In 1973, Britain was at a crossroads. The Conservative government seemed to be losing control of the various industrial disputes that raged in a union-dominated workplace; inflation was spiralling due to the increasing global economic crisis.
Value Added Tax (VAT) had been introduced at the start of April 1973, and the cost of living seemed to be one of the premium topics of conversation; credit cards were becoming ever more popular and national debt was spiralling. The United Kingdom was also engaged in a debate about whether they should remain in the ‘Common Market’ – the European Economic Community – which it had joined on New Year’s Day 1973. There was a feeling that the very nature of Britishness was being eroded. In short, it seemed as if we were all going to hell in a handcart. Sound familiar?
With all of this being played out across the media, for Genesis writing about beheadings during croquet games at once seemed perhaps too frivolous, too escapist. Taking its title from a slogan in the Labour Party’s manifesto, Selling England By The Pound, the band’s fifth studio album is infused with a whimsy, a Britain at sunset, assessing how to move forward in shifting times. The word ‘pound’ in its title was key; aside from the obvious pun between currency and weight, the pound sterling had been one of the hottest political topics in recent history. In the preceding decade it had been devalued, decimalised and floated. Harold Wilson’s phrase, "the pound in your pocket," said in 1967 when the pound was devalued by 14% to foreign markets (but still worth the same in the UK) had stuck in popular consciousness, and with a collective focus on thrift and economy, set against the financial crisis, the album’s title had a snappy, contemporary feel. "Selling England
was very English," Steve Hackett says. "It wasn’t bucket and spade English… it was this other sense."
The story of Selling England By The Pound begins with a paucity of material and delay. It’s strange now to think that three months seemed an eternity then: but Genesis were blocked. Coming off the triumphant Foxtrot tour, a proposed gig at Wembley Empire Pool in May 1973 had to be nixed because tickets couldn’t be printed in time. As the band didn’t have a huge stock of material prepared, the stop-gap in-concert album Genesis Live was released that July to capitalise on their burgeoning success. Sold at a budget price, it became the group’s first UK Top 10 album.
What was to become Selling England By The Pound was rehearsed in a friend’s home near Chessington Zoo, Surrey, across early summer 1973. "We were literally in the living room of a family house," Steve Hackett says. "Inevitably, after a few days or so, the neighbours started to complain. It was so typically Genesis. The idea that we didn’t want to work in a rehearsal room, we wanted to work somewhere that’s friendly and had windows, contrary to rock’n’roll thinking. It adds to the quirkiness of it, I think that’s why that album has a smile." This smile was reinforced further by the group’s move to one of their usual – and, again, improbable – haunts, the Una Billings School Of Dance in London’s Shepherd’s Bush to continue rehearsing. Phil Collins’ mother, who ran the Barbara Speke Stage School in Acton, knew Billings, which is how the band ended up there.
"Una Billings was weird enough in itself," Hackett says. "You’d be downstairs with the gob-stopper machine and the girls dancing upstairs doing their first ballet steps, all going clippetty clump, clippetty clump, you’d have this rhythm going on. It’s completely mad," Hackett laughs. Collins wrote in his autobiography, Not Dead Yet: "Where previously we could smell freshly cut grass, we’re now high on the odour of ballet pumps." Even though the group were gaining traction, they were in debt, and struggling. "When you’re a young band, much of living is at subsistence level," says Hackett. "We hope our contract is going to be renewed; we hope there’ll be gigs, we hope people will like it. It was a very slow process." However, they now had the seeds of material that would become some of the most-loved in their career.
Selling England… was recorded in three weeks in August at Basing Street Studios in West London. The band asked John Burns to produce, who had worked as engineer on Foxtrot. Burns was of a similar age to them, and had already had considerable experience.
"John was great for a young band," Hackett continues. "He was very hands-on. His reassurance was key. He was also a guitarist and understood how guitars were supposed to sound. When I was doing Foxtrot I was using a small amp; this time I was using the full rig and giving it some welly. He was very good at capturing that – it’s a very thick sound."
