Getting a Great Deal "Selling England by the Pound": Prog Review #6

Getting a Great Deal "Selling England by the Pound": Prog Review #6

If you’ve read my previous reviews or know my contrarian nature firsthand, you won’t be surprised to learn that Selling England by the Pound  (1973) is not my favourite Genesis album. It doesn’t even make my top three.

Still, it’s easy to see why this is considered the band's best. It’s the most accessible of their prog-era albums, and the one that most perfectly captures their sound and style. While their earlier albums are sometimes uneven in sound and lyrical focus, Selling England has a structural and sonic unity that, while less exciting, dramatic, or fun than some of their other work, provides a consistent and satisfying listening experience.

A big part of what makes this album work is the tracking. All the songs don’t necessarily blend into each other, but there’s a beautiful soft-loud dynamic in and between the alternating long and short tracks. The effect is a very smooth sonic progression that gives the album a remarkable unity, and the bookending effect of “Aisle of Plenty” concludes with a haunting reminder of how the album began.

Tying the album together is a folk quality running throughout that is complemented by classical-inspired interludes that range from the epic piano arpeggios and flute solo of “Firth of Fifth” to the moody sounds of the aptly titled “After the Ordeal”. Punctuating the melancholy swells underscoring most of the songs’ verses are bombastic instrumental sections that are concerto-like in the way each instrument gets a turn to shine. This structure is especially powerful in “Firth of Fifth” that features piano, synth, flute, guitar, and drum solos, each capturing a new shift in emotional tone.     

For all its brilliance and beauty, the album feels somehow safe, and most of the tracks are imperfect in a small way at least. For the most part, this comes from the contrast between those extended solos and the often-dull lyrical portions of the songs. “Cinema Show” and “Firth of Fifth” are the most disappointing in this regard. Both were staples of the band’s live show, and fans would be hard pressed to decide which of the two is the best track on the album – for my part the answer is easy: “Dancing with the Moonlit Knight”. The first few minutes of “Cinema Show" are plodding, and the final verse of “Firth of Fifth” falls incredibly flat after five minutes of virtuosic intensity. These are still great songs, of course, but the sum is not quite as great as the parts. It’s also telling of the album’s flaws that some musical themes sound like they’re recycled on The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974), particularly some of the keyboard parts from “The Battle of Epping Forest”.

On the subject of that track: if Selling England is the band’s masterpiece, “The Battle of Epping Forest” is the glaring flaw that offsets the brilliance of the rest of the work. Few Genesis fans would, I imagine, consider the song a high point in the band’s catalogue. It’s not so much that the song is bad, or dull, but rather that it’s too busy, too frenetic, too long, and without direction. The failure of the track is doubled by its inclusion on an album that is otherwise relatively simple, for Genesis, in both structure and lyrics.

On that note, I’ll conclude with some discussion of the album’s lyrics because this is an album that, perhaps more than any other I know, hits me in my background in English literature. I read a review once that said the titular “pound” could easily have been a reference to Ezra Pound. I’ve often wondered what the reviewer meant, and reflecting on the lyrics on recent listens I’ve concluded that it must be a comment on the imagist quality of the album. The band often writes songs that tell stories, sometimes even with multiple speakers, and these provide Peter Gabriel (and later Phil Collins, though he’s not as good with it) an opportunity to display his theatrical prowess in the delivery. Selling England is different since, except for “Battle of Epping Forest,” a sprawling mock heroic comparable to The Beggar’s Opera, the songs offer far more restrained visions. The narratives are there, but the language is sparing and the focus is more on image and allusion than on storytelling.

There’s not exactly a consistent theme running through the lyrics, but there are some repeated ideas and allusions. Most interesting for me is the way the album draws on some touchstones of English literary history to contrast with the mundanity of modern England. The Arthurian references in “Dancing with the Moonlit Knight” seem connected to Gawain and the Green Knight (“Knights of the Green Shield stamp and shout”?), and the use of fantasy and allegory (“the unifaun”, “the Queen of Maybe”) to my mind recalls The Faerie Queen. The references to Arthurian majesty are contrasted against images of an England in decline, and the sad-turning-to-angry vocals seem to confirm that.

Tiresias was punished with his gender change for striking the serpents

Tiresias was punished with his gender change for striking the serpents

In another case of the past outshining the present, Romeo and Juliet are on “Cinema Show” converted to a painfully uninteresting young man and woman, each anticipating a date. The subsequent section sings about Tiresias, the blind seer of Greek mythology. The lyrics draw on the story of Tiresias’s temporary transformation into a woman. While the story goes that Tiresias angered Hera by saying women’s pleasure in sex is much greater than men’s, the song strangely uses the character to imply the superior moral qualities of women: “Once a man, like the sea I raged / Once a woman, like the sea I gave / But there is in fact more earth than sea”. The connection is, I suppose, to contrast the deep thinking about gender relations with the naivety of the young couple. The man in particular is wholly artless, believing as he does that he can’t fail to win a night of passion “armed with his chocolate surprise”.

A last word on the two tracks I haven’t mentioned: “I Know What I like (in Your Wardrobe)” may be one of the most iconic of the prog-era songs, the only Peter Gabriel song on the shorter version of their greatest hits, but there’s really not much of interest about the song. It’s weird and catchy and just fine. “More Fool Me”, on the other hand, as the first song with Phil Collins on lead vocals, is astonishingly sparse, heartfelt, and heartbreaking. The same can be said to varying degrees for the rest of the album.   

Rolling Stone Rankings                       

  1. Pink Floyd - Dark Side of the Moon

  2. King Crimson - In the Court of the Crimson King

  3. Rush - Moving Pictures

  4. Pink Floyd - Wish You Were Here

  5. Yes – Close to the Edge

  6. Genesis - Selling England by the Pound

ASK Rankings

  1. Yes – Close to the Edge

  2. Genesis - Selling England by the Pound

  3. Rush - Moving Pictures

  4. King Crimson - In the Court of the Crimson King

  5. Pink Floyd - Dark Side of the Moon

  6. Pink Floyd - Wish You Were Here

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