Mike Rutherford (Genesis, Mike + The Mechanics)

by Carl Wiser

With Genesis, Mike Rutherford built many of their musical textures, from their progressive rock days of the '70s to their hit-laden '80s and '90s output. He used bass pedals, guitars, drum machines and whatever else was at his disposal to help craft these songs, often contributing lyrics as well, notably on "Land Of Confusion," a song he finds especially relevant today. With this comprehensive musical skill set, he had all the tools needed to branch out on his own when Genesis took a break in 1984, except one.

"I discovered that I can't sing," he said after doing vocals himself on his 1982 solo album Acting Very Strange. His solution was to form a group - a collective, really - with two outstanding singers. Mike + The Mechanics brought together Paul Young from the acclaimed British group Sad Café, and Paul Carrack, the voice of Ace ("How Long") and the Squeeze song "Tempted." Carrack recorded "Silent Running"; Young took the lead on "All I Need Is a Miracle." The songs got M+TM on the charts in 1986 shortly before the next Genesis album, Invisible Touch, was released in May. By the end of the month, four current or former Genesis members were on the Hot 100, along with the band itself.

May 31, 1986

#6 - "All I Need Is a Miracle"
#18 - "Take Me Home" - Phil Collins
#39 - "Sledgehammer" - Peter Gabriel
#40 - "When The Heart Rules The Mind" - Steve Hackett's band GTR
#45 - "Invisible Touch" - Genesis

The second Mike + The Mechanics album, released in 1988, was even more successful, with the #1 hit "The Living Years," a song Rutherford connects with his father, who died while Genesis was on tour in 1986.

Rutherford recruited a new set of Mechanics for their 2011 album The Road, with vocalists Andrew Roachford (a big name in the UK, where he had a hit with "Cuddly Toy") and Tim Howar. This same group returned for Let Me Fly, their 2017 set. Unlike the first iteration, which couldn't tour because of Mike's Genesis commitments, this version of Mike + The Mechanics plays a lot of live shows. In June they're on a bill with Phil Collins at Hyde Park, and plans are underway for a US tour in 2018.
Carl Wiser (SongFacts): Mike, "The Living Years," the song stands out because it's so directly related to your life. Are any of the songs on Let Me Fly like that?

Mike Rutherford: Not as much, but funnily enough, often when you write an album you're not aware what you're saying at the time. Then you look back and think, "Hang on, that does tie into things."

For a change for me, three of the songs - "Let Me Fly," "Are You Ready?" and "The Best Is Yet To Come" - are quite positive. Maybe you're feeling that it's a bit of a dark old time in the world today and they can be quite uplifting in terms of positivity.

Songfacts: So, many times you don't know what you're saying in your songs until later. Are there some examples of your previous work where that's happened to you?

Rutherford: It's not so much later, it's just that you're not aware that there's a current theme at the time. You're writing an album and most songs seem to link up and you get to the end of it, look back at it and you go, "There's a bit of a sort of body of work that ties in here." I'm not sure, I haven't really looked back so much, but I think it happens quite a lot.

Songfacts: When I hear a track like "The Letter," I think of that distinctive Mike Rutherford sound where you've got this foreboding soundscape you're able to create. How do you do that?

Rutherford: I can do dark very easy. Imagine: I'm at home in my studio – my writing room at home. I've got my bass pedals, I've got my guitar miked up loud, I've got my guitar synthesizer playing strings. I make a big noise on my own, and by the time the voice comes on the track, I've got a sort of atmosphere. I'm creating it all myself, really.

Songfacts: Is that something you've always been able to do, the dark?

Rutherford: Yeah, I think dark is easier. That's why I'm saying these songs like "Let Me Fly" and "Are You Ready?" are quite positive - they're not as dark as normal, which I like actually. Dark is easy to do.

Songfacts: "Dark is easy to do."

Rutherford: Yeah, I'm actually a dark person.

Songfacts: Do you mean that musically, since you do the low end, or do you mean that in terms of personality?

Rutherford: Musically. In the sense that Genesis as a band is a sort of darker sound than Mike + The Mechanics. Always has been. But the atmospheric, moody stuff I enjoy doing a lot.

