If we were asked to define through one and only one album what "progressive rock" is for us, it would probably be "Selling England By The Pound", the fifth studio album of "Genesis", released on October 13, 1973.
This is an album that has all the features and elements that define this marvelous genre. A combination of styles like rock, folk, and classical music. Long (relatively) and dynamic songs, complex compositions, melodic tunes, and vocal harmonies, a musical idea with a recurring motif, a varied use of musical instruments, and the use of unconventional rhythms. In short, if the oxford dictionary had an entry for "progressive rock", the definition would probably have been "Selling England By The Pound" by "Genesis".
We will clarify this already here and now! The definition does not diminish in any way the greatness and influence of other major albums in the genre, such as, "In The Court Of The Crimson King" which we reviewed only a few days ago and defined as "the big bang" that gave birth to progressive rock. Simply for us "Selling England By The Pound" is the creation that came after the "chaos" created by the "Big Bang". After the trillions of particles and shards, it distributed everywhere and reunited together to create the musical "paradise" called "progressive rock". This is the album that we are sure has put many of you through the gates of "Paradise". It will also probably be the first album we would play for an alien that will fall to Earth and ask to know what "progressive rock" is. Why? Because it has everything that defines the genre and yet, it is still melodic and accessible enough to make a person who does not familiar with prog to fall in love with it. True, there are probably more complex, sophisticated, even more, perfect albums in the classic prog-rock genre, but with all their greatness it is not certain that you would choose them as the first representative sample through which you would try to make a stranger fall in love with this wonderful genre, right? So we think it is enough to explain our choice.
Before we dive into the review, let’s note that there is a less common opinion that “Genesis” is not defined as “pure progressive rock”. For those opinionated (and we are of course not among them) "Genesis" lacks the improvisations and virtuosity that are necessary elements that define progressive rock. The same sources claim that, unlike "pure" progressive rock bands, with "Genesis" everything is planned, directed, structured and pre-written, like a "song" that lyrics are a very important part of it, while real progressive rock should be built on an instrumental improvisation in which the lyrics play a small role. Well, Although improvisation and spontaneity are an important factors in the definition of progressive rock, it is certainly not the only one. Beyond that, you will find quite a few bands whose works are built on improvisation and are not really close to "progressive rock".
Ready for another "statement"? It may be a statement that will make some of you wonder, maybe even resist, but trust us that we really "weighed words" before we wrote. This is the pinnacle of Genesis' work, both in terms of writing and playing. True, there will be many who will argue with us and claim that "Foxtrot" deserves the crown, we also seriously debated this question, but in our opinion, its greatness relies mainly on the masterpiece "Supper's Ready" and if it was out of the equation we would be left with a good album, but not much Beyond that. There will be those who will say that the mighty double album "The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway" is the one that surpasses all the rest, but for us, its length comes a bit at the expense of imbalance and coherence between the tracks. And if you want to say that this is actually the amazing "Nursery Cryme", beyond the fact that it suffers from sound problems compared to the other albums we mentioned, it is also the first album with the band's classic lineup, which at this stage has not yet crystallized to perfection. There is no shadow of a doubt. Each of the albums we mentioned certainly deserves a crown, but it seems to us that "Selling England By The Pound" deserves it, if only because it feels more complete, more flowing as one complete work as opposed to a collection of tracks, a kind of concept album that starts with "Dancing with the Moonlit Knight", whose melody repeats itself at the end of "The Cinema Show" and at the beginning of the closing track "Aisle of Plenty".
Listening to this album gives us a sense of listening to a radio program that has undergone musical processing. A performance of a theatrical story wrapped in a soundtrack, much like the way singer Peter Gabriel used to combine his acting skills with the music of "Genesis", on stage. It begins with an a-cappella that opens up the album, with the poignant question "Can you tell me where my country lies", and ends with the words "See the deadly nightshade grow" from the short song "Aisle of Plenty", which is a kind of magical and gloomy reprise that ends the story to the amazing mellotron sound of Tony Banks.
