Selling England By the Pound
The first music I ever owned was Pinapple Poll – the music of Arthur Sullivan (Of Gilbert and Sullivan fame) on an LP. I played it on my sister’s Philip’s Stereogram with it’s auto-change function and 4 speeds (16, 33, 45 and 78) that was passed down from my music-loving grandpa. This and my 2nd LP (The Wombles – Mike Batt’s novelty project and still a great album to this day!) were presents from my sister (I’m guessing I was 6 and 8 years old). I would sit in her room and listen to these and some of her records (Leo Sayer, David Essex, Abba…and stuff handed down like Pinky and Perky – thank heaven for the 16RPM button which played Pinky and Perky at the speed it was recorded…ah…google it!)
From the room next door (or when I was in my room, the room upstairs) came a very different sound: Genesis, Yes, King Crimson, Caravan, David Bowie, Jethro Tull and much more. My brother was (is) a music enthusiast and appreciates music and lyrics with depth and quality. It was him who introduced me to the music that would soundtrack my life…starting with The Beatles (he gave me a cassette player and Beatles tape when I was 8) and then a year or so later another 2 tapes: Genesis Live with David Bowie’s Space Oddity on the other side and Nursery Cryme with Selling England By The Pound.
I know these 4 albums inside out and upside down. A short while later he gave me his entire cassette collection…many many amazing albums, a lot of which I still listen to (though not on cassette!). I will always be grateful.
Selling England was made when Genesis were at their absolute peak. The 3rd album with Steve Hackett on guitar and Phil Collins on drums, and when the band was really creative and still enjoying what they were doing. When I briefly worked with Steve Hackett in the early 90’s he said it was his favourite Genesis album and that he enjoyed making it…his playing is absolutely sublime on it.
It starts with Peter Gabriel’s voice a cappello – like an unaccompanied folk song: “Can you tell me where my country lies?”…Dancing Out With The Moonlit Knight is a perfect example of how Genesis in those days played with words – something that has profoundly influenced my songwriting. Here too is a way of describing the disintegration of England and the infiltration of American culture in a way that is both tragic and fun. Uplifting even. The complexity of the composition and the stunning guitar solo – more a composition than a solo – are the epitome of mid 70’s Genesis.
Next comes the sound of a lawnmower. Genesis up to this point had never had a single in the charts. Since the awful Jonathan King production of the first album they had become an album band – most songs were too long to get on radio anyway. “I Know What I Like (in your wardrobe)” became their first “hit”…something I’ve always struggled to understand. Not the hottest track on the album, but it is pleasant and quirky. And it’s hard to say “it’s one o’clock” without saying “and time for lunch umdidumdidum”.
Firth of Fifth is one of the best things Genesis ever did in my opinion. The classical piano intro is a work of art in itself, but the way it explodes to life when the band come in, dips, dives and develops, as if following the river it describes is fascinating and symphonic. Then there’s the guitar solo…possibly Hackett’s finest? Tony Banks said he wasn’t happy with the lyrics, but I think it’s a beautiful piece of poetry.
Then comes “More Fool Me”. I think the less I say about that song the better. Suffice it to say that I always stop the record before the start. In retrospect it shows where Genesis were eventually going to head, and makes some of the 80’s material less surprising (particularly Collins’ and Rutherford’s solo material). Anyway…
I was once asked what my favourite song on the album was, and I replied “The Battle Of Epping Forest” much to the amazement of the questioner. I wouldn’t give the same answer again – Moonlight Knight, Firth of Fifth or Cinema Show definitely beat it – but the fact is that it is an amazing piece of work. It tells a story (as many Genesis songs did) about a fight between 2 rival London gangs, and for it Gabriel invented characters and plots and added stacks of humour, whilst the band went full on fusion in one of the most complex arrangements they ever made. The ending is simultaneously hilarious and poignant.
After the Ordeal is classic Hackett and a beautiful number. I discovered that the band weren’t keen on including it, but I think it fits perfectly and ties together “Epping Forest” and “Cinema Show”. Also it kind of signals the emphasis on the folk music element of the album. And it has great melodies. Both guitar styles: the acoustic and electric parts have been a huge part of where I come from as a guitarist…although I only gently scratch the surface!
Cinema Show is the archetypal Genesis song of this era. The 12 string guitars in the soft build up. The classical mythology references. The flute link up. The keyboard solo over 7/8 rhythm – as Prog Rock as you get…but yet very melodic. The ending was one of the few pieces from the Gabriel era that the band played when I saw them in 1981.
Aisle Of Plenty brings back the themes and melody from the opening song, along with more of the playful puns. And creates the feeling of a concept album…just in time for “The Lamb Lies Down” to take it all the way.
I never tire of this amazing record, because no matter how many times you hear it, something new pops out. On top of that it has the vibe of a band that is bursting with creativity and enjoying their first taste of large-scale success…and are keen to remind themselves of their British roots as they conquer the world. It’s a beautifully English album…in a thatched cottages and cream teas sort of way…and is a “go to” record for me when I want to feel my own roots.