ARGH! WHAT A FRUSTRATING ALBUM.
Though, now that I think about it … you could say that about every single Genesis album ever. There’s always something with them – too little Hackett and too much Banks (all Genesis albums before ’73) or too much Collins and not enough Gabriel (all Genesis albums after ’74). The two albums released in the interim aren’t exceptions to that rule, but they are the best albums in their discography because they sound like the work of a cohesive band. Selling England by the Pound has the exact same problem as The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway – both of their second halves needs to be doused in gasoline, set on fire, and then proceed to stop-drop-and-roll into a pit of spikes and be left to bleed to death while suffering from major burns. But at least the second side of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway had a few moments worth keeping (“Anyway,” the title track’s reprise and “It”), and, at the very least, the second half was necessary in Peter Gabriel’s narrative, whatever that was about. There is nothing redeemable about Selling England by the Pound, and worse, the bad far outweighs the good (32 minutes versus 21 minutes).
Anyway, let’s do a song-by-song review so you can see what I mean:
1. If you’re unsure of whether you’re going to like Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, just listen to “Dance With the Moonlit Knight” – it’ll tell you all you need to know. Peter Gabriel’s theatricality is in full-on peacock mode here, the way he squeezes out “eyes” in the a capella opening verse, the way he tries his best to change genders to imitate the “Queen of Maybe” (“It lies with me!”), the way his voice launches awkwardly and happily into the stratosphere (“Old man says you are what you wear – wear well!), or when he becomes Theoden for the war speech in Return of the King during the chorus (“FOLLOW ON!”). For the first time in their career, the band finally has production that matches their vision – you can hear everything that they want you to hear. It’s more than just the fact that you can hear Phil Collins for the first time or they let Steve Hackett do something. It’s the tinier additions. For example, as if Peter Gabriel’s imagery wasn’t enough, his want for a bygone Britain is bolstered by Tony Banks’ keys that sound eerily like flutes (the 0:20 mark). Then there’s the backing vocals that come in softly at the 1:50 mark, become more pronounced over Collins’ drumroll and EXPLODE with Gabriel during the chorus. The instrumental stretch in the middle is one of the few times that remind me that progressive rock belongs to the rock family tree, with Phil Collins and Mike Rutherford driving at 130 km/h while Steve Hackett solos all over the place on top of the car.
If you’d like an in-depth analysis of every lyric and everything that happens in the track, I’d suggest going to George Starostin’s song analysis (the only one of its kind).
2. ”I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)” is the first of two pop songs on the album, but unlike “More Fool Me,” “I Know What I Like” doesn’t lose sight of what makes Genesis so appealing in the first place. From a lyrical standpoint, Genesis always had a leg up on their contemporaries (King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Yes), because they refused to take themselves seriously (or, in the few cases where they were being serious, they delivery or the music was so defiantly British, that you still couldn’t criticize them for such pretensions). Before I even listened to the song, I assumed from the title that it was going to be a simple love song. Nope – it’s about a lawnmower who has to listen to other peoples’ advice, presumably because of his low career aspirations. The band selected it as a representative single for Selling England by the Pound, and it’s easy to see why it didn’t crack the top 20. Despite the chorus being the catchiest thing Gabriel has ever sung (maybe), the verses have Peter Gabriel abandoning melody and meter so he can jump from one character’s point-of-view to the next (a narrative trick he practiced with on “Harold the Barrel” previously).
But musically, the whole band is on fire. During the chorus, the guitar injects a huge amount of muscle by harmonizing with Gabriel, and after each instance, there’s a wonderful round of call-and-response between the guitar and bass. Tony Banks bookends the song with some mellotron effects (apparently to imitate a lawnmower – I don’t hear it, but it does sound particularly alien in a wonderful way and nicely links the track to the ones that sandwich it in the context of the album). Meanwhile, additional psychedelic effects are provided from hand percussion from Peter Gabriel. They sound like air bubbles popping on a water’s surface, not unlike some of the stuff the Beach Boys were doing during The Smile Sessions. Oh, and don’t forget Phil Collins – he’s doing some thunderous drum rolls that catapult listeners to wherever the band wants us to go.
