After two three-chord musical extravaganzas with ho-hum lyrics, I felt the urge to write about music with greater chordal and rhythmic variation. Because I’m way behind in my exploration of progressive rock (as my mother frequently reminds me), I decided to explore two albums from that genre back-to-back, both of which frequently appear in the top ten lists of the greatest progressive rock albums of all time: Selling England by the Pound and Close to the Edge.
I don’t really care about the “best ever” bullshit, but I find both albums more than worthy of my time and effort.
I’ll dispense with the suspense and tell you upfront that my review of Selling England by the Pound will be favorable, despite some noticeable shortcomings. A paragraph in the Wikipedia article on the album unintentionally explains why the album fell short of perfection. The excerpt itself is riddled with errors and questionable assumptions, largely because the author did not question what turned out to be “fake news” dished out by biographers and “the common wisdom found on the internet.”
One of the ideas that Gabriel wanted to convey with the album was the idea of looking at ‘Englishness in a different way.’ This included his suggestion of the album’s title, itself a slogan adopted by the Labour Party manifesto, to ensure that the British press would not accuse the band of “selling out” to America . . . Overall, it [the title] represented a decay of English folk culture and an increase in Americanisation. Banks said the English theme across the album was not an intentional idea at first, but merely the way the songs naturally developed. Gabriel later said he wrote all his lyrical contributions to the album in two days.
Error #1: A “manifesto” in British political parlance is essentially what Americans call a party platform and is only issued during general election campaigns. The title could not have possibly come from a Labour Party manifesto for the simple reason that there was no general election in 1973 (the year the album was released). Some bloggers have advanced the claim that the phrase was contained in a Labour Party pamphlet issued that year, but have failed to provide any evidence to back it up. The truth is no one really knows how Peter Gabriel came up with the title, but nonetheless, it’s a great fit.
Error #2: The assertion that the title “represented a decay of English folk culture and an increase in Americanisation” is a misleading oversimplification of a deeper issue. Worries about Americanization popped up long before Genesis gathered together in an old country house to work out the songs that would fill the album, as noted in this piece from the Library of Congress:
A conspicuous feature of the “Americanization of Britain,” said to have occurred in the years following World War II, was what might be called “consumerism.” American products and business methods, designed to simplify the tasks and daily routines of a society of mass consumers, infiltrated many areas of British life. American-style supermarkets, restaurants, coin-operated laundries, as well as American gadgets, customs, and foods took root in British society and became as inescapable as American popular music and movies.
While the impact of “Americanisation” seems to permeate the album, the perceived threat to U.K. culture and sovereignty at the time wasn’t coming from the Yanks, but from Europe. Ah Ah Mr. Heath had managed to negotiate entry into the Common Market and in response, Ah Ah Mr. Wilson began stoking fears of lost sovereignty and identity. Forty-seven years later, those same fears would lead to Brexit. Rather than blaming everything on the Americans, it’s more accurate to say that many people in the UK are sensitive to any perceived threats to the country’s ways and traditions . . . as illustrated by the continuing existence of the monarchy and in the work of Ray Davies on the subject of preservation. The “decay” described in the album’s lyrics has to do with market forces wreaking havoc on certain traditions (supermarkets supplanting greengrocers, for example) and the always unintentional but inescapable negative consequences of “progress.” Not all of those market forces or bits of progress emanated from the United States.
The album’s shortcomings primarily arise from a lack of clear intent from the get-go. The focus on English culture was just “one of the ideas” floating around, and once the work began to coalesce around a clearer central theme, the band simply ran out of time to go back and make a few corrections. This isn’t so much the fault of the band members as it is the nature of the music business. Genesis was a highly collaborative group and collaboration takes time. Many of the songs on the album were the result of jamming, playing with this theme or that concept, and experimenting with various combinations, as in “let’s try to insert this piece into X song and see if it fits.” In a perfect world, artists would be allowed all the time they need to fully flesh out their ideas, but Genesis hadn’t yet achieved a level of commercial success for the record company to allow them five-and-a-half months to create the next Sgt. Pepper. Charisma Records gave Genesis “two or three months” to come up with a new album, an unreasonable time period that Mike Rutherford characterized as “the kiss of death.” Though Selling England by the Pound doubtless improved their reputation with the listening public and gave them their first hit single, nearly all the members expressed certain regrets regarding the album in the Reissues Interview on YouTube.
