Talking Gentle Giant's "Civilian" with Derek Shulman
The vocalist and multi-instrumentalist discusses the new reissue as well as the making of the album, the band's subsequent demise, and more.
Thank you for spending part of your day with Michael’s Record Collection. I’ll admit it’s been a struggle to write this week after the events in Uvalde, Texas on Tuesday. If you use this newsletter as a way to escape the news cycle and other depressing stuff, well…I apologize for bringing it up. I merely thought it was important to at least inform you where my head is at while trying to put together this week’s newsletter. And that’s why it didn’t drop at the usual time today.
OK, with that said, I’m actually quite excited to talk about Gentle Giant’s Civilian album after discussing it with one of the band’s founders, Derek Shulman.
Gentle Giant was a progressive rock band — before that term existed — with talent equal to, or greater than, its peers. But, for whatever reason, the band failed to capture widespread commercial success. The British group enjoyed a 10-year recording and touring career that still resonates with pockets of fandom in various countries, as well as among many prog rock aficionados, yet Gentle Giant never became a household name at the same level as the likes of Yes, Genesis, Jethro Tull, or Emerson, Lake & Palmer.
The band was known for its complex compositions, sophisticated vocal arrangements, and consummate musicianship. Beyond that, Gentle Giant was one of the heavier early bands lumped into the “progressive” camp when that term became fashionable. Gentle Giant flat out put the rock in progressive rock.
“We were a rock band,” Gentle Giant founding member, vocalist, and multi-instrumentalist Derek Shulman said in agreement with that sentiment. “We were bagged into the prog world and whatever that means, but we were never a band that would play 15 minutes on a Mellotron, pretending we were the royal symphony orchestra, or whatever it was. Listen to the riffs. They’re hardcore. We were heavy. We were a rock band and we loved rocking. We had fun rocking out.”
The band’s 11th and final studio album was Civilian, which came out in 1980. The band had been in the process of shifting away from its more complicated music of the past into a more accessible area as far back as 1975’s Free Hand album. (You can find my coverage here of the reissue of that album after my chat with Shulman’s brother, Ray.) Civilian has been remastered and reissued with a bonus track, and the new version came out on the band’s Alucard Music label on May 20. It is currently available digitally and on CD, with a vinyl version expected later this year.
As radio began to change in the late 1970s, so too did the record companies, which began to insist more and more on hit songs, regardless of the critical success of legacy bands, or their built-in and predictable fan base. Some of Gentle Giant’s peers — notably Genesis — were able to move into that more accessible space and find chart success. While that didn’t necessarily happen for Gentle Giant, that’s not a reflection on the band, which continued to release quality material even after the shift to more mainstream compositions.
Civilian was an outstanding and cohesive collection of songs. While it may not have been given the right push by the record company (Chrysalis in the UK and Columbia in the United States), or done well in the charts, the album is filled with quality songs that are performed well by the five musicians in Gentle Giant at that time.
The lineup consisted of Shulman brothers Derek (lead vocals) and Ray (bass, acoustic guitar, backing vocals), Gary Green (electric guitars), Kerry Minnear (synthesizers, electric piano, Hammond organ, clavinet, and piano, as well as lead vocals on “Shadows on the Street”), and John Weathers (drums, percussion, backing vocals). The majority of the album was written by Minnear, Green, and Ray Shulman.
The eight songs on the record, as well as bonus track “Heroes No More,” may not have some of the intrinsic complexity (or, some would say, “weirdness”) of earlier Gentle Giant work, they still sound uniquely Gentle Giant. They could not be confused with songs from another band.
“I think it was played really well,” Derek said of the album. “I think it sounds really good. And do we switch from five-four to seven-eight, or four-four to three-four? No, but nevertheless the playing is good and we kept it a little more straightforward for a reason, because we were looking for some kind of commercial success.”
Gentle Giant’s catalog has been getting reissued in recent years with Steven Wilson doing some 5.1 surround and Dolby Atmos mixes. The band has tracked down the multi-tracks for most of the Gentle Giant catalog, aside from the notable exception of In a Glass House, which is the first one Wilson expressed interest in mixing for high definition audio.
Sony owned the rights to Civilian and the band had to get permission to do the reissue. While it hasn’t gotten Wilson’s 5.1 and Dolby Atmos treatment yet, Derek Shulman indicated that it could happen in the future. For now, the band just wanted to remaster it in the wake of other recent reissues and let people discover or rediscover the record.
“Columbia didn’t really ‘push the button’ for several reasons, and therefore it kind of got lost in the shuffle of our catalog,” Derek said. “We thought, let’s at least have the fans and new people have a listen to it, because this one was very much an under-sung album. I thought, ‘Let me try to do a deal with (Sony),’ and they said, ‘OK, fine.’ And here we are with the album in stores today, whatever that means.”
