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.