1973 saw Genesis reach their creative peak with an album full of English whimsy and eccentricity.
The fifth Genesis album, originally released in 1973, is most likely their best. While the following year’s The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway arguably saw the band reach the peak of their musical ambition, that double album unquestionably has more superfluous content, even as part of a generally coherent and impressive conceptual narrative. There’s no real filler on Selling England By The Pound, which manages to expand on the ambition shown on the previous year’s Foxtrot, which featured side long track Supper’s Ready, which was, in effect, a mini concept piece. Selling England… isn’t tied to an ongoing narrative, but it nevertheless feels like a whole piece – thanks in part to the music being bookended by Dancing with the Moonlit Knight and Aisle of Plenty, which both use the same music and lyrical theme, and thanks in part to the fact that much of the album seems to be about the deconstruction of an idealised England.
The scene is set with the opening track Dancing with the Moonlit Knight, which begins with Peter Gabriel singing a cappella before slowly building into a more thunderous piece – possibly the most overtly ‘progressive’ on the album. The song takes lyrical digs at aspects of British life (ironically now long forgotten) like Green Shield Stamps and “chewing through your Wimpey dreams” (a reference not only to the fast food joint but also Wimpey Homes, the new build houses that formed the aspirational estates of the early 1970s.
English whimsey is more obvious in I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe), which would be the band’s only hit single until the dark days of the Phil Collins era, a tale of a groundskeeper who is content to resist the calls from others to better himself. It’s a chirpy, poppy song with oddball touches – perhaps reminiscent of Magical Mystery Tour era Beatles.
The weakest point of the album is Firth of Fifth, which is a bit too ponderous and straight-faced for it’s own good, and while not an awful track is easily forgotten. Collins takes the vocal for More Fool Me, an acoustic, minimalist love song that closed out side one of the original vinyl release, which made sense; on CD / Blu-ray, it feels more out of place, but it’s an inoffensive piece.
The Battle of Epping Forest is the album’s centre piece, a deliriously complex number with multiple time changes and a whole cast of characters allowing Gabriel to provide a variety of voices in this cartoonish tale of East End gang warfare. Like Monty Python‘s Piranha Brothers sketch, it’s a barbed mockery of low rent gangsters like the Krays and the power struggles between groups of criminals who all have their own dodgy codes of conduct. It’s a daunting music prospect – on paper, it’s the evils of prog rock writ large. But the actual track is both humorous and entertaining, more a musical story than an exercise in pretension, and eminently listenable.
The track has an instrumental coda in the form of After the Ordeal, which brings a sweeping sense of the epic to the story before moving into The Cinema Show, which mixes Romeo and Juliet, Tiresias (a hermaphrodite from Greek mythology) and the battle of the sexes into an epic, impressive piece that then moves seamlessly into Aisle of Plenty, where Gabriel engages in punning references to supermarket chains (some now defunct) – “’Easy love, there’s the Safe way home’ – thankful for her Fine Fair discount Tess Co-operates” – and manages to make price reductions on groceries sound emotive and overwrought.
Genesis were, in the Gabriel era, shamelessly progressive yet generally manages to avoid the worst pretensions of the era. They never forgot that this was music that people would want to listen to, and even at their most indulgent didn’t become so impressive with their own virtuosity that they alienated the listener. This is a fine example of that, an album that could have easily toppled into self-indulgence that is unlistenable, but instead holds its ground, remaining accessible even when at its most challenging. It’s also charged with the same eccentricity that you can find in much of the best English rock music of the late Sixties and early Seventies, a post-hippy whimsey that is genuinely charming.