Analysis of ‘Three Friends’

Three Friends is a concept album by Gentle Giant, released in 1972. At this time, the band was a sextet, with saxophonist/singer Phil Shulman playing beside his younger brothers, Derek (vocals) and Ray (bass, violin, acoustic guitar, backing vocals); original drummer Martin Smith was replaced by Malcolm Mortimore, who played only on this Gentle Giant album before being replaced in turn by drummer/tuned percussionist/singer John Weathers, who would stay with the band until their breakup in 1980.

This album is not as dissonant or complex as the other Gentle Giant albums, and I say this in full knowledge of how they abandoned progressive rock in the late 70s in an abortive attempt to become more radio-friendly. Put another way, I don’t consider their attempt at going pop to be genuine Gentle Giant…and I don’t think mine is a minority opinion. The profit motive ruins art by forcing it to conform to trends.

The outer front album cover shows three boys, sharing a similar whitish-blue-purple colour for their bodies, sitting and facing each other, with a seagull in the middle; the back cover shows the three boys with their backs to each other, their colours now different (reddish-white, greenish-white, and purplish-white), and the seagull flying away. The front cover thus suggests their similar nature at first as boys, enjoying each other’s company by the sea, an image I’ve elsewhere associated with the highest peace; this then changes, on the back cover, to their growing different from each other, and thus alienated, with the memory of their togetherness by the sea having flown away, like the seagull.

The inner sleeve shows black and white drawings of the boys at school, with their strict, authoritarian teacher, their blissful memories together hearing an old brass band, and playing with kites on the beach, with the seagulls flying nearby. Then, we see each of them as men in their respective career choices: a wealthy businessman in his coat and hat looking at his nice, expensive house and car; a construction worker with his pickaxe; and an artist in his (basement?) studio with his drawings. The three men are facing away from us, for they are as alienated from us and the rest of the world as they are from each other.

The six songs of the album tell the story of these three boys, whose childhood friendship ended with them as men going their separate ways–a worker, a painter, and a businessman. This story can thus be seen to be an allegory of how class conflict causes alienation among people who, except for this class conflict, would be close and happy together.

Here is a link to all the lyrics on the album.

The first song, “Prologue,” sets the tone for the album by presenting a precis of the story in the lyrics, and by creating a dark mood in the music. A snare drum roll by Mortimore leads into a mildly dissonant opening, with Kerry Minnear‘s organ, Gary Green‘s guitar, and Ray’s bass; these three are playing in 6/8 time while Mortimore is drumming a cross-rhythm in 4/4.

Next comes a dark theme, the main one of the song, played on Ray’s fuzz bass, Green’s guitar, and Minnear’s Minimoog. Phil joins them on baritone sax, then sings the lead vocal, with a backing vocal by Minnear, singing contrapuntal melodies that are independent of each other, and reminding us of the independent voices of a polyphonic Renaissance madrigal, already a staple of Gentle Giant’s music.

Phil sings of how the boys’ friendship shared all the joys and sadness that any childhood relationship would have. “But fate and skill and chances” would eventually separate the boys, not just geographically, but also in terms of class, most crucially. As Phil and Minnear are singing, we hear Ray’s sad notes plucked on a 12-string acoustic guitar in the background.

“They tell their tales to justify,” that is, justify why they have had to go their separate ways; for, in spite of how, deep down in their unconscious, they’d much rather be together again, as adults they are in deep denial of how empty their lives have become. “Skill” separates them, for their differing skills (or lack of them) result in their going either higher or lower in terms of social class, the “chances” being their differing economic opportunities.

“Schooldays” is my personal favourite song on the album, for it is the richest in melody and harmony, in my opinion. It opens with a playful melody on Minnear’s vibraphone and Green’s jazz-toned guitar. It suggests the joyful, spontaneous energy of children running around, laughing, and playing together. Minnear and Phil sing in reminiscence of the happy time the boys shared, one voice following the other, as one boy chasing the other in play.

Each of the three men, in his dreams or internal monologues, has moments remembering his Edenic childhood; for only in their unconscious minds, or their private thoughts, would they allow such idyllic moments to be experienced. “Was it real, or did we dream? The days of children gone,” young Calvin Shulman (Ray’s son) sings as Minnear sings of the boys together with their ice cream on the beach, or hearing the brass band play.

The childlike innocence of the first half of the song gives way to a dark melancholy in Minnear’s pounding piano chords, based on the tritone interval (the diabolus in musica), suggesting the loss of that Edenic innocence as childhood naïveté acquires devilish knowledge in the authoritarian setting of school. The bitonality between these dark piano chords and the simultaneously playing, but also fading-out instrumentation of the previous “How long is ever,…” section also emphasizes the conflict between childhood innocence and adult experience.

The strict, Yahweh-like teacher wants obedient, unquestioning pupils who get all their homework assignments done on time. One suspects that the boy who thinks “it’s worth the pain to go out when [he] want[s]” will become an underachieving student who, when he becomes a man, will be…

“Working All Day” begins with Green playing a guitar part whose tape recording is slowed down, the discordant lowering of pitch suggesting how the first of the three friends has gone down in social rank, and how discordant the resulting class conflict feels. Indeed, since he’s a member of the working class, the painful contradiction between him and the bourgeoisie will be most keenly felt of all three men.