So yes, there are flaws. Some of the songs don’t fit, and Peter Gabriel went more than a little bit overboard with some of the lyrics (a common problem in the field of progressive rock). Any defects are more than overcome by superb musicianship, some intensely beautiful compositions and frequent touches of playfulness.
“Dancing with the Moonlit Knight” opens with a single line in a capella that immediately grabs your attention and establishes the main theme: “Can you tell me where my country lies?” Gabriel continues in a capella mode for the second line, where we’re presented with our first of many lyrical puzzles: “Said the unifaun to his true love’s eyes.” I’ve read two interpretations of this neologism (unicorn + faun, uniform + faun) neither of which leads to greater understanding. The uniform crowd argues that the speaker must be a soldier and he’s speaking to his lover (soon to be introduced as the “Queen of Maybe”) but that’s quite a stretch. The simplest solution is often best, so given that the faun is a mythological creature that is part human and part goat, a “unifaun” is technically an impossibility unless one of the parts is missing. Since Peter Gabriel described the song as one that dealt with “the commercialization of English culture,” my sense is that it’s the human part that is absent and that the remaining goat takes on the meaning of “fall guy,” the victim of said commercialization. This is the only interpretation I can come up with that fits with the verse’s closing couplet: “‘It lies with me,’ said the Queen of Maybe/For her merchandise he traded in his prize.” Putting aside the weak pun on “May Queen,” the Queen of Maybe likely represents the built-in uncertainty and risk-taking inherent in capitalism, and the sucker (goat) gives into the Queen’s temptation and trades his English soul for the comfort of material goods.
Let me alleviate any anxieties you may be feeling right now. I am fully aware that if I try to unravel every poetic mystery on the album, the review will wind up longer than War and Peace. Henceforth I will only go there if it’s absolutely necessary.
An interlude of medieval acoustic guitar in stereo follows the verse; in the second verse, a sound close to a vibraphone enters the mix to create a sense of magic. I’m not sure of the meaning of “‘Paper late!’ cried a voice in the crowd,” (newspapers were exempt from the electrical shutdowns of the Three Day Week in 1973), but the newsboy does manage to announce the death of Old Father Thames:
“Old man dies!” The note he left was signed ‘Old Father Thames’
It seems he’s drowned
Selling England by the pound
The entry of Tony Banks’ piano represents a turn in the mood from medieval to modern, from reflective to urgent. In the first three lines of the third verse, Gabriel addresses his fellow citizens directly via the use of Elgar’s “second national anthem” (“Land of Hope and Glory”). In the last three lines he backs off and becomes the observer, bemoaning the sad state of a commercialized populace:
Citizens of hope & glory,
Time goes by, it’s the time of your life
Easy now, sit you down
Chewing through your Wimpy dreams,
They eat without a sound
Digesting England by the pound
“Wimpy” has a triple meaning. Obviously, it’s a reference to the popular fast-food hamburger joint, but when spelled “Wimpey” it refers to a British construction firm that built high and low-rise housing, and of course, there’s the literal meaning of “weak, cowardly and feeble.” It would seem that “Wimpey dreams” refers to the middle-class dream of owning a house, but the literal meaning packs the most weight: commercialization has transformed the land of knights and heroic figures into a weaker country struggling with its identity and living on past glories. At this point, the outlines of the basic musical theme remain in the form of light guitar, but Gabriel introduces a variation on the melody in a blistering attack on his fellow citizens and their surrender to mass consumption:
Young man says “you are what you eat” eat well
Old man says “you are what you wear” wear well
You know what you are, you don’t give a damn
Bursting your belt that is your homemade sham
This brings us to the chorus, where Peter trades clarity for a barely recognizable set of metaphors. A captain enters the scene, leading a dance for unknown reasons; the path to the Holy Grail melts in the mould; the gold is cold; a Moonlit Knight (whatever that is) drops in to join the dance. The only recognizable bit of meaning is in the last line, “Knights of the Green Shield stamp and shout.” The Knights of the Round Table have been transformed into the “Knights of the Trading Stamps,” a succinct description of “Oh how the mighty have fallen.”
