Saturday, 19 March 2016

Genesis: The Re-evaluation of John - Chapter 6: Selling England By The Pound

Something happened to Progressive music in 1973: a wave of creativity broke over the music scene and the ripples of that tidal surge are still being felt over 40 years later. This was the year that showed us the Dark Side of the Moon, where we feasted on Lark's Tongues in Aspic and performed Brian Salad Surgery whilst living In a Glass House.

Many have speculated as to what was Genesis's finest hour. Was it the epic splendour of Supper's Ready (voted by Progzilla radio recently the favourite prog rock track of all time); was it the tortured and tortuous tale told in The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway; or was it their 1973 album, Selling England By The Pound?

The album certainly marks a quantum lead by the band in terms of musical invention and lyrical creativity, assisted by the broadening of Tony Banks's musical palette with the introduction of an ARP synthesizer alongside the Mellotron & Hammond organ. The band are still telling stories, an enduring and endearing feature of the band's output, and continue to exhibit an abundant virtuosity in their playing. It was the first of their albums to break into the Top 10 in the UK, peaking at number 3, and spawned the band's first hit single, I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe), which was itself inspired by the cover art produced this time by Betty Swanwick. In its sequencing, the collection alternates between long and short songs, though whether this was a deliberate move I'm not sure, but as all the long songs are of such high quality it is perhaps good for the listener to have a brief respite between them.

The album opens with 'Dancing With The Moonlit Knight', a song bemoaning the diminution of British uniqueness in contemporary life as transatlantic influences begin to take hold - perhaps prophetic in the McDonaldised, Starbucked, Disneyfied and Wal*Marted towns and cities of today. Like Trespass before it, the opening notes are from Gabriel's voice, with his plaintiff cry: "Can you tell me where my country lies?" Is the 'Queen of Maybe' who answers his call the Disney corporation, I wonder? The opening section is dominated by muted guitar and keyboards, with Gabriel's vocals forceful and clear. A pleasant guitar motif ripples through these early verses, before the Mellotron kicks in in full choir, and as the Knights of the Green Shield begin to stamp and shout the band gets its groove on and  starts to rock! There's already a new, more exciting feel to the music than hitherto: more inventive and playful. The rocky feel fades, and the song ends in a dreamy, meditative passage which (if Wikipedia is to be believed!) was originally meant to segue into Cinema Show, thus creating another 20 minute piece: this was abandoned as an idea, as it was felt that it might be seen as trying to reproduce Supper's Ready.

Instead we move on to 'I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)', which, as I mentioned above, went on to be the band's first hit single, peaking just outside the Top 20. At its heart is a simple 4-note guitar riff which gives the band scope to improvise over the top, and the finished article came out of a studio jam. In later live renditions it leaves room for many of their other songs to be referenced, as well as space for Phil Collins' tambourine tarantella. The lyrics are essentially nonsense, but no less fun for that!

'Firth of Fifth' opens with a blistering solo piano piece from Tony Banks, who shows just what a consummate performer and composer he is: sheer sublime beauty, yet full of energy and panache! As the band come in it feels a little awkward musically as the momentum that has built up seems to falter and the tempo slows. But this song is here to showcase Banks, and after a flute passage from Gabriel we are back to keyboards, first piano then synth, picking up themes from the opening section. This then leads us to Steve Hackett picking up those themes and others with a soaring solo. This is truly breathtaking symphonic music at its finest, rising to a series of crescendi before finding resolution as the vocals return (not quite as awkwardly as previously): it is, to my mind, the band's finest piece of work.

If 'Firth' was essentially a Banks composition, then the next song (although all songs are credited to the whole band) is the work of Mike Rutherford and Phil Collins. 'More Fool Me' gives Collins the opportunity, for only the second time since he joined the band, to take to the microphone as lead vocalist (something he kinda got used to after 1975!). Like 'For Absent Friends', his first (uncredited) venture to the front of the stage, this is a quiet ballad with just 12-string acoustic guitar and vocals, with Phil singing backing voice as well as lead. Like much of Collins' later solo material this is a song about the fragility of human relationships: a kind of anti-love song almost, but nonetheless quite endearing in a slightly treacly kind of way.

The sources of inspiration for Genesis's songs has always been wide and varied, which is part of the band's appeal to many: you never really know what's going to come next! 'The Battle of Epping Forest', the longest track on the album, was inspired by a news story about gang rivalry in the East-End of London. This is a great song, almost in the English music-hall or pantomime tradition with its varied voices, pun-laden lyrics and changes in musical style, and fits nicely alongside 'Harold The Barrel' and 'Get 'Em Out By Friday' from their earlier canon. The battle is followed by a rare instrumental piece (only the second such so far), 'After The Ordeal', a guitar work by Steve Hackett divided between an acoustic section backed by piano, and and electric solo with organ, piano and drums, and flute joining towards the end.

'Cinema Show', the last of the long songs, begins with 12-string guitars backing the vocals, which grows slowly as the rest of the band joins in for the chorus. There then follows an extended instrumental passage with Gabriel providing flute and oboe motifs before more vocal interplay between Gabriel & Collins leads us back to the chorus. Hackett restates the vocal line on electric guitar, before an extended synth solo from Banks builds to a crescendo before gently picking up the guitar motif from 'Dancing With The Moonlit Night' (which this track was originally meant to follow) and leading into 'Aisle of Plenty', effectively a reprise of the opening cut, which suitably book-ends the album.

Thus ends one of the sublimest 53½ minutes of progressive rock ever recorded. It's very difficult to say anything about this album without sounding overly gushing in praise: it's just that good! In the 43 years that have passed since its release little has come close to bettering it in the field, and it continues to grow on me with every listen.