50 years ago today Genesis released Selling England by the Pound, one of their best-regarded albums.
SELLING ENGLAND BY THE POUND
UK Release: 28 September 1973. LP. Charisma. CAS 1074.
Album Score – 83%
Peter Gabriel – vocals, flute, oboe, percussion
Tony Banks – Hammond organ, Mellotron, Hohner Pianet, ARP Pro Soloist, piano, 12-string guitar
Steve Hackett – electric guitar, nylon guitar
Mike Rutherford – 12-string guitar, bass, electric sitar, cello
Phil Collins – drums, assorted percussion, lead vocals on “More Fool Me”, backing vocals
Recorded at Island Studios, London, England, August 1973.
Producer: John Burns and Genesis
Engineer: John Burns
Assistant Engineer: Rhett Davis
Dancing With the Moonlit Knight (8:04) *****
I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe) (4:10) *****
Firth of Fifth (9:40) *****
More Fool Me (3:13) ***
The Battle of Epping Forest (11:43) ***
After the Ordeal (4:15) **
The Cinema Show (10:41) *****
Aisle of Plenty (1:58) ***
All tracks credited to Genesis
The writing sessions took place at a doctor’s big old house near Chessington Zoo in Surrey. The sessions were the first for which Genesis had set specific time aside to write an album from scratch. They wanted to compose via jams and improvisation rather than developing pre-existing ideas and joining pieces together. The brief was for the band to focus on their Englishness as a response to the increasing popularity of American music.
After months of writing, arranging and re-arranging their new songs Genesis finally entered Island Studios to record their new album in August 1973. They had quickly settled on John Burns as producer following his excellent engineering work on Foxtrot. Burns was also sympathetic to the band’s music and was a good choice. There were arguments in the band about what material should be included on the album. None of the band members was willing to compromise and it ultimately led to a very long album at just shy of fifty-four minutes.
Selling England by the Pound was released on 28 September 1973 and performed well in the UK charts, becoming Genesis’ first top 10 hit by reaching #3 as well as charting in the USA at #70 following its release there a month later. The album was also noteworthy for providing the band with their first hit single, ‘I Know What I Like (in Your Wardrobe)’, which reached #21 in the UK charts.
Having parted company with Paul Whitehead, Genesis was looking for a fresh approach to the album cover. Peter Gabriel had become fascinated with the artwork of British painter Betty Swanwick. Her painting The Dream had become the inspiration for Gabriel’s lyrics to ‘I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)’. When it came to the selection of the cover for the album, the band asked Swanwick to add a lawnmower to her original painting. This she did happily, and the final cover remains one of the band’s most iconic.
The band members had enjoyed working with John Burns as producer and were pleased with the improved recording quality that emerged from the sessions. Despite the superior sound, the record company was not overly enthusiastic about the album and neither were certain members of the band – notably Banks and Rutherford who felt it wasn’t as consistent as Foxtrot. Banks told Armando Gallo, “I don’t think the album succeeds on every level but there were attempts to just try and do things a little more imaginatively.” Conversely, Selling England by the Pound is regarded by fans and critics as possibly Genesis’ strongest and most representative album. Steve Hackett concurs, pointing to the experimental nature of the instrumentation and the surreal lyrics.
The music press was largely impressed. In its review Sounds noted, “The compositions are melodic and naturally intuitive in their construction, the playing is sweet and extremely precise, and the composition of the album as a whole is such that it remains fluid and carefully wrought for the best possible impact.” In her review for New Musical Express, Barbara Charone noted it was “the band’s best, most adventurous album to date.” In the USA, however, Rolling Stone writer Paul Gambaccini was less convinced but nevertheless remained mildly supportive: “Musically their artiness is, in small doses, engaging. And a band that is trying to do something different in a stagnant pop scene deserves encouragement.”
Contemporary reviewers often cite this as Genesis’ strongest work. In their ‘Buyer’s Guide’, Planet Rock described the album as being, “Full of romantic longing and unrequited love – it’s all so brilliantly, terribly English.” In his review for All Music Guide, Stephen Thomas Erlewine noted, “It plays as a collection of short stories, fables, and fairy tales, and it is also a rock record, which naturally makes it quite extraordinary as a collection, but also as a set of individual songs.” Despite these glowing tributes it is hard to argue against the view of Banks and Rutherford that the album is a mixed bag. It has some very strong creative musical moments on its standout tracks, but there is a large gap in quality between the best tracks and the rest. The album is also more heavily instrumental than before, as demonstrated by the long passages on ‘Firth of Fifth’ and ‘The Cinema Show’ as well as the wholly instrumental ‘After the Ordeal’. Gabriel did, however, contribute increasingly whimsical and surreal lyrics, particularly for the single ‘I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)’ and the long rambling opus ‘The Battle of Epping Forest’. The former worked beautifully with its simple catchy melodies masking a more complex arrangement, but the latter sank in its own self-indulgence and lack of cohesion with the real battle being between the band’s densely arranged music and Gabriel’s wordy and demanding lyrics and vocals. Collins enjoyed another lead vocal spot on the delicate and short ‘More Fool Me’, which provided contrast, but ‘After the Ordeal’, an inconsequential instrumental, was little more than filler.
