Perfect Sound Forever

What's Guinness Got That We Ain't?- Episode Two

Gary Green, photo by Nicholas Brand

More Prog to the Rescue: Steve Hackett and Gary Green
Part 2 of 2 by Mark S. Tucker


Though Gentle Giant enjoys immense reputation amongst prognuts, not a whole lot of attention is paid to guitarist Gary Green's individual contributions, mostly due to the fact that each member of the cherished combo was so damnably multi-accomplished, not to mention that the music itself so infrequently lent its flesh to extensive soloing. Gentle Giant's chiefly lionized for its complexly baroque compositional style, a discipline commanding numbing degrees of dexterity; however, dipping into the antiquated Vivaldi Well only provided a touchstone for breathtakingly modern twists on elder virtues, resulting in productions intensely neoclassical in all respects, damped only by a rock basing no Establishment critic alive would give the nod to. Like Genesis, Gentle Giant based in keyboards (Kerry Minnear) and guitar, but also dragged in winds, brass, sundry percussives, strings, and Gregorian chant vocals, not to mention a rhythm section to kill for.

Giant's first LP, Gentle Giant (1970), was not to illuminate Green's presence as much as future releases, but detracted not a whit from the group's ensemble glamour. Though usually a given that most musical units operate as a whole, save when stepped on to apotheosize products like David Bowie, some transcend the arrangement by parsecs; this ensemble was amongst the top illustrations of the fact. Nonetheless, Green oft teamed with Minnear in a Hackett/Banks vein, tracking to create fused sounds transmogrifying expectations and custom. The earliest LP's were saturated with fresh takes on ancient standards and Impressionism, achieving a deft new Romanticism by way of communal genius. Hence, harmonic attentions were rendered in subsummation rather than the expected highlights or exculpations into constant soloing. Everything that might be capitalized on later was amply inspectable here.

Acquiring the Taste (1971) issued and, though firmly rooted in the Impressionist/Baroque/Romantic vein, never really much employing the rather moribund Classical period, it began the process of allowing bolder forays into individual expression. From the beginning, Green's axe stood out nicely, first providing the quivering refrain hook in "Pantagruel's Nativity," then, as the intro faded into wheat-laden meadows coating misty English countrysides, grabbing the metaphorical bullhorn, pulling the composition into dramatic emphasis, eventually fading into chant vocals rondo'ed in the ensemble's inimitable style. His is soon the solo spot, rung out in clear and loud tones. Taking a leaf from Fripp's gamebook, he grabs a volume pedal (or is mixed thusly), retreating to soft colorations or to trumpeting the instrument's wail in energetic passages. Minnear's Banksian habit of catching his flank is exhilarating, setting a perfect brocade to the guitar's rawer envelopes. Acoustic 12- and 6-strings are used in segues as well as in the entirely mellifluous songs, cajoling redolent atmospheres into drowsiness while simultaneously injecting a rusticity that expounded itself further into the antique underpinnings. In "The House, the Street, the Room," we seem to have the striking sound of a dulcimer trumping the guitar... yet no dulcimer's mentioned and for very good reason: Green's pick-tapping (the plectrum too distinctly disallow anything else). Halfway through the tune, a hidden ferocity in the composition comes ripping out as he switches to a wah-wahed solo, shrieking and moaning, beautifully phrased in uncouthness. With the band churning behind him, the tune's an early high point.

Three Friends (1972) saw a simulacrum of chartrocking in "Prologue," Green concocting repeating patterns in varying octaves and inflections, Minnear trading off, vocals echoing the riffs in angeline pastels. He holds back for a repeating one-note slide-up beside Minnear's organ-grinding carny theme, then, amping up, leads the ensemble through a patterned call and response. Delicate jazzy runs intro "Schooldays" behind Minnear's vibes, soon echoing King Crimson's "Moonchild," quoting etherealities until running straight into the insistent "Working All Day," a lament upon wage-slavery delivered in strident businesslike tones. "Peel the Paint" begins to illustrate one of Green's more unusual traits: even while given center stage, he much preferred blending the instrument into his mates' lines, putting an edge on tones that would otherwise be impossible, hybridizing for the sake of uniqueness. However, the instrument screws around a little too long atop delay pedals during the solo, not one of the better voicings, straying a tad too far from the tune's base, yanked abruptly back. The title song rescues the problem, showing the guitarist's mole-ish strength, burrowing deeply into non-grandstanding postures that guide as they bolster.

Octopus (1972), considered by many to be their most refined work, as complex and subtle as anything that would be produced - though not nearly as Impressionistic as their first two - was not to be Green's showcase. Instead, it married the kingly past with a cold future, most tellingly in Minnear's electronics. The group was as integrated as it ever would be with little room for the individual afforded anywhere. Violin and vocals are more prominently featured, though Green and Minnear get in their by-now celebrated chases, briefly demonic in "Knots." The LP's a centerpiece in the Giant's real draw: incredible interlocking complexity drawn in ways that would never be quite so intimately replicated anywhere again (even peripherally surpassing Yes, if only via one stand-out aspect: the vocals; Jon Anderson never stood a chance). Green latches onto a solo segment during the closer, refusing to become the speedster, going so far as to multi-track, then weave a latent echo against the group's fade, soon taken up as they swell back in.

