“The cape-wielding progressive rock behemoth was not in vogue… there was an effort to make it simpler, but our musical identity was still at stake”: Gentle Giant take a fresh look at The Missing Piece

Gentle Giant
(Image credit: Getty Images)

For many, it was Gentle Giant’s last truly great record – but The Missing Piece came out at a challenging time for progressive rock and didn’t get the recognition it perhaps deserved. With the arrival of Steven Wilson’s remix 47 years later, band members Gary Green, John Weathers and Kerry Minnear take Prog on a journey back to the original record’s creation and reveal how it got its cryptic title.

In 1977 progressive rock entered a very peculiar year. Although still a great commercial force, circumstances were nudging the genre towards obsolescence, as the mainstream gaze was directed elsewhere. For Gentle Giant, a band with unassailable cult status and a loudly proclaimed disregard for convention, changing tastes presented a significant challenge.

Recorded at Relight Studios in Hilvarenbeek, the Netherlands, the Portsmouth pioneers’ ninth album was probably destined to clash horribly with everything around it. A diverse and fractious affair, it was, for some, the sound of a band hedging their bets. For others, it was the last truly great album that they would ever make.

Remixed by Steven Wilson, Gentle Giant’s The Missing Piece has resurfaced in 2024: ripe for reassessment and considerably more fascinating than truculent cynics would have us believe. Prog spoke with guitarist Gary Green, keyboard player Kerry Minnear and drummer John Weathers, to discover whether this controversial record was a radical, underrated gem or a confused mess. The answer seems to be a bit of both.

“Yeah, well, punk had hit, hadn’t it?” says guitarist Green. “I think that threw everyone into a bit of a whirlwind. It did us, for a bit. It’s hard to remember how we felt at the time. All albums are products of who you are at the time, and if you weren’t there, with an understanding of those circumstances, it’s hard to translate that. But that’s a roundabout excuse for saying that we didn’t know what the hell we were doing!”

The notion that punk rock destroyed prog is, in essence, an absolute nonsense; and yet the realisation that Gentle Giant were dabbling in such simplistic waters was more than enough to incite howls of betrayal from many fans at the time. The Missing Piece is not, by any stretch, a punk or new wave album – but songs like Two Weeks In Spain and, in particular, Betcha Thought We Couldn’t Do It, certainly provided a little smoke, if not actual fire.

“It was interesting, wasn’t it?” grins Minnear. “Because I think it was Ray [Shulman, bassist, who died in 2023] who got into punk quite early. I think there was something about punk that appealed to him. It had raw energy and it didn’t need to have really accomplished playing to communicate, and that’s really quite a precious thing in itself. We knew the kind of history we had, and in a way it was a kind of a straitjacket because we felt we needed to be clever or a bit unpredictable, so there may have been a slight rebellion going on.”

Gentle Giant "Memories of Old Days" (Remix by Steven Wilson) - YouTube Gentle Giant
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“Well, we weren’t quite prepared, were we?” adds Green. “Suddenly we were confronted with this popularity wave that was going on, and it was nothing like what we did. I think we felt that we’d had the rug tugged from under our feet a bit. It was a wake-up call, for sure.”

Originally released in August 1977, The Missing Piece was Gentle Giant’s ninth album in seven years. From their self-titled debut in 1970 onwards, the band had pursued what was then a fairly standard course of action: every year, they would write and record a batch of new material, and then hit the road to promote it.

Despite never achieving the commercial success enjoyed by Genesis or Pink Floyd, they were still a well-respected force in the prog fraternity. More importantly, they seldom had the time to sit around pondering what their next move would be. As a result, the recording of The Missing Piece was simply the next chapter in an ongoing story.

We weren’t the darlings any more. Not that we were ever anybody’s darlings, but even less so at that point

Gary Green

“We were on a path. We had a routine, if you like,” says Green. “We’d make an album and then tour it. You’d have a bit of time off; you’d think about making another album and then it would be the contracted time to have an album ready. It wasn’t a treadmill, but that was our routine. That was how we saw our lives to be. Then suddenly, this thing happened and we weren’t quite the darlings any more. Not that we were ever anybody’s darlings, but even less so at that point.”

Famed for delivering songs that were meticulously arranged and unashamedly complex, Gentle Giant were not prone to relying on spontaneity or jarring changes of focus. Isolated from the rest of the scene down in Portsmouth, they had thrived on their own eccentric insularity. This time, however, several new tunes seemed to at least be peering inquisitively at the world beyond the studio door.

“It’s funny, isn’t it?” Minnear says with a shrug. “Me and Ray used to share ideas after a couple of weeks. We’d have a two-week break, and then come up with some ideas and get together with Derek [Shulman, GG frontman], and in the early days Phil [Shulman, saxophonist on the first four albums] as well, and see what was going to be usable and what direction to take it. Some of the songs were quite simple on this album, and they didn’t need an awful lot – they were more or less presented as complete songs.”

As Old As You're Young (Steven Wilson 2024 Remix) - YouTube As Old As You're Young (Steven Wilson 2024 Remix) - YouTube
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“It seems like there was a conscious move to simplify a little bit at that point, given the influences coming from all around,” says Green. “The cape-wielding progressive rock behemoth was not in vogue at that point. There was a conscious effort to make it simpler, but there was still our own musical identity at stake.”

