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Selling England by the Pound remains Genesis’ most complete album: ‘It fights off its shackles’

Selling England by the Pound, released on October 12, 1973, represented a culmination of sorts for Genesis — deftly combining the flights of fancy that lifted 1971’s Nursery Cryme with the more determined edge of 1972’s Foxtrot.

Though quickly overshadowed by the follow up Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, an epic tale which marked Peter Gabriel’s farewell, Selling England has enjoyed a critical reevaluation over the years — and remains Genesis’ first-ever album to achieve gold status in the U.S., sparking a unbroken run of chart success that continued until the band’s studio days were over some 25 years later.

Unlike its more narrative successor, Selling England by the Pound was free to roam creatively, even as it found Genesis’ five-man lineup — also featuring Tony Banks, Phil Collins, Steve Hackett and Mike Rutherford — at the peak of their collaborative powers.

There’s nothing with the crunchy immediacy of “Watcher of the Skies” to be found here, but hook-filled fare like “I Know What I Like” certainly echo the immediacy that made Foxtrot such a visceral experience. The difference is in what surrounds those moments. Genesis moves with lithe grace between folk and jazz rock, offering four epic journeys to go with a quartet of shorter pieces — a symmetry perhaps best displayed via “Dancing with the Moonlit Knight,” this crescendoing, Mellotron-driven short story that moved from accapella reverie to brawny rock bravura.

“That tune started off with the influence of a Scottish song,” Hackett tells us in an exclusive Something Else! Sitdown, “then it moved into something that I think of in a more elegiac way — something nostalgic and wistful, and common to a lot of Genesis tunes. Then it bursts forth, it fights off its shackles, really takes off like a rocket, into another section, which seems to borrow from something that sounds more Russian in a way. It’s European, but then at times, it turns into the jazz that I liked originally — but big band, with the accents.”

In this way, even as Selling moved into bold new complexities, it retained everything that had made Genesis so intriguing once Hackett arrived — including the violent strangeness that marked Gabriel’s best work in this era, as on “The Battle of Epping Forest.” The album included some of Banks’ most involving contributions, in particular on “Firth,” even as Rutherford and Gabriel added exotic flourishes from the electric sitar and oboe, respectively.

Selling, in fact, is a feast of musical invention. Hackett, for instance, employed the dramatic use of both an early sweep-picking sound and the tapping technique would would later have such a huge influence on Eddie Van Halen’s playing — notably on “Dancing with the Moonlit Knight.” Just as interestingly, Collins begins to come into his own, both as an instrumentalist (with complex and engaging performances like the one from “Cinema Show”) and also as a singer of striking emotional power on “More Fool Me.”

The album’s highpoint remains Banks’ rhythmically complex ‘Firth of Fifth,” which found Hackett echoing Gabriel’s flute melody and then building upon it — creating a stirring, violin-esque narrative.

“I was playing it on electric guitar,” Hackett says of those initial sessions, “then it struck me that it had certain similarities with other melodies that I had been playing that I liked. It ended up with aspects of Eric Satie, and aspects of King Crimson. The song had an aspect of blues, an aspect of gospel about it. It had something of English church music — but it also had an aspect of something Oriental or Indian, almost. So, it was a fusion of influences. But at the time, we weren’t using the word fusion — and we weren’t using the word progressive. It would eventually be described as progressive, which was a catch-all phase covering an awful lot of bases.”

For Hackett, who likes to craft brief bursts of imagination within a larger song structure, “Firth” remains one of his longest-ever recorded solos: “I think it can support that, though, because it’s thematic,” he tells us. “Basically, it’s the same melody played three times with minimal variation. It’s done like jazz, with the statement of the theme then you go off and improvise, and then return to the theme. On ‘Firth of Fifth,’ when it comes back, it’s a larger arrangement. It’s the tune as written, then ‘let’s take this to the mountains,’ to a certain extent.”

In a larger sense, that journey is what gives Selling England by the Pound its lasting gravitas. In creating a delicate balance between genres both known and as yet unnamed, between light and dark, between every element of their own burgeoning personas, this soon-to-vanish quintet created the most complete album ever issued by Genesis.

© Something Else!, by Nick DeRiso

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