SELLING ENGLAND BY THE POUND - A LAMENT FOR POST WAR ENGLAND
"Can You Tell Me Where My Country Lies"
The first, acapella words from the rich, almost quintessentially English voice of Peter Gabriel open the proceedings of Selling England By The Pound, a Genesis album which to me represents a zenith of lyrical clarity amongst their repertoire, together with a reflection/critique of mid 1970's Britain which, whilst less obvious than the pointed whimsy of the Kinks, and appreciably less bombastic than the lyrical hyperbole of Roger Waters' Pink Floyd, presents the patient listener with a vision of England that is all the more poignant for its subtle approach.
As mentioned above, the first stanza of the first song is sung acapella, without instrumental backing, and this works on two entirely separate levels. Apart from the musical device of building up the songs momentum, there is I believe also a historical parallel being made. Much of "Dancing with the Moonlit Knight", is about the State of The Nation c 1973 (as is well documented, Selling England By The Pound takes its name from a Labour Party document (historical note - every Genesis book I have seen refers to this as a Party manifesto - I can't see how this could be as the album was released in October 1973 and the first of the two elections in 1974 took place in February 1974, but I'm working on this). Traditionally, throughout British history, there has been a tradition of the minstrel being both entertainer, and purveyor of news and information from district to district. Often these travelling musicians would use acapella song to tell stories that were based on traditions of oral history. The beginning of Dancing........ whether deliberately or subconsciously, evokes that tradition, which is not out of keeping with the folk/pastoral influence that the multilayered acoustic guitars first introduced on Trespass, and developed and refined during subsequent albums.
From the drama of the introduction, we move into a lament-like lyric outlining the changes that those of us in the UK now take for granted, but back in 1973 were only beginning to make their influence felt........
"It lies with me- cried the Queen of Maybe
For her merchandise, he traded in his prize"
apart from the obvious sexual implication, this is the first time that a continuing theme is introduced, which also closes the album - that of the influence of the market (in small and capital letters) on the day-to-day life of the populace. To explain, the late '60's and especially the early seventies saw the advent of the "supermarket", which for "a nation of shopkeepers" (thank you, Napoleon), was something of a cultural sea-change, and could be argued as one of the first symptoms of a general dissipation of the small community, which saw its logical conclusion in the "I don't believe in society" Friedman-for-beginners ravages of the 1980's.
"Paperlate - 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"
To these ears listening to this track in conjunction with Us and Them from Dark Side of the Moon, is particularly instructive. Again, if I can delve into the murky area of social history, the 1970's were also the first time in about 50 years that the UK had faced a seriously inflationary economy, together with a gradually aging population. One of the consequences of this was the introduction of the notion of elderly poverty, which is commonplace now, but was very much a novelty at the time of Gabriel penning the lyrics.
"Citizens of Hope & Glory" - Elgar, anyone?
"Easy now, sit you down,
Chewing through your Wimpy dreams
They eat without a sound
Digesting England by the pound"
Although our transatlantic cousins will remember Wimpy primarily as the rotund chappy in Popeye, Wimpy were the first "fast - food" esque outlet in most towns and cities in England, predating the ubiquitous rise of MacDonalds by many years. Again there is a contrast between History and Change - but done without the sledgehammer to the cranium approach. Trivia point - Peter Gabriel's first rendezvous with his wife to be Jill, was at a Wimpy bar............
"Young man says you are what you eat - eat well
Old man says you are what you wear - wear well"
a beautiful summary of the changing approach to personal versus social improvement in a country riddled with an obsession with appearance and social graces.
" - join the dance
Follow on! Till the Grail sun sets in the mould
Follow on! Till the gold is cold
Dancing out with the moonlit knight
Knights of the Green Shield stamp and shout"
Again, this works on several levels. The story of the Holy Grail, and its connection with Arthurian legend, is a cornerstone both of romantic Anglican Christianity, and the "classical" notion of Englishness that in later years has been hijacked by arch-nationalists along with several other national myths. To counterpoint this with the idea of mould, which is redolent of decay, aging without care, is stroke of lyrical genius. The way that the following line is sung gives the verbal ambiguity of gold/goal, which adds extra meaning to the line, and the whole verse is pulled back into a modern context with the reference to Green Shield Stamps, which to the uninitiated were a pseudo-savings scheme initiated by supermarkets, whereby you received a fixed number of stamps depending on how much money you spent, which were then collected and exchanged for consumer durables. Especially interesting given the juxtaposition of imagery is the Arthurian legend of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Trivia point number two - Collins has recounted that during their tours of England in the relative discomfort of the back of a transit van, it was not unknown for fights to break out between band members as to the ownership of the Green Shield stamps procured as a result of filling the van with petrol. This obviously made a lasting impression on Gabriel.................
