The Number Ones

March 25, 1989

The Number Ones: Mike + The Mechanics’ “The Living Years”

Stayed at #1:

1 Week

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

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In a lot of ways, the story of pop music is a saga of generational schisms. New ruptures show up whenever one generation gets old enough, and gains enough market power, that the new kids’ music replaces whatever their parents were into on the pop charts. Staid balladry fights for chart space with some new strain of loud brashness. The battle continues. But it’s rare to get a pop hit that’s actually about generational splits. It’s even more rare to get a pop hit that chronicles those splits from the perspective of someone who’s getting old enough to regret the things left unsaid when a parent dies. But that’s “The Living Years,” a transcendent bummer and an unlikely chart-topper.

On the night that Mike Rutherford’s father died, Rutherford was in Chicago, playing on the Invisible Touch tour. Rutherford’s father William was a Royal Navy Captain. He’d served in World War II before Mike had been born, and he’d spent a couple of years in the Korean War when Mike was a baby. As Mike got older, the two didn’t get along terribly well. Many years later, Mike Rutherford wrote in The Guardian that his father had once tried to ban him from playing guitar. The ban didn’t take. When Mike was a teenager, shortly before he got kicked out of the boarding school Charterhouse, he and some friends started a band called Genesis.

Eventually, William Rutherford came around on Genesis. He bought some equipment for Mike. He let the band stay in his house shortly after Phil Collins joined. Genesis took off, first as a prog act and then, after Peter Gabriel left and Phil Collins took over as frontman, as a straight-up pop group. The ’80s chart dominance of Genesis is one of the great weird chapters in pop music history. Phil Collins somehow became a massive pop star, scoring a long string of #1 hits without leaving Genesis. Genesis made it to #1 themselves with “Invisible Touch” in 1986. The song that replaced “Invisible Touch” at #1 was “Sledgehammer,” from the former Genesis leader Peter Gabriel.

Mike Rutherford spent years on the road, and he never had a very close relationship with his father, even after they mended fences. In that Guardian piece, Rutherford wrote, “Fathers and sons of my generation just didn’t say things like ‘I love you’ to each other.” When Rutherford’s father died, he took the Concorde to the funeral and then made it back to America in time for the next Genesis show. A year after his father died, Rutherford’s third kid was born, and this set him thinking. For a while, Rutherford had been writing songs with his friend B.A. Robertson, a British singer and actor and occasional TV show host. Robertson had just been through something similar. He’d had a chilly relationship with his own father, and his father had died shortly before the birth of his son. Still reeling, Robertson wrote the lyrics for “The Living Years,” and Rutherford wrote the music.

Mike Rutherford had already been making hits before coming out with “The Living Years” — not just with Genesis, but also with his side project Mike + The Mechanics. When Phil Collins’ solo career took off in the early ’80s, Rutherford started making music on his own, too. Rutherford released two solo albums in the early ’80s, 1980’s Smallcreeps’ Day and 1982’s Acting Very Strange. (Those are some prog-ass album titles.) Neither was successful.

Rutherford didn’t much like recording on his own, so he started writing songs with Robertson sometime in the mid-’80s. Robertson himself had flirted with pop stardom. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, he’d made a handful of hits in the UK; one song, 1979’s “Bang Bang,” had peaked at #2 over there. Robertson never charted in the US, which makes sense. If the “Bang Bang” video is any indication, he is the most British man who has ever lived. It almost sounds like he’s singing in a foreign language.

Once Rutherford and Robertson had some songs, Rutherford put together a band that he called Mike + The Mechanics. (Robertson was never officially a Mechanic, but he co-wrote most of the band’s songs and also played on their records.) Rutherford and Robertson worked closely with Christopher Neil, the UK music-business veteran who’d produced Sheena Easton’s 1981 chart-topper “Morning Train (9 To 5),” and Rutherford put together a band to record those songs.

One of the two lead singers that Rutherford recruited was Paul Carrack, a guy who’d already been in a few big bands. Carrack got his start in Ace, a British group who had a big hit with “How Long,” a disco-adjacent 1974 song that Carrack wrote and sang. (“How Long” peaked at #3. It’s a 6.) After Ace broke up and his solo career fizzled, Carrack became the keyboardist for the already-successful new wave group Squeeze, replacing the departing Jools Holland. Carrack was only in Squeeze for a couple of years, but he was in there long enough to sing lead on “Tempted,” the 1981 single that became Squeeze’s first Hot 100 entry. (“Tempted” peaked at an absurdly low #49. Squeeze’s highest-charting US single, 1987’s “Hourglass” peaked at #15.)

Mike + The Mechanics released their self-titled debut album in 1985, less than a year before Genesis hit their pop-chart pinnacle with Invisible Touch. Evidently, the Mechanics served a demand. In 1985 and 1986, a whole lot of Genesis-affiliated acts all scored big hits: Genesis itself, Phil Collins, Peter Gabriel, and GTR, the band led by former Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett. It was like Wu-Tang in 1995 or something. Mike + The Mechanics hit big, too. Two of the singles from that first album made it into the top 10 in America: “Silent Running (On Dangerous Ground),” which peaked at #6, and “All I Need Is A Miracle,” which made it up to #5. (Both are 5s.)

