Ian Anderson Knows Why Gentle Giant Never Broke Out: Exclusive Interview
Ian Anderson is often labeled a progressive-rock satirist, particularly for the tongue-in-cheek excess of 1972's Thick as a Brick, but he's a master of the form. During Jethro Tull's early era, he also shared stages with many of the other greats.
No tourmate held more prog credentials than Gentle Giant, whose '70s run remains one of the genre's most prolific and wildly creative.
Anderson looks back at those classic tours in the latest installment of a chat promoting Jethro Tull's new LP, The Zealot Gene, while also discussing why some of Gentle Giant's members "fought like cats and dogs" over musical ideas – and why their idiosyncratic songs never earned wide commercial success.
I’ve read that you’re still friends with Derek Shulman of Gentle Giant and that your conversations led to the Thick as a Brick 2. You toured with that band extensively back in 1972, and they were a real powerhouse onstage at that time.
Gentle Giant grew out of a band that was called Simon Dupree and the Big Sound, and they had a hit in the ‘60s called “Kites.” It was kind of a hippie drivel song. They were obviously trying to buy their way into recognition by doing what was fashionable at the time — just as Jethro Tull began as a blues band because that was the flavor of the year in ’67, ’68. It was a way to open the doors primarily of the Marquee Club and try to build up a bit of a following. But Simon Dupree mercilessly plundered the hippie idea and image and had this hit, but it wasn’t what they really wanted to do. They had aspirations to something a little wilder and more creative.
When Gentle Giant became Gentle Giant and were suggested as an opening act for Jethro Tull — I think in Italy — they were obviously very accomplished musicians. And the Shulman brothers, of which there were three, fought like cats and dogs. They were always at each other’s throats, in a pretty aggressive way backstage. And we kind of laughed it off because we could hear them screaming at each other in dressing rooms down the corridor.
Listen to Gentle Giant's 'On Reflection'
They weren’t screaming at each other [due to] fraternal point of view or any other reason. It was always musical reasons — musical anger because somebody failed to observe some cue or follow a time signature change or something. They were obviously very passionate about their music, and that is my memory of them – along with certain songs they did that were very complex and detailed in their musical arrangements. Derek was their frontman-singer, and I always got the feeling he felt a bit awkward in what he was doing. He didn’t really feel perhaps like he was the archetypal rock singer. He tried to do all the moves, but I’m not sure they had conviction. And indeed when Derek decided he didn’t want to be a musician and tour anymore, and he entered the wacky world of the music business as an A&R man for a major record company, it was probably the right move for him.
I believe Gary Green still plays in some edition of a tribute [Three Friends] that carries on today. I work with Ray Shulman on a regular basis as a mastering engineer for DVDs and videos. He’s been doing that for several reasons, despite perhaps very bad health, but he’s still around to this day. He authored the DVDs of The Zealot Gene.
It’s great that some of these guys went on to perhaps a truer calling, rather than struggling forever with a band that wasn’t quite going to make it, in terms of real commercial success. But they had their day, and they were very popular as a cult band in parts of Europe, particularly in Italy – and remembered very fondly by me for their spirited performances onstage and some of their records.
The mistake was they came to the Chrysalis record label [before 1975's Free Hand], probably because we were on Chrysalis. That was a bad move because Chrysalis at that point were becoming more of a pop label, and they tried to turn Gentle Giant into something more commercial, more focused, with verse-chorus kind of music. I don’t think that really worked for them.
Their strength was to go completely in the opposite direction and be musically quite weird. But at that point in time, the world was changing in terms of musical preference, and record companies and radio and TV and general promotional opportunities tended to favor things that were a new wave of alternative rock and pop music. Being Gentle Giant in the age of Blondie was never going to be easy.