The best thing about the chorus is that it heralds the first lengthy instrumental section, where Phil Collins confirms his status as one of the greatest drummers of the era with a flawless performance at blazing speed while Steve Hackett reveals part of the reason why Selling England on the Pound was his favorite Genesis album. Though Steve’s solo is virtually continuous, he varies his attack throughout, exploring compatible melodies while demonstrating mastery of guitar techniques (tapping and sweep-picking) to create smooth legato notes and well-executed arpeggios. The combination of Collins and Hackett makes for a thrilling ride, sweetened occasionally by organ fills from Tony Banks.
We return to the main theme for the final verse, with choral sounds from mellotron voice tapes filling the background and Hackett’s electric guitar destroying any hints of the medieval. Gabriel delivers this verse with palpable strength and a touch of cynicism as he likens the sea change from cash to credit to gambling with a touch of tarot:
There’s a fat old lady outside the saloon
Laying out the credit cards she plays fortune
The deck is uneven right from the start
And all of their hands are playing apart
What makes the deck uneven is a combination of usurious interest rates and the “mañana” attitude encouraged by “buy now/pay later.” While it’s fun to blame credit card issuers for manipulating people into piling on debt, the truth is that most consumers are financial morons who allow themselves to be played because they want more, more and more. Though today’s inflation has driven the amount of credit card debt in both the U.K. and the U.S. to an all-time high, the rise was simply an added burden to an already large batch of red ink. “Possession is the motivation that is hanging up the goddamn nation,” wrote Gene McDaniels nearly 60 years ago, and it’s still true today.
The second rendition of the chorus is “enhanced” by even more indecipherable metaphors and a very odd rhythmic shift where images of mummers dance in Peter’s head. The second instrumental break is dominated by the synthesizer, a sonic intrusion that feels out of place with the general mood of the piece. Things get back on track when Tony Banks shifts to organ and whips out a series of block chords that convey rising tension. The resolution of that tension follows in the form of an extended passage of dreamy, magical sound featuring an impressive array of instruments that are carefully layered to avoid clutter. The result is an achingly beautiful reflective moment that sonically circles back to the gentleness of the introduction. “Dancing with the Moonlit Knight” foreshadows the album’s content—not everything works, but the establishment of the main theme and the excellence of the musicianship overcomes the comparatively minor defects.
Steve Hackett came up with a nice little riff while jamming with Phil Collins during the Foxtrot sessions, but when he first presented it to the other band members, they felt it was “too much like the Beatles.” The pair continued to tinker with the theme when they regrouped for the new album and soon the other band members entered the jam and fleshed out the idea. In the Reissues Interview, Mike Rutherford remembered “I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)” as “one of the first songs where we were actually able to sort of take a short, simple idea and develop it rather than, as we often do, have too many bits in a song.” Peter Gabriel took on the task of creating the lyrics and managed to rein in his symbolist poet tendencies to produce a fully understandable character sketch of a young man named Jacob employed as a lawnmower who doggedly resists change, knows his place and is satisfied with his station in life. “I know what I like and I like what I know” neatly summarizes the desire to preserve tradition, even to the extent of passing up on more lucrative opportunities:
Sunday night, Mr. Farmer called, said
“Listen son, you’re wasting time
There’s a future for you in the fire escape trade
Come up to town”
But I remembered a voice from the past
“Gambling only pays when you’re winning”
Had to thank old Miss Mort for schooling a failure
Keep them mowing blades sharp
Jacob has no desire to improve his lot and rejects the notion that “Getting better in your wardrobe/Stepping one beyond your show” will make him any happier. What I like most about the song is Gabriel’s respect for Jacob’s views: he never insinuates that the guy is a hopeless Luddite who should be consigned to the past and ignored. The music is generally light and playful, with Banks providing the overarching organ as well as the lawnmower sound (via mellotron), Rutherford supplying the continuity on an electric sitar (and producing a nifty, loping bass part) and Gabriel complementing Phil Collins’ always solid drum work with playful whacks on a Nigerian talking drum.