Although ostensibly an eight-track album, it hinges on five significant pieces, and none more so than its opener. Dancing With The Moonlit Knight was originally called Disney, and Peter Gabriel wrote the opening section’s melody, while the rest of the band contributed to its later sections. But the subject matter was the most overt in reflecting this commercialisation of a troubled Britain, with Gabriel singing a folk madrigal as Britannia, posing the simple but effective question at the album’s very outset: ‘Can you tell me where my country lies?’ Father Thames has drowned, but the population is too preoccupied to notice, as they digest their Wimpy burgers, spending pounds to gain pounds. The Arthurian legend is invoked, and the final cry of calling the ‘Knights of the Green Shield’ to 'stamp and shout’ is a pun on the long defunct Green Shield stamp-and-spend reward system. This call for an uprising to reassert Britain’s place in the world delivered forlornly by Britannia is one of Gabriel’s most poignant (and pun-filled) lyrics.
Musically, it begins gently before heading off into battle, showcasing the road-rested confidence of the players. "It went from Scottish plainsong to something Elgarian, to something futuristic, touching on fusion and other forms that still haven’t been named," Hackett affirms. "We weren’t calling it progressive at the time… we were experimenting and letting it all hang out."
Another reason for the album’s enduring allure is that Selling England…had a snappy number that could act as an accessible calling card to the album’s knottier core: I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe). Genesis always knew a good pop tune when they heard it. And I Know What I Like… is a fantastic pop song. Still unsure that he could compete with the Charterhouse core of the band, Steve Hackett decided to bring in riffs for the album rather than whole songs, as was Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks’ way. "I thought that was the best way to go. I used to play it through a Leslie cabinet and Phil would join in. It was a Foxtrot reject, but a linchpin for Selling England…." Soon the other members joined in. Gabriel came up with a melody line and a lyric inspired by what was to become the album’s cover painting, The Dream, by Betty Swanwick.
With its words wittily referencing the Garden Wall, Banks and Gabriel’s Charterhouse band, I Know What I Like… is the tale of external pressure on Jacob, a young man (allegedly Genesis’ roadie Jacob Finster) to conform. With Banks’ irresistible chorus, Rutherford’s electric sitar and Gabriel’s to-die-for synthesiser riff to close, it all scuttles along with tremendous panache and humour; in fact, it makes a case for the miniscule sub-genre, glam-prog. Praised by Sounds for conjuring up "amazing visual possibilities with its childlike quality of far away images", it was taken from the album as a single, it reached the UK Top 40 in 1974. For many outside the cognoscenti, this was their first invitation to visit the idiosyncratic cottage industry of Genesis.
After The Ordeal acts as light relief. It is amazing that such a pretty four-minute
instrumental was to prove one of the hot potatoes of the album. When the album was being sequenced and edited, Banks and Rutherford did not want it. Hackett did. "I had to threaten to get After The Ordeal on the album, as was so often the case in Genesis," he explains. In fact, to the point where he was going to leave if his idea wasn’t accepted.
"If they weren’t going to include all of my ideas on it, if it was going to be expurgated, I was off. I don’t think anyone was expecting me to be quite so forthright at that point. I nailed my colours to the mast."
The 11-minute long The Cinema Show was originally intended to run as a side-long piece flowing in from …Moonlit Knight. "If we had done that, it would have been another Supper’s Ready and it might not have survived as well." Hackett says. "Phil was adamant, and that was what put the kibosh on it."
After a series of sweet verses from Gabriel, with lyrics largely written by Banks and Rutherford, at six minutes, the track abruptly shifts gear from its dreamy acoustic mid-tempo as the band move into a slow-building and soon-to-be free-wheeling jazz rock instrumental leading to a climatic close; recorded with just Banks, Collins and Rutherford, it was later to provide the encouragement needed for the group to continue as a trio after Hackett left the group in 1977.
The theme of the state of the UK comes into focus again with Aisle Of Plenty, a short reprise of the original melody of …Moonlit Knight. The short verse offers a series of puns about contemporaneous UK supermarkets and concludes with Gabriel watching ‘the deadly nightshade grow’. Was England going to be left under a carpet of the alluring yet poisonous plant while everyone is busy buying stuff? He and Collins call out a series of prices of consumer goods on offer. This minute and a half drifts by and links the album back to where it began, the cash-strapped UK economy of ’73. This lyrical realism demonstrated that Genesis were aware of the state of the nation and their surroundings.
