As a child Crotchety Man lived in a south London council flat with his brother and parents. Sometimes in the summer when the weather was nice we would go to the south coast seaside resort of Brighton for a day out. The trip was usually planned the previous day and we looked forward to strolling along the promenade and playing on the pebble beach.
One day we boys were roused from our beds and told to get washed and dressed because we were going out. Not Brighton this time, a place called Epping Forest where we would have a picnic. Nothing had been said the previous day, the youngsters had never heard of Epping Forest and the family had never been on a picnic before. This was a big surprise and it promised to be quite an adventure.
It was all a long time ago and I don’t remember much about that day. It seemed like a long journey. When Dad parked the car all we could see was sparse woodland and parched brown scrub. There didn’t seem to be any designated picnic areas, no picnic tables, no toilets, not even a patch of soft green grass to sit on. We hadn’t brought any sort of ground sheet; I’m not sure if we even had a blanket. But, we found a patch of relatively flat ground, plonked ourselves down, opened the tupperware boxes and sat there eating our sandwiches.
Epping Forest wasn’t a pretty place and, as we sat eating our lunch, it didn’t seem worth the journey. But we were here and we might as well make the most of it. After we had eaten, my brother and I trotted off among the trees to explore, with mother’s “Don’t go too far” ringing in our ears. We didn’t find any dark and secret places or beautiful glades, just a big patch of ferns – a plant we had never seen before – a plant with deep green fractal leaves that unfurled like an alien tentacle. That was fun.
By the time the two of us returned to the picnic spot everyone seemed a lot more cheerful. After all, the sun was shining and being surrounded by trees was a welcome change from the housing estates of south London. In the end it was a jolly good day out.
I suppose it was nearly ten years later that I bought Genesis’ fifth studio album, Selling England By The Pound. Of the other Genesis albums Nursery Cryme was already in my collection and one of my very favourites, Trespass was a bit raw for my taste, Foxtrot I managed to overlook somehow and From Genesis to Revelation I had missed altogether. By 1973, though, I was hungry for progressive rock and eager to find out what the band was doing.
At first I was not particularly impressed with Selling England By The Pound. It seemed pleasant, but unexciting. Gradually, though, it began to grow on me. The single, I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe) was the first to catch my attention. And then The Battle of Epping Forest reminded me of that family picnic and intrigued me with its story about rival gangs fighting for the right to run a protection racket in the East End of London.
Epping Forest fades in to the sound of a military marching band: fifes, drums and the tramp of soldiers’ boots. The combatants are assembling. Then we hear the Genesis signature prog rock sound of keyboards, guitar, bass and drums as the narrator describes the scene before the battle.
Along the Forest Road there’s hundreds of cars – luxury cars
Soon the song is lolloping along with a lopsided beat. It’s rather like that old Christmas cracker joke: “What goes 99 clonk?”. Answer: “A centipede with a wooden leg”. Each instrument has its own beat so that keyboards, guitar and bass compete for our rhythmic attention. And yet each part mysteriously fits with the others.
On one side of the forest there’s Billy Wright’s gang (one helluva noise) and on the other Little John’s thugs (supersmugs). This is going to be the fiercest conflict ever seen in the leafy Essex countryside, the biggest fight since the Civil War. A gangland battle it may be but there are rules.
With the thumpire’s shout, they all start to clout
– there’s no guns in this gentleman’s bout.
The words are clever and amusing. They are jammed in to fit the instrumental parts but who cares? Genesis are not going to let the music get in the way of a good pun.
With the battle in full swing a simpler, more melodic section is dropped into the song, telling the story of a man of religion led astray by his love of women.
They called me the Reverend when I entered the Church unstained;
my employers have changed but the name has remained.
It is a half-time break. A chance to escape the hurly burly of the battle as we listen to the reverend’s fall from grace. The gangland bosses have taken a break, too. They are sitting in their Silver Cloud taking tea served by a clumsy butler.
The butler’s got jam on his Rolls; Roy doles out the lot,
with tea from a silver pot just like any picnic.
Yes, Epping Forest is not a bad place for a picnic. I speak from experience. Although, of course, as an ordinary working class family we didn’t have the comfort of a Rolls Royce to sit in or the services of a butler.
There really was a gangland battle in Epping Forest. It was mentioned in a news story in the Times (on 5th April 1972 if this blog entry is to be believed). Peter Gabriel’s lyrics, though, are only loosely based on that real-world incident. In the song all the combatants come to a sticky end leaving the bosses to settle the score with the toss of a coin. In real life there were serious injuries but no deaths.
For Crotchety Man, the early Genesis albums were the best. In my vinyl days I had Nursery Cryme, Selling England By The Pound, A Trick Of The Tail and Wind And Wuthering. The last of those rarely felt the stylus tip and the band’s work seemed to lose something with Peter Gabriel’s departure so I never bought another. The three that I did play were among the first to be re-acquired on CD when I switched to the digital medium. They contain some of my all-time favourite songs and tracks like The Battle of Epping Forest have a personal connection to the past that I will always treasure.