Three Friends

Gentle Giant

Columbia, 1972

REVIEW BY: Bruce Rusk

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 08/24/2004

Of the first three albums by progressive rock masterminds Gentle Giant (in chronological order; Gentle Giant, Acquiring the Taste, and Three Friends) Three Friends was and still is my favorite. That's possibly true because of the harder edge they created on that release, probably more so because they came together as a more solid group, tighter and more polished than the previous two albums. These songs showcase the combination of esoteric styles and complexity that makes GG unique, yet they remain very accessible to the casual listener as individual songs. Somewhat less dense than the extravagant, complex work that would become their trademark, Three Friends is probably the most mainstream set of songs they ever wrote -- not that anything GG ever did can be considered mainstream, but this comes close.

The core for most of GG's tenure was Gary Green (guitar), Kerry Minnear (keys, vibes, percussion), and the multi-talented Shulman brothers; Ray (bass, violin), Phil (sax) and Derek (lead vocals). The revolving door of drummers found Malcolm Mortimore on skins at the time Three Friends was recorded. In addition to their formidable instrumental talents, every member is given a vocal credit, and it shows in the complex harmonies and vocal acrobatics that appear liberally on any GG recording.

Three Friends is a concept album. Some people shy away from concept albums, for various reasons. Many to this day still sit scratching their heads over the likes of Genesis' Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, or Jethro Tull's A Passion Play, trying to fathom the murky metaphorical depths of those cryptic writings. Fear not gentle reader, in Three Friends the concept is very simple; three friends grow up, and then grow apart, following different paths and philosophies. Loosely following the philosophies of Marx, the three friends represent the three factions of society in its simplest form. The first becomes the Marxist proletariat -- a common laborer; the second, the aesthete -- an artist; the third, a bourgeois intellectual -- the white-collar capitalist. Storyline aside, the music is what carries this album, from soft pastoral pieces featuring gentle strings and choral arrangements, to blistering hard rock.nbtc__dv_250

Three Friends begins with a "Prologue," built upon Gary Green's bold guitar work and an insistent bass line laid down masterfully by Ray Schulman as we are introduced to our three friends, and to some of the musical themes that appear in latter tracks on the disk. The inclusion of thematic elements cross-pollinated across many tracks is one of the attractions of their excellent compositions. "Prologue" gives way to "Schooldays," dominated by a quirky, syncopated electric piano and vibraphone, and vocal harmonies that would make Brian Wilson smile and nod.

In the next three tracks, we catch up with our three friends, the first of which becomes a blue-collar laborer, and is introduced in "Working All Day." The track starts off with an acoustic guitar couplet, which quickly dissolves into a muscular bass and sax fueled foot-stomper, perfectly matching the lyrical theme of the jaded, life-hardened highway worker with the instrumental theme. The laborer shows his disdain for unrealistic ideals "When I was young I used to have illusions / Dreams ain't enough," and satisfies himself with his lot in life:

"Working all day, I'm digging up the roads, just working all day Dig for my pay and spend it where I like. I've nothing to say Drown in my sweat but money buys escape. I've got no regrets."

The second friend becomes an artist, introduced in "Peel The Paint." To the world at large, he is respected and held in esteem as ostensively being purer of character and demeanor due to his artistic sensibilities. The song paints its own musical image of the artist, with a cool coffeehouse groove and gentle strings. "Peel The Paint" portrays the artist as genteel and cultured, but under the pastoral exterior is a "savage beast" capable of the most base and venal acts. As this is revealed lyrically, the music becomes harsher, and builds to a ferocious denouement as the truth is revealed in Derek's vocals, building in intensity and rage:

"Peel the paint / Look underneath / you'll see the same, the same old savage beast Strip the coats / the coats of time / and find mad eyes and see those sharpened teeth."

In reality, he is no more or less pure than any of us, the beauty of his work not being a reflection of his own psyche, as many believe.

The last of our three subjects, the capitalist social climber, is told in "Mister Class And Quality." Our last friend reveals the real crux of this whole concept/story, alienation of people based on class, ability and opportunity. Our capitalist presents these social gaps most succinctly:

"Never understood the artist or the lazy workers The world needs steady men like me to give and take the orders."

In summary, Three Friends is probably the most accessible GG album to the casual listener with its rock-based arrangements, and I find myself wondering why GG never found a similar degree of success as their contemporaries like Yes, Tull, Genesis or ELP. With equal talent as both musicians and composers, it's a shame they never broke out the same way their prog-rock brethren did. Three Friends is sure to please the ears of prog-rock fans, and would be a perfect introduction to Gentle Giant.

Rating: A

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