Paul Whitehead's cover illustration for Foxtrot (1972)
Though Get ‘em out by Friday (from Foxtrot by Genesis, 1972) was a piece of social commentary directed at unscrupulous private landlords in the UK during the 60s and 70s, it has once again become relevant as a majority of the population in their 20s and 30s are becoming priced out of the housing market, making them the so-called ‘generation rent’. It’s been estimated that almost 60% of those under 40 years old will be privately renting by 2025 so it’s hardly surprising that the 2016 London Mayoral election was billed as a referendum on housing. All the candidates claimed they understood the requirement to build new homes, coming up with a wide range of different reasons for the shortage of stock, and all of them promised action to address the problem which was identified by a contemporaneous YouGov poll as the most important political concern for people in the capital.
The Guardian, 25th May 2016
Genesis used the real-life Peter Rachman as the inspiration for the scoundrel of the piece, the man who used a technique euphemistically known as ‘winkling’ to remove tenants from properties, a combination of threats and inducements then filling the properties with new tenants paying a higher rent. This gives us the Foxtrot character Mark Hall, also known as The Winkler (c.f. the lyrics: “The Winkler called again, he came here this morning with four hundred pounds and a photograph of the place he has found...” and later “sadly since last time we spoke we’ve had to raise the rent again, just a bit.”) The modern villains are Dame Shirley Porter and Margaret Thatcher and their successors who have eroded the supply of public housing stock by forcing councils to sell off properties to long-standing tenants at reduced cost without replacing homes in the pool. The most recent assault on public housing is the Housing and Planning Act which passed into law in May 2016. In a nutshell, the Act concerns housing, estate agents, rent charges, planning and compulsory purchase but was slated for its unfairness, and before passing through parliament the Bill suffered a string of defeats in the second chamber inflicted by peers from both benches who succeeded in wringing out a number of important concessions, including stopping the proposed ending of lifetime tenancies in social housing.
The Conservatives also planned to extend the Thatcher policy of ‘right to buy’ to tenants in accommodation provided by housing associations in an outrageous attack on the provision of all forms of social housing, a mistake which caused righteous fury and further highlighted the crisis in provision of all forms of affordable homes. If selling off municipal housing without replacing it was intended to be the pinnacle of the union between the individual and free market principles, it ended up as one of the most glaring examples of market failure in post-war history, a misplaced ideology that was designed to boost the number of homeowners who, armed with their shares from public utility and building society sell-offs, would become life-long Tory voters. In reality, ownership of shares by individuals in British companies slumped from a pre-Thatcher 40% to about 12% in 2014 which reveals the implosion of the vision of a share-owning democracy. The requirement of the newly privatised industries to compete in the free market without the government subsidies loathed by free-market economists had a devastating effect on the UK manufacturing base, and revenue from the North Sea oil industry had to be diverted from the exchequer to redundancy settlements and social security pay outs. It’s worth pointing out that Norway’s Government Pension Fund Global created to reinvest surplus oil revenues in 1990 currently stands at over $1trn.
In 1979 a third of all homes were rented from the state but this proportion has halved. 71% of households were owner-occupiers at its peak in 2003 but this has declined to around 65%, and 18% of households rent from the private sector. Witnessing my son attempt to find a suitable place to live has been a bit of an eye-opener. He has a good job in central London and after a long search found a place to rent in a shared house in Bethnal Green where he lived for six years until his landlord sold the property. He’s now looking for another home and his experience illustrates the competition for decent accommodation. Though country-wide, the housing crisis is most acute in London where developments seem to be designed to attract foreign investment and the government exacerbates the problem by embracing buy-to-let landlords. I have a problem with both these policies because they aren’t helping those in need of housing and also fuel an unsustainable economy; this is the same dogma that created the global financial meltdown in 2008 and for some unfathomable reason the majority of westerners continue to believe in this failed economic model.
I was fairly late getting into Genesis and Get ‘em out by Friday was one of the first tracks I heard, on Genesis Live (1973). For a long time I preferred the versions of songs on Live to their studio counterparts, a tribute to the excellent playing at Leicester and Manchester and a well balanced recording. On reflection, there’s a much harder edge to the tracks on Foxtrot compared to their earlier material. They stick to writing about mythical characters on Get ‘em out by Friday but set the story in the present and (at the time) the near future of 2012, in addition carrying on with the multi-voice narrative that first appeared on Nursery Cryme (1971) that lends a ‘play for the day’ vibe. The clear social commentary was a new thread which was continued on the subsequent album Selling England by the Pound (1973) which also includes mini-plays, a tradition that is revisited on Robbery, Assault and Battery from A Trick of the Tail (1976) and All in a Mouse’s Night from Wind and Wuthering (1976); apart from highlighting the evils of ruthless landlords there’s also a dig at corporate culture, Styx Enterprises and United Blacksprings International, out for a quick profit at the expense of tenants, and even the honours system that has rewarded corrupt business people. I like Gabriel’s use of the Styx imagery, the border to the Underworld.
Paul Whitehead depicts a concrete building on the gatefold sleeve that could be Harlow New Town’s Market Square though when talking about the cover painting he has said that the ‘Holiday Inn-style hotel’ was his way of illustrating to the band that they needed to get used to staying in anonymous places as he felt they were just about to become famous. The first phase of the Harlow New Town development was called Mark Hall North; Gabriel’s protagonist The Winkler is called Mark Hall. I’d like to think that Gabriel hadn’t succumbed to the tired old trope that New Towns were ‘concrete jungles’ or symbols of a dystopian future which is a frequent criticism from people who have never lived in, or even visited one. When the lyrics were penned in 1972, Harlow Town had expanded from a population of 4500 to over 78000 and the proposed limit of 60000 was increased to 90000 in 1966 without any increase in the designated development area. Early residents of the New Towns tended to be very appreciative of the facilities in their new homes (“a block of flats with central heating...”) and Harlow Town was designed to create communities, with ‘neighbourhood centres’ including an array of shops, a pub, a library, schools, a church and a small industrial area. It may be that Gabriel’s vision of the future, with the Orwellian-sounding Genetic Control, was inspired by the apparent accelerated rise in population and modernist architect Sir Frederick Gibberd’s ten-storey 'the Lawn' (built 1951), a building often referred to as the first tower block in Britain (“...did you recognise your block across the square, over there?”)
'The Lawn', Harlow New Town (photos by Daryl Page, used with permission)
As a result of the chronic housing shortage, home ownership is out of reach for many and 9m people in the UK now rent. If, as predicted by one report, half of the UK population is going to be renting privately in a generation and almost a third of private rented properties in England don't meet the government's own standard for decent homes, it becomes quite evident that our rental market is broken. The spectre of Peter Rachman, the notorious slum landlord of the 1950s, still haunts the private rental market. Statistics provided by housing charity Shelter show that 136,485 renters in England are at the mercy of rogue landlords. These are landlords who apply cardboard to broken windows instead of replacing the glass and don’t care that water is pouring through a light fitting in your child’s bedroom, content to pocket the rent while their tenants live in danger and squalor. For critics who think progressive rock is no longer relevant, listen to Get ‘em out by Friday and think again.