Category: Selling England By the Pound

T.S. Eliot

T.S. Eliot

Since high school, my favorite poet has been T. S. Eliot. As a poet myself, you couldn’t really tell; my style is much more similar to Emily Dickinson and Alfred Lord Tennyson, with a little Byron thrown in there. But Eliot remains my favorite, in part because I can’t imitate him. Every time I read “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and especially “Journey of the Magi,” I am defeated by his rhythms, choice of words, but most of all his content. My poetry is good for what it is, but there always a sneaking doubt in my mind that says, “well, I’ll never be as good as T. S. Eliot…”

My least favorite poem by my most favorite poet is “The Waste Land.” I know, some of you fellow Eliot enthusiasts are gasping in horror. “The Waste Land” is Eliot’s undisputed greatest work, his magnum opus, if you will. And I recognize that it’s a seminal work in the craft of poetry and represent a shift in style for the entire art form. But I’ve only read in completely though once, and that was for a college class. Each time I try, I get frustrated – not with the poem, but with myself, my lack of focus, and my inability to understand it. And I’d wager that this is a feeling that a lot of “The Waste Land’s” readers have felt at least once, even if they won’t admit it.

Tiresias, the blind prophet

Tiresias, the blind prophet

A central figure in “The Waste Land” is the character Tiresias, the famous blind prophet from Greek myth. His most famous appearance is in Oedipus Rex, where he reveals what eventually ends (spoiler alert) with Oedipus poking out his own eyes. The highlight of his appearance in “The Waste Land,” however, is his experience as both a man and a woman.

The myth, when boiled down to almost nothing, says Tiresias was a pawn in a bet the gods had going about which of the genders enjoyed sex more. Tiresias, being a mortal man, was transformed into a woman to compare and contrast the pleasures of sex from both perspectives. His answer? If 10 is the total enjoyment of sex, women enjoy it 7 and men enjoy it 3. Being men, this pissed the gods off something awful. In a true shoot-the-messenger fashion, they instantly struck Tiresias blind. As a consolation prize, though, they gave him the ability to perfectly foresee the future. A fat lot of good it did him; when he told people what would happen in the future they never listened to him, despite the fact that he was always right.

“The Waste Land” isn’t about Tiresias directly, but uses him to further explore the intricacies of gender, the differences between them, and what it means to be male or female. I’m surprised David Bowie didn’t do an entire album based on “The Waste Land,” since this is right up his alley. Instead, we get a little retelling/recasting of the whole Tiresias/Waste Land characterization in Genesis’s “The Cinema Show.”

Now, “The Cinema Show” is NOT “The Waste Land.” When they stand next to each other, you want to push them apart. In fact, if “The Waste Land” were a human body that suddenly sprouted a second head and the two heads started arguing with each other, the second head would be “The Cinema Show.”

There’s a passage from “The Waste Land” that talks about a woman simply referred to as “the typist” and a young man and their sexual encounter. “The Cinema Show” has similar characters, but Gabriel calls upon another source (Shakespeare) and calls them “Romeo” and “Juliet.” Eliot’s account of this encounter is dark and unsettling, filled with harsh and alarming physicality. In it, we have the injustice and imbalance of the man taking by force exactly what he wants from the woman, and the woman not even trying to resist. At the end, the woman is left empty while the man is full. In Peter Gabriel’s recasting of this story, however, it takes a near-180; it’s a little silly, a little playful, and dare I say romantic. The only hint we have that it’s the same story is the imperative of Romeo’s words: “I WILL make my bed with her tonight…” But why WILL he? ‘Cause he brought her chocolate. Giving the typist free candy probably isn’t something that would even occur to Eliot’s “young man carbuncular.”

Peter Gabriel

Peter Gabriel

If we only have the two options of Eliot’s somber and hopeless approach to the gender divide and Gabriel’s “whatcha cryin’ about?” attitude about the same thing, I’d choose Gabriel’s. But it strikes me, as it does with a lot of things, that there must be a third option. If I’m looking for something and I’m not happy with what I find, I’m gonna keep looking.

From my own perspective, gender and its offshoots are not universal for all people… at all, really. There are as many different ways to be men as there are men. But at the same time, I don’t hold with the loose and fast “gender-don’t-mean-a-thing” attitude that’s so prevalent in our society today. Despite some people trying to deny it, men and women are just different. That’s not a limiting thing, or at least it doesn’t have to be. But there’s nothing wrong with the exploration of what it means to be a man or a woman, or even if it means anything at all. I’ve always thought that questions lead to answers if you ask the right person. I believe there is an answer to the question of the gender divide, and it’s NOT as simple “boys play sports and girls play with dolls.” Whoever said that lacked imagination.

