Genesis and the Holy Grail

During 1973, Pink Floyd’s groundbreaking Dark Side of the Moon album was beginning its germination in the consciousness of music fans.  The album’s themes of time, opportunity, and financial greed were reinforced, in England, by conflict between the conservative Heath government and trades unions.

In August that year, three former pupils of Charterhouse Boarding School, including one knockabout West London former child actor, and a bloke who responded to a newspaper advertisement, assembled at a house in Surrey to write and rehearse a new album.  Genesis was riding a surge of critical success in England but were significantly in debt.  They had, however, attracted interest from record companies in the United States.

Selling EnglandThat combination of the social situation in England, and the circumstances in which the band found themselves – creators of art becoming increasingly dependant on corporate support – led to an examination of “traditional England” and its erosion at the forces of the contemporary world (trading prize for merchandise).  The album forged out of that environment would be released in October that year as
Selling England By The Pound

At a concert recorded at Shepparton Studios in the months after the release of the album, in his stage monologue prior to Dancing With the Moonlit Knight, Peter Gabriel announced:

I am in the English Channel.  It is cold, exceedingly wet.  I am the voice of Britain, before the Daily Express.  My name is Britannia.  This is my song.

And then followed the opening lyric:

Can you tell me where my country lies?
Said the unifaun to his true love’s eyes.
It lies with me! cried the Queen of Maybe.
For her merchandise, he traded in his prize.
Paper late! cried a voice in the crowd.
Old man dies! The note he left was signed Old Father Thames?
It seems he’s drowned;
Selling England by the pound.

Later in that song, the Arthurian legend is invoked with references to the “grail sun” and “knights of the green shield”.

Half a century earlier, in 1922, T. S. Eliot had also referenced the Arthurian legend in part of his long poem, The Waste Land.  The meaning and message of the poem is anything but straightforward, however, it is not unreasonable to suggest that the poem is sympathetic to the general theme of Selling England By The Pound.  Which is why, presumably, the poem is so heavily and obviously referenced in the wonderful album track The Cinema Show.  Consider the following extracts from both.

Homeward, and brings the sailor home from sea,
The typist home at teatime, clears her breakfast, lights
Her stove, and lays out food in tins.
Out of the window perilously spread
Her drying combinations touched by the sun’s last rays,
On the divan are piled (at night her bed)
Stockings, slippers, camisoles, and stays.

The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot

Home from work, Our Juliet
Clears her morning meal
She dabs her skin, With pretty smells
Concealing to appeal
I will make my bed, She said, But turned to go
Can she be late for her cinema show?

The Cinema Show by Genesis (Banks, Collins, Gabriel, Rutherford & Hackett)


He, the young man carbuncular, arrives,
A small house agent’s clerk, with one bold stare,
One of the low on whom assurance sits
As a silk hat on a Bradford millionaire.

The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot


Romeo locks his basement flat
And scurries up the stair
With head held high and floral tie
A weekend millionaire
I will make my bed, with her tonight he cries
Can he fail, armed with his chocolate surprise?

The Cinema Show by Genesis (Banks, Collins, Gabriel, Rutherford & Hackett)


I, Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives,
Old man with wrinkled female breasts, can see
At the violet hour, the evening hour that strives …
I Tiresias, old man with wrinkled dugs
Perceived the scene, and foretold the rest—
I too awaited the expected guest.

The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot


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 Cinema Show by Genesis (Banks, Collins, Gabriel, Rutherford & Hackett)

And that is how, Dear Reader, the political and social nature of England in 1973 brings us to Selling England By The Pound, which brings us to The Cinema Show, which brings us to The Waste Land, which brings us to the quest for the Holy Grail.  Of course, this game of “theme association” is potentially endless.  Perhaps the next of many potential steps in the chain could be to link Genesis’ observations about the erosion of traditional England to the legend of King Midas?  Ultimately, it doesn’t matter – unless of course, it leads to a deeper appreciation of some music which you love.  Then, whichever path you choose, it matters.

About Danny Russell

Danny Russell, feet planted firmly in the island state, is easily led. "Scratcher" Neal led him to the Cats where his loyalty has remained (despite being sorely tested). The weekly magazine "The Story of Pop" led him to music beyond the focus of Tasmanian AM radio of the 70s.


  1. Punxsu.... Pete says

    (Hey moderator .. typos on last one.)

    Well, this is a little bit of serendipity my end.

    After being dismissive of Genesis for all of my 52 years, I, at the behest of a fellow prog rock aficionado, recently decided to give their early work a look. I hadn’t until now because of a prejudice formed from the ‘Phil Collins at-the-helm’ radio stuff (and I think understandably so), but having always admired Peter Gabriel’s solo stuff, my mates recommendation had ripened the little bit of curiosity I’d always had about their early work. Anyway, wow. I started with Foxtrot and Selling England by the Pound, and am now working through Nursery Cryme and ‘The Lamb’, and these 4 albums are absolutely brilliant. Genesis, with Peter Gabriel on vocals and Steve Hackett on guitar, are a wondrous combination and an entirely different beast to the Mark II version. They have dominated my turntable for the last 3 months and I can’t get enough of their virtuosity. Indeed, Phil Collins, the drummer, has more than redeemed Phil Collins the shrill singer. His work on these records is mind blowing and he is now forgiven for the million and one times I’ve suffered his wretched “Su Su Sudio” in supermarket aisles.

    Enjoyed the read and as you wrote on Pounds “themes” (and all dense / pretentious themes), “Ultimately, it doesn’t matter – unless of course, it leads to a deeper appreciation of some music which you love.”

  2. nonshedders says

    Thanks Pete.

    Don’t overlook “Trespass”. Its an early one (pre-Collins), but can be forgiven any sins for containing the magnificent “The Knife”.

  3. Punxsu.... Pete says

    Funny you should say that because had a beer with my Genesis lovin mate and he touched upon ‘The Knife’ as another highlight of the Gabriel/Hackett period.

    As I said, they have dominated my turntable for months now, and listened again to Pound just this morning. It’s just stunning. I’m now kicking myself for having a prejudice against them … and saliently, I guess I’ve learnt a thing or two about having prejudices from this experience.

  4. Great stuff. I also always wanted to write a piece on the similarity between The Lamia and a scene in the opening act of Tannhauser, but I would gladly leave it to somebody who masters the language at a bit higher level than this ESL student.

    The reason it matters to me, even though I already have the highest appreciation for early Genesis music, is just to complete my understanding of this most distinguished artist that is Peter Gabriel, since he was responsible for writing most of the lyrics.

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