Genesis' Selling England by the Pound

John Covach

Progression Magazine

 Summer 1997


I will admit right from the start that my choice to focus on Genesis' classic album, Selling England by the Pound, is motivated in part by a tremendous pair of shows I saw here in North Carolina a few months back.  The Musical Box—a Montreal-based group—played two nights at The Ritz in Raleigh and recreated the tour that supported the release of Genesis' 1973 LP.  There were, as it turns out, two versions of that show: the white one and the black one.  While this distinction is most easily made by noting the color of the backdrop the group was using, there are also some very interesting differences in the way the show was staged.  At any rate, we saw the white show the first night and the black show the next evening; the group's resident Genesis historian, Serge Morisette, gave an informative lecture on Saturday afternoon, showing some rare concert footage from both versions of the show to the few dozen die-hard progheads that had assembled at the club (it's worth noting that, best I could tell, The Ritz was full both nights and the crowd was very enthusiastic).  The attention to detail that The Musical Box lavished on this pair of shows was remarkable; not only were the tunes played to perfection and the Gabriel moves executed nicely by lead-singer Denis Gagné, but the group used most of the same guitars and basses that Rutherford and Hackett used.  A pleasant conversation with the group's keyboardist David Myers revealed that there was not actually a Mellotron on the premises, as Myers uses digital Mellotron samples instead.  Considering all of the opportunities that such a tribute-type concert offers for things to turn dopey and saccharine, The Musical Box avoided all such pitfalls and put on a great pair of shows. 

But spending about 48 hours either hearing the show, listening to people talk about the show, or listening to the original album had the effect of reminding me what an important record Selling England by the Pound is for 70s progressive rock.  There is perhaps a tendency for the LP to be seen merely as the one between Foxtrot, which features the magnificent "Supper's Ready," and the ambitious The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway.  But Selling England by the Pound is more than a well-crafted placekeeper between two other fine albums; it might even be argued that it includes some of the best work the group ever did with Gabriel and stands as a significant culminating point for Gabriel-era Genesis, especially if you're one of those listeners who finds The Lamb a little over-ambitious and unwieldy.  At any rate, Selling England by the Pound clearly deserves consideration on its own merits, and, as I have done before with other groups, I'll reserve the right to return to those other Genesis albums in a future column.

The history of the early days of Genesis is one of the better-known tales of prog lore.  Four of the original group members—Tony Banks, Peter Gabriel, Anthony Phillips, and Michael Rutherford—attended an upscale private boys' school called Charterhouse.  As early as 1966, Tony and Peter had a group called The Garden Wall, while Mike and Ant were in The Anon.  The Garden Wall played 60s rhythm and blues—numbers like Percy Sledge's "When a Man Loves a Woman" and a soul version of Simon and Garfunkel's "I am a Rock"—while The Anon played Beatles and Stones covers.  It wasn't long before the four got together to record some original music though.  In 1967 the group recorded five tunes (with Chris Stewart on drums), and it was this tape that made it into the hands of Charterhouse graduate Jonathan King.  King had had some success in the pop-music business as both a singer (he had a 1965 hit called "Everybody's Gone to the Moon") and as a songwriter, producer, and publisher ("It's a Good News Day," a hit for Hedgehoppers Anonymous).  King was impressed enough by what he heard to send the group into the studio to record more tunes.  The new songs seemed a bit too complicated to King, however.  Tony and Peter, thinking that this was their big break in the music biz and afraid of losing King's support, wrote a song that they hoped would please their patron, "The Silent Sun."  Banks and Gabriel have admitted that the song was a full-scale Bee Gees pastiche, and King has argued that it wasn't that way at all.  Whatever the real story is, the song did what it needed to do and won King back as a strong supporter of the group.  After considering the name Gabriel's Angels, the group became Genesis, and in February 1968 Decca released "The Silent Sun" as a single. 

While their first single enjoyed mild success, the second, "A Winter's Tale," was largely ignored.  Undeterred by this failure, King and the group entered the studio to record From Genesis to Revelation with new drummer John Silver on board.  The concept for the album was King's, and he has explained that he thought of it as a "history of the universe."  However promising the album may be seen to be in retrospect, it made very little impression on listeners and critics in March of 1969.  Part of this may have to do with the black cover—the Beatles had, after all, done a plain white one—and the title appearing in gold with no group name indicated; apparently the album was often misfiled into the religious bins at record stores!  One review that the album did get was kind, pointing to the band's promise and comparing Gabriel with Roger Daltrey (which pleased Peter very much).  But the group were unhappy with the way the album turned out, and especially with the strings that King added to the tracks.   

By 1970 Genesis were in the studio once more with a new drummer, John Mayhew.  With Tony Stratton Smith managing the group and John Anthony producing, Trespass had a far better chance of breaking through than its predecessor.  From the opening moments of "Looking for Someone," it is clear that the band has made significant progress over the year and a half since the previous album.  There are many great moments on the album, and it contains what would become a staple in the band's live act, "The Knife."  On Trespass, the characteristic Genesis sound is almost in place; the group plays with much more confidence and experience, giving up the three-minute radio single for longer and more involved arrangements.  But it might all have ended there.  Anthony Phillips had been developing an severe case of performance anxiety.  When his stage fright actually began to affect his physical health, he was forced to quit the group.  Remembering Ant's departure, Rutherford has remarked that this was the closest the group ever came to breaking up (and considering the subsequent personnel changes the group has weathered, that is significant).  But the decision was made to search for another guitarist—and a new drummer while they were at it—and with the addition of Steve Hackett and Phil Collins, the classic Genesis line-up was complete.