Songfacts: That's a great example of something you bring to Genesis and Mike + The Mechanics, that dark sound. What else have you always been able to do better than your bandmates?

Rutherford: Everything!

No, well funnily enough it isn't quite like that, because every song was different. For example, in the past when we wrote, Phil would do a little drum machine loop, program it, and he'd sing to it. We'd play the chords, he'd sing to it. Then a song called "Mama" comes along and the entire drum program, the stilted drum machine, is me. So, you can swap hats. I think that's half the skill, really.

Songfacts: Yeah, and all that swapping of hats you've done has served you guys very well, as evidenced by your solo success. Many bands can't do that.

"Silent Running" was the first Mike + The Mechanics single. An eerie song with a science fiction storyline, it was re-titled "Silent Running (On Dangerous Ground)" when it was booked for use in a little-seen movie called On Dangerous Ground, released in America as Choke Canyon.

Silent Running is also the name of a 1972 film starring Bruce Dern as an astronaut trying to save the last plant life salvaged from Earth. In that film, Joan Baez sang the title song.
Songfacts: The song "Silent Running," was that based on the movie?

Rutherford: No, the song came first and it kind of married up to the movie to get a good video quickly. It was really about time travel. The story is about the idea that this father of the family is ahead in time, so he can look back and see what's going to happen in England, and it's not good. He's trying to get a message back to his family to warn them that the impending disaster is coming. Hence the line, "Can you hear me, can you hear me calling you?"

Songfacts: But was the song at all based on the movie Silent Running, the one from the '70s?

Rutherford: No, I hadn't seen the film.

Songfacts: So there was no reference point in terms of a book or movie that inspired the lyric?

Rutherford: No. Funny, when I was writing the song with B.A. Robertson, he thought "can you hear me, can you hear me running" was a sleeper, just a gash, a temporary line to sing until he wrote some good lyrics. And then I said, "No, they sound great." He went, "Are you sure?" And it just worked nicely.

Songfacts: Where do you typically get your lyrical reference points from?

Rutherford: It all varies. The song on the album called "Don't Know What Came Over Me," I just love the idea. It's a phrase everyone's heard. But it's about someone who's happily married or with someone and he gets up one night and kind of goes mad. He wakes in the morning and goes, "Did I do that?" And the phrase pops up, "I don't know what came over me."

But the point about that, the song says, "Okay it wasn't your normal life, but then your life's changed because of it. Things happen and you can't just put it back together again."

Songfacts: There's a song that's really intriguing on this album called "Save My Soul," where there's a line, "Gave my child a gun to see what he could do. Shot them down with a dirty shade of blue." Can you explain what's going on there?

Rutherford: I thought some might complain. That line is about how what kids are exposed to now is ridiculous. It's not a real gun.

The knowledge they have so young and the confidence kids have now is just crazy to me. When I was growing up and my kids were growing up, they were much more insulated to things, and I think it's not a bad thing. Everything now is so available, it's hard to avoid it. Young kids, I think they get too much information too soon.

Songfacts: One of your Genesis songs that seems prescient in that regard is "Turn It On Again." Do you ever look back on that and think you were really on to something?

Rutherford: No. The song at the moment that I look back on is "Land Of Confusion," because ever since Trump got in I hark back to that video. Have you ever seen the video? It was Spitting Image puppets.

Songfacts: Of course. It was on MTV all the time.

Rutherford: Yeah, and so the final scene is Reagan looking towards the wall behind his bed and there's two buttons, one saying "nurse" and one saying "nuke."

It's just kind of a strange time, isn't it? Some of it seemed very relevant.

Songfacts: Yes, absolutely. Kind of this world-taken-over-by-dark-forces theme where in some of your songs that's clearly a fiction story, a fantasy, but in that one it was very much based on real life, and we're still dealing with those issues.

You did "Follow You Follow Me," which was in many ways the first love song for Genesis. Is that something that you had in mind?

