Monday, July 9, 2018

Selling England

Marching on from Foxtrot, particularly "Supper's Ready," which emphasized the intricate, multi-layered group ideology and musical prowess, Selling England By The Pound was a trip into the English pastoral, an off-beat look at life in the country, swathed in medieval madrigals.

The pastoral English sentiment is evident before the first listen. Betty Swanwick's cover art, entitled "The Dream," was a departure from the previous album covers and one that the band were able to manipulate with the addition of a lawnmower and a sense of playfulness and good-natured mischief. ("I solemnly swear that I am up to no good.")

The pervasive question, "Can you tell me where my country lies," is the listener's first encounter; the tone already set, its darker undercurrent revealed. No other album, Genesis or otherwise, kicks off in such a way, offering up a sense of loss, a departure of both post-war innocence, sixties radicalism in the arts and in technology as well as in every-day life, and a foreshadowing of an England to come. The 1970s were a period riven by a state selling itself to the highest bidders, the fundamentals of life, shelter, food, electricity crippling the middle class; bit by bit, England was selling by the pound. The Clash and the punk rock uprising would say it more explicitly just a few years later, but while Yes was rambling on about mystics and philosophy, and Gentle Giant was, well, singing about giants, Genesis reflected a national mood, a mood later expressed so eloquently on ELP's Brain Salad Surgery through William Blake's "Jerusalem" ("And was Jerusalem builded here/ Among these dark satanic mills?"). 
"Dancing with the Moonlit Knight" is rife with complex glass-darkly overtones bursting to the seams, and serves as a disturbing but grandly painted artwork, cerebral in its nature but with all the essence of whimsy thrown in; a suggestion about the British spirit. The second verse of the track imbues the image of England, of the U.K., the town and country placed side by side co-existing in a world that hasn't progressed from the times of Ben Jonson, from the sixteenth century and in which Shakespeare wrote of this other Eden and the Sceptered Isle. Gone though were the 1950s and 60s, gone was the prosperity of Post-war Britain; now was a time of harsh reality, the country in decline. 

A man hollers from the crowd and claims that the paper is late. The man at the tube station selling The Evening Standard to those making their way home to the suburbs, is nowhere to be found. A cog in the machine is askew, only big news is delayed. The headline captured is that of a man drowned, the suicide note signed Old Father Thames. England is sold down the river. It's but verse two and Gabriel's lyrics are simpler than implied here (and all the more effective): 

"Paper late!" cried a voice in the crowd.
"Old man dies!" The note he left was signed "Old Father Thames."
- it seems he's drowned;
selling England by the pound.

It is these comical but topical allusions, the small looks at life in the country, which make the album endlessly fascinating. Evermore so, I can only imagine, as an Englishman (fee fi foe that, Gentle Giant). It is also an album that draws once more on the literature in which to find inspiration. Whether through newspaper articles in which gangs in the East-End fought in Epping Forest, the use of the whimsical pun in Aisle of Plenty, in which now with time seems a regretful way of looking at the era or in the utterly compelling The Cinema Show which takes its lead from both The Wasteland and from The Ovid.

It is a complex look of what was Britain was going through and has continued to do since the start of the 70s. Like The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, Selling England By The Pound is a piece of lyrical wonderment, a licence to be poetic and to be scanned deeply into the meaning of every song, a perfect album in which the art of close reading comes into its own, yet it is Steve Hackett's guitar that gives the album it's deep resonance, its almost sublime beauty throughout, especially on the instrumental track "After The Ordeal" which makes the album one to listen to over and over again. For many, though, it's "Firth of Fifth" that is the standout track, with its beautifully crafted Tony Banks's neo-classical piano intro and Steve Hackett's wonderful guitar solo. It is one of the pinnacles of Prog. And the title? A playful re-arrangement of the name of the body of water that separates Edinburgh and East Lothian from Fife in Scotland – it’s called The Firth of Forth.

Others will argue for The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, but this is Genesis' finest moment.

Mischief Managed