In addition to Pete Reynolds completely remastering the album, the bonus track, “Heroes No More” — a standout song that simply didn’t fit on the original release due to vinyl time constraints — was remixed by Dan Bornemark. Geoff Emerick, an audio engineer who worked with the Beatles on such classics as Revolver, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles (the “White Album”), and Abbey Road, was the engineer on Civilian.
“Effectively, we tweaked it. I think it’s one of the best sounding records we have,” Derek said. “In fact, (Emerick) was the Shulman brothers’ first ever engineer in Abbey Road, in my first group. So, it was almost like a bookend in certain respects, because he was there at the very beginning of when we were recording, and at the very end in L.A.”
The Civilian album was originally recorded in Los Angeles at Sound City Studios — the only Gentle Giant album written and recorded in the U.S. That process took several months from the summer of 1979 into early 1980. The album was then mixed back in the UK.
“I think (writing and recording in L.A.) contributed a great deal to how it was written, how it sounded,” Derek said. “I think it did contribute to the overall feel of the album because, truth be told, all of the bands that we were kind of bagged in the same league (with) in the ‘prog’ world — which (the term) was non-existent in those days — were either making hit singles, like Genesis, or kind of floating away into little clubs. And I guess what we were trying to do was make something a little more accessible for radio, which was now becoming formatted to a certain kind of song rather than albums. Unfortunately, Gentle Giant weren’t able to come up with ‘the hit.’ So, maybe that’s for the best, actually, because sometimes that can become a millstone around your neck.”
Civilian may not have songs that are difficult to digest on first listen, but those songs didn’t come easily.
“To be honest with you, it was quite a hard album to make for a lot of us,” Derek said. “We were kind of like fish out of water. I was actually living in L.A. I moved out there with my wife. That was part of the reason we all got together in L.A. But it was very hard for a couple of the guys — Ray and Kerry. We were living in rented apartments. It felt very odd. It was an odd atmosphere. But we knew we had to put our heads down and work hard on it. It came together, but the atmosphere of doing it was uncomfortable in the same respect that In a Glass House was difficult to make.
“There are certain things that emotionally, physically are uprooting. This is one and In A Glass House was. I’m bringing that up because that was the first album we made as a five-piece, after my brother Phil left (the band). I remember it was not an unhappy period, but it was a period of time when we felt kind of like a little foreign, effectively. It’s a weird feeling. But, nevertheless, I think we pulled it off and it sounded like we wanted it to sound.”
The album kicks off with “Convenience (Clean and Easy)” with a driving drumbeat from Weathers and some vintage videogame-type sounds from Minnear. Ray Shulman lays down a bass groove and Derek’s distinctive voice takes center stage. Green adds a short but solid guitar solo.
“All Through the Night” is another up-tempo rocker with one of Derek’s better vocal performances on the record and Green’s guitar work shines, with Minnear laying down some tasty chords. “Shadows on the Street” is kind of a throw-back Gentle Giant song. Minnear takes the microphone as the lead singer on the track and it’s a more delicate piece akin to some of the band’s more classic-era compositions.
The highlights of the album for me kick in right after “Shadows on the Street.” The run of the next four songs — “Number One,” “Underground,” “I Am a Camera,” and “Inside Out” — are terrific. The first of those, “Number One,” is one of the album’s most infectious songs and Derek’s vocal phrasing in the verses always brings a smile to my face. In the context of the original LP, it’s a great song to close the album side, building excitement heading into Side 2.
“Underground” kicks off with the sound of a subway and then breaks into an Alan Parsons Project feel with its similar keyboard sounds and accessibility. Ray Shulman provides an infectious bass groove that intertwines perfectly with Minnear’s keyboard work.
Gentle Giant releasing “I Am a Camera” in the same calendar year that Yes put “Into the Lens,” (which repeats that phrase, “I am a camera”) on its Drama album is coincidental but feels intentional. The song opens with the clicking sounds of a camera used in lieu of a drum beat to set the tone. It’s based on the concept of “big brother” watching all the time, taken from Christopher Isherwood’s 1939 novel Goodbye to Berlin.
“We like those little tricks of having time signatures with utilizing other things rather than kind of a tap of a cymbal or a tap of a tambourine. We used the click of a camera to lead us into the song,” Derek said.
The apex of the album is “Inside Out,” which is a haunting and hypnotic song. It was an attempt to capture a feeling of profound dread that Derek experienced when someone slipped him some acid and he had a bad trip.