Technically, the band’s playing was very assured and certainly their strongest performance to date – something they acknowledged at the time. Banks was beginning to delve into the world of synthesisers with interesting results. Rutherford was showing great rhythmic prowess on bass, whilst Collins’ drumming was inventive and highlighted perfectly the drama in the music – notably during the instrumental stretches. Hackett contributed possibly his best work for the band with some fluent guitar pieces – his solo on ‘Firth of Fifth’ being his best with the band and it became something of a signature piece. Gabriel’s vocals also benefited from the clearer production and at last managed to cut through the sometimes dense soundscape. Despite the album’s compositional inconsistencies, Selling England by the Pound confirmed Genesis’ commercial breakthrough and produced four songs that are amongst the strongest in the band’s catalogue.
Genesis filmed the highlights of their live set for an Italian TV special at arranged audience sessions at Shepperton Studios on 30 & 31 October 1973. The band was unhappy with the result as Collins commented, “When we saw the film, we couldn’t say anything to each other. It wasn’t right.” The band continued to promote their music in the USA with a tour spanning November and December 1973. To help with their live promotion Genesis recruited Tony Smith, who had worked in partnership with British promoters Mike Alfandary and Harvey Goldsmith, as their new manager. The band had discovered that poor bookkeeping had left them significantly in debt. Smith had a reputation for being very organised and having lots of contacts in the business. By persuading Smith to take on the challenge, the band had removed any conflict Tony Stratton-Smith might have had being both the band’s manager and the band’s record label. The US tour was well received critically and their growing reputation as a live act was further enhanced during a 1974 tour of the UK. Gabriel continued to expand his use of costumes to help act out the songs on stage, which naturally focused the attention of the music press on the lead singer. This was an increasing source of frustration to the rest of the band, who felt they were now being perceived as Gabriel’s backing musicians. There were several attempts to put the press right on the matter. Collins noted in an interview with Record Mirror at the time, “We’re all aware of each other’s importance and out of the limelight Peter just blends in with the rest of us. Anyway, luckily it’s got better and people don’t see it like that anymore.”
In the UK, the band was voted top stage act by the New Musical Express readers, but despite their newfound success, the band remained heavily in debt and was determined to crack the US market. This led to a re-think of approach for their next album. Having explored in detail the very essence of Englishness they would now look across the water for their inspiration.
Text extracts are taken from my book The Songs of Genesis: A Complete Guide to the Studio Recordings (McFarland & Co., 2020).
 Gallo, Armando. Genesis: I Know What I Like. Los Angeles: DIY Books, 1979.
 Review of Selling England by the Pound. Sounds, 29 September 1973.
 Charone, Barbara. ‘The Pound Recovers.’ New Musical Express, 29 September 1973.
 Gambaccini, Paul. Selling England by the Pound review. Rolling Stone, 14 March 1974.
 Blake, Mark. ‘Anyone for croquet with a severed head? Ghosts in the front garden? And who’s best: Gabriel or Collins?’ Planet Rock, Issue #13, April 2019.
 Erlewine, Stephen Thomas. Selling England by the Pound review. All Music Guide. Retrieved 13 April 2019. https://www.allmusic.com/album/selling-england-by-the-pound-mw0000189986
 The set included: ‘Watcher of the Skies’, ‘Dancing with the Moonlit Knight’, ‘I Know What I Like’, ‘The Musical Box’ and ‘Supper’s Ready’. The 61-minute film, shot in 16mm, was made available on the DVD Extras Disc of the remixed Selling England by the Pound album released as part of the Genesis 1970-1975 box set.
 Welch, Chris. ‘Genesis: England Rules the Waves!’ Melody Maker, 25 May 1974.
 According to Collins, the debt amounted to £150,000. Rutherford remembers it at £400,000.
 Harvey, Peter. ‘Our act was slowly taking us over.’ Record Mirror, 19 January 1974.