The classic lineup of Genesis was at their absolute peak musically and melodically on the 1973 album Selling England by the Pound. The band had a steady progression in the early 1970s albums, leading to this climax which fused their heavy prog-rock and overtly theatrical background with an English folk theme topped by incredible rock virtuosity. The album has a storybook quality and is nearly drifts into “concept album” territory. Instead it is more a collection of short stories, fables, and fairy tales that don’t really have much in common save the English themes. And, of course, the fantastic musicianship that made this album one of the greatest albums of the progressive rock genre.
While all members of the quintet are at their absolute peak on this album, no one shines brighter than guitarist Steve Hackett. This is his absolute moment in the sun and makes one wonder why there was relatively so little from him in subsequent years (even though he stayed with Genesis through three more albums). On this album Hackett perfected the use of the tapping technique and sweep picking, techniques which would not become widely popular until a decade later. This is also the album were drummer Phil Collins (who would later be more associated as the band’s front man) best displays his drumming skills. Even lead singer Peter Gabriel gets into the musical act, providing flute on several tracks to add to the overall English folk vibe.
A nice balance is struck throughout the album and on a matrix of levels. The four epic pieces alternate with the four lighter pieces throughout the album and with these an alternation between deeper and heavier eccentricity with contemporary pop and fragile love song themes. There is also a nice consolidation between the rock and folk sections, the overt literary allusions and hook-driven themes often all within the same track. This combination makes this album infinitely listenable and not the least bit dated four decades after its release.
Selling England By the Pound by Genesis
|Released: October 12, 1973 (Atlantic)
Produced by: John Burns and Genesis
Recorded: Island Studios, London, August 1973
|Side One||Side Two|
|Dancing with the Moonlit Knight
I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)
Firth of Fifth
More Fool Me
|The Battle of Epping Forest
After the Odeal
The Cinema Show
Aisle of Plenty
|Peter Gabriel – Lead Vocals, Flute
Steve Hackett – Guitars
Tony Banks – Piano, Keyboards
Mike Rutherford – Bass, Guitars, Cello
Phil Collins – Drums, Percussion, Vocals
A long intro with only guitar textures and vocal melody mask the ultimate dynamics of “Dancing with the Moonlit Knight”, the de facto title song of Selling England by the Pound. This eight minute album opening song blends lyricism and acoustic texture during the opening verses with the exquisite musicianship during this middle jam. During this section each musician’s skills are showcased nicely before the song fades into an add yet intriguing mellow outro which eats up nearly two minutes with psychedelic rudiments. “I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)” was the band’s first charting single through five LPs, climbing all the way to #21 on the UK charts. It has a mechanical sound-effect during the intro with spoken word intro before it breaks into a pleasant pop (almost “glam”) song with the chorus melody being mirrored by a heavy synth riff and a very active bass line by Mike Rutherford. The lyrics were derived from the painting by Betty Swanwick called The Dream, which originally did not include the lawn mower which the band asked Swanwick to add to the painting to match the song’s protagonist. A simple, “lawnmower man” who is constantly getting advice from people concerned with his future, but is content with what he is (“I know what I like and I like what I know”). Although the song was the most accessible in their collection to date, it still contains some Genesis edge including a return to the mechanical effect during the coda beneath a flute lead to end the song.
I don’t make such assertions lightly, but “Firth of Fifth” is one of the greatest rock masterpieces ever, despite its relative mainstream and radio obscurity. This song has everything great about a progressive rock song, starting with an unbelievable classical piano intro by Tony Banks which lasts over a minute alternating between among time signatures before giving way to a pure rock verse and chorus performed by the entire ensemble. The song then travels through a sonic journey of several sections, some with vocals, some instrumental, but all purely excellent. There is a part with a light flute solo by Gabriel over Banks’ methodical piano riffs, which leads to part where the piano builds and builds until breaking into a frantic synth led over the full band rendition of the opening piano piece, where Collins especially shines on drum. Then comes perhaps the greatest guitar lead ever by Hackett, who sustains notes into the stratosphere above a basic driving, bluesy backing rhythm. But this guitar is anything but basic, striking notes in the most methodical and melodic way where each one counts. Even the sparse lyrics are superior, especially during the final verse;
Now that the river dissolves in sea, so death too has claimed another soul / and so with Gods and Men the sheep remain inside their pen until the shepherd leads his flock away / the sands of time were eroded by the river of constant change…”
The title of “Firth of Fifth” is a pun on the estuary of the River Forth in Scotland, commonly known as the Firth of Forth. Although, like all tracks on the album, “Firth of Fifth” is credited to all five band members, Banks was actually the author of most of this song with Rutherford helping out with some of the lyrics.
Selling England by the Pound is also notable for a milestone in the band’s career, containing the first song with lead vocals by Phil Collins, who would take over those duties permanently following Gabriel’s departure in 1975. “More Fool Me” is a bit melodramatic yet pleasant love song and pretty much only involves Hackett and Rutherford on acoustic guitars and Collins on lead vocal. Collins sings soprano most of the way, which really stands out due to the song’s sparse arrangement.
Side two is a much more theatrical side, especially with the side’s opener “The Battle of Epping Forest”. This begins with colonial-type battle march, led by flute and a marching drum rhythm. It then bursts into a full prog-rock arrangement through the first verse before morphing its way through many multi-character, story-telling sections in a manner similar to “Get Em Out by Friday” from their previous album Foxtrot. A wild, choppy guitar provides rhythm for the second verse leading to a complete break in the middle “Reverend” section, with a waltz-like tempo and more deliberate melody. The song was inspired by territorial gang battles in East London but uses heavy allegory of middle age clashes in the forest while subtly eschewing an anti-war message;
There’s no one left alive, it must be a draw…”
“After the Ordeal” is presented as an instrumental epilogue to “The Battle of Epping Forest” but acts more like an intermission bridge between two epic songs. Written mainly by Hackett, the piece has two distinct parts with the first half an up-tempo classical guitar piece with a piano backing and the second half a slower rock piece beneath Hackett’s electric lead. This lead is again masterful and the only real problem is that it is edited way too short.
The eleven-plus minute epic “The Cinema Show” sustained as the fan favorite from this album. It begins as a purely romantic, modern day “Romeo and Juliet” tale, led by dual acoustic folk guitars and melodic lead vocals by Gabriel. The lyrics from Banks and Rutherford were inspired from a T.S. Eliot poem along with Greek mythology and have highly sexualized overtones. Like the other epics on this album, the song builds into many sections once the entire band gets involved, including a complex vocal motif and yet another lead to great lead guitar by Hackett which segues into a five minute long jam with various synth leads by Banks, some backing operatic vocal choirs, and incredible drumming by Collins, playing a shuffle in 7/8 time. The synth sounds act as a sneak preview of the band’s next album, the double LP The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. The song dissolves back to 4/4 time and segues into the closing song “Aisle of Plenty”, a reprise of “Dancing with the Moonlit Knight”, giving the album a bookend effect.
Selling England by the Pound was classic Genesis hitting on all cylinders, and the band put together a completely original and musically superior album like no other. Although it would pale in comparison to the commercial success of the band’s pop-oriented 1980s album, it nearly topped the charts in the UK, which was a big deal at the time. But where there album shines is artistically, and on this front it belongs on the list of best ever.
Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 40th anniversary of 1973 albums.