The Dream, Betty Swanwick

The Dream, Betty Swanwick

The cover of Selling England By the Pound features a painting by Betty Swanwick, one called The Dream. Her style is noted as being “quintessentially English,” according to the British Council for Visual Arts. Peter Gabriel must have thought so, too. In his quest to make Selling England more applicable to a British audience, he chose an image for the cover that evoked the fussiness and the passive grandiosity that Brits do so well. In the forefront of the painting is a man sleeping on a park bench in the middle of a garden. While Selling England was still in production, Peter saw The Dream and thought it’d be perfect. A big reason, I think, was that the song “I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)” featured the lyrics “When the sun beats down and I lie on the bench…”

Peter asked Betty to add a little something to the painting to make it even more applicable to the song – a lawn mower standing up next to the park bench. It looks like it’s really supposed to be there, perfectly married to the song. The Dream visually tells a story of a man who simply wants to be left alone, but has other people constantly making demands of him. The same exact theme is presented in “I Know What I Like.” THAT is truly a piece of synchronicity (unlike The Dark Side of the Rainbow), and the larger framework is the British character.

That character might also be the character of mankind in general. We don’t want anyone ordering our lives, and yet we spend so much time trying to order other people’s lives, particularly those of people we love. Jesus said we should take the plank out of our eye before we try to take the speck out of our brother’s (Matthew 7); to me, one of the things that means is “don’t mess with someone’s life unless you don’t mind them messing with yours.” We’re meant to live in community with one another, so in a way no one’s life should be un-messed with – but it always needs to be done lovingly (I can’t stress this enough), and treading where you’re not welcome is the epitome of un-love.

At Peter’s request, Betty added the lawn mower to the painting, and I can’t for the life of me find anywhere a picture of the painting in its original form. I suppose the original The Dream has been lost. It’s no big tragedy, I guess, because the addition of the lawn mower fits in perfectly with the tone of the piece, but it makes my obsessive-compulsive self very sad.

The “In Your Wardrobe” subtitle is confusing. The best explanation I’ve heard is the “wardrobe” refers to the works of C. S. Lewis and his magical gateway into the alternate dimension of Narnia. This sorta fits with the main character of “I Know What I Like” desiring escape from the demands of the world, but that’s stretching it quite far.

The third track is “Firth of Fifth,” so called for the Scottish term for coastal waters. We would call it the Mississippi River or the Chesapeake Bay, but Scots and some Brits would say Firth of Chesapeake or Firth of Mississippi. A rather famous firth in Scotland is the River Forth, also known as the Firth of Forth. The next logical firth would be… Peter must have dislocated his shoulder he was patting himself on the back so hard.

I first experienced both “Firth of Fifth” and “I Know What I Like” back in 6th grade, during my Genesis OCD phase. But I only knew about them as parts of “Old Medley,” the 20 minute track that opened the second volume of Genesis’ live album from the We Can’t Dance tour, The Way We Walk. The rest of both Vol. 1: The Shorts and Vol. 2: The Longs was made up of Phil songs, but “Old Medley” was composed of all songs I had never heard before. “Old Medley” contains key sections of “Dance On a Volcano,” “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway,” “The Musical Box,” “Firth of Fifth,” and “I Know What I Like,” and it also features snippets of “That’s All,” “Illegal Alien,” “Your Own Special Way,” “Follow You Follow Me,” and “Stagnation,” all sung over the main keyboard hook of “I Know What I Like.” In fact, it was reading the liner notes and seeing the authors of those old songs that gave me my first indication that Peter Gabriel used to be a part of Genesis.

The remainder of The Longs (with the exception of a sweet drum duet  between Phil touring drummer Chester Thompson) was songs that exceeded 10 minutes in length, and only from as far back as 1983. At the time, these were my favorites, so it makes sense that I would come to like the Gabriel years even more than Phil’s heyday. Even though Phil holds a special little place in my heart, and always will, it’s albums like Selling England By the Pound that will be Genesis’ lasting legacy. If I were playing Desert Island and could only pick one Genesis album out of all of them, it would probably be Selling England.

Heracleum mantegazzianum, or giant hogweed

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.

Genesis – Selling England By the Pound – 10/12/1973

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.

Steve Hackett

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.