Genesis’ Mike Rutherford Recounts His ‘Living Years’

Guitarist and songwriter Pete Rutherford talks about his new book The Living Years, his career with Genesis, and his touring with Mike + the Mechanics.

Years before achieving fame as the guitarist and bassist of Genesis, Mike Rutherford grew up in a typically normal English household in post-World War II times as the son of a British naval captain. As such, it would have been totally natural for Rutherford to follow in his father’s footsteps. But in his youth, Rutherford fell in with music and decided to pursue that path. That sense of divide between the old guard and the counterculture during the ‘60s is echoed on the song “The Living Years”, which was huge hit in 1989 for Rutherford’s other band, Mike + the Mechanics.

“‘The Living Years’ is more about being unable to talk or communicate,” the 64-year-old Rutherford tells PopMatters about the song, “because that was so strong in my generation… probably less so in America because America was a little less steeped in history and tradition. When we appeared after two world wars as kids of the ’60s, we gave [the previous generation] a hard time.”

The musician’s relationship with his father, Capt. William Rutherford, who was supportive of his son’s eventual choice of career, is one of the themes addressed in his memoir The Living Years (Thomas Dunne Books), the first book written by a member of Genesis. Its recent publication in the States coincided with Mike + the Mechanics’ first tour of America in 25 years, which kicked off in late February and runs through March 21 in Chicago.

According to Rutherford, the idea of his memoir came after he discovered a trunk that belonged to his father, who died in 1986. That trunk contained an unpublished manuscript of William Rutherford’s memoirs documenting his military career. “My two sons for a present made me a leather-bound copy of it. I read it and sort of thought, ‘There’s a story to be told.’ There’s so much documented now anyway. But to write something about the story of Genesis against the background of England and that cultural change in the ‘60s made it much more interesting.”

The Living Years traces Rutherford’s storied career in Genesis, from the band’s beginnings at the Charterhouse School in the ‘60s, through its progressive rock phase during the early ‘70s with Peter Gabriel as lead singer, and to the mega-success of the ’80s with Phil Collins. Throughout these strands, his memories of his father kind of serve as a recurring theme. At one point in the book, Rutherford writes of his youth: “Deep down, I respected my father’s authority — unlike the rules and regulations at Charterhouse, I could see there was sense behind the things he said — but mainly I was aware that he was everything I didn’t want to be.” Yet despite being generationally apart, the two actually had things in common, such as traveling around the world in their respective careers.

Rutherford put his dad’s actual words from the unpublished memoir into his own work for context. “For me to be able to put a little of his book in my book was a real pleasure for me,” the musician says. “We’re proud of that. You find how many similarities there were really: being away from home, traveling, trying to juggle family life and work.”

Rutherford also recalls the moment he learned of his father’s death as Genesis was just starting the U.S. leg of the Invisible Touch tour. He found out through a phone call at his hotel room in Chicago from his wife Angie in the wee hours of the morning. Two weeks later, he attended his father’s funeral in England and then flew back to America via the Concorde to rejoin the tour. As he later described, his biggest regret was being able to tell his dad how much he loved him while he was still alive.

“It was because probably that time it was our year — 1986-87,” he recalls of that period. “You were flying; you could do no wrong in Genesis. I look at my date sheet [now] and I’m staying at the Ritz Carlton again in about two weeks time. I’m going to play in Chicago [and staying at] the same hotel. I hadn’t been there since, really.”

Now having talked about his father at his length in this book, does it provide some sense of closure for him? “It gives you more of an understanding because you really hadn’t thought about it too much,” he explains. “To be able to see some of my father’s words in print, that’s a pretty great feeling to have.”

If his book was Rutherford’s way of putting his life and career in full circle, so was the Mechanics’ return to play America for the first time since 1989. “It’s great,” he says of the experience. “As you probably already know, the Mechanics never really had a history of doing much touring. About three years ago when I restarted [the Mechanics], I started with some shows, and I was kind of amazed just how well the Mechanics songs went down well on stage. And so here we are… it’s a great vibe.”

American audiences who have or will see the Mechanics on this U.S. tour will notice it’s a different band lineup from the one back 30 years ago. The most apparent change is the group’s two lead singers, Andrew Roachford and Tim Howar, replacing original vocalists Paul Carrack and the late Paul Young. As far as comparing the two lineups, Rutherford says: “At least this time around, I knew what I was looking for. I knew the Mechanics need to have two singers: a harmony voice, which is Andrew; and a rock voice, which is Tim. So it was an easier call.

“In a sense, you can’t compare them,” he continues, “because the Mechanics never did much touring, so there’s no real history of it in my mind. We’ve been doing this for three and a half years now on the road, so we’ve been much more of a proper tight unit band than we ever did with the [previous] Mechanics, which is satisfying for me. It’s the songs that really carry. That’s the other thing. If they weren’t such good live songs, I don’t think I would be doing this sort of touring. But it’s just fun to do the songs.”

