Graded on a Curve: Genesis, Selling England by the Pound

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating—prog rock is the Devil’s handiwork. It says so right in the Bible, in Matthew 10:6: “Listen therefore not to the makers of the 14-minute songs with 43 chord changes, for they do not rocketh properly, nor are they pleasing to the ears of our Father who art in Heaven, who would much prefer to crank up The Troggs.”

Prog rock is God’s way of telling us that the better you get at something, the more intolerable you become to everyone else. It’s a mutant tentacle of rock, what with its complex arrangements, classical elements, and emphasis on musical virtuosity, and a spit in the face of Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Iggy Pop, and the thousands of other great rockers smart enough to understand that the only commandment of rock, handed down on a stone tablet by God Himself, is “Keep it simple, stupid.”

Over the course of my life I’ve been wise enough to keep far abreast of the stuff, lest it be catching, with one exception—Genesis. I heard them all the time when I was in my late teens, because a couple of my stoner buddies were wild about them. I wasn’t wild about them, at least partially because I was too perpetually bonged-out to comprehend what they were up to. I never learned to distinguish one album from another, much less one song from another, and everything happened too fast, even though the songs went on forever. Even after hearing the same Genesis album a hundred times I didn’t know what was coming next, which is not proof that pot makes you stupid but is compelling evidence that it doesn’t make you any smarter.

If asked to pick a favorite I would be lost, with one exception—I actually love “I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)” and was always happy when it jumped out the prog swamp I was busy drowning in. Which I guess makes 1973’s Selling England by the Pound my favorite Genesis LP, more or less by default. As for the rest of the songs on the LP, I would swear on a Bible I’ve never heard them before. So why don’t I get acquainted with the LP, with you tagging along?

But first a wee history. I’ll keep it short, I promise. Genesis was founded in 1967 by five English schoolboys from Godalming, wherever that is, only three of whom were still around when Genesis recorded Selling England by the Pound. The band in 1973 included Peter Gabriel on vocals and a plethora of other instruments, Tony Banks on keyboards, Michael Rutherford on bass, Steve Hackett on electric guitar, and Phil “Judas” Collins on drums. While the band attracted a cult audience, it came into much criticism. The late DJ John Peel, for instance, said, “I used to go and see Genesis and after about three minutes I’d think, oh, I wish this would stop!” And an influential cartoonist depicted the band playing to a comatose audience, with a banner on which was written “GENESNOOZE” behind the band. Others argued that the band’s difficult music was elitist and a snub at the working classes. I don’t know about that last part—my friends came from working class backgrounds and they were fans—but I would argue that Genesis’ music was too snooty for any class: upper, middle, or low.

Selling England by the Pound was Genesis’ fifth studio LP, and you can tell you’re in Merrie Olde England from the album’s opener, “Dancing with the Moonlit Knight.” I tend to flee songs that include the word “knight” in their title, but I’ve got to hand it to the band; after a slow and folk-inflected intro, which features Gabriel somberly singing about digesting England by the pound, the band kicks in and Gabriel pipes up, and there follows a racing instrumental passage that gives all the players a say. Hackett’s guitar work in particular is impressive, as is Collins’ drum work. Then Gabriel comes back in, inviting us to “join the dance,” before about 12 more tempo changes lead to an overly long exit. In short, it’s a promising song that is too complicated—big surprise—for its own good, but if you’re a prog fan, it’s an undisputed good ‘un. Fortunately it’s followed by “I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe),” which is introduced by some portentous noise, after which Gabriel sings like a working class bloke to the accompaniment of a wonderfully jolly melody. The bass is great, the backing vocals are a harbinger of the type Gabriel would turn to as a solo artist, and the chorus is anthemic, and I’ll be damned if the results can’t be called funky. But my favorite bit occurs when Gabriel speaks the words, “When the sun beats down/And I lie on the bench/I can always hear them talk/Me, I’m just a lawnmower/You can tell me by the way I walk,” after which he plays some very cool flute to the accompaniment of lots of jangling percussion to take the song out.

