It’s 1976, Gentle Giant’s last album, Free Hand, reached the Top 50 in the US Billboard charts, they’d been touring successfully in Europe and the North American continent, and – quite naturally – decide they ought to release a follow-up. They do, only it doesn’t fare as well. Latterly, the reasons given for its relative failure will be diverse, and likely to differ depending on who you ask, including band members.
As had been the case since Phil Shulman left the band, the line-up continued to feature his brothers Derek (lead vocals) and Ray (bass), Gary Green (guitar), Kerry Minnear (keyboards) and John Weather (drums). Previously, the members had played assorted other instruments (generally horn and woodwind related), but this time round they pulled back, and so too the diversity within their music – Where once you might hear them bashing away angrily, dipping into some renaissance piece the next, with sundry aural deviations along the way, on the new Interview album they would be far more direct in their approach, a process they were to continue up to their deciding to call it a day, with the turn of the next decade.
Explaining away the reasons for Interview only reaching No. 137 in the US mainstream charts (still a pretty good spot considering how many physical copies that actually meant back in the ‘70s), the most logical might be that not enough material had been prepared in advance, and certainly that might explain lesser flights of progressive rock instrumentality. However, the times they were a changing, and having signed with Charisma, where their label mates Genesis were themselves slowly transmuting towards more commercial considerations; it’s likely something was in the air. Overall, it might be said a sense of ennui had starting to set in over the band.
I have no recollection of having heard Interview before. Maybe it’s the very fact that music has shifted back and forth in so many different ways since the album was first released some 45 years ago, that playing it – at a point in time – where sitting down to actually listen to a full album of music is a rare luxury, that today it comes across as a coherent work, much more accessible than their earlier works that took, literally, decades for me to appreciate the intent of. Here, the music remains adventurous, has an overall joyful sense to its playfulness, and proves easier to understand in its lyrical intents.
As its title suggests, the title track and to some degree other tracks relate a fiction interview with the band, where inane questions are asked, standard replies of probable false-integrity offered, and an overall commentary made on the state of music as an art form, the need for marketing it right, making money and a sense of how one really deals with it all. Other songs can be viewed as off-tour realities for band members as they dealt with their private lives, in terms of love songs and the like.
The role of interviewer was taken by one Phil Sutcliffe, a writer for Sounds weekly music paper at the time, though this was in fact a pseudonym used by Mike Stand. He is featured across four tracks, notably ‘Interview’ itself.
Syncopated organ stabs with the ferocity of a Keith Emerson playing some musical bridge between Genesis’ ‘Harold the Barrel’ and Peter Gabriel’s later ‘Sledgehammer’ ensue on the lead track where a video of the Monty Python throwing silly shapes on the dance floor at Stringfellows’ nightclub back in the day would be absolutely perfect.
Stepping aside from Spinal Tap revelations, albeit comparisons to Rock Follies and a million interviews we’ve all read (and in some case conducted ourselves) are given as Derek Shulman offers up the ups and downs of the band (Gentle Giant’s or a fiction one for this album, you take your pick) history thus far, while drummer John Weather takes the bridge’s vocals.
Peppered with sarcasm and inane quotes to this genuinely grooving funky prog music, each of the first two verses intercut by a gentler keyboard passage, and an additional oddball jazzier one second time round. Thereafter, but two and half minutes in we get a musical interlude of more progressive expectations; notably incorporating variations on the main theme where guitar takes precedence and slowly the bass comes in, initially sounding out of tune or off-the-beat but then you realise it’s as if two people were speaking at once and neither listening to the other, until you realise a rhythm has been established between them, and thus akin to how an interview eventually evolves in print (or digitally often these days) – Of course, you can once more put that down to my imagination, but it sounds like that was the band’s intent. Returning for new verses, and a repeat of the second one that begins with the lines; “Well we all hear, everyone, no-one,” reiterating the fact that the same old stories are often repeated and rarely listened to. Following euphoric blasts of organ, the main theme is reprised in a more melodic refrain before verging into the next number.
For ‘Give It Back’ they keep that off-the-wall sense of funk but add a dose of 10cc’s ‘Dreadlock Holiday’ into the mix while excluding any dubious lyricisms, for this number is about fame and success. Or perhaps how outsiders perceive it, for while three to four album deals before you became successful may well have been the business model back then, the recording of such were paid for as advances again future profits. As noted in lines like “Just how much can you spend? Give it back in the end.” Alas, too many vintage bands are still battling old record companies over perceived creative accounting and lack of royalty payments. Presumably, Gentle Giant ultimately proved astute, as they release their own back catalogue these days. As with the previous number it veers off into instrumentality, and on returning to the main song a little gentler in approach.