In addition to the hits “Silent Running” and “All You Need Is a Miracle”, the tour is another opportunity to play some of the Mechanics’ other material that should have been hits, such as the rousing “Word of Mouth” and the underrated rocker “Nobody’s Perfect”. “We did it onstage before and it never really worked,” Rutherford says of the latter song. “We got it to work this time, I think. There are no shortcuts — you become a proper band by doing gigs. There’s no short way to do it. And so we’re enjoying it.”

Few people forget that when Mike + Mechanics first started 30 years ago that it wasn’t so much band per se but more of an informal project for Rutherford. There were other singers aside from Carrack and Young on the self-titled debut album. “It was kind of a collective tryout,” Rutherford says. “If it hadn’t been successful, I probably wouldn’t have carried it on that way… and it just sort of took off. It was a great moment, actually”.

The band had success immediately with 1985’s “Silent Running”, which became the Mechanics’ first U.S. top ten hit. The initial single was supposed to be “Hanging By a Thread”, until an Atlantic Records executive suggested “Silent Running” was a better track. “If that had come out, it wouldn’t have hit radio”, Rutherford says. “It would have never had happened. Genesis was going to happen eventually because we worked and worked; the Mechanics needed to take off like it did. The thought was always like, ‘What are the odds?’ [Peter] Gabriel’s career had taken off, Phil [Collins’] career had taken off. The thought that one more from the same band was pretty unlikely.”

Bigger success came around for the second Mechanics album, 1988’s Living Years, which contains the title track that would be Rutherford and company’s first and only number one song in America. Sung by Carrack, the moving ballad was written by Rutherford and BA Robertson, both of whom had lost their fathers at the time.

“People still come up to the street and stop me or send emails or letters saying that the song had a great connection with them,” the guitarist says of the song’s legacy. “They said they lost touch with their parents, they heard the song, and they rang them up.” On the new reissue of the Living Years album to mark 25 years, the song was recently re-recorded with Andrew Roachford on lead vocals accompanied by a choir from South Africa. “You can’t possibly try and do anything better,” Rutherford says about the remake. “It’s a bit of a classic song, it all works. All you could do is try to mark the moment by doing something a little bit different.”

Following the U.S. tour, Rutherford and the Mechanics will embark on a series of U.K. and European dates through May. Meanwhile, Genesis still looms large in Rutherford’s life, as was the case of last year’s documentary Sum of the Parts, and the compilation R-Kive. In revisiting the band’s career for his book, Rutherford revealed that personnel change within the band that affected him the most was the departure of Anthony Phillips, the group’s founding guitarist. Phillips, who was a childhood friend of Rutherford going back to the Charterhouse school days (where they also met future Genesis members Gabriel and Tony Banks), left the band in 1970 due to stage fright. He was replaced by Steve Hackett.

“When you’re young, it’s a little bit more intense,” Rutherford says. “When the first person leaves the band, you’re thinking it couldn’t possibly survive without one of the original four. Of course it does, and you move on. Looking back, we probably should have said to Ant, ‘Look, have six months off.’ But we were so new, we were starting to get a little tickle, we just really couldn’t do that.”

Perhaps what gets the most overlooked in Genesis’ extensive musical catalog is the brilliant and crucial 1976 album A Trick of the Tail, the first album to feature Phil Collins on lead vocals. At that point, most critics had written off Genesis after Peter Gabriel left in 1975. The band had auditioned numerous vocalists before Collins became the lead singer. “What you do when you’re in trouble is to write some songs and see where it takes you,” explains Rutherford. “That’s how you start… I still see [Phil] as a drummer who sings.”

From its prog rock days, and through the departures of Gabriel and Hackett, Genesis streamlined its progressive rock leanings from the early years, gradually heightening its profile and building a larger audience with each successive hit album, such as And Then There Were Three, Duke, Abacab, and Genesis. Then came 1986’s Invisible Touch, which yielded five hit singles and earned them a place in pop culture with the Bret Easton Ellis novel American Psycho.

“In commercial terms, it was our high point,” Rutherford says of that album, which is nearly approaching its 30-year anniversary. “When MTV came out in those days, it was such a high profile thing that it kind of dwarfed everything else. People often forget there were some great long songs on there as well [like ‘Domino’]. It was an album that was easy to write.”

At that time, success was the case not only for Genesis, but both Peter Gabriel and Steve Hackett (as a then-member of GTR) scored Top 40 hits on their own that same year as well. “We had a bit of a run when Peter’s career was flying, Phil’s career was flying, and Genesis was flying,” Rutherford says. “You couldn’t do no wrong.”

What may account for Genesis’ enduring popularity and success for nearly 50 years now is that the band never really made the quintessential album that would have defined the band forever, something that Rutherford once acknowledged in the liner notes of the Genesis Archives 1967-1975 boxed set. “We haven’t gotten an album like that,” he says, “which is one album that is way above everything else — Rumours or Dark Side of the Moon. I couldn’t pick out an album that was ever quite like that for us. I think it also has to do with the solo careers. It gave us a nice break from each other. Unlike most bands, our solo careers were done because we were having a good time with the main band. It’s like, ‘Hell guys, let’s try to widen our horizons.'”

Splash image of Mike + the Mechanics courtesy of Conqueroo.