Selling England By The Pound was released in October 1973. Strikingly complex yet often deceptively simple, it heralded a different Genesis. The artefact itself looked different. It moved away from the band’s now-trademark gatefold sleeve and Paul Whitehead illustrations. Its single sleeve with lyric sheet offered something more direct. Gabriel had persuaded Betty Swanwick to add a lawnmower to her painting, The Dream, which had inspired I Know What I Like… and for it to be used as the cover. It managed to pull off the perilous feat of retaining the English whimsy of the previous releases, while looking more in keeping with a modern jazz album.
It was also well-received. Barbara Charone wrote in NME: "Genesis stand head and shoulders above all those so-called progressive groups." Genesis were progressive as they were reflecting on the state of the nation, be it the bully-boy gang warfare on the fringes of London, or the threat to national identity. Gabriel’s escapist vision, married with the increasingly impressive musicianship of the group was providing a suitable antidote to the increasingly grim economic landscape in the UK. By the end of 1973, Selling England By The Pound was Top 10 in an album chart populated by Slade, David Cassidy, Status Quo and Peters and Lee.
The concerts that supported Selling England By The Pound saw Gabriel’s costumes and props getting ever more otherworldly and elaborate. There was now even a lawnmower brought on stage to assist in the narrative of I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe). The band themselves seemed to become ever more invisible; often looking like they were conducting an intense seated scientific experiment: "We were like the pit orchestra, Pete was the show," Hackett recalls. "I used to look up from time to time with a big smile on my face."
The Selling England By The Pound UK tour saw the band comfortably filling 2,000-seater venues. Another reason for the enduring allure of the album is its accompanying promotional film, live at Shepperton Studios. The group’s foothold in America was getting stronger, too. After their short tour in December 1972, Genesis had returned in March 1973 before beginning a major North American tour in November of that year. Genesis were treated with bemusement by sections of the rock audience, but the press sensed there was something afoot. They seemed to be offering a vision of exactly what British people should be: deeply eccentric, quirky. They were, if you will, selling this exaggerated version of England back to the US by the dollar.
From December 17, 1973, Genesis played six shows across three nights at the Roxy Club on Los Angeles’ Sunset Boulevard. It went well: "It was one of the best welcomes we have ever had," Gabriel said. "It was our first time on the West Coast and we found we had a sort of underground mystique."
"I remember Phil saying to me very early on: to enjoy the work you do when you are playing live was really so very important," Hackett says. "People aren’t going to worry about the odd gaff – what they want to know is that you’re in the moment, you’re doing it, you’re being authentic. At the time we were doing Selling England we were playing the best of the two previous albums as well, I thought I was playing guitar in the best band in the world." This was paying off – they were voted ‘Top Stage Band’ by readers of NME’s annual poll, placing them ahead of all the other bands they struggled for billing with several years previously, ahead of scene leaders such as The Who and Yes.
The band toured the US again in May 1974. The tour had been enlivened by the news that John Lennon ‘loved’ Selling England…; Hackett recalled Gabriel dancing around the dressing room in response to the ex-Beatle’s comments on New York radio station WNEW. "In the early days there was a lot of comedy," Hackett concludes. "Which may have been why Lennon said that he liked us, the fact that we seemed so prepared to make complete arseholes of ourselves!"
Selling England endures because it is the greatest and most commercial distillation of the ’70-’75 group. In a way, it is the direct predecessor to A Trick Of The Tail, with the following The Lamb Lies Down On A Broadway as a unique, insular, glorious curveball. Selling England… was key in so many ways: it gave them a taste of a hit single; demonstrated that Collins could handle lead vocals with élan and the seeds of both Hackett and Gabriel’s departure lay within (on their own they could make records full of Epping Forests and After The Ordeals). Most importantly, with their trio playing
at the end of The Cinema Show, that Banks, Rutherford and Collins could play well with each other.
"Selling England is the album I’m proudest of in Genesis both as a player and for its unique quirkiness," Steve Hackett concludes. "I think it was very heartfelt."
© Loudersound, by Daryl Easlea
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Robin Friday, 18 October 2019 04:48 Comment Link Report
Good overview, except for the fact that BoEF is ruefully only mentioned in passing. Perhaps not a fave of the band (as implied in various interviews), but showcases Phil Collins drumming chops like few other songs ever did. His imagination is all over that song.
Debra Fortney Sunday, 13 October 2019 15:49 Comment Link Report
My first and favorite Genesis album. Hackett just recently played it in full in concert in Cleveland. The material is timeless and still gives me goosebumps every time I hear it. I've probably played this hundreds and hundreds of times!