3. Ignore the lyrics in “Firth of Fifth,” they fall victim to the progressive rock cynicism typical of most of the aforementioned bands. Lots of nothing disguised as important by assuming social critique (“The path is clear / Though no eyes can see,” “The sheep remain inside their pen / Though many times they’ve seen the way to leave”), but are too abstract to be meaningful (“Like a cancer growth is removed by skill / Let it be revealed”) or doesn’t offer any solutions. The word is pretentious. Tony Banks, who wrote the lyrics, knows it to be true, having admitted that they’re some of the worst lyrics he’s ever written. Peter Gabriel, who sings the lyrics, knows it to be true, because he sings it so passively, the words couldn’t stick to you if they tried. Still, though, it’s a 5-star song. This is as good as progressive rock gets: the transition from the classical to rock to classical to rock is as smooth as baby asses while the sheer movement of the middle section from one instrument to the next backed by insistent drumming is catharsis at its best. A couple of quick things to note: I love how the flute that opens the middle section sounds sad, but when it doubles in speed afterwards, it sounds like it’s open its feet, ready for what the world has to give it. Elsewhere, Tony Banks’ piano-playing has never been this controlled, and when he spends half a measure crashing about on the lower end of the piano right before the uplifting sequence? Superb. Finally, people often give the VIP award for Selling England by the Pound to Steve Hackett (namely for “Dance”) or Tony Banks (namely for “Firth”), but the real star is Phil Collins – listen to his drum rolls from 5:20 – 5:40.
4. Phil Collins is the Legolas (as portrayed by Orlando Bloom and as directed by Peter Jackson) of the fellowship of the ring that is Genesis. By that, I mean, he’s always sticking out like a sore thumb with his antics – stabbing an orc with an arrow and then shooting that arrow right after, using a shield to sled down a flight of stairs, killing several orcs along the way and using said shield to impale another or killing an oliphant singlehandedly because why the fuck not.
Collins’ plot to mutiny Peter Gabriel and turn the other members into his backing band for dreams of radio domination begins with “More Fool Me.” It stands out from the rest of the album because a) it was written only by Collins and Rutherford as opposed to a full band effort and b) it’s also the first “real” song where he has lead vocal duties (the minute-long “For Absent Friends” doesn’t really count). The production sucks – Mike Rutherford’s guitar playing is filtered through during the chorus and is only audible to Superman and canines during the verses. Meanwhile, Phil Collins is completely nondescript as a vocalist – when he fully replaces Peter Gabriel, he’ll sing every song with a ridiculous but distinctive amount of bombast.
What’s truly interesting is the fact that the song, about a lover’s infidelity (“she’d had enough / Wandering around on her own”), predates Collins’ first wife’s cheating on him by a good seven years. Maybe she heard the song and took the fact that Collins admits that “you know, I’d always hold you and keep you warm / Oh! More fool me” as permission for infidelity without consequence. Well, the joke was on her because he filed for a divorce soon after.
5. I like the military march that takes up the first minute. I also like the cascading riff that first appears at the 2:24 mark that could’ve been expanded upon and made to power a pop/rock song by its lonesome – reminds me of Debussy’s “Arabesque #1.” People who really like hearing Peter Gabriel take the England language and his vocals to their opposite extremes of the spectrum might get a kick out of this. Unfortunately, that’s way too little to justify “The Battle of Epping”’s 11-minute run time.
6. As if “The Battle of Epping Forest” wasn’t long enough already, the band gives us a 4-minute instrumental epilogue with “After the Ordeal.”
7. At exactly the 5:57 mark onwards, “The Cinema Show” switches into a 7/8 groove, courtesy of Phil Collins who must’ve had the arm workout of his life during the recording (Rutherford is on here too, apparently, but I can’t hear his bass at all), while Tony Banks solos all over the place. Unfortunately, the slow and wet canoe ride up to that point makes the song kind of unbearable – especially when the main melody is a repeated arpeggio that Mike Rutherford had already used on the first section of “Supper’s Ready! Are you fucking kidding me?
8. Taken alone, “Aisle of Plenty” is worthless. In the context of the album, it’s harmless. It segues nicely from “The Cinema Show” and musically, it’s a variation of the main riff that opened the album. Lyrically, it’s about groceries. Vocally, Peter Gabriel sounds like seagulls.
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Take the first 3 tracks out for dinner and you’d probably have the time of your life. The rest of the album will mistreat you, and honey, you deserve better.