The title may be a joke, but “Firth of Fifth” is anything but. The finished product is a marvelous musical composition, highlighting the brilliant talents of both Tony Banks and Steve Hackett. The original product was also rejected during the Foxtrot sessions, but Banks redesigned the piece and the band fully embraced the changes.
Before we get to the music, however, we have to examine Tony Banks’ contention that the lyrics he penned with Mike Rutherford were “one of the worst sets of lyrics [I have] been involved with.” He did ease up on the self-criticism later in a Songfacts interview: “It was just following the idea of a river and then I got a bit caught up in the cosmos and I don’t quite know where I ended up, actually,” Banks told us. “But, it just about stands up, I think, for the song.” My take is that all the stuff about “undinal songs” and the god Neptune are superfluous, but the first verse and the last four lines fit perfectly with the album’s theme of mass impotence in the face of change:
The path is clear
Though no eyes can see
The course laid down long before
And so with gods and men
The sheep remain inside their pen
Though many times they’ve seen the way to leave
The sheep remain inside their pen
Until the shepherd leads his flock away
The sands of time were eroded by
The river of constant change
Tony Banks may not rank as a top-tier lyricist but he is an absolutely brilliant pianist. In reading up on his background, I noticed that in addition to formal classical piano lessons, he had learned pieces by Rachmaninoff and Ravel by ear. After having the misfortune of running into a lousy teacher at the age of thirteen, he abandoned classical music but continued to develop his skills by learning songs he heard on the radio, then eventually returned to his classical studies. I also noted that his alternative to a music career involved the study of mathematics.
When I listen to his tour-de-force piano introduction to “Firth of Fifth” I hear the discipline and mathematics of classical music mixed with a remarkable intuitive feel for music. The piece opens with classical overtones, but as the song progresses, you’ll hear him speeding up and slowing down the tempo according to where his mind and gut tell him to go. These pseudo-improvisational passages involve several changes in the time signature from the base 2/4 to more complex measures in 11/16 and 13/16; you hardly notice the transitions because Banks abandons formality for natural progression—it’s like you’re overhearing a fascinating conversation as opposed to a prepared speech. I learned the piece (by ear, of course) and too often I find myself thinking too much about the arpeggios rather than allowing the music to flow naturally, resulting in a less-than-satisfying experience for both the pianist and her listeners. The intro to “Firth of Fifth” is one of my favorite piano passages ever, and it’s a tragedy that the electric piano technology of the time lacked touch-sensitive keys, which led Banks to abandon the intro in live performances.
After two verses and a triple bridge, transitional piano leads us to an extended instrumental section that begins with Gabriel evoking a sense of the pastoral by blowing lightly into the flute as he works his way through the segment’s central melody over light piano support. The flute gives way to another transitional passage that builds in intensity, finally cueing Phil Collins to introduce an assertive beat that in turn leads to a segment dominated by the synthesizer. As this section builds, you can hear Steve Hackett in the background playing an oscillating note on the guitar, which turns out to be a nice bit of foreshadowing. As the passage comes to a close, he blends a held note with the closing note played by the synth, making for a seamless transition for his move to center stage. Hackett builds his solo around the central melody, mixing cascades of gorgeous sustain with touches of vibrato in a way that brings out the stunning emotive power of the melody. A rising crescendo returns us to the closing verse, which almost feels superfluous after Hackett’s breathtaking solo. Given the virtuoso performances of Banks and Hackett, I think it’s accurate to think of “Firth of Fifth” as the musical center of the album, while “Dancing with the Moonlit Knight” serves as the lyrical core.
There were some objections from band members about giving “More Fool Me” a spot on the album, but producer John Burns demanded its inclusion, and that was that. I’ll grant that a tender and melancholy song about a crumbling relationship seems like a poor fit for an album largely devoted to the state of Jolly Old England during a historically non-jolly period, but damn, it’s really a fine piece of work. Written quickly by Rutherford and Collins while sitting on the steps leading into the recording studio, the song is hardly “filler” as some have claimed, but an unintrusively sophisticated composition marked by a complex chord sequence involving twenty-six different chords. The melody is flat-out lovely, Rutherford’s 12-string accompaniment is superb and Collins accounts for himself pretty damned well in his first lead vocal, expressing the narrator’s emotional tug-of-war through well-placed phrasing and dynamic changes. No, it doesn’t belong anywhere near Selling England by the Pound but deserves much more respect than it has received from critics and hardcore progressive fans.
