On reflection: Gentle Giant and the making of Free Hand

Gente Giant
(Image credit: Gentle Giant Press)

It’s a strange prospect to promote an album 46 years after it was recorded. “I don’t think any of us were thinking back then that any of this would happen now with us in our 70s… it is a bit odd, really,” says Gentle Giant’s Kerry Minnear (keyboards, mallet percussion, vocals and a multitude of other instruments) in his soft, Dorset burr.

Derek Shulman (lead vocals, main lyricist, woodwind) adds: “Honestly, I’m enjoying talking about it, because when the band finished… it could have been grief, but I just didn’t want to go back and revisit [Gentle Giant]. But now it’s a pleasure. There was no expectation that this was going to be preserved.”

“That’s very true,” says Minnear. “I think the multitracks only survived because Gary [Green – guitar and vocals] stepped in and then dumped them on me when he moved to the USA. They’d been up in my loft for years, until interest started to bubble and they’ve served us really well.”

In many ways, the creation of Free Hand in the spring of ’75 was an artistic venting at the relief the band felt having finally escaped from a troubled professional relationship with the WWA record label and from equally disheartening management obligations. They were primed and ready. 

Gentle Giant

(Image credit: Chrysalis Records)

“We were at a pretty good high, we’d established the band and were doing comparatively good business in Europe and North America. I think we were quite mature as a band and recording Free Hand proved a happy experience,” says Derek.

Ray Shulman (bass, strings, vocals) expands, “As bands develop they tend to splinter and move apart, and I think that it was the last album we made where all of us were together in Derek and my home town of Portsmouth to write and rehearse.”

“And we weren’t in London,” Derek emphasises, “we were in Portsmouth of all places, so that was us cocooned on the south coast! And Gary and poor Kerry were sequestered to leave their own homes and join us.”

“That’s alright,” says Minnear with a laugh, “I got a wife out of it!”

Reportedly, the whole writing and recording process for Free Hand took about seven weeks – “I don’t think we ever spent longer than four weeks doing the actual recording,” recalls Ray.

“In fact, [1973 album] In A Glass House took about 12 days from start to finish,” adds Derek, “We worked our fingers to the bone to get what we wanted when we recorded. We didn’t like to drag things out and jam all day – that would have been a terrific waste of time.”

Ray agrees, “We were very structured in what we did.”

The focus was very much on Ray and Kerry to deliver the music.

“Although Kerry and I had collaborated on earlier albums, by the time we recorded Free Hand we were working on our songs independently initially. I’d go to Kerry with my backing tracks for help with top lines and to Derek for the lyrics. Kerry was a bit more self-contained, he’d get a little bit further on before looking at lyrics with Derek. I used to start the Revox and just play. Then, listening back, if phrases caught my ear, I’d develop them,” explains Ray.

Derek elucidates his role: “Lyrically, it was partly abstract, but as the album title suggests, it was about getting out of the record deals and ugly contractual obligations and I think we felt free and at ease. Free Hand was much more personal than our previous album, The Power And The Glory, which was a statement on world affairs and how power corrupts, and the whole Nixon/Watergate thing. Free Hand looked at things that were personal to the band and what was going on immediately around us.”

Gentle Giant

(Image credit: Gentle Giant Press)

As far as musical influences are concerned, the group were rarely tuned in to the sounds of their fellow proggers.

“We never really listened to any of our contemporaries, not that I recall. For me it would be more like James Brown or things like that!” says Ray.

“I listened to Charlie Parker. We listened to a lot of modern jazz, the American band Spirit, and Frank Zappa – Zappa was an influence, I have to say. Hot Rats was one of my favourite albums of that time,” Derek recalls.

“We had such eclectic tastes and weren’t really interested in other bands labelled the same as us, although not for any particular reason,” says Ray.

“Ray was classically trained on the violin, but we were both in pop bands in the late 60s,” says Derek. “R&B and soul were major factors in our upbringing and we loved that music, and Kerry was classically trained and considered Tchaikovsky a sort of mentor. Whatever was good we liked – ABBA or whatever – I don’t think we shut anything out.”

“Those diverse backgrounds were also part of our secret,” reflects Ray, “Gary would play these kind of progressive, jazzy lines with a blues inflection, which made it quite unique, and the combination of all of us perhaps shouldn’t have worked but did.”

Displaying maybe some of Gentle Giant’s trademark precision and attention to detail, Ray Shulman isn’t about to give their 1975 album a completely uncritical ear. “Funnily enough, on Free Hand, some of it sounds a bit under-rehearsed to me. The next album, Interview, is a lot tighter playing wise. There are some loose bits on Free Hand, which kind of annoy me…”

He won’t be drawn however on exactly what he might want to change. “All of it!” he exclaims initially, much to his compatriots’ amusement. “No, there are just some bits I hear now and go, ‘Hmm.’ It’s a great album, it’s just parts we could have done differently… and if I’d realised I would have commented at the time, but we didn’t have the time!”