Every song on this album is a set in a show signed by Peter Gabriel and Tony Banks. True, Steve Hackett's incredible playing cannot be ignored with the innovative guitar roles that will influence generations of guitarists, especially the "tapping" and "sweep picking" techniques and of course his simply chilling solo in "Firth Of Fifth". It's hard not to notice the sound enrichment of Mike Rutherford, who plays bass, 12-string guitar, and sitar, nor his significant writing contribution. It is also impossible not to refer to the diverse and sweeping drumming and vocal harmonies of Phil Collins, who even sang lead vocals in one of the songs. But in the end, the lead on this album was done by Peter Gabriel with his witty and sarcastic lyrics and by Tony Banks who managed to write some of the best tunes he has ever written.
The name of the album indicates its content. The phrase "Selling England By The Pound" which also appears in the lyrics of the opening song "Dancing with the Moonlit Knight", was taken from a slogan of the Labor Party in Britain at the time. This is a critical document. A kind of "indictment" if you will, against the people in the UK and those who "sold the UK by weight (Pound)". A sadly mixed critique of Britain's loss of identity and uniqueness since the 1960s, its commercialization and devotion to capitalist culture, or in one word - "Americanization". This critique runs like a second thread between some of the album's marvelous creations. Starting with "Dancing with the Moonlit Knight" which deals with the subject directly with sarcastic puns, through "I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)" which tells the story of Genesis' stage worker Jacob Finster, who failed to hold a permanent job and at a certain stage became a gardener and lawn mower, ending with "Aisle of Plenty" which returns to touch on the main motif and refers to UK consumer society with a clever pun that defines it as "abundance", with the word "Isle" being replaced by the word "Aisle".
The opening song "Dancing with the Moonlit Knight" evolved from several short piano compositions of Peter Gabriell, which were combined with the guitar roles of Steve Hackett and these two formed the skeleton on which the song is built on. Tony Banks added his wonderful piano work (in the opening) and later the upgraded mellotron (not the one purchased from "King Crimson"), which created the all-too-unique choired-like sound. A very dynamic and moving piece that combines a lot of changes in rhythms and styles. It begins with the famous a-cappella and ends with Mike Rutherford's 12-string guitar, which was originally supposed to fit in with "The Cinema Show" as one 20-minute long piece, but the band abandoned the idea to avoid comparison to "Supper's Ready". During the band's performances, Peter Gabriel used to dress up as "Britannia" - the good old "Britain", the one before the loss of identity, the one that is anxious about the situation the homeland has reached.
The second track "I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)" is the "hit" of the album, and the band members even joked about it during the recordings. A short, catchy, and melodic piece. the lyrics of which were inspired by the story of the band's stage worker and the cover painting of the album "Dream" painted by Betty Swanwick, which shows an old gardener sleeping on a garden bench and being completely ignored by lovers who do not see the working class difficulties. If you want criticism of the higher-class culture that pursues status and honor. The song was born out of the band's jam session revolving around Steve Hackett's guitar riff, which was rejected for the previous album because the band members thought it was too reminiscent of "The Beatles". The percussion that is heard at the beginning of the song is a Nigerian drum that Gabriel played on. The song was released as a single which became the band's first to chart on the UK charts. In this case, too, Gabriel used to dress up in the band's live performances, this time as the character of the gardener/stage worker "Jacob".
The third track "Firth Of Fifth" is one of the band's greatest and most appreciated songs. The epic piece opens up with a piano solo piece by Tony Banks. A great section with arpeggios chords played at odd time signatures such as 13/16 and 15/16.
