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‘Selling England By The Pound’: How Genesis Brought Eccentricity To Prog Rock
In Depth

‘Selling England By The Pound’: How Genesis Brought Eccentricity To Prog Rock

Like medieval minstrels spinning tall tales, Genesis’ ‘Selling England By The Pound’ album harnessed fantasy and wit to craft a prog classic.

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Mining the complexity of Western classical music, the baroque eccentricity of English folk and the allure of medieval storytelling, Genesis’ Selling England By The Pound album marked the high point of the Peter Gabriel-led incarnation of the group. Seeking inspiration in English literature and mythology, Gabriel’s verbose lyricism poured out of him as if he were a crazed poet, outstripped only by the outlandish outfits he would wear onstage during the band’s live shows.

Musically, the rest of Genesis – guitarists Tony Banks and Steve Hackett, bassist Mike Rutherford and drummer Phil Collins – were at the peak of their creative powers, too, dabbling in long-form arrangements to accompany Gabriel’s seer-like visions. Aiming to follow their 1972 album, Foxtrot, with something more off-kilter and unique that would appeal to anglophiles both at home and abroad, Selling England By The Pound gave weight to English lore and further established Genesis as one of the biggest prog-rock bands of the 70s.

“‘Selling England’ was very English. It wasn’t bucket and spade English… It was this other sense”

After painstakingly rehearsing the songs in early 1973, at Barwell Court, near Chessington Zoo, in Surrey, Genesis convened in West London’s Basing Street Studios with producer John Burns. Against the social backdrop of economic decline in 70s England – a nation beset with union strikes, spiralling inflation and debates over the country’s membership of the European Common Market – the idea of tackling age-old notions of Englishness and making them relevant to modern times seemed counterintuitive, if not downright foolhardy.

However, upon its release, on 28 September 1973, Selling England By The Pound struck a chord with the public, thanks to its mix of convoluted progressive-rock ambition and Gabriel’s hyper-literate pilfering of ancient myths and folk tales. “Selling England was very English,” Steve Hackett said. “It wasn’t bucket and spade English… it was this other sense.” Kicking off with Gabriel’s a cappella plea on Dancing With The Moonlit Knight (“Can you tell me where my country lies?”), the eight-minute album opener introduces a pastoral acoustic melody akin to the broadside ballad Greensleeves before launching into a storming rocker decrying the way in which commercialisation has eroded the spirit of Ye Olde England.

With Gabriel posing as the Roman-inspired goddess Britannia, he sings of how the death of Father Thames has gone unnoticed by legions of countrymen who are too distracted eating hamburgers (“Chewing through your Wimpy dreams/They eat without a sound/Digesting England by the pound”). Meanwhile, the Arthurian Knights Of The Roundtable are invoked as Green Shield Stamp-collecting bargain hunters storming through shop doorways, and the Morris-dancing sacred cows of May Day celebrations, such as the May Queen, are exposed as consumerist ringleaders (“You’ll play the hobbyhorse,” Gabriel sings, “I’ll play the fool”).

“In the English way of life, there’s a seething animal waiting to get out”

Four months after Selling England By The Pound hit the shelves, I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe) was issued as a single in February 1974, peaking at No.21 in the UK and becoming the band’s first-ever chart hit. With a catchy singalong chorus, the song’s lyrics took inspiration from the painting that artist Betty Swanwick supplied for the album cover (titled The Dream), as well as the work of DH Lawrence, to tell the story of a naïve and idle misfit called Jacob who mows people’s lawns for a living and is content to spend his downtime getting drunk at his local tavern. As neighbours gossip about Jacob’s indifference towards life, the song exposes the darker underbelly of suburban decorum. “In the English way of life, beneath the restraint, calmness and politeness, there’s a seething animal waiting to get out,” Peter Gabriel later observed.

Taking in prog’s penchant for unusual tempo shifts and wistful acoustic-led arpeggios, Selling England By The Pound was awash with musical ideas, imbuing rock music with an air of medievalism by leaping from flutes to oboes with all the energy of entertainers in a royal court. Lyrically, Gabriel crammed his songs with literary allusions and humorous puns, from subverting Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet (The Cinema Show) to reimagining Thomas Hardy’s Tess Durbeyfield as a girl fretting over the price of beef in a supermarket (Aisle Of Plenty).

Equally vital, however, was the musical ingenuity of Gabriel’s bandmates, who each contributed song ideas that acted as a springboard for their frontman’s many flights of fancy. A key highlight was Firth Of Fifth, one of Tony Banks’ leftovers from the Foxtrot sessions: a classical-inspired masterwork that begins as a solo piano piece, it unfurls into a lumbering nine-minute rocker inspired by TS Eliot’s poem The Waste Land before coaxing Steve Hackett to deliver one of his finest guitar solos. Then there’s More Fool Me, which, closing Side One of the original vinyl, sees drummer Phil Collins sing lead vocals for the first – but certainly not the last – time in his career.

“We’ve always been keen on telling stories which we know nothing about”

The longest track on Selling England By The Pound opens Side Two of the record: the 11-minute epic The Battle Of Epping Forest again invites Peter Gabriel to create a cornucopia of shady characters to spin a decidedly offbeat yarn. Said to be inspired by a news report he had read in The Times about criminal gangs meeting in the forest to settle scores, Gabriel imagines a skirmish between “Little John’s thugs” and the “Barking Slugs” with a novelist’s eye for detail. Mindful of how Epping Forest used to be Henry VIII’s former hunting ground, as well as an English Civil War battleground, the song washes over the listener like a far-fetched history lesson. “We’ve always been keen on telling stories which we know nothing about,” Gabriel joked. “We get off on fantasy, you know.”

Though Genesis were already hugely successful in their homeland, it was Selling England By The Pound that helped accelerate the band’s popularity in the US, selling 500,000 copies stateside. Despite the album’s quintessentially English subject matter, Gabriel’s on-stage performance in a Roman centurion’s helmet with a Union Jack shield and trident in his hand brought the songs to life on Genesis’ subsequent US tour, inspiring countless concert-goers with his innate sense of flamboyance and showmanship.

Today, Selling England By The Pound is rightly regarded as one of the best Genesis albums: a prog-rock masterpiece that marries oblique tropes inspired by English heritage with a playful and ironic skewering of contemporary woes. By doubling down on complex and lengthy compositions without sacrificing the band’s gift for ever-shifting melodic hooks, the album showcases Peter Gabriel’s pioneering lyrical vision at its most potent, and it remains a must-listen for any fan of classic rock.

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