Foxtrot might be considered by many as their finest moment, but for me it will always be 1973’s Selling England By The Pound, one of that year’s biggest, and boldest musical statements made by one of the UK’s biggest and weirdest musical acts. As a quintet of well educated public school boys, Genesis never pretended to be anything other than what they were in real life. No fake cockney accents for them as a way of endearing themselves to the lower classes, just pure unadulterated sophisticated popular music with an extremely progressive bent. Genesis were a band who celebrated their Englishness while satirising it as well, like a rock version of P.G. Wodehouse.
The album gets off to a medieval start with the delightful “Dancing with the Moonlit Knight”, a song on which Peter Gabriel’s lyrical imagination is on full display, not to mention the expansive keyboards of Tony Banks, playing in a way not unlike Bach might have if only he had access to an electronic harpsichord. Gabriel’s “I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)” is a quirky, catchy little number, concerned with the obsession some English men have (Tory politicians included) with women’s clothing, and about the closest the band came to having a pop hit up to that point.
The “Firth of Fifth” has epic stamped all over it, and remains one the band’s greatest accomplishments. From Tony Banks’ dramatic piano intro, Steve Hackett’s extended, Tolkien-esque guitar solo, to Gabriel’s Shakespearean narrative, this song has everything. By the four and a half minute mark the whole band come in, drums, keyboards, guitar, the whole kit and caboodle, in great theatrical fashion, to burst the listener’s brain and eardrums, making this the absolute highlight of the album. Phil Collins holds back on the offbeat throughout, adding tension to what is already a pretty intense Druidic journey.
“More Fool Me” is a sweet reflective ballad, with folk-rock leanings, before we launch into the mammoth “The Battle of Epping Forest”, a tune which begins with 19th Century marching drums, then suddenly bursts into the 20th, one full of angry synthesizers and modern social commentary, a la The Who, in that mini-rock opera sort of way, including references to “Robin Hood” and “The Woodstock Nation”. We return to Sherwood Forest on “After the Ordeal”, an instrumental which has the odd nod to Arabesque arrangement here and there. “The Cinema Show” is another lengthy brainy excursion by Gabriel, who of course was a natural born story teller, as we all know. Peter has himself gone on to admit that maybe some of the lyrics were a bit overlong, even by his standards, but who cares when the listener is either too drunk or too stoned to bother wondering about whether a song goes on for two minutes or twenty.
The last track takes us back to where we began on the surrealistically monastic “Aisle of Plenty”, at which point all Gabriel can see is “The deadly nightshade grow”.
Within Genesis there lurked a certain genius, a controlled madness even, as if William Blake and W.B. Yeats had of conspired together to write a collection of cerebral rock songs. Whether Selling England by the Pound is their greatest album is obviously open to discussion, and if not, depending on opinion, then it must surely rank as one of the group’s best. Although soon the ever restless Gabriel would begin writing what would turn out as Genesis’ magnum opus, the majestic melancholic blockbuster that was The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway.