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Not Fade Away: Genesis Prog-Rock Masterpiece ‘Selling England By The Pound’ Turns 40

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In Not Fade Away, we look at some of the greatest albums of the past few decades as they celebrate significant anniversaries. Here we focus on the 1973 Genesis release Selling England By The Pound. Many fans cite this album as the peak of the group’s prog-rock period, as it featured their most celebrated lineup: Peter Gabriel on vocals and flute, Mike Rutherford on bass and guitar, Tony Banks on keyboards and synthesizer, Steve Hackett on guitar and Phil Collins on drums and vocals. The album turns 40 this week. 

“I’m guessing that most people in this room have never listened to Selling England By The Pound. You cannot buy the ‘greatest hits’ record and understand what I’m talking about. But there are so many who I’m speaking for tonight who know exactly what I’m talking about.” Phish frontman Trey Anastasio was discussing what the band’s prog-rock fans often cite as Genesis’s finest moment, during his speech inducting the group into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 2010.  He may not have been wrong: the audience included Bruce Springsteen, Iggy Pop, Carole King and Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong.

Anastasio was talking about Genesis’s musicality, ambition and rebelliousness, all qualities in full display on their ’73 opus. Rebellion isn’t a term generally used to describe Genesis (on the other hand, imagine the controversy that would ensue if their later era songs and videos like “Land Of Confusion” and “Jesus He Knows Me” were released today). But on this album, the bandmates were decrying the commercialization of England–much as the Kinks did a few years earlier on The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society and Arthur (Or The Decline And Fall Of The British Empire).

In a recent interview with Radio.com, Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett gave us insight into some of the songs on Selling England By The Pound. For instance, he explained that on the album’s lead track “Dancing With The Moonlit Night,” the line “Chewing through your wimpy dreams” was actually intended as a reference to a growing corporate influence. “Wimpy is a fast food place in the U.K., like McDonalds,” Hackett explained. “It was the sense of old England being taken over; the corner shop giving way to the multinational [corporation].” Watch a 1973 performance of the song below:

At the time of the album’s release, many British bands were aiming to crack the American market, and Brit prog rock groups such as Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer had already made serious inroads. But with an album as  quintessentially British as Selling England By The Pound, did Genesis worry about not connecting on these shores?

“No,” Hackett said. “We were bringing England to America with the album title, so they would know there’d be some unusual references.” Some of these references included “The Battle For Epping Forest,” a gang fight taking place in a forest on the outskirts of London. Gangs, by the way (another subject not normally associated with Genesis), would re-emerge on the group’s next album The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, albeit in more American form.

One of Selling England‘s highlights is another British-sounding title: “Firth of Fifth.” As it featured some of Banks’ loveliest piano and keyboard playing and some of Hackett’s most soaring guitar work, the lyrics are almost beside the point. Hackett, like Collins, wasn’t a founding member of the band, and often found himself the odd man out in the group. Was it a struggle to get his solos, with Banks taking many of them and Gabriel taking some on flute? Not, he said, on this song. “It wasn’t hard because those guitar solos were strongly melodic, and so the band warmed to them.” He added, “I still love that song, which I feel is strongly uplifting, has great power, and is another Genesis anthem.”

Hackett is the most low-profile member of Genesis. He quit before the band’s huge pop breakthrough in the ’80s, and he didn’t have the solo success of Gabriel and Collins (although his supergroup with Yes’s Steve Howe, GTR, did have a big pop moment in the ’80s as well). And he isn’t often cited as a guitar hero, although he deserves to be. That was something else Anastasio pointed out during his Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame speech. “On ‘Dancing With The Moonlit Knight,’ Steve Hackett delivered some of the first rock recordings of tapping and sweep picking,”Anastasio said, “half a decade before Eddie Van Halen released ‘Eruption.'”

Hackett noted that that was the first time this had been pointed out in such a public forum.

Another notable (and notably less “prog-rock”) song on the album is “More Fool Me,” featuring lead vocals by Collins, who at that point was the group’s drummer. A much simpler, acoustic-based song about a relationship coming to an end, it became a preview of what was to come from Collins, both in his work with Genesis and afterwards, during his spectacularly successful solo career.

“I always encouraged Phil with his singing,” Hackett recalls. “I thought his voice had a soulful quality. I feel we had two great lead singers.”

The band followed Selling England a year later with The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway. After that, Gabriel left to start his solo career. Initially the remaining bandmates looked for a new lead singer, but ultimately Collins took over on the mic. Then after two more albums, Hackett, too, left, to pursue his solo career.

Ironically, these days Hackett is the only member of the band performing Genesis songs in the U.S. Gabriel ditched his old band’s material long ago; Collins has pretty much retired from performing, and rarely plays Genesis songs on his solo tours. Rutherford plays a few songs on tour with Mike & The Mechanics, but they don’t tour in the U.S.

Hackett, however, has been touring to support his Genesis Revisited 2 album, playing songs from his era in the band. He said that the band’s induction into the Rock Hall “ultimately sowed the seeds” of his album and tour.

Of the ceremony, he said, “I felt honored. It was a very special occasion. I was glad to see Genesis recognized and celebrated.”

And–the inevitable question–could he envision a scenario where he, Gabriel, Collins, Banks and Rutherford would perform together again?

“It’s an often asked question! At the moment it seems unlikely, but my door is always open.”

– Brian Ives, Radio.com

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