Its reputation may suggest that Gentle Giant were veering off on some perverse tangent – but in reality The Missing Piece was still abundantly stocked with music that bore the band’s unique and well-established stamp. On its second side in particular, the blissful, acoustic Memories Of Old Days and the tooth-rattling wonkiness of Winning were as true to the prog spirit as anything in their catalogue. Nonetheless, the album contained enough surprises to set off a few alarms.

What I had in mind then was that we needed a single

Kerry Minnear

Memories Of Old Days represents our musical identity – that tune, or that half of the album at least,” Green muses. “There was some sort of knee-jerk reaction in The Missing Piece, I think. Maybe we could’ve done a better job of sewing it all together to hide the seams, but it’s a product of who we were, and our confused thinking at the time.”

“We had taken half of it on tour,” John Weathers adds. “We’d taken Winning, Memories Of Old Days, For Nobody and As Old As You’re Young on the road before we recorded them. So we just whipped right through them in the studio.”

“We’d done the regular Gentle Giant stuff and tested it,” agrees Green. “We played it out, but then something else happened!”

“Divine intervention!” roars the drummer. Cue much laughter from all three.

Gentle Giant "Two Weeks in Spain" (Remix by Steven Wilson) - YouTube Gentle Giant
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In truth, there was something about The Missing Piece’s scattershot approach that fitted perfectly with its creators’ idiosyncratic way of doing things. From the soulful Mountain Time (which Green notes is the only song the band wrote that grew from a rehearsal jam) to the Genesis-like I’m Turning Around (“What I had in mind then was that we needed a single!” says Minnear, slightly sheepishly), these were hardly overt departures from the prog norm.

Listening to the album’s new incarnation today, it may be hard to wonder what all the fuss was about. “I’m Turning Around was the missing piece, in fact!” beams Green. “That’s why the album was called what it was – it was all in search of that elusive hit.”

We got a review that said, ‘This is the worst band I’ve ever heard in my life and the very worst of them is the drummer!

John Weathers

“I think we even went to Hilvarenbeek because we’d hoped that some of Genesis’ success would rub off on us, in the newly-laid floors of Relight Studios [where Phil Collins and co had recorded Wind & Wuthering a year earlier]. We decided to make it all sound punchier, put loads of top-end on it and forget about the bass... and that’s why this new remix sounds very good! We’re very happy with it, by the way.”

Having entrusted Steven Wilson to remix several other albums from their canon, Gentle Giant revisited The Missing Piece secure in the knowledge it was in the safest of hands. In fact, Wilson seems to have retouched the record to the point where Green, Minnear and Weathers are much more satisfied than they had been at the time.

“Yeah, the clarity and the stereo positioning of stuff, the character of the sounds is all lovely and sharp and clear,” says Minnear. “Bless him, he did a good job!”

Betcha Thought We Couldn't Do It (Steven Wilson 2024 Remix) - YouTube Betcha Thought We Couldn't Do It (Steven Wilson 2024 Remix) - YouTube
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“Not taking anything away from Mr Wilson,” says Green, “but it could only have come out sounding better than the original! He had a good palette to start with there, in that it could only be improved. But I’d like to thank Steven for not putting on the phasing on the voices in For Nobody, because I never liked it! I don’t know if he intentionally left it off; but whatever, it’s alright now!”

Forty-seven years on from its original release, The Missing Piece may never quite attract the same degree of adoration as certified classics like Octopus and The Power And The Glory. But even as prog started to slowly circle the plughole – at least in terms of its cultural clout – Gentle Giant were still very much in love with the music they were making. A few bad reviews, which Green notes they can barely remember at this point, can’t dent the memory of a job well done.

Any attempt to cross over was going to fall foul. The shoes we had just weren’t the right fit

Gary Green

“We had a sense that it was a good record; I don’t think we ever had that sense immediately after finishing an album,” he says. “We may have had a moment of euphoria when the final mixes were done and you have the big playback of the album, with the lights turned down in the studio, and it sounds great. Then you come away and you think, ‘Urgh…!’ But I think we’d made a good album, absolutely. We never didn’t think that.”

“Yeah, I enjoyed it,” says Minnear. “I enjoyed being where we were!”

“I don’t think you really get hurt by bad reviews,” says Weathers. “The worst one we had was the first time we did an American tour – we got a review that said, ‘This is the worst band I’ve ever heard in my life! They’re a bunch of musical renegades, and the very worst of them is the drummer!’”

I'm Turning Around (Steven Wilson 2024 Remix) - YouTube I'm Turning Around (Steven Wilson 2024 Remix) - YouTube
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The Missing Piece may not be regarded as a stone cold classic, but neither is it their Love Beach. At a time when prog bands were beginning to flail hopelessly around, unnerved by the safety pins being jammed into modern music’s face, Portsmouth’s finest had found a way to break their own rules without hurling baby after bathwater.

“We were just a bit flummoxed as to what was going on,” admits Green. “We just weren’t built like that; that’s not who we were. So any attempt we had to cross over was going to fall foul. The shoes we had just weren’t the right fit, and we were stumbling over the cobbles.”

“Sandals in a storm!” bellows Weathers.

“Yeah, that’s about right,” Green nods. “We weren’t dressed for the weather – that’s the truth of it.”

Dom Lawson

Dom Lawson has been writing for Metal Hammer and Prog for over 14 years and is extremely fond of heavy metal, progressive rock, coffee and snooker. He also contributes to The Guardian, Classic Rock, Bravewords and Blabbermouth and has previously written for Kerrang! magazine in the mid-2000s.