After the instrumental section, which incidentally is one of my favourite passages of Genesis music, we return with
"There's a fat old lady outside the saloon
Laying out the credit cards she plays fortune
The deck is uneven right from the start
And All of the hands are playing a part"
The first part of the verse alludes to the famous "it's not over till the fat lady sings" aphorism, and also shifts the centre of metaphor from England to the States, unless the saloon mentioned refers to the saloon bars that were a feature of English public houses of the time. The allusion to credit cards, which again in 1973 were a relative novelty in the UK, also drags the narrative back to the changes in British society that at this point were in their formative stages - whereas previously the idea of credit was part of the community and was based on a one-to-one principle of trust and obligation, this was in the process of being delineated and turned into an impersonal and corporate set of transactions.
Moving to the second song on the album, the very-nearly-a-chart-success I Know What I Like (In your wardrobe), attention is first drawn to the subtitle. There is a suggestion here of transvestism, which given the subjects living arrangements in the lyric, and the fascination of the English middle classes with dressing up in women's clothing (Monty Python, Pink Floyd's Arnold Layne, Ray Davies' Lola, to name but a few), is not as far-fetched as it may sound initially.
Taken as a whole, the song describes in comic terms the "know thy place" approach that has been one of the defining characteristics of the English class system, with pointed lyrical barbs at the education system ("had to thank old Miss Mort for schooling a failure") and a catchline that encapsulates the small conservatism of the average manual worker of the times. I know what I like, and I like what I know, indeed.
There then follow two songs which step outside the show, as it were, whilst still fitting the overall "feel" of the album, to a greater or lesser extent. Firth of Fifth, which is a Genesis staple, has lyrics which, whilst suitably elegiac, would appear to be an extended metaphor for the passage of time from a human perspective (which is in itself a recurring theme in Banks' lyrical work, and worthy of separate discussion and analysis - just not here), and More Fool Me, a small vignette of a song by Collins and Rutherford, which again captures the feelings of yearning and loss, albeit in a much more direct and unambiguous manner, which is I suppose a microcosm of the differences between the different eras of the band.
And so, to side Two. Or for those of you whose discs have only ever had one side, so to the bit after More Fool Me
The Battle of Epping Forest is a rare example of an early Genesis track that divides opinion sharply, a facet of its existence highlighted by the knowledge that it had the same effect within the band. Yet as an exercise in wordplay, and coterminously as an exercise in the precision of the musical arrangement, it is a paradigm of the Genesis catalogue.
So, to provide a guide to the twists and turns of the song, let me take you to the East End of London..................
Which over the last century or so, has developed an urban mythology all of its own. In a bizarre reflection of the sense of small closely-knit community based around the extended family that was a cornerstone of industrial and rural England, the East End boasted a comprehensive network of gangland groups, who were more often than not territorially based, and familial in nature. Their main concerns were racketeering, protection money, the maintenance and "welfare" of prostitutes, etc. A bit like the Mafia with cheaper suits and less garlic, if you will.
One of the more endearing aspects of this suburban criminality, was that the gangs had stringent "codes of conduct", and were very particular about the dispensation of violence, when it came to the recipients. Which has led in part to the iconic status afforded to the likes of the Krays by modern commentators, Morrissey, and that great arbiter of morality, the tabloid buying public. Whilst such rose tinted nostalgia in the wake of a much more randomly violent society is to be expected, the naïveté of assuming that being involved in the environment in which these people operated was a matter of choice, is rather disappointing. Anyway, enough skewed background, on with the song........
"Along the Forest Road"
For those not familiar with London's geography, Forest Road leads out of Walthamstow, which is one of the less opulent parts of London's East End, and into the leafier suburbs of Essex, where tonight's entertainment takes place
"There's hundreds of cars - luxury cars
Each has got its load of convertible bars, cutlery cars - superscars"
The introduction of the lyrical ambiguities that pepper the song - the bars referred to could as easily be of the iron as the licensed variety, especially so with the use of the word "convertible". Which of course has automotive connotations also.
Skipping the verse that presents the dramatis personae, we come to
"Yes, these Christian soldiers fight to protect the poor
East End heroes got to score in the......."
Which is either cute wordplay or a scathing social aside (or probably even both). Again one of the apparently endearing features of the East End crime scene was the villains emphasis on "family values", and the sanctity of being a good God-fearing churchgoing lot. As if this somehow immolated them from the rather nefarious deeds being done once the sermon was over. the use of the word "protect" in this context also carries a double meaning, as whilst these chaps had an enduring pride in their community (and London's East End has been notorious for its levels of poverty), this didn't preclude them from making sure the local denizens paid up to be "protected".