Gentle Giant

(Image credit: Gentle Giant Press)

Minnear also recalls a missed opportunity, “One of my laments is the fact that the track Free Hand had a different ending live that Ray wrote – it was a much better ending than what I wrote on the album. Live Free Hand came over as a much more killer track when it went into this sort of interesting French waltz.”

Derek, however, is unperturbed about any perceived weaknesses: “I’d rather do an Édith Piaf: ‘I regret nothing’ – it was what it was,” he affirms. He is clear about something he particularly likes, though: “I think the beginning of Just The Same, with the finger snaps and the counterpoint piano and other instrumentation, that’s really clever. It’s pretty hard to hear where the downbeat is. Having dealt with many other bands [Shulman has worked in various record label executive roles over the last 30 years or so], there aren’t many who’d have started a song like that.”

Conversation moves over to Steven Wilson’s role in remixing and preparing the Dolby Atmos and 5.1 surround sound versions. It’s been a positive working relationship since 2014’s re-release of The Power And The Glory, as Ray explains: “He originally contacted me through my involvement with DVD and Blu-ray authoring, and asked if we still had the original tapes for In A Glass House, because that was the one he could really see sounding better. Unfortunately, I had to tell him that they had gone forever. On some albums, like with some of the Octopus mixes, he said that he really couldn’t make them sound much better than the master we had, because he’s enough of a fan and technocrat that he knows what’s achievable. He’s a fan and wanted to remix stuff and we were [like], ‘Well, yeah, okay.’ We had talked about getting some 5.1 mixes previously but Kerry and I felt that we didn’t have the experience or equipment, so he came along at absolutely the right time. I think we’re probably among the least fussy of the artists he’s worked with. Other projects give him explicit notes after every mix and he’s on to version five or more before they master. What he brings to it and what his ears suggest really works and we’re always really chuffed by what he does. He lightens everything up and there’s more space around everything – I don’t know if that’s a technical feature or whether it’s just his ears… I think probably it’s just his ears. I don’t think we’re ever done more than two revisions, have we, Kerry?”

“No, it’s just been one or two places where it would be nice to hear some specific things,” agrees Minnear, “but usually what he brings out is very sensitive to what we were doing. You just have to mention something and he’s quick to see what you mean and he gets it.”

Ray chips in. “Yeah, tiny bits really, nothing major.”

“He’s really nice to work with as well,” offers Minnear.

For Gentle Giant and Wilson fans alike, Derek has some additional breaking news and a heartfelt plea. “Ray has been working with Steven on two other albums, which will be released in the next few months: The Missing Piece and Interview. Hopefully, people will like the Free Hand remix enough to generate further interest. I really wish we could get hold of In A Glass House because it was a milestone for the band – I would love Steven to work on that, it’s a really interesting album. No one seems to know where the multitracks went. Could Prog put out an APB for it, because we would really love to find it? The best thing we could ever do would be to remix it and make it sound like it should have sounded, because it was done under such bizarre circumstances that it really deserves it.”

“Possibly check in a skip outside WWA’s offices in Mayfair first!” quips Ray.

Alongside the Atmos and 5.1 versions there’s also a Blu-ray included with Free Hand with specially created visuals accompanying each track created by Derek’s son, Noah.

Derek shares some final thoughts; “Everyone’s done their best possible work on this and it shows. Our music has really stood up and more and more young musicians and fans have caught on to what we were doing 40-45 years ago. We’re not Led Zeppelin, we’re not Pink Floyd – for that to have happened is very heartening. To know that what we did has some legacy to it. What we did was authentic, we weren’t following anyone, and the fact that the audience has become much, much larger is the most bizarre thing – kids are listening to it and trying to play it – something for all of us to be proud of.” 

This article originally appeared in issue 122 of Prog Magazine.

Gary Mackenzie

Gary has contributed reviews and news features for Prog Magazine for over a decade now. A fan of prog and heavy rock since childhood, his main areas of interest are classic and symphonic prog, prog-metal and modern acts bringing in fresh influences to the genre. He has a professional background in youth and community work, he teaches drum kit in schools and is a working musician. Gary was the drummer in semi-legendary NWOBHM band Praying Mantis for a couple of years and has been a member of indie-prog-pop-art-rock combo The Mighty Handful for more than twenty years. He loves cats and skiing, and has a Blue Peter badge.