Rutherford wrote both of those hits with B.A. Robertson, and Paul Carrack sang lead on “Silent Running.” (The guy who sang “All I Need Is A Miracle” was Paul Young, the group’s other lead singer. Confusingly enough, this is not the same Paul Young who reached #1 in America with “Everytime You Go Away.”) When Rutherford got done touring behind Invisible Touch, he went back to work with the Mechanics, and they released their sophomore album Living Years late in 1988. Lead single “Nobody’s Perfect” was a relative flop, peaking at #63. But the follow-up, the album’s title track, made Rutherford, like Collins and Gabriel before him, a #1 hitmaker outside of Genesis. The song also came to overshadow everything else that the Mechanics ever did.

B.A. Robertson’s lyrics for “The Living Years” are all about the kind of regret that comes with the death of a loved one. The song starts out with a big generalization: “Every generation blames the one before/ And all of their frustrations come beating on your door.” That sounds like an older man grousing about being treated a certain way by younger people. Rutherford and Robertson are both boomers, so their generation would certainly get its share of blame. Pretty quickly, though, it becomes obvious that “The Living Years” is really about being part of the younger generation and realizing that you never got to reconcile with a parent who is no longer around.

The narrator of “The Living Years” talks about how hard it is to communicate: “Crumpled bits of paper filled with imperfect thought/ Stilted conversations, I’m afraid that’s all we’ve got.” Later on, he says, in terms so plain that they’re almost minimalist, what’s eating at him: “I wasn’t there that morning, when my father passed away/ I didn’t get to tell him all the things I had to say.” If a line like that catches you on the right day, whether or not your parents are still around, it can really knock you sideways.

B.A. Robertson wrote those lyrics about himself, but Mike Rutherford could relate. So could Paul Carrack, who sang lead on “The Living Years” and who had lost his father to an accident when he was 11. Carrack sings “The Living Years” in a sort of soulful bleat, but he never goes too crazy with it. Instead, he underplays things. The song’s chorus is a big, booming thing with a whole kids’ choir coming in behind Carrack. But the quieter verses are what give the song its power.

The kids’ choir should make “The Living Years” unbearably treacly and manipulative, but that never happens, in part because Carrack plays the song so straight. Instead, “The Living Years” falls on the pleasant end of ’80s adult-contempo boomer-pop, alongside stuff like Bruce Hornsby & The Range’s “The Way It Is” or Phil Collins’ better ballads. Rutherford and Christopher Neil share production credit on “The Living Years,” and they avoid the mawkish drama of so many of that era’s other big weepers. Instead, “The Living Years” finds a contemplative tone that I associate with late-’80s and early-’90s technical advances, like my parents’ first CD player and Macintosh computer. Around 2010, when a whole lot of chllwave acts started reviving ’80s sounds, they were working from the blueprint of stuff like “The Living Years” more than, say, New Order.

On “The Living Years,” Rutherford plays a tingly, echoing guitar line that probably owes something to U2. The keyboards — played, in part, by B.A. Robertson — make glassy, gasping sounds. Paul Carrack somehow groans in a matter-of-fact way. The song has a sleek sort of calm to it. It’s sentimental, but it’s not quite syrupy, and it hits a whole lot harder than the trite ’60s-revival stuff that Rutherford’s bandmate Phil Collins was doing around the same time. Even without the resonance of those lyrics, “The Living Years” is the kind of song that can come on a car stereo and make you feel like you’re living in a movie montage. I have to imagine that “The Living Years” arrived around the time that a whole lot of boomers were being forced to contemplate their parents’ mortality. It must’ve struck a chord.

In the video for “The Living Years,” Mike Rutherford and his young son walk the English coastline, and Rutherford looks at old military photos of his father. Paul Carrack, meanwhile, looks like either Phil Collins or Sting, depending on the camera angle. He must be the only person on the planet who resembles both of those guys, who do not look even a little bit like one another. The clip’s director was Tim Broad, who made many of Morrissey’s videos and who died of AIDS in 1993. AIDS also claimed the life of the Kate Bush/Level 42 guitarist Alan Murphy, who played on “The Living Years” and who died in October of 1989.

Mike + The Mechanics never had another song that got anywhere near as big as “The Living Years.” Their follow-up single “Seeing Is Believing” peaked at #62. “Word Of Mouth,” the lead single and title track from the Mechanics’ 1991 album, opens with a line about how the world is getting older and there are some things to be said, but that song didn’t strike the same chord as “The Living Years.” “Word Of Mouth” peaked at #78, and that was the last time that Mike + The Mechanics made the Hot 100.

Phil Collins left Genesis in 1996, and the band’s attempts to keep going post-Collins didn’t pan out. Rutherford kept Mike + The Mechanics going, even after singer Paul Young died of a heart attack in 2000 and the other band members eventually left. Paul Carrack became more involved, and for a little while, the band went by the awkward name Mike + The Mechanics + Paul Carrack. In the mid-’00s, Carrack left, too. Rutherford replaced him with Andrew Roachford, a British soul singer who I absolutely loved during the year I lived in London as a kid. (Roachford’s highest-charting single, the 1988 banger “Cuddly Toy,” peaked at #25.) That version of Mike + The Mechanics is still going, and they released an album last year. But with the Genesis reunion tour looming, it seems like Rutherford will probably have non-Mechanics things going on for the foreseeable future. I wouldn’t expect him to show up in this column again.

GRADE: 8/10

BONUS BEATS: Alabama covered “The Living Years” in 2003, and they didn’t really have to change much about the song to make it work as country. Here’s their take on it:

(Alabama have a positively insane number of #1 country hits, but on the Hot 100, their highest-charting single is 1981’s “Love In The First Degree,” which peaked at #15.)

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