Genesis – Selling England By The Pound
Released October, 1973
1973 was a good year for progressive rock, fruiting two highly significant albums of that era, including Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon”, and of course, Genesis’ “Selling England by the Pound”. The band was formed by two school friends, Peter Gabriel and Tony Banks in 1967. They soon recruited Anthony Phillips, Mike Rutherford and Chris Stewart. Performing at a school function, the band’s prowess was witnessed by record producer and song writer, Jonathon King, who promptly signed them, and named them Genesis, a name that was supposed to symbolise that they would introduce a ‘new sound’. Originally he wanted to call them “Gabriel’s Angels”. I’m glad he changed his mind.
From 1969-1972 Genesis released 4 studio albums, during which time the band’s lineup would change slightly. When their fifth album, “Selling England by the Pound” was released in 1973, the line up consisted of Tony Banks, Peter Gabriel, Mike Rutherford, Phil Collins and Steve Hackett. “Selling England by the Pound” is a collection of intensely drawn out songs (its longest clocks in at 11.44) and a scattering of lighter, more humorous numbers. The majority of the tracks on the album allude to social issues and politics.
The opener, ‘Dancing with the Moonlight Knight’ features the title ‘Selling England by the Pound’. The title was borrowed from the British Labour Party; it was their political slogan at that time, and chosen by the band as homage to their heritage. The track starts with a haunting a capella vocal by Peter Gabriel, morphing into a medieval madrigal, before charging ahead into a fast tempo rock song. It’s the definition of prog rock and essentially forms a prologue to the rest of the album. ‘I know what I like (in your wardrobe)’ completely imbues the psychedelic sound of the Beatles. It’s got that typical spiraling, dreamy feeling, thanks to the electric sitar riff. Extra points for the synthesized ‘Lawn mower’, created using a Mellotron (Sampler). I also quite enjoyed the piano solo that opened ’Firth on Fifth’ but after that I got a bit lost amongst the waffle. Despite its progressive origins, there are small nuances within some of the songs which to me seem quite poppy. Take ‘More Fool Me’, for example. Sometimes it could pass as a Bee Gees song, with its sweet harmonies and ballad-like qualities. “After the Ordeal”, which seems like the epilogue to the previous track (‘The Battle of Epping Forrest’), is in essence a classical guitar piece. It’s a nice interlude. ‘The Cinema Show’ is a modern interpretation of the tale of Romeo and Juliet, drawing inspiration from a T.S Eliot poem. One thing this song made apparent was Gabriel’s knack for putting together beautiful and poetic lyrics, a skill that I have admired throughout his career. The album concludes with ‘Aisle of Plenty’, a reprise of the theme contained in ‘Dancing with the Moonlight Knight’. The title, and the lyrics are interspersed with puns that refer to supermarket names. I’m not entirely sure why but it’s a clever idea nonetheless.
After “Selling England by the Pound”, in 1974 Genesis released ‘The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway”, a concept album, and set off on a world tour to promote the album. During the tour, Peter Gabriel announced that he would soon be leaving the band. Following Gabriel’s departure, Phil Collins stepped up to the plate as vocalist. Collins had a similar tone to that of Gabriel’s and fit the bill perfectly, but had to relinquish his drum sticks (except for some songs on tour) to take on the new role. The band continued on for a few more years, losing Hackett along the way to his solo career, and releasing their most successful album ‘Invisible Touch’ in 1986, when Collins was at the peak of his own solo career. Phil Collins left Genesis in 1996.
Besides inspiring a multitude of musicians of the modern era, Genesis left legacies other than that of their music. Their performances, particularly those earlieer shows featuring Peter Gabriel, brought a new energy with crazy costumes and rambling spoken interludes; they pioneered the use of laser lights and would inspire generations of musicians and performers alike to add more theatre, interaction and colour to their own shows.
