Tag Archives: Art rock

Genesis- Selling England By the Pound

The first album that I really got into, listening and re-listening to over and over on my parent’s VCR when I was 15, was Selling England by the Pound by Genesis. Yes, I freely admit that the first album I really got into was a dadrock album from the seventies. Maybe I should’ve been with the times and looked more into Radiohead, I don’t know. Or maybe I should have just listened to some pop-punk that everybody around me liked. Now that I think of it though, it isn’t so embarrassing.

Looking at Selling England by the Pound, I feel the same fascination I have for Hounds of Love by Kate Bush; it’s sincere and soft-spoken, but odd around the edges at the same time, very distinctly English in this way that’s difficult to articulate. Take for instance, the mysteriously beautiful, yet simultaneously jaunty and funny “I Know What I Like”. I remember really digging Peter Gabriel’s flourishes on the flute and the dreamlike feeling of Tony Banks’s droning mellotron. This was what attracted me to English progressive rock– when they did it right, it was just really imaginative, beautiful music, though the format for it was not perfect. This whole mode of pop music that I see in early Genesis, Kate Bush, and Peter Gabriel’s solo work was very much an artistic cul de sac– modern music that takes influence from Anglo prog doesn’t seem to have this sort of innocence and complexity of tone to it, though some musicians, like Steven Wilson, vaguely try to emulate it. But then again, maybe Genesis themselves weren’t even intentionally creating that which has given me this impression. One looks at the stuff they did on literally the very first album without Gabriel, A Trick of the Tail, and the magic was already starting to go away.

When Genesis started out in earnest, on Trespass (another cult album of mine, I highly recommend it), they had a very gentle folk-rock sound that made frequent use of vocal harmonizing. Then, their first guitarist, Anthony Philips, unfortunately departed, and their sound temporarily got weirder as they became the early Genesis that most fans of dadrock are a little more familiar with. The thing is, early Genesis, post Anthony Philips, is a bit like watching someone be incredibly good at something through a method that is completely, mindbogglingly counter-intuitive. In this case, the lead singer’s artistic personality is sometimes androgynous and edgy, sometimes sensitive and soulful. Then you’ve got a virtuoso guitarist who is majorly showing off, yet at the same time is exercising a really masterful amount of control in keeping his guitar’s presence tasteful and textured, playing alongside a bassist and keyboardist who are perhaps tasteful to the point of being uninteresting, yet nonetheless admirably exacting in their performances. To top it all off, there’s an extremely talented drummer who always finds a way to make the odd time-signatures rock. What a strange rock band. It’s so finely tuned and yet at the same time precariously situated. Viewing Genesis in this way, it is easy to see why for many, the spell had broken the second that Gabriel had left.

My and other people’s disappointment with Genesis is not at all a matter of Phil Collins’s talent as compared to Gabriel’s (Collins himself did not want Gabriel to leave, and at first did not want to be the new lead singer)– it’s a matter of how Gabriel balanced something out. It has to do with how, even as a teenager who was wary of what society considered to be cool or novel, I felt as though there was something about the later Genesis that was just kind of flat and uninteresting. Perhaps, after all, Collins has a smoother voice than Gabriel’s, but without that strangeness of Gabriel’s, the band didn’t work.

And it really is a shame, because at the height of their powers, they were a hell of a band and they are no doubt fantastically talented musicians.  I remember listening to “Dancing with the Moonlight Knight” and feeling as though I was for the first time listening to a rock song in which the drums had an interesting and dynamic presence. Phil Collins may very well have been one of the greatest drummers in the world  in the early seventies– his fills were insanely fast, and his performances greatly enhance the drama of the music. If you watch old concert films of Genesis, you can see what an important driving force he was in their live presence. Look too, at Steve Hackett. You know, I’ve always felt that sweep-picking and tapping are almost always, in addition to being sort of self-indulgent, not even that aesthetically appealing to listen to, but one of the few exceptions I can make for this judgement is Hackett. It’s not just his ethereally beautiful soloing in “Firth of Fifth” and “Dancing with the Moonlit Knight” that stands out, there’s his nimble picking in “The Battle of Epping Forest”, especially the riffs around four minutes in. His aesthetic sense as a musician was really quite unique– I remember reading an article in which he named his favorite composer as Erik Satie.

 There was really only one Genesis. There’ll likely never be anything like this ever again.