“Firth of Fifth” opens with Banks playing a relatively accessible piano. Then the band kicks in and it’s not bad, a mid-tempo number heavy on the organ, until the song switches tracks at least three times in the next minute, annoying the fuck out of me. It’s good when the band comes in like they’re actually interested in playing some rock and roll, but that ends all-too quickly, and first the piano and then Gabriel’s flute engage in some interminably dull neo-classical palaver. There then follows an organ-heavy interlude that might as well be by ELP, and I can’t help but see midgets dancing around a tiny Stonehenge as I listen to it. Hackett follows up on guitar, which would be welcome except I don’t particularly like the tone of his guitar. Then the whole band once again comes crashing in, and once again you get the idea there’s a real live rock band in there somewhere, dying to get out. And listening to it I think no wonder I could never remember a single song by this band—every one of their songs is at least five songs, tossed into a musical salad and tossed. “More Fool Me” is an anomaly; not only does Collins handle lead vocals, but the song is relatively simple, both musically and lyrically. Too bad it totally sucks. Collins’ vocals ooze saccharine, and not even the uptick in tempo can save it. Avoid at all costs.

“The Battle of Epping Forest” is long, and I mean long, but at least Gabriel’s lyrical conceit is interesting, and the tune almost sustains my interest. Gabriel has updated all those old songs about historical battles to sing about a modern day war between gangs in London’s East End. And the song kicks along at a nice pace, Gabriel singing, “This is the day they sort it out.” Even the change in tempo is not jarring, and Tony Banks’ keyboard solo is shockingly listenable. But slowly and surely the song begins to wander from here to there and back again, and only Gabriel’s vocals are there to save the day. At least until the song abruptly and totally switches tracks, and you’re listening to what could be Jethro Tull. And I ask myself, why? Ah, but Gabriel saves the day again, using an assortment of voices to depict various characters until the band settles into a too-brief melodic passage, which ends with an abrupt return to the chorus. And the more I hear this one the more I like it for its sheer perversity. It’s 100 songs! 1,000 songs! And I’ll say it again; no wonder I could make neither head nor hair of this goddamn band, as obliterated as I was on drugs. Even now I would have to listen to it another 100 times to even begin to explain its heedless and needless complexities, and totally over-the-top noodling.

The appropriately titled “After the Ordeal” is a fey folk rock instrumental written by Hackett, whose classical guitar vies with a piano for attention. It’s pretty boring until Hackett decides he’s going to play some electric guitar with the whole band, and what you’ve got on your hands is a song that would fit comfortably on a Mick Ronson solo album. And the best part is that it ends before it changes its mind and returns to its beginnings. “The Cinema Show” is another long one, and opens with some oh so folksy guitar followed by a boring bit of singing by Gabriel. And so it goes until the song picks up speed and becomes listenable, which is great except it’s all over before you know it, and you’re listening to Gabriel warble away like a songbird on the flute. And it’s all so complex, what with the backing vocals and everything else, until the melody becomes bearable again thanks to a melody that sticks around long enough to make an impression. Ah, but soon enough the song picks up speed again, and aren’t they impressive? Listen to those arpeggios! Coming at you like rabid chipmunks! And that synthesizer solo! And the whole band again! I’ve read the lyrics were inspired by T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” and that tells you something, as he was the first prog poet, although others will argue Ezra Pound deserves the honor. In any event, the song ends with a long solo by Banks on the ARP Pro Soloist, whatever that is. And the LP ends with the brief “Aisle of Plenty,” which reprises the album’s opening track and makes good use of multiple voices. It’s a throwaway, but it’s my second favorite song on Selling England by the Pound, which tells me these guys should have produced more throwaways.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Genesis is how the early Peter Gabriel version of the band sucked in an entirely different way from the later Phil Collins version of the band. That takes vision, or sheer perversity, or something. In any event, listening to Selling England by the Pound has convinced me I was lucky to have been so stoned so often back in the day, because there’s no way I’d have survived listening to the band otherwise. I know they have their fans, because the world is filled with people who equate remarkable musicianship for good music. The two of course sometimes go hand in hand, but never in Proglandia. There excellent musicianship exists for its own sake, and the more complex the song the better, and fuck the likes of the rest of us. I don’t know about you, but me, I can’t stomach Genesis because I’m just a lawnmower, you can tell me by the way I walk.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
C-

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