Oh, damn, I just flipped over to side two and ran smack dab into “The Battle of Epping Forest.” I think I’ll back off, let the gang members beat the hell out of each other and turn things over to Phil Collins for his perspective:
“Peter took the song and wrote the lyric and we recorded the track,” recalled Phil Collins in the interviews conducted for the 2007 reissue of Selling England. “It’s like, 300 words per line. There was no space. All the air had been sucked out of it. If we had known we could have thinned it out. In those days we didn’t go back and rerecord things.” Played live it was, as Phil puts it, “a barrage of information being thrown at you.”
We’ll now hear from the lyricist, who sounded a bit sheepish in the Reissues Interview:
“I spent a lot of time building up the characters. I was quite reluctant to edit as severely as I should have done. It did end up too wordy.”
The full story of the song’s creation and historical underpinnings can be found in an excellent and positive review of the piece in the blog Hiding Under Covers. From my perspective, I don’t think “building up the characters” was the problem; all Gabriel really had to do was focus his attention on the two gang leaders and the no-longer-unstained vicar and things might have worked out just fine. The problem was piling on the characters—there are way too many small actors who were hardly weren’t mentioning: Mick the Prick, Bob the Nob, Liquid Len, the Bethnal Green Butcher, etc. He then aggravated the problem of “who’s who?” by adding the nicknames of the gang leaders to the muddle; Willy Wright is also referred to as Bill, Billy and William. As it is, experiencing the song is like entering a hoarder’s house, with useless crap filling every bit of living space. The storyline fits nicely with the central theme of cultural decline while giving Gabriel the opportunity to display his gift for wordplay, but the wordiness results in a poor fit with the semi-martial music.
The value of the instrumental “After the Ordeal” is that it gives the listener some well-deserved breathing space after the Barrage of Epping Forest, but that’s about it. As is often the case in collaborative efforts, conflicts often arise, and the battle fought over the inclusion of “After the Ordeal” appears to have been a doozy. In Alan Hewitt’s Opening the Musical Box – A Genesis Chronicle, Tony Banks described the controversy: “We had a few arguments about this at the time because really there was too much material to go on the album. I wanted to kick off ‘After The Ordeal,’ which I actually think is the worst song we’ve ever recorded, I really didn’t like that. I don’t like the whole sort of pseudo-classical thing at all . . . We could have got it off the album without any trouble as we shouted about it quite loudly at the time! But Pete also said that he wanted to get rid of the instrumental bit at the end of ‘Cinema Show’ and I said, ‘We can’t have that, it’s great and it’s got all the best bits!” So we ended up with a compromise which was to keep the whole bloody lot on and as a result, the album sides were far too long, about twenty-eight minutes as I recall. That was far too long for a vinyl album so it sounds pretty rough.” Tony’s memory is accurate: both sides exceed the optimum limit of twenty-two minutes per side, but for some reason, the sound degradation is most noticeable on “After the Ordeal,” probably because some of the band members didn’t like the piece well enough to give it their best effort. I’d describe the piece as “mildly pleasant” but not particularly captivating.
Mike Rutherford’s introduction to “The Cinema Show” is simply one of the loveliest 12-string passages I’ve ever heard. If you’re thinking of wowing the crowd by playing the pattern during your next open mic performance, be advised that most of the tabs on the internet omit one rather important detail. As Rutherford has explained in multiple interviews, he changed the tuning on some of the strings so that the high string expresses a harmonic rather than an octave. Unfortunately, he did not disclose which harmonic notes he used, but a guy named Gordon Ranney took the time to figure it out (the third string is tuned to G/e and the fourth to D/a). You can access his tab here.
