Classic Genesis Album Review: Selling England By The Pound

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“Can you tell me where my country lies?”

That’s the opening line of the fifth Genesis album, and something I imagine a lot of people in the U.K. are asking themselves these days. Like many countries, Great Britain is currently in a bit of a crisis, stuck between the ghost of its former imperialist self and the uncertainty of modernity. On the one hand, London just elected its first Muslim mayor, Sadiq Khan. That’s good! On the other hand, the country is facing the “Brexit” question, which has deep possible consequences for all of Europe and seems to be dividing people pretty thoroughly.

While no one would ever call Genesis a protest band, they always had their own nerdy take on political issues, and usually addressed it with one song per album. Trespass had the revolutionary horrors of “The Knife,” Nursery Cryme took on Victorian sexual repression with “The Musical Box” and Foxtrot’s depiction of urban housing problems in “Get’em Out By Friday” is still pretty scary. Now we have an album where a Big Theme is woven into all of the music. It’s another concept album where the concept doesn’t drag everything down, and melds with the music in a way that makes you think, even if what you’re thinking is, “That’s an awful lot of synthesizer.”

The basic idea here is that Britain’s mythic past is invading the crass commercial present, showing the clash between the country’s ideals and the cold, bland reality. There’s a way this could have come across as nationalist or even flat out racist, but I don’t think that’s Genesis’ point. Remember, these are a bunch of nerdy prog guys we’re talking about. I think the bigger question for them is: “How can the land of Robin Hood and Shakespeare and King Arthur suddenly be filled with supermarkets, shitty fast food and financial problems? Where the hell does my country lie?” To ram the point home, Peter Gabriel would show up in concert as the spirit of Britannia, wearing the helmet and everything. At this point, it was one of the less weird things he’d done on stage, and it actually looked pretty good on him, given his haircut.

For many, this is THE album where things started coming together for Genesis. It still tends to rank pretty highly on lists of their best albums or even the best prog albums, period. It’s certainly a huge milestone for the band, with some of their most iconic and memorable moments present, BUT there’s also some flabby sections, which I’ll get into below. Even the lows are usually pretty interesting, though. It’s probably best to think of it as an album of sketches and short stories, so let’s crack it open and take a look:

“Dancing With the Moonlit Knight”: That opening line I mentioned? It’s rendered in stark a capella, shortly before the rest of the instruments start to fill in, coloring the corners of a surreal encounter on the London streets. The lyrics take weird mashups and blend them with an amplified Olde English riff, which gets downright symphonic during the choruses. Let me tell ya, only Gabriel could sing a line like “There’s a fat old lady outside a saloon” and sell it with that much gravity. The Hackett/Rutherford breakdowns get a little noodly, but it all pulls together for those moments when the chorus sings over the building guitars, and the fadeout sets the bar for the rest of the album to follow. Somebody needs to sample the main riff for an underground hip hop song if they haven’t already, the way that Illyfe sampled the theme from King Crimson’s “Moonchild.”

Rating: **** (four out of five)

“I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)”: It’s hard to think of a song from the first few albums we’ve covered that you could describe as “joyful.” We’ve had rocking anthems, sweet love songs, even some grand epiphanies, but not really anything that could be described as pure fun, per se. By this point, the message was clear: If Prog Genesis was going to write a pop-ish song, they were going to do it on their own damn terms. As I’ve written in previous reviews, there were always shorter, poppy tunes in the band’s catalogue, but this song seemed to be a more deliberate effort to make something radio-friendly to go alongside the sprawling odysseys the band was getting known for. Even with all of that in mind, this is a gloriously weird and goofy song about Jacob, an adult still living with his Mom and mowing lawns for a living. Everyone wants him to get a better job and move out but he’s happy the way he is, taking naps on public benches and eavesdropping on people. Gabriel’s vocals on this are pretty odd, a sort of rap-like speak-singing that suddenly moves into the soaring, keyboard-backed vocals with lush sitar-esque noises and bouncing drum beats. I want to live in that “na na NA na na na”part after the first chorus forever. It’s my version of the Nexus.

Rating: ***** (five out of five)

“Firth of Fifth”: Wanna talk about iconic moments? The wonderful opening piano bit here is an instant classic, with a lot of great spiraling patterns that turn into a golden tinkly little movement. Then it crashes abruptly into the vocals, sternly singing some of the band’s most abstract lyrics so far, full of mixed metaphors about symphonies, cancer growths, sheep, and all sorts of stuff. It doesn’t matter, since it’s all a vehicle for some expert instrumentation, driven by Banks’ ingenius meoldies and all leading up to some excellent moody guitar work from Hackett. There’s lots of stuff to love in this, one of the most serious Prog Genesis songs, especially coming after the last one, and still one of the best. 

Rating: ***** (five out of five)

“More Fool Me”: There’s no getting around it. Even though he only co-wrote it, this is essentially a mediocre Phil Collins song that sounds like it was recorded secretly while the rest of the band was out reading Latin poetry on their lunch break or whatever. From the meowing opening line, this unfortunate entry begs to be snickered at as an early attempt from Phil to sneak another relatively normal song on a hopelessly proggy album. Just because you don’t want to write a seven minute epic about fighting wolves doesn’t give you a right to be boring. There’s something kind of endearing about it in a kind of pathetic way. Poor Phil. He would get better at this sort of stuff way later, obviously. When I revisit this album for non-review purposes, this is one of the tracks I almost always skip.