The commentary that follows is largely the product of Gabriel's imagination, as according to the Bowler & Dray biography, despite concerted attempts to find out more about the actual fracas, no details were forthcoming from the underworld, surprisingly enough. Of historical note is the couplet
"when the thumpires shout, they all start to clout
there's no guns in this gentlemen's bout"
which outlines another idiosyncrasy of crime of the time - it was part of the "code of conduct" of the criminal cognoscenti of the age that guns were not to be used is at all possible, or, as Bob Hoskins and Michael Caine amongst others have evinced in their best mock-Cockney accents - "No shooters!" In fact, the carrying of firearms was seen by the underworld as a sign of considerable personal weakness. Although this opinion may have been moderated slightly had they ever found themselves staring down the "business" end of the aforementioned weaponry.
After Liquid Len's summary dispensation of retribution, the music steers a sharp left turn into the story of the Reverend (lovingly recast on the remastered CD by diligent proofreaders as After The Ordeal, for some reason best known to themselves)
The first half of the Reverend's tale tells of his fall from heavenly grace, unsurprisingly given the lyricists' bent towards casual and classical misogyny (writer's note - I hope to cover this either as a separate piece on Genesis and women, or as part of a bigger piece (no pun intended) on women in the progressive movement) comes at the hands of a fair female, the delightful Louise.
There now follows something of a mystery solved for me, or at least I think it is. For years I was puzzled as to why the Reverend would, given that he was looking for furniture only to find himself at a house of ill-repute, then be offered the chance of being interested in some "old-fashioned Staffordshire plate". This puzzle finally revealed itself whilst reading an article on the Plaster Casters of Chicago. (for the uninitiated, the Plaster Casters of Chicago were a group of females who specialised in the creation of permanent memorials to male rock stars', erm, important little places. Or in the case of Jimi Hendrix, important not so little places).
Whereupon the young impressionable writer discovered that "plate" was in fact a colloquialism for oral sex. So there you have it. Or maybe not.
The verse recounting the Reverend's re-employment : "Love, Peace and Truth Incorporated" is a beautiful deflation of the "hippy culture" of the 1970's which was always ripe for mild fun-poking, and shows at least formative signs that Gabriel was perfectly aware of the need to distance himself from some of "the movement's" stereotypes well before the catharsis of The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway. It also is an early recognition of the corporate nature of the post-Woodstock era, which is notably prescient.
Returning to the fray of battle, the second of the verses is helped along if you are familiar with the Rolls Royce Silver Cloud, expensive motorcar of choice for the "blackcap baron". This explains a lots of the wordplay - "The butler's got Jam on his Rolls" "It's the end of the day, and the Clouds roll away".
The final point and the final line, refers to the gangland bosses as blackcap barons. I'm not entirely sure as to why this is, and will have to research this a bit harder, but one possibility is, given the previous lyrics allusion to the mutual slaughter of the warring factions' footsoldiers, the black cap worn by Judges in the UK prior to passing the death sentence.
So, There it was. And in terms of capturing and manipulating several different ideas at once, like Get 'Em Out by Friday, the lyrics to Battle, and Dancing with the Moonlit Knight, are testament to the lyrical depth and density of Gabriel's work, and a reminder of something the band lost on his departure that is often overlooked.
After the Ordeal follows, which fits in with the overall concept of the album by sounding remarkably like chamber music to start off with, and evincing the pastoral feel which carries across to the Cinema Show.
Which for me is a set of lyrics hung round a piece of music, to a very large extent - although this could be down to my not having read T S Eliot's The Waste Land, which is something of a reference point here. I feel that the first set of the lyrics bears only a passing relationship with the Father Tiresias bit, but they sound quite sweet, and complement the instrumental section of the song very well.
Which brings us to Aisle of Plenty, and, as Bowler and Dray smugly inform us, some "truly excruciating puns". Gabriel reverts to the supermarket theme again her, mentioning the main retail chains - Fine Fare, SafeWay, and - two for the price of one - Tesco and Co-op ("tess Co-operates"), in conjunction with the growth of the deadly nightshade, which our previous duo of intrepid biographers didn't comment on - which is surprising because its inclusion may be the crux to the whole album. In English tradition the deadly nightshade is a symbol of falsehood, as well as being a viciously toxic flower whose berries were used in small amounts by European females to dilate the pupils and thus make their eyes look more attractive. (It also has considerable historical import as being a herb from the "Garden of Herbal Evil" which will have resonance for scholars of the Inquisition and the persecution of "Witches" in the Middle Ages) The inclusion of nightshade as metaphor therefore closes the album with the observation that the events portrayed in the albums pieces with social narrative (Dancing/I Know What I Like/Epping Forest/Aisle of Plenty) are an artifice, social change as an illusion of actual progress. The resonance of the imagery is complemented by the subtlety of placement, a feat which has this writer's admiration.
Copyright © 1999 Manir Donaghue
(This first appeared - in two parts on Paperlate - a Genesis mailing list, and then in slightly modified form on alt.music.genesis - the newsgroup, in September/October 1998)
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