Banks wrote most of this amazing piece on his own. He tried to interest the band members for with it for "Foxtrot", but was rejected. Banks did not despair. He reworked some of the musical parts and offered them to the band again, this time it worked. The piece opens with a piano solo, parts of which are repeated and played by the band later. Steve Hackett took one of Banks' piano pieces and incorporated it into his guitar solo. This reprise also exists in Peter Gabriel's flute solo starting at 3:28, which Steve Hackett simply embraced into his immortal guitar solo. Listen for example at 6:25 and to the climax at 7:25 repeating Gabriel's flute solo. Interestingly, the title of the song "Firth of Fifth" was chosen as a pun on the name of the river Forth and it is also a pun on "Fourth of a Fifth" which is supposed to relate to the theme of "Selling England in Pounds". The criticism does not skip this song either, in which the people are compared to a flock of sheep that need a shepherd.
The first side of the album ends with "More Fool Me". This is the second song in which Phil Collins takes the lead after "For Absent Friends" from "Nursery Cryme". Uncharacteristically for the period and style of the band at the time, the song is a soft and romantic ballad that opens a small window through which one can peek into how "Genesis" would sound after the Gabriel era and Collins' solo career. The song was quickly written by Collins and Rutherford while sitting on the steps outside the recording studio and is a sort of light intermission between the two opus-like pieces before and after it.
The other side opens with "The Battle of Epping Forest". A humorous work inspired by a news story Gabriel had read several years earlier, about the territorial battles of two rival gangs on the east end of London, which were meant to fight in the "Epping" forest. Peter Gabriel searched the archives to find more information about the story, but when he didn't find he was forced to create fictional characters such as "Liquid Len", "Harold Demure", "The Bethnal Green Butcher" and more that fit into a witty and humorous story, combined with sarcastic criticism, which Gabriel made sure to spice up with A heavy accent that matched the replacement of the various characters. The criticism in this song is directed both at the general public who ignored the great gang fight and allowed it to happen and at the gang members themselves who eventually ended the battle by tossing a coin.
The second track on the other side "After the Ordeal" is a classic instrumental track that is all about Steve Hackett. The name of the track ("After the Ordeal") refers to the previous epic song that told of the battle in the "Epping" forest. This is the first track of "Genesis" in which Hackett plays the classical guitar with nylon strings. Tony Banks and Peter Gabriel objected to the inclusion of the piece, which also extended the album beyond the limits for vinyl records at the time, but Hackett insisted and in the end, the piece remained.
Immediately afterward we come to one of the beautiful works on the album "The Cinema Show", which as mentioned was originally supposed to be part of a longer piece, along with the opening track. This is another amazing epic track that is divided into two parts. It begins as a romantic and modern "Romeo and Juliet" story led by Mike Rutherford's 12-string guitar and features vocal harmonies between Gabriel and Collins, and a flute and oboe solo. The second section begins in the middle of Tony Banks' long and amazing keyboard solo, with this improvisation leading us to close the circle with the minor motif we were familiar with in the opening section of the album. The words written by Banks and Rutherford are inspired by T. S. Eliot's poem "The Waste Land". This time the criticism deals with the relationship between him and her and the distance between men who are likened to water and women who are likened to earth.
The album ends with the short "Aisle of Plenty", which as mentioned is a kind of magical and gloomy reprise of the opening track "Dancing with the Moonlit Knight". It ends the story pessimistically with the sounds of Tony Banks' amazing melody and the mournful voice of Peter Gabriel reading a random supermarket food list and their prices, closing a circle with the protest against capitalism and the excessive consumer culture that has spread in the UK.
We will conclude by saying that the album "Selling England By The Pound" is one of the albums that define the classic "prog rock" and is without a doubt one of the most important and influential in the genre. It is innovative, it is original and it has set new and high standards, both in terms of the quality of the writing and in terms of the level of playing. The classic composition of "Genesis" is here at its best, with a shared creative power that proves how great the whole is from the sum of its parts. While this is the band's highlight, the 'Genesis" brand has proven time and time again that it is capable of reinventing itself and being at the center of the musical map for almost 20 years, even after the departure of Peter Gabriel and later Steve Hackett.