Rating: ** (two out of five)

“The Battle of Epping Forest”: …and here’s the other. I once debated about this song with a friend of mine, who defended it by basically saying “But it’s ‘The Battle of Epping Forest,’ Man! Come on!'” He’s entitled to his opinion and I respect him for it. I certainly appreciate how strange this song is, and the opening marching fanfare is promising. Right after that, though, things quickly get messy. Supposedly, Gabriel wrote all 0f the lyrics on top of the rest of the band’s contributions, and boy, it shows. There’s simply too much going on, in a story that starts as a mock-heroic gang war, takes a long detour in a section about a seedy reverend, then returns to the action, right before the crime bosses settle the score with a coin flip over the bodies of the dead. As with his other work to date, Gabriel’s elastic voice is pretty amazing, as he voices several different characters, changing on a dime from the hoarse Liquid Lem to the reedy Mick the Prick to the lisping Harold Demure, har dee har (why is a Lit major in the middle of a gang war anyway? And wouldn’t he find something better to do than fire acorns at the brawlers?). It’s not necessarily a trainwreck, but it’s tedious, and a little bizarre considering that “Supper’s Ready,” a song twice as long as this one, is way more listenable and dynamic. Tony Banks’ usually compelling arrangements are ugly and boring here, and the drums are drowned out by pretty much everything else. On top of all that, the narrative, which is supposed to be the whole point, is often inaudible thanks to Gabriel’s low voice in the mix and the muddy soup of word clutter. Whatever satirical bite the concept had is pretty much lost in the shuffle. I’d like to say that’s a shame but if this is the best they could have come up with they should have simply tried something else. This wouldn’t have worked even as an instrumental.

Rating: ** (two out of five)

“After the Ordeal”: Is this title a cheeky reference to the previous song? It certainly feels like a nice, streamlined respite after the overstuffed “ordeal” of “Epping Forest.” I like the way the piano and guitar parts build off of and weave around each other, especially as the song transitions into its final section, a sweet closing guitar bit from Hackett, the mastermind behind this song. As an extension of what he did on the previous album with “Horizons,” this is another great showcase that gives us some impressive work to add to his portfolio. If the prog version of the band had never broken up, the “Hackett instrumental” would probably have continued to develop as one of the highlights of each release.

Rating: **** (four out of five)

“The Cinema Show”: Or, “Why It Sucks To Get Cockblocked By Characters From Greek Mythology.” Apparently this is lifted pretty heavily from T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, though I doubt knowing the source material makes this any less weird. Things start with a homey little intro giving us a modern Romeo and Juliet, except our versions are anything but romantic ideals: Juliet has to “clear her morning meal” in the evening, which is either an eating disorder reference or a description of a pretty lax cleaning schedule, and Romeo is a tacky lout who hopes bringing chocolate on his date will get him laid. I’ll admit that the first verses are a little silly, with the falsetto delivery of “cinema show” and especially “chocolate surprise” being one of those moments that will make any non-prog fans listening to this for the first time probably snort in derision (and if they haven’t done that by now, they are being quite civil). However, once we get past those lines we never rejoin the opening characters, instead taking an offramp to hang out with “Father Tiresias,” the mythical prophet who lived as both man and woman. I guess the band’s trying to make some mythological point about the union between sexes, but it honestly doesn’t matter once the grand arpeggios take over: there’s some admirable guitar work and one off the all-time best Banks freakouts that sounds like the work of the shaggy-haired madman he was, as well as some pounding drums from Collins. Then, finally, as things fade out, a haunting, familiar tune creeps back in. This is another essential Genesis piece, and one that would prove pretty durable in concert, even as the band struggled to redefine itself.

Rating: ***** (five out of five)

“Aisle of Plenty”: The first straight-up reprise on any of these albums brings back the tune of “Moonlit Knight” for a coda with an old lady named Tessa in a supermarket. Forgive the pretty terrible grocery store puns (“there’s the Safeway home”-ugh) and we get a foreboding ending to the whole enterprise. Honestly, the strength of this track isn’t in the lyrics or the callback, but the ending breakdown where lots of cries and strange noises start calling out to each other, like voices lost in the darkness, while the guitar sails on. 

Rating: *** (three out of five)

Final Thoughts: You should absolutely listen to Selling England, maybe even as a precursor the deeper, darker waters of the band’s prog period. It was their poppiest work to date but also the most sophisticated, showing a real desire to go bigger and grander while still staying smart. The only weak tracks are in the middle, and they’re easy enough to skip without spoiling the rest of the album’s majesty. This was also one of those albums marked by the dreaded “creative differences,” though, as the different factions within the group started to put pressure on each other. This would all result in the supernova of the next album, Gabriel’s final one with the band and a notorious work of prog spectacle that I will probably have to tackle in two parts.

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