Then occurred an action that would forever rankle the fen: the next release, In A Glass House (1973), wasn't optioned in the U.S. The reason given was that the members themselves weren't happy with the LP (hence the excusatory gimmick cover?). Ironically, it's now considered amongst the band's very best by crits and fans alike, most frequently rated as a masterpiece of the genre. Glass House provided Green his most vivid base to that point, probably owing to the fact that the ensemble was down one member. One of the Shulman trio, Phil, had exited, taking with him the reeds, sparing only brother Derek's occasional sax, also sacrificing a segment of the chorale. Already a sweat-intensive band, the load was now all the more burdensome. This pushed the guitarist into a more opalescent incarnation, becoming as fragmented as Minnear, splintering into a million voices and positions to keep the constantly shifting quilt whole and coherent. "Experience" detailed a little-noted aspect of Green's acumen: an Akkermanly lute-like style that forbade lightning runs, demanding strange fingerings to obtain unusual inflections. This repeated in the title track, where, amongst several voices, he reverted to a baroque fingerstyle well surpassing Renbourn and other more noted practitioners.

Free Hand (1975) cemented the group's complexity in blaring fashion. So far the best recorded example of their output, it was a dizzying exercise in offbeat polyrhythms and exultant compositions. Derek Shulman stepped up the sax presence while Minnear went bonkers, but Green's chords were often the songs' backbone - he was intricately entwined into the Gordian convolutions, as necessary to the trademark as any of the rest of the band. Dauntingly, the LP's vocals were breath-taking, as "On Reflection" amply demonstrated. Ending side one, the guitar intro counter-rhythm is expert: Green changes tone numerous times to bring out splashy hues, providing stark contrasts. The second side provides ever more opportunities to shine; he wasted none of them. The fretwork in "Time to Kill" alone is jaw-dropping, making the album his finest moment; on this one outing, he could rest his place in the pantheon, but more was to come.

Green then dominated Interview (1976) but the LP wasn't quite up to Free Hand's heights, perhaps for that very reason. Not that he was shirking or deficient, but the rest of the lads seemed a bit starkered, a trifle unparticipative. The energy was mostly there, the complexity shined as before, but something was missing and it appeared to lie in the rest of the ensemble. We'd soon see what it was. The tinny recording didn't help, as engineer Paul Northfield stepped into Gary Martin's large shoes, only having been the assistant on the earlier release. Green plies a gorgeous Ian Anderson-y acoustic 12-string in both "Empty City" and "I Lost my Head" but Minnear shows, in the harpsichord track, he's only going through the motions. Gary had lost his tandem. What was happening?

Assuaging this querulousness for a short while, the fabulous Playing the Fool (1977) issued, as good a documentation of the group in the raw as one could hope for. Taken from the European leg of a huge tour, it stands as one of rock's great live LP's and provided, for anyone waxing dubious, proof that the quintet could carry off its dizzying hyper-complexities in the flesh, providing an unshakable realization that Gentle Giant was composed of some of the finest musicians on the planet at that time. Those fortunate enough to have seen the tour - I caught the Santa Barbara date - can attest to their prowess. Green was perfectly on point, running through his entire bag of tricks, seamlessly zoned in on his comrades while carving a luminous path through everything. Surprisingly, never before having done so, he even took part in the twisting vocal tapestries. One must guess he's the semi-basso, as the part is one never before detected in the studio output. He also gives a brilliant accounting of acoustic techniques during "Excerpts from Octopus". Interview may have been a telling unleashing but this was the absolute best palette Green would ever receive.

Of what came after, it would perhaps be kindest to say the group seemed to have decided that much simpler rock ditties were seen as the surest gamble for wider success. The lads hadn't achieved the huge across-the-boards reception so richly merited, certainly not like Yes or ELP, and, given the perpetual decision not to re-group (despite many calls from hard-core fans), it can only be hazarded that there was bitterness of some kind beneath the surface. Rightly so. When creating some of the best music in the history of rock, thereafter being left to third-string status, it absolutely has to be galling. Proving it, two of the ensemble have since gone into the business, on the executive side, and tellingly cultivated the "Nice way to earn a living but I don't want to talk about it" attitude.

The Missing Piece (1977) harkened back to their trademark inexhaustible baroquities, but, if Green had stood atop Interview, he really held the reins now. Gentle Giant was bidding for a place on the charts, understanding that the guitar reigned supreme there, right alongside singers. Minnear remained an extremely strong player but assumed a Kerry Livgren-ish position, keyboards nearly co-equal to the guitar. If Styx and Kansas could carry off such a feat, why not Gentle Giant? "For Nobody" incursed ELP's novelty hoedown slipstream but what was really needed was a "Dust in the Wind", perhaps a "Crystal Ball". That would not occur. Piece is a nice slab of mainstream with elaborate edges but, despite its energy, not tremendously inspired. No self-respecting Giant fan would chuck the release but neither would he consider it a core staple, nor its successors, unfortunately. Green put in fabulous work, especially in "Memories of Old Days" but was bedded so foreignly that success was impossible. Too large a percentage of the collective soul, their central verve, had been excised to accommodate market hopes. Gems as "Spooky Boogie," from Giant for a Day (1978), a song that was one of their very few instrumentals, was a novelty and should have made its way at least into the top 200. Civilian emerged in 1980 and, following the new pattern, foreshadowed no relief, thus the golden ensemble folded its tent and quietly slipped out of town, to this day revered as one of the very best in all progrock; no list of the Top 20 Prog Groups lacking them could be considered sane.

Gary Green's place in this compendium is predicated mainly on his sterling abilities as a chameleon, over and above several phyla of masteries of the instrument, crafting a place so intricately tied to his companions that it was often impossible to separate him out. Gentle Giant never had a frontman because they were, in their prime, almost obsessively dedicated to extinguishing such traits. The mindset succeeded so beautifully that not only is Green passed over when speaking of major fretsman but his double, Kerry Minnear, easily one of the greatest keyboardists the rock genre ever produced, also goes unlauded amongst crits, being nowhere a standard when he should enjoy benchmark status. Here, hopefully, a small modicum is added to Green's luster for posterity. He may eventually come in for wider reconsideration, but I wouldn't advise betting the house on it.

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