The 12-string introduction leads to the two verses and “chorus” that comprise the entire lyrical package (the chorus is repeated once between the two instrumental sections). The Banks-Rutherford lyrics form a brief summation of a particular scene contained in the third section (“The Fire Sermon”) of T. S. Eliot’s opus “The Waste Land.” It’s somewhat ironic that an album concerned with rampant Americanization would include a song inspired by a poet born in St. Louis who emigrated to England at the age of 25 and eventually became a U.K. citizen. Even more ironic (and relevant to the album’s theme) is an episode that occurred when Eliot attended Merton College, Oxford. He found himself in the position of having to defend himself and his fellow merkins against a proposal to adopt a motion “that this society abhors the Americanisation of Oxford.” According to Wikipedia, the motion “was defeated by two votes after Eliot reminded the students how much they owed American culture.”
The Americans in the audience are entitled to one “neener-neener.”
Irony aside, both works use mythological references to shed light on current cultural developments, and both begin by describing the inner thoughts of a woman and a man as they prepare for an evening together. In the Genesis version, Juliet “dabs her skin with pretty smells/concealing to appeal,” and thinks about making her bed but instead leaves in a rush to meet her date at the cinema at the appointed time. While it seems that Juliet is ambivalent about the date leading to a fuck (she wore perfume but didn’t make the bed), Romeo, “with head held high and floral tie/A weekend millionaire” has no such ambivalence: “‘I will make my bed with her tonight,’ he cries.” Genesis rating: PG.
In Eliot’s rendering, the woman is a typist preparing an in-home meal for her lover. On the divan are “stockings, slippers, camisoles and stays,” indicating that she might be open to a nice bang. The gent in question is a “small house agent’s clerk” who believes “the time is propitious.” The dinner has led the typist to reconsider the possibility of sex, but the clerk brooks no denial and proceeds with what we would call a “date rape”:
The meal is ended, she is bored and tired,
Endeavours to engage her in caresses
Which still are unreproved, if undesired.
Flushed and decided, he assaults at once;
Exploring hands encounter no defence;
His vanity requires no response,
And makes a welcome of indifference.
When the jerk finally splits, the typist looks in the mirror and says, “Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over.” Eliot rating: R.
The more substantive difference between the two renditions has to do with Tiresias, the blind seer from Thebes in Greek mythology. “In addition to his gift of prophecy, he is known for his sexual transformation from man to woman (as a punishment from Hera, the queen of the Greek gods).” In Eliot’s take, Tiresias makes his appearance between the musings of the woman and man; Rutherford and Banks have him entering afterward. Eliot’s choice strengthens Tiresias’ role as the all-seeing observer of cultural decay while the Rutherford-Banks presentation places Teresias in the role of dispenser of wisdom:
Take a little trip back with father Tiresias
Listen to the old one speak of all he has lived through
“I have crossed between the poles, for me there’s no mystery
Once a man, like the sea I raged
Once a woman, like the earth I gave
But there is in fact more earth than sea”
The problem is trying to understand the wisdom of an obviously bogus claim: oceans occupy more than double the space of earth on the planet. My guess is that what they really mean is that there’s more to earth than there is to sea in terms of substance. While men spend their time expressing their rage through war, politics and power grabs, women are the creators and nurturers of human life. That’s a rather traditional view of gender roles, but it does have historical validity (as much as I hate to admit it). The thematic connection in all of this lies in the timing of the album’s creation, at the height of the culture change we know as the “sexual revolution.”
The bulk of “The Cinema Show” consists of two distinct extended instrumental passages. The first builds on a foundation of multiple 12-string guitars, the open space filled with flute and oboe solos from Gabriel and scat harmonizing from Gabriel and Collins. In comparison to the opening package, this segment packs greater intensity that moves it slightly beyond the definition of “pastoral.” The second passage follows the second go-round of the chorus and makes us forget about the pastoral altogether. The riff in 7/8 fashioned by Rutherford during a jam encourages the musicians to let it rip, and Collins, Banks and Hackett are more than up for the challenge. Banks takes the recently-released ARP Pro Soloist synthesizer and exploits all of its limited but more manageable capabilities in a four-plus minute solo marked by memorable melodies. Collins is fully comfortable with the truncated measures, adding loads of punch to the piece in sync with Hackett’s bristling rhythm guitar. The build to the final crescendo is somewhat deceiving; it feels as if the music is headed for the typical grand finale, but instead changes course, cooling down for a seamless transition to the album’s final track.
