SELLING ENGLAND BY THE POUND
Author: Bruce Jenkins Date Posted:19 January 2024
Attempting to convince the skeptical to try classics of progressive rock is not an easy task, though I’d argue the genre has much to offer the open-eared rock fan. Sure, you have to adjust expectations to fit the art—rather like reading Dickens, I sometimes think—but the effort pays big dividends. None more so than this Genesis LP .
In mid-1973 Genesis were deep into an exceptional run of creativity. Selling England By The Pound was the third of an outstanding trilogy of LPs, following Nursery Cryme (1971) and Foxtrot (1972). After touring heavily (and releasing Genesis Live in June ’73) they adjourned to the studio to write for a new album. As the title and delightful cover image by Betty Swanwick suggest, much of the inspiration came from the English countryside.
Indeed, the elderly Ms Swanwick invited the band to tea on her lawn to discuss using her watercolour "The Dream" for the LP, agreeing to add the lawnmower and garden fork to her original painting rather than re-do the whole thing!
The pastoral imagery seeps into much of the music. “I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)”, for example, includes these lyrics inspired directly by the painting:
When the sun beats down and I lie on the bench
I can always hear them talk
Me, I’m just a lawn mower – you can tell me by the way I walk
Yet the song, despite being a successful single and an excellent example of this classic Genesis line-up, is not the centrepiece of Selling England By The Pound. That honour, most would agree, goes to the magnificent “Firth of Fifth”. With rich harmonies, shifting time-signatures and complex yet accessible ensemble playing, Tony Banks’ “Firth” is one of the pinnacles of Seventies progressive music.
These are not the only pleasures to be found in Selling England By The Pound. “The Cinema Show” holds up very well to repeated listens and demonstrates what fans revere in the band. Steve Hackett has commented that he was enjoying The Mahavishnu Orchestra at the time and included some of what he heard in his own playing. Same for Phil Collins, who incorporated jazz-rock rhythms into the weave. Meanwhile, in “More Fool Me”, we hear a different side of Genesis: a heartfelt ballad sung by the drummer.
Even the tongue-in-cheek melodrama of “The Battle of Epping Forrest” has its charms, despite its extended length making it something of an epic. Collins described it as “a barrage of information” and even lyricist Gabriel conceded it could have used “some editing”!
There is something quintessentially English and unapologetically eccentric about Selling England By The Pound, almost as if the dreamlike, whimsical mundanity of the cover pervades and colours the music. The LP is consistently entertaining and multi-layered enough to satisfy prog fans, or indeed anyone seeking assiduously constructed and beautifully played “thinking” rock music. And if, perchance, such music causes fatigue on initial acquaintance, a quick kip on a handy park bench is sure to revive you enough for another listen.
© Bruce Jenkins—January 2024