The radio-friendly pop giants of the eighties are quite a distance from the Genesis that recorded this album. Fronted by lead singer Peter Gabriel, the group’s fifth effort is an excellent slice of English progressive rock. Of the eight song tracklisting, four surpass an eight minute running time. There is a strong presence of literature throughout the album, particularly in the epics. We are presented with queens, knights, warring gangs, gardeners and even Romeo and Juliet. The first lyrics of the album, from opening track ‘Dancing With The Moonlit Knight’ set the tone brilliantly: “Can you tell me where my country lies?/Said the unifaun to his true love’s eyes”. Sung by Gabriel without musical accompaniment, this haunting couplet is indicative of the poetic imagery within the album. By the way, a unifaun is a fictional animal, crossed between a unicorn and a faun. As the song progresses, each band member gradually joins in, and it becomes quite engaging. Inspired by the painting that graces the record cover, ‘I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)’ is a fairly whimsical, but catchy tune about a lawnmower man surrounded by busybodies who think he can’t be happy in his job. Mike Rutherford’s bassline in the chorus is just fabulous and the track became the band’s first successful single. ‘Firth of Fifth’ features some fantastic piano and keyboard work from Tony Banks, arguably the heart of Genesis, plus some melodic Santana-esque lead guitar from Steve Hackett. Phil Collins’ first recorded lead vocal is on ‘More Fool Me’, which is a pleasant enough love song. I love his drumming on this album, my highlights being ‘The Cinema Show’ and ‘Dancing With The Moonlit Knight’. Although ‘The Battle of Epping Forest’ goes on too long, I enjoy Gabriel’s theatrical vocal delivery. This is a great album, which I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting this week.
Things I learnt listening to “Selling England by the Pound” by Genesis this week – 1) Peter Gabriel has a dreamy voice. 2) Phil Collins was the drummer for Genesis way before he was the singer, although they do let him have a crack at one song. 3) Prog rock doesn’t have to sound like Drug Fuelled Nonsense and when done right can actually sound quite good. In fact it can actually sound quite pretty. 4) Prog rock is somewhat obsessed with medieval times. Anyway, a couple of years ago I started listening to a lot of podcasts as I drove. There are a couple in particular which are short stories read aloud which I adore. I think I was so interested in this album despite it being prog rock as it felt like I was being told a story. An epic story at that. And the music was the perfect soundtrack to that story. At times it felt very “A Clockwork Orange” which suited me fine as I do love that soundtrack. I think if you want to listen to a Gensis album such as “Selling England by the Pound” you have to be pretty committed to it. It’s not the kind of thing you can put on as background music. In fact whenever I listened to it in that way this week it really annoyed me. When I listened to it as a whole though and followed along I thoroughly enjoyed it. I feel like I need more time with album and plan of giving it a few more spins in the future. Genesis you have done the impossible and have me liking a prog rock album! It’s a miracle!
I’ve figured out what it is I enjoy about prog rock. It’s the unexpected. It’s that at any time the tempo could change, the time signature could change, the key could change. Which also explains why I despise modern music in all its predictability. But this is a review, not a therapist session. “Selling England By The Pound” is wonderful. It’s an exceptionally pretty album, incorporating delicate flute and piano sounds, but gets quite a bit heavier during the 10:42 long epic ‘The Cinema Show’. I could use my full three hundred word allowance on the beast of a track that is ‘The Battle of Epping Forest’. And why not? The band use nearly 800 words on the 11 minute behemoth. Based on a news report of an inner London turf war, this song always keeps you guessing. At some points it gets a little messy, becoming almost to verbose, with Peter Gabriel smashing words in where they don’t fit with the music. I do enjoy Gabriel’s use of voices to differentiate characters in the story. If no one told you could you tell which songs on this album Peter Gabriel sung and which Phil Collins sung, would you know? The two have uncannily similar voices. The standout track for me from this album? ‘Firth of Fifth’. Nine minutes of solid prog rock glory. It starts with a beautiful, and extraordinarily complicated classical piano intro, using 13/16, 15/16 and bars of 2/4 time signatures. The meat of the track is a guitar driven instrumental lasting nearly five minutes in the middle. It is perfect “zone out and get lost in the music” music. It took a few listens, but I really came to love “Selling England By The Pound”. It’s everything you could want from a 70s prog rock album.