One of the things that I’ve been noticing as I reflect on British music from the early 1970s is how overwhelmingly escapist it all is. Glam Rock tried to escape into the future and sci-fi — a future where everyone dressed like technicolor hermaphrodites — while Prog Rock turned to the mythic English past, blending scraps of Arthurian legends and a whole lot of Tolkien with mandolins played in 11/8. (Some bands like King Crimson tried to do both things at once, putting “21st Century Schizoid Man” as the opening track on The Court of the Crimson King.) And of course drug use was prevalent across the board in the early 1970s. In any case, there’s probably an argument to be made that explains how this escapism links in to the decline of the British economy through the 1970s and an upsurge in general disaffection.
Genesis certainly started out as an escapist band — they recorded songs with names like “The Return of the Giant Hogweed” and “Ikhnaton and Itsacon and Their Band of Merry Men.” But in 1973, Peter Gabriel decided to write a more political record, and the band put out Selling England By The Pound, an album that even gets a subtitle: “A Lament for Post-War England.” Here’s a live performance of “Dancing With the Moonlit Knight.”
Now, there’s a very good chance that you’re as confused as I am. And not just by Gabriel’s headdress. Or his reverse mohawk. Although I have read that many Genesis fans thought that the band had in a sense betrayed the prog rock movement by taking a political stance on this record, I find it a little hard to believe, since I find it really tough to figure out what Gabriel might be trying to say here. The lyrics are rich and interesting, but they’re about as straightforward as T. S. Eliot. For example, when he sings “The Knights of the Green Shield stamp and shout,” he is making an oblique reference to green shield stamps, which were a kind of coupon given out at Tesco (which is sort of like the British equivalent of Walmart) in the 1970s, and combining this with a reference to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The whole album, in fact, is full of puns about fast food chains and supermarkets, so it’s clearly making some sort of comment on the insurgence of American capitalism into British culture in the 1970s.
But beyond that, your guess is as good as mine…