Selling England by the Pound
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
"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.