Together, the opening tracks are musically upbeat, in contrast to their more revelatory lyrics, and make harmonious bed partners on record. ‘Design’ follows and is about a man looking back on his life. While today’s new listener may now listen and consider this a rock star of yesteryear’s perception of what was and could have been, there are no direct references to such and as much reflects the thoughts of any thirtysomething, if not even earlier these days. Very different from what we’ve heard so far, this is largely a chant, pitched somewhere church and coalminers, keyboard player Minnear taking the verses, but the Shulman brothers and Weather also coming in one by one. With drums and percussion making an appearance the vocals prove more intermittent, slightly barbershop quartet, then returning to a quieter choral affair even as Weather unleashes several rounds of African-influenced of percussion.
Following this musical detour, we’re back in with more syncopated progressive rock in ‘Another Show’, about which I’m sure you can imagine what’s being sung about yourselves. Faster, rockier, with Minnear’s moogs and clavinets to the fore, it’s one of the shorter numbers on the album, and you can see how this would have been a good opener for side two of the original vinyl release.
By contrast, ‘Empty City’ returns us to calmer, far less frenetic music, with Green on acoustic guitar, and Ray Shulman on 12 string, and also latterly electric violin. Lyrically it’s opaque, and if you end up drawing a flimsy similarity with The Beatles ‘She’s Leaving Home’, you’re stretching it just like me. However, the guitars perform beautifully, classical and cascading with big swimming chords, then joined by electric piano and the slightest of percussive touches that prove highly effective. The band sing in unison, Derek Shulman taking the choruses, a prog styled riff begins punctuates the main theme, as electric guitars join in a heavy blues rock sound coming in, then violin, then Green’s electric takes a lighter tone, vocal harmonies introduced, and it bounces back and forth with the various themes, violin and guitars to the fore.
A deep swirling deep end sound effected by bass and organ steer us through ‘Timing’, where yet again I’m pleased to hear an undercurrent of skewered syncopated funk. It’s actually quite Family like, not least the wilder violin and blues guitar soling that ensue over rather creepy chord but melodic sequences. Back onboard with the main Interview concept theme, lyrically it shares themes with ‘Give It Back’ querying if the rewards offered are just while being asked to deliver more of the same, then fretting about how well such records will sell.
The album is concluded by the seven minutes long ‘I Lost My Head’ that moves stylistically in the myriad manner long time Gentle Giant fans might prefer. Thus stated, it doesn’t jump off with alarming changes but with each section bleeding into the other. Frankly, if you’re ancient enough to recall the late Freddie Phillips’ TV theme music for children’s series such as Camberwick Green then add loud electric guitars and mini-moogs you may have a slight inkling of where this one leads. Suffice to say, acoustic guitars return, there’s violin, and Green also plays an affecting alto recorder as musically it evokes music we might presume to hear in some court during the middle-ages, adding some mild jazz fusion while an upbeat blues rock progressive rock sound also prevails as the song develops. This time round, initially it’s Minnear who takes initial lead vocals, Shulman taking over in the latter part. The suite begins with the lines:” I lost my head, it was not easy, unknown, unread, it wasn’t easy” – Echoing Shakespeare’s A Midnight Summer Dream’s conclusion as either illusionary metaphor, excuse, big fat lie, or somewhere in between, in that interviews – even those you witness in real life because they’re open to our own subjectivity, prejudices and hopes – are a mixture of fiction and fact.
Remixed by Steven Wilson, there may be those who pick this album up for that very reason. If so, as ever, you’ll need a decent system to play it on. For those who’ve heard it’s a lesser album in Gentle Giant canon, I beg to differ. Lyrically it bites, and while not sharpened to the degree Roger Waters had sharpened his to but a few years previous, there’s enough acerbic sarcasm to volley back at contemporaries 10cc. Musically, it flows, you’ll hum large sections, tap your feet and if alone maybe even do a little dance here and there – But don’t be shy, for my money this is a much neglected album that we seriously need to re-evaluate.
- Review by Paul H Birch.
- Interview (2023 Remix) is self-released and available here.
- Official Website
- Give It Back
- Another Show
- Empty City
- I Lost My Head