Saturday, February 16, 2008

Funny Ways

Back when the bulk of music was available as 12-inch records, album art was important in the buying and selling process.

As an impressionable teenager, I often made purchased based part on educated guesses, part on whether the cover looked intriguing.

Once, I encountered an LP called "Octopus" by a band I'd never heard of before in my life, Gentle Giant. The cover was shaped somewhat like a Mason jar, with notches cut at the appropriate places, and depicted said jar containing the eight-tentacled mollusk of the album title. I grabbed it and headed for the counter.

Not only had I never heard of Gentle Giant, I'd never heard anything quite like what was coming through my speakers: radical time shifts, disjointed harmony vocals, totally abstract lyrical imagery and bursts of extremely heavy guitar and keyboards. It sounded nothing like the disco slop on the radio at the time. So I liked it.

I bought a few other Gentle Giant albums, including the live "Playing the Fool," which contained a medley of "Octopus" highlights. I remember playing "The Fool" at full volume in my apartment the summer I spent in Wildwood, N.J., and the girls who lived next door told my roommates about "really, really weird music" coming through the walls.

That was in 1980, and I was pleased to hear a band in Wildwood play a song called "Number One" from Gentle Giant's then-current album, "Civilian." Maybe others were starting to catch on, after all.

Maybe not. "Civilian" was absolutely mainstream compared with "Octopus" of eight years later, but that approach didn't catapult Gentle Giant into mass popularity. And the band broke up, after 11 years.

Gentle Giant had its origins as Simon Dupree & the Big Sound, which scored a hit in its native U.K. with a song called "Kites." (I've never heard it.) There really wasn't a Simon Dupree, and as the band members worked out more intricate material, they decided to change the name, adapting it from a tune they were working on that eventually came out as "Giant."

"Giant" opens the debut "Gentle Giant" album and sets the tone for what was to come: singer Derek Shulman's alternating soft, minstrel-like vocals with lung-shredding rants; guitarist Gary Green pulling heavy riffs from the midst of folklike melodies; and the entire ensemble venturing far afield from rock's traditional 4/4 beat. Then a definitively nontraditional rendition of "God Save the Queen" to wrap up proceedings.

Gentle Giant called its second album "Acquiring the Taste," an entirely appropriate selection given the subject matter.

If you're adventurous, acquire it: the taste, and the album.

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