We end where we began, with a reprise of the riff and melody of “Dancing with the Moonlit Knight” conveniently titled “Aisle of Plenty.”
Hey, I made a pun! Peter Gabriel is rubbing off on me!
You’ll get the pun when you read the lyrics with its clever references to supermarkets and the convenience (and low prices!) they provide shoppers. But it would be a mistake to skip over the first line, which captures the sense of alienation and despair felt by the older generation as they experience the loss of familiar traditions: “I don’t belong here,” said old Tessa out loud.
Alas, comfort arrives in the form of a pun-loaded commercial pitch:
“Easy, love, there’s the Safeway home”
Thankful for her Fine Fair discount, Tesco-operates
If you can’t fight ’em (and if the greengrocers have all disappeared), you have a choice between starvation and the supermarket. Gabriel closes the song proper with an ominous warning of a future marked by alienation within a slowly-dying culture:
Still alone in o-hell-o
See the deadly nightshade grow
The album fades in a spasm of trivial consumerism, trumpeted as news of vital importance:
ENGLISH RIBS OF BEEF BONE-IN 47p/LB
PEEK FREANS FAMILY, ASSORTED FROM 17 1/2 to 12
FAIRY LIQUID GIANT – SLASHED FROM 20p TO 17 1/2
TABLE JELLY’S AT 4p EACH
ANCHOR BUTTER DOWN TO 11p FOR A 1/2
BIRDS EYE DAIRY CREAM SPONGE ON OFFER THIS WEEK
The fear of losing cherished cultural traditions is hardly a phenomenon limited to the United Kingdom; it pervades every country and every sub-culture on the planet. In the present day, the debate surrounding country-level cultural erosion has turned ugly due to its link to immigration and its frequent connection to racism.
Meanwhile, the wicked marriage of digital technology, consumerism and the penchant for convenience has threatened cultural traditions as never before. Amazon inflicted such severe damage on bookstores that spending a pleasant afternoon browsing through the offerings of the neighborhood bookstore is becoming a thing of the past. Record stores are for audiophiles; everyone else downloads music or subscribes to a streaming service. And why bother spending a fortune going to a movie when sooner or later you can stream it at cut-rate prices in the comfort of your home?
Recently I re-watched the documentary The Irish Pub, described by an IMDB user as “the most honest and charming representation of the people and places that are the guardians of what is sadly a dying institution.” According to Drinks Ireland, the number of pubs in Ireland fell by 21% in the period between 2005 and 2021; the drop extended to every county in Ireland. The economic impact has been disastrous, especially for family-run establishments, but the more enduring tragedy involves the cultural impact: the loss of community and the precious value of the craic.
Craic is roughly translated as an “enjoyable social activity; a good time.” In the context of a traditional Irish pub, it means conversations with old friends and new, discussing the news and spreading the gossip over pints, and a relaxed environment free of distractions like television, radio or piped-in muzak. It’s a place where you can share your troubles with the pub owner, who often serves unlicensed therapy along with drafts of Guinness or Harp. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, it’s called face-to-face communication.
There are many reasons why pubs are in decline, but the main reason is that consumers (particularly younger consumers) prefer to hang out in loud bars with access to big-screen TVs where they can feel like they’re part of the action. If there’s conversation at all (because most people are staring into their iPhones), it is limited to bad jokes, hurrahs for the home team and requests for another round of beer. Most don’t bother; it’s easier to send a text to the friend sitting across from you than try to make yourself heard over the endless din.
The continuing disappearance of community-building traditions is what makes Selling England by the Pound relevant today, no matter where you live. As a regular user of digital technology, I appreciate its benefits, but I am also aware of its deficits. We don’t have to be the sheep inside the pen waiting for our clueless leaders to guide the way. We can choose to put our technological trinkets aside for a few precious moments and engage others in face-to-face conversation—and we can choose to preserve those traditions that bind us together and affirm our humanity.