“It’s a very downer song, actually,” he said. “I’ve only done acid once in my life and it was given unknowingly to me. And that was the feeling I felt at 18 years old when somebody slipped me some acid and I was hanging onto a lamppost for 12 hours. I felt like I was inside out for 12 hours. I thought I was dead. I hope the feeling of what that is, is apparent in that song. It was outside a London club. I was a kid, and I thought, ‘Am I gonna die? Is someone gonna help me?’”
There’s an ethereal repetitive phrase (“Do I need lifting?”) that gives the song an otherworldly vibe. Shulman sings in a more haunting manner than the more upbeat tracks on the record.
“It’s Not Imagination” is another song with a catchy Minnear keyboard line running throughout and another excellent bass groove by Ray Shulman, working well with Weathers to provide the song’s backbone. Green and Minnear harmonize with their instruments and the former plays another top-notch solo.
It’s a shame that bonus track “Heroes No More” wasn’t on Civilian when it was originally released. To me, it’s one of the album’s best songs. It did appear in a previous incarnation on a CD release of Civilian but now it’s been remixed for the new reissue.
“We had to make a decision about it. It was left off because of the length of an album,” Derek said. “When you put together an LP, it’s got to be a certain amount of time, otherwise it (is pressed) into very tiny grooves and it’ll be compressed. So, we had to leave off one track. I think we thought it was a little too commercial.”
He joked that the band worried if they included “Heroes No More,” it might alienate their loyal fanbase to the point they were playing live shows in bathrooms to about three fans. However, he admitted “It’s a very good song, actually.” I can’t disagree.
Gentle Giant’s final album is a strong effort and deserved a better reception than it got in 1980. The album languished near the bottom of the Billboard 200 album chart after its release, due in large part to Columbia’s tepid promotional efforts. As a result, the band didn’t get the reaction it wanted from Civilian and decided to call it a day.
“The album came out and kind of didn’t do what we wanted it to do,” Derek said. “At the same time, I was married with a child and so was Kerry, and it was getting harder to leave family for months on end. Honestly, when we all got together before the tour in North America, we all had a meeting with the band. I announced with Kerry that we weren’t going to continue after this tour. I think Gary and John were a little disappointed but it was time. There’s a period of time when the energy and the…just sort of feel of what we were was starting to dissipate.”
Shulman said the tour-album-tour cycle was starting to feel like a job rather than providing the joy of playing. But knowing Gentle Giant was ending made the band savor those final live performances together, according to Shulman.
“Knowing that we didn’t have to ‘clock in’ again, it was probably one of the most enjoyable tours. It’s bizarre to say that,” he said.
Despite not ever having that commercial success, Gentle Giant has always had a loyal following. They were musicians’ musicians and many artists of today are discovering the sounds they made and are sampling their work.
“Some of the hip hop music today…they are actually more musically involved with really good music then the general public,” Derek said. “Gentle Giant’s had three or four number ones (songs) after all this time, having our music sampled by bands like Tribe Called Quest or Common, and recently with Run the Jewels. In fact, ‘Knots’ (from Gentle Giant’s Octopus album) was sampled for the Black Panther movie as the leading track. So, it’s an interesting world that they’ve looked back and said, ‘This is a band we can get our little riffs off.’ I think that's kind of the new ‘progressive’ if you like. They find things in it which are very interesting and intriguing.”
So, what’s next for Gentle Giant? Shulman said Wilson’s remixes of Interview and The Missing Piece albums will be coming soon, as well as a boxed set of 10 live albums.
“There’s a ton of music and a ton of television footage that we could call on,” Derek said, hinting that there will be more releases for Gentle Giant fans in the future.
The band’s white whale is a surround sound remix of In a Glass House, but no one has been able to locate the multi-track recordings from that album. Both Gentle Giant and Wilson would love to be able to remix that one.
“That’s the only album that we cannot find any multis of,” Shulman said. “We’ve looked everywhere. We’ve asked everyone, and they either went up in a puff of smoke or were destroyed or something. If anyone knows where they are, please let us know because we’d love to re-attack that one in particular, because it was a very special album and actually a very hard album to make — a very emotionally draining album. But when I reflect back on it, it’s a really good album.”
You can purchase the Civilian reissue digitally on all the usual platforms, and the CD is available from most major online retailers. The vinyl LP version will be available later this year.
Convenience (Clean and Easy)
All Through the Night
Shadows on the Street
I Am a Camera
It’s Not Imagination
Heroes No More (remastered bonus track, previously with limited availability)
For my complete conversation with Derek, check out the video below. In addition to the Civilian album, we discussed other aspects of the band, his musical beginnings, his post-Gentle Giant career in the music industry, his new project in the music documentary space, and more.
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