“Digging up the roads,” he has to do the most menial of labour to live. As miserable as he is, though, he’s often in denial of that misery, for he gets his money to “spend it where [he] like[s],” and “money buys escape” (drinking and partying, presumably), so he’s “got no regrets,” apparently. This denial of discontent is just as evident in the other two friends, as we’ll soon see.

The guitar- and sax-driven main riff reflects the meat-and-potatoes life of the working class, a strong contrast to the jazzy playfulness of “Schooldays,” and the Baroque lushness of the first part of “Peel the Paint.” The rock-oriented voice of Derek is thus most appropriate for “Working All Day.”

“Papa was rough. He didn’t care for learning. Hell, life is tough.” Either Papa was “rough” in the sense of unrefined, or “rough” in the sense of beating the boy, or both. In any case, the first friend wasn’t encouraged to be ambitious, hence he’s a worker.

The bitterness he feels over his life’s disappointments causes him not to believe in socialist ideas about equality, so one assumes he isn’t in a union; from this, we can assume that “working all day” means working more than eight hours a day for him.

He does all the work, “the boss gets all the money. Life ain’t just.” Without a union to help him fight for his rights (and this at a time, in the 1970s, when unions were at their strongest), “who can [he] trust?” The dissonance of the background instrumentation at the end of each verse symbolically reinforces the sense of class conflict, the contradiction between the interests of the boss and those of the overworked, underpaid workers.

Since the painter, whose story is sung by Phil during the first half of “Peel the Paint,” is “free from the start” and “thinks he has won a place in the sun, free from the worries and the ways of everyone,” it seems reasonable to assume that he isn’t the stereotypical starving artist. I’m guessing that this second of the three friends has achieved a moderate level of success, though “high in the air, his dreams are there,” as he hopes for greater financial success.

Since the first friend is working class and the third friend is among the upper classes, and since all three friends have gone “from class to class” (as we hear in the title track), that is, separated from each other in terms of social class, it is safe to assume that the artist occupies the remaining section of the social ladder–the middle class.

He fancies himself a creator of great art, of the sort that will be remembered among the masterpieces of Caravaggio, Rembrandt, and Vermeer; hence, in the background instrumentation we hear Ray plucking violin pizzicatos behind Phil’s singing, then after we hear Phil sing “colour the brush,” we hear a lavish pastiche of Baroque music with Ray bowing harmonized violin overdubs. This Baroque/Rococo parody suggests the artist’s snobbish pretensions.

The contrast between Phil’s gentle singing of “colour the brush” (i.e., put on the paint, and hide yourself), as against Derek’s aggressive singing of “peel the paint” (i.e., take off the paint, and show who you really are) symbolizes the artist’s pretence of artistry against the moral imperative to reveal the ugly truth, that the artist has compromised his integrity for money. Putting on the paint, versus taking it off, is like a prostitute painting her face with bright colours of makeup (as if pretending to like what she does), versus removing it and showing her unhappy self.

The artist imagines himself to be refined, but underneath he’s “the same old savage beast,” whose savagery is reflected in the change from the fancy first half to a balls-out hard rock second half, now with Derek on lead vocals. This brutish materialism is what the artist really exudes underneath the phoney genteel surface, since he’s a mere panderer to lucrative trends; Gentle Giant’s moral condemnation of the painter is ironic given how the band made a failed attempt to do what Genesis succeeded at in the late 70s, a pandering Gentle Giant would soon regret.

Speaking of pandering for the sake of financial success, consider now the third friend, who’s grown up to be “Mister Class and Quality?” He brags of “the prizes [he has] showing,” then denies his narcissism by saying he “never shout[s] about them,” namely, his “house and car and pretty wife.” His friends are his only in terms of how they can help him rise higher; put another way, those two childhood chums of his are no longer of any use to him, so why try to reunite with them?

After each verse, a dissonant counterpoint is heard between the guitar, organ, and bass, once again representing the class conflict between him, “the artist [and] the lazy workers” as well as between him and those at work, among whom he must “give and take the orders.” There’s a similarly dissonant bitonality between the fading-out end of the instrumental jam (licks courtesy of Green’s bluesy guitar and Minnear’s wah-wah electric piano) in the bridge and the return of the main riff (lead by Ray’s violin) for the final verse.

The title track is a sad epilogue for the album. Some on the internet claim either that the three friends see the error of their ways and reunite in the end, or at least imply a possible reunion. I see no evidence anywhere in the lyrics or in the music, especially with this last song’s melancholy melodies, to justify such an interpretation.

Their childhood past was “sweet in sadness,” for it included both the good and the bad times that occur in every relationship. The “gladness” that comes “in the end” must be ironic, a reference to how gladly the businessman chooses money over friendship; how the painter gladly panders for money, instead of sacrificing comfort for the sake of preserving artistic integrity; and how the worker gladly spends his meagre wages as a fleeting “escape” from his miserable existence as a wage slave.

The tragedy of the three friends–a tragedy whose cathartic quality is what makes the album so artistically satisfying–is their mutual alienation, an inevitable consequence of moving “from class to class,” lower, middle, and upper. People on different rungs of the social ladder don’t mingle, except “to give and take the orders.” That’s the whole point of Three Friends: all of us, male and female, young and old, rich and poor, are like those three lost boys, separated by skill, fate, and opportunity, mutually alienated.

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