An important concomitant of prog rock, of which Genesis is a seminal band, is lyrics that would fit into literature, fantasy and sci-fi. In one of their weirder moments, Genesis has a song about giant sentient plants that want to kill humanity called “The Return of the Giant Hogweed.” It’s based on a real plant (heracleum mantegazzianum) that causes ugly, red welts when its sap comes in contact with human skin, and can cause blindness if it gets in your eyes. And we’ve already explored “Supper’s Ready” and its various mythological and biblical themes.
But there’s always been another side to Peter Gabriel and his lyrics. Sometimes he turns his focus to the real world, and unlike the more fantastical elements of Genesis’ music, he has a very critical eye for reality. With fantasy, he takes more of a storytelling role. The dichotomy there makes sense – the real world dissatisfies him, and he usually tries to retreat from it. But once in a while, he feels like telling you about it.
Like a good creator of art should, though, he couches his social commentary in metaphor, symbolism and indirect language. We’ve already seen his criticism of the British housing system in “Get ‘Em Out By Friday,” and he continues his lament for his homeland in “Dancing With the Moonlit Knight” from Selling England By the Pound. The album gets its name from the song, which in turn borrows from a slogan of the British Labour Party. At the time of the album’s recording, Harold Wilson was campaigning with the Labour Party for Prime Minister, which he would win. That was the time of the three-day week and the 1973 oil crisis.
Peter decided the title of Genesis’ new album would be Selling England By the Pound to offset what critics had said about Genesis being US-centered, playing to the American markets and ignoring where they came from. The inclusion of England in the title probably did that, but it’s ironic that their next album had Broadway in the title, referring to the street in New York City.
“Dancing With the Moonlit Knight” is, at first glance, one big hot mess. The imagery is very vivid, but it seems like its making up characters with without a story. But I was a teenager when I first heard this song, and it was a long time before I checked out what its seemingly random metaphors actually meant.
The first line, which Gabriel sings before the instruments come in, is a small tip-off, though. “’Can you tell me where my country lies?’ / said the unifaun to his true love’s eyes.” Where’s his country? What happened to England? I think Peter is referring to an “Olde England,” a place that books still talk about but has gone the way of the dodo. It’s a place of King Arthur and Robin Hood, of Bilbo Baggins and the Green Knight. It doesn’t exist anymore, and maybe it only existed in the minds of storytellers long gone. But nevertheless, “Dancing With the Moonlit Knight” is Peter’s lament of modernity imposing it’s hard, cold edges on the flower petals of the past.
“Moonlit Knight” is among the densest song Genesis has ever done, and that’s saying a lot. The lyrics make mention of “the Queen of Maybe,” which is most likely a reference to the Queen of May, a symbol used in ancient England to represent the hope of a good harvest. “Old Father Thames” is the spirit that lives in the river of the same name which flows through London. “Citizens of Hope and Glory” is a nod to the English hymn “Land of Hope and Glory.” There are also references to Wimpy Restaurants, the Holy Grail, Green Shield stamps, and two figures from the Morris dance (the “Hobby Horse” and the “Fool”). Peter was playing pretty safe with this song – it’s so layered in subtext and metaphor that almost no one can tell what the hell it’s about.
And I just gotta take a second to point out how awesome Steve Hackett is, and what a FRICKIN’ SHAME it is that Eddie Van Halen gets all the credit for tapping. Steve was one of the first to do tapping while Eddie was popping pimples and cheating on his history exams. That’s not a dig on Eddie – it’s music fandom’s fault, not his. If I really wanted to dig on Eddie, I’d point out that his greatest contribution to the art of the guitar was the elephant sound… but I digress. Anyway, let’s give Steve Hackett his due credit, because Lord knows he didn’t get it during his Genesis stint, or even after.
Next: Betty Swanwick’s lost painting.