the many. What better endorsement do you need?
- Paul Epstein

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