Genesis may have not been the first, best or even the most original, but to many fans they are the archetypal progressive rock act. From distinctly unpromising beginnings, they had nevertheless evolved from cult favourites in Europe, to the point where in late 1973, they were on the cusp of sizeable commercial success. Much of the press coverage was no doubt down to the fact that frontman Peter Gabriel wore ridiculous stage costumes and entertained the audience with fantastical monologues between songs, but with the success of previous album, Foxtrot, they had found a larger audience, and people had started to talk of Genesis as a band, rather than a backing group for a bizarre frontman. Bankes, Rutherford, Hackett and Collins weren’t just supporting players damn it.
Hearing it now, it’s easy to mark Selling England By The Pound as one of the best of the Gabriel-led Genesis albums. The five piece were playing much tighter than they had previously, Gabriel was exploring his vocal range, as well as providing the band with some ridiculously obscure lyrics, and each band member was allowed to play to his strengths. It even boasted the band’s first hit single in the gloriously mad “I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)”.
As pastoral prog goes, Selling England By The Pound isn’t bad at all, being one of the finest examples of the sub-genre. The downside is that as an album, it suffers from many of the failures that blight much of the prog-rock genre. Despite its sometimes (perhaps international?) laugh-out-loud lyrics, on the whole Selling England By The Pound seems to take itself far too seriously. It’s somewhat bloated in places in that some perfectly good tracks can be stretched to ridiculous extremes, and sometimes the pace of a song is changed just for the sake of changing pace, without it furthering the musical journey one iota. There’s also little warmth here, as Gabriel’s lyrics are often so ambiguous that it’s difficult to relate to many of them. The one exception is the Phil Collins’ fronted number “More Fool Me”, which is strangely unpopular among many fans of early Genesis. I for one think it’s one of the highlights of the album, showing what Genesis could do with a basic love song lyric, and comparatively little in the way of musical frills. It also gave us a sneak-peak of post-Gabriel Genesis.
As far as the actual music goes, there is some fine playing on Selling England By The Pound, particularly on “Dancing With The Moonlit Knight”, where the band go against their usual instincts and actually rock out, and the keyboard intro to “Firth of Fifth”. Sometimes the usual Genesis creative excesses do take over, but it wouldn’t be progressive rock without the excess would it?