Released in November 1971, Nursery Cryme begins the run of classic Genesis progressive-rock albums that would extend to The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway of 1974 and establish one important high-water mark in the history of the style.  Beginning with "The Musical Box" and culminating in "The Fountain of Salmacis," Genesis charge through "The Return of the Giant Hogweed" and "Harold the Barrel," among others.  Hackett's more aggressive playing heightens the introduction to "Hogweed," and his general concern for creating musical textures ("to strive beyond existing stagnant music forms," as he put it in a newspaper ad) permeates the record.  Collins's virtuosic drumming locks in nicely with Rutherford's agile bass playing; together they drive the tunes forward as in the "The Musical Box," which features the most powerful and dramatic ending the group had recorded thus far.  A year later (1972) Genesis released Foxtrot.  While containing such classic Genesis tracks as "Watcher of the Skies" and "Get 'em Out by Friday," the album's highpoint is easily "Supper's Ready."  In fact, "Supper's Ready," like Yes's "Close to the Edge" or ELP's "Trilogy"—all released in 1972; what was in the water over there?!—can be seen as an exemplar of what was best about British prog in the 1970s. 

Genesis Live was released in July 1973, and the band's next studio album, Selling England by the Pound appeared in fall of the same year.  The album contains four long tracks and three shorter ones.  Of the shorter ones, "I Know What I Like (in your Wardrobe)" became the group's first hit single.  The others are "More Fool Me," which features Phil Collins on lead vocals, and an instrumental piece by Steve Hackett called "After the Ordeal," which was almost left off the album but was eventually included after one of the band's famous democratic votes.  Another short piece, "Aisle of Plenty," is actually a reprise of music from "Dancing with the Moonlit Night," and follows immediately on the end of "The Cinema Show," rounding off the album.  The longer pieces are "Dancing with the Moonlit Night," "Firth of Fifth," "The Battle of Epping Forest," and "The Cinema Show." 

A nice feature of "Dancing with the Moonlit Night" is the way the beginning verses build, gradually adding new instruments along the way.  After Gabriel opens the tune with a solo vocal line, the acoustic twelve string then enters (0:10) in the accompaniment.  Hackett's electric guitar can be heard at 0:20, and Banks's organ at 0:25.  Finally, Banks's majestic grand piano chimes in at 0:52.  At 1:19 Collins's drums enter, Hackett's guitar remains, Rutherford switches from twelve string to electric bass, and Banks's piano arpeggios are replaced by barely audible Mellotron strings, which give way to Mellotron vocal chorus at 1:50.  All this builds up to the menacing passage that begins at 2:23.  Already in the first three minutes of the record, then, the hand of polished professionals can be detected in the subtle orchestration described here.  It's not just that they use a lot of different instrumental timbres in quick succession; it's that the way these timbres are manipulated allows the music to breathe dynamically, building and pulling back, and then pushing forward to a heavier and more urgent musical section.  Large-scale reorchestration of passages can be found throughout "Firth of Fifth" as well.  The opening piano fanfare section (0:00-1:07) returns at 4:33 and forward, now set for the full group with the synthesizer taking the main melodic line; it also closes the tune at 9:17 to the end, here with the grand piano accompanied by phase-shifted electric piano.  The quiet flute section beginning at 3:23 returns with Hackett's powerful guitar taking the lead at 6:28 and transforming a previously delicate interlude into a driving and wailing instrumental tour-de-force.

"Cinema Show," like "The Musical Box" and "Supper's Ready," starts out with acoustic twelve-string, but unlike its precursors is rather more light-hearted and playful, telling the tale of a modern-day Romeo and Juliet.  Gabriel's vocals are only present for a small proportion of the tune, with long sections being given over to instrumental passages, the most famous of these beginning at 5:52-10:50 or so, featuring only Collins, Banks, and Rutherford.  In many ways, this is echt Genesis: Banks playing melodic passages on his Arp Pro Soloist synthesizer, accompanying himself on either Hammond organ or Mellotron, Rutherford pounding away rhythmically on a single bass note, and Phil Collins driving the whole thing forward with his high-energy virtuoso drumming.  Interestingly, as with "After the Ordeal," this section was also on the chopping block and was only saved by a band vote. Apparently it was either cut them both or keep them both: Banks wanted to cut the Hackett piece and Gabriel wanted to cut the "Cinema Show" instrumental. 

Like "Get 'em Out by Friday" or "Return of the Giant Hogweed," "The Battle of Epping Forest" tells a pretty straight-forward story.  Here the story concerns a gangland fight over turf, and Gabriel provides some marvelous moments as he takes on the voices of a number of characters in the story.  Gabriel has remarked that it was important to him (as well as to Phil Collins) that the group maintain a capacity for humor, and like "Harold the Barrel" or the sometimes bizarre stories he often told between numbers on stage, "The Battle of Epping Forest" does not disappoint in this regard. 

The hallmark characteristics of Gabriel-era Genesis are all present in Selling England by the Pound; and it is important to stress that these characteristics are by this point very refined.  This is a powerful album that reflects the maturity and craftsmanship of experienced musicians working together at the height of their powers.  Selling England by the Pound is a true classic in progressive rock.  So if you haven't had it out in a while, do yourself a favor and "take a little trip back . . ."