More subtle in its musical personality and deeper in its lyrical profundity, 'Selling England by the Pound' veers decidedly away from the tone of Genesis' two previous American releases. For this one Genesis have opted ironically for their most ethereal approach to date.
Ironically, because it's now that they're just beginning to make it here, and one would expect them to want to flash us out before subliming us in. After all, the former approach has proven to have infinitely more "commoishel p'tenshel". But, then, due to Genesis' generally anti-populist appeal (their music involving itself with such necessities as psychical growth), this tack is not particularly surprising.
Their interest in two dominant lyrical strains has infatuated the band since their earliest days. Peter Gabriel, lead singer/costume changer/mime extraordinaire and one of the band's two lyricists [?], is repulsed by the 20th century materialist ethic (rich kids all the same, huh?). The supermarket of 'Aisle of Plenty' screams out discount signs in grotesque cacophony: "ENGLISH RIBS OF BEEF CUT DOWN TO 47p. LB... BIRDS EYE DAIRY CREAM SPONGE ON OFFER THIS WEEK." Gabriel's reply: "It's scrambled eggs" (to me).
To counterpoint this rank cynicism, other-lyricist Michael Rutherford (the band's neo-Entwistlian electro-tonk bassist) finds solace in a reversionist/romanticist attitude which manifests itself in its interest in medieval myth. Up on his Jungian archetypes and Arthurian legend, Rutherford's the one who's constantly calling us back to a "time when honor meant much more to a man than life." Put Gabriel and Rutherford's attitudes together in lyrical collaboration and the sparks gonna fly.
As on the album opener, 'Dancing With the Moonlit Knight'. Within the first six minutes of the album, Genesis have succeeded in capturing the epitome of the lyrical vision only hinted at in the earlier discs. "A cappella", Gabriel introduces us to this theme in his patent, choir-boy-toned vocal style:
"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.
Psychical disruption with the loss of a modern mythology. Noting the lack of spiritual cement with which to bind together their culture, Genesis finds disgust in England's "Wimpy dreams," the new-church, the non-church... Repelled by this cultural stagnation, Rutherford alludes to the prototypical night-as-blindness image and combines this brilliantly with his knowledge of the ancient romance of 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight' to illustrate his contempt for the 20th century pseudo-religious Pied Piper:
All that England once held holy (symbolized by the archetypal goal at the end of the hero's quest - the great Grail) has given way to this bedeviled nightmare of modern consumer/lunacy. Who says there's no room left for moralizers in the 20th century? At the heart of every cynic exists the moralist, right?
And behind Genesis' lyrics lies the musica fulcrum of the band. Tony Banks on keyboards is the man behind the symphonic textures, the rose-tinted Orwellian techno-overlays that predominate the group's sound. Somewhat akin to the technique of Yes (except Genesis has the capability to SWING), Banks steers the band through lyrical-complementary orchestral-like passages with a firm grounding in the likes of classicist tone poets, Berlioz and Sibelius; likewise, Stephen Hackett's expressionist guitar further highlights Genesis' profiscient lyric vision.
As for this whole discussion, what does it mean? That there is an art evolving out of Modern Rock? Who cares? What really interests me is that there's a future in bands like Genesis and Focus. With such a wealth of musical history behind them (culturally) and both bands' incessant motivation to remain continually innovative, there's no stopping either of 'em. And if you find that somewhat of a progressive-chauvinist bias, you're damn straight it is!
Typed up by Thomas Holter, from GENESIS MAGAZINE No: 14, January 1980.