Rutherford: Not really. At the time, it was meant to be part of a longer song but it just sort of worked. I wrote a very simple lyric, I guess about my wife really now. It was the first time I wrote a lyric that direct and that quick. I didn't analyze it, it just came out very quickly. And then I thought, "Do you know what, it's so simple it works in an honest way."

Songfacts: You were married at the time. Were you perhaps the only person in the band at the time who was in an emotional state to write something like that?

Rutherford: Well, possibly, yeah. Phil was having some ups and downs in his family life. Tony Banks is not very capable of expressing feelings or anything. He has a naturally more different lyrical style. But it was right - everyone felt right about the time to do it, and in a way "Follow You Follow Me" should have been not a very good song, but it has a certain honesty about it, so it seems to work.

Songfacts: "All I Need Is A Miracle" you've described as an "up" song, which it certainly is musically, but the guy didn't treat this girl very well. What do we think of the guy in this song?

Rutherford: He's lazy and he's average. I sort of agree, yeah. I think it's really an up song in that he's up-wishing something.

I listen more to the chorus than the verses, really. I once told somebody that the words aren't quite right. I always meant it a bit like it's all there if he doesn't mess it up.

Songfacts: I wonder if that's because you're not singing the songs that the verses don't have as much of an impact on you.

Rutherford: I don't know. I wrote some of the verses myself, the first few anyway.

Songfacts: Are there other songs like that where the chorus or just the hook can carry the song?

Rutherford: Yeah, there's a new one on the album called "Don't Know What Came Over Me" which I mentioned earlier, that's the same sort of thing. The line is there. The meaning of the phrase, "Don't know what came over me," it conjures up an image in your mind, doesn't it, about a situation? And in a sense, it's the same sort of thing: You've said the whole song in that one line, "Don't know what came over me." But, in a sense, you've got to write the song around it too.

Songfacts: Yeah, and very often there is a lyric in there that just grabs you. In that one, I was struck by his "endless days of sadness." Like the guy had one night and now it's endless days of sadness. That's powerful.

Rutherford: The point of the song is that he never says it's all OK, it's all fine. If you do something in life, you've changed it and you can't ever go back.

Songfacts: Is the song "High Life" a reference to drugs?

Rutherford: Not really, no. It's about a girl who's enticed by famous people, Hollywood, celebrity, just living the dream. And it isn't like that. They never get there - they're trying too hard. So, it's not so much necessarily drugs, it's more to do with the excitement of success, being in the in-crowd, that sort of thing. And this girl's never going to make it.

Songfacts: One of the songs that didn't catch on in America, right away anyway, is "Over My Shoulder," which has this incredibly catchy tune but lyrically is rather dark. Can you talk about that song?

Rutherford: It's a weird song "Over My Shoulder." It was a huge hit in Europe and didn't quite happen in America. It's a sort of silly song, because there're nothing much to it. It's more about the drum machine and the guitars and the sound because the words are a little sad actually. But the song doesn't feel sad. When you play it on stage everyone's very up, so it's a funny mixture.

But it's such a unique song. I'm not saying it's good or bad, it's just often solidifying. It's a sort of foolish song really, but it seems to connect with the crowd.

Songfacts: How did the whistling come about?

Rutherford: Paul Carrack did it when we recorded it, thinking that he whistles where the solo will be - the guitar solo or saxophone. He thought, I'll whistle now and then we'll put an instrument playing the solo. I said, "Sounds great." And we kept it, to his surprise.

Songfacts: One of those happy accidents. Has that happened throughout your career, where something goes in as a placeholder and then it ends up in the song?

Rutherford: Yeah, like I said in "Silent Running," the chorus, "Can you hear me, can you hear me running?" B.A. thought, "I'll sing it for now because it sounds good."

The one thing I do know, I know if something's right. I can't always get it but when something is right, I know it, I'm confident about it. If I don't know about something I'll say, "I'm not sure, what do you think?" But when I do know, I'm normally right.

Songfacts: At what stage in the song do you typically know that it's right?

Rutherford: It can be at any stage, or just a part of a song like the whistling. I knew the whistling was right. He and the producer were both saying, "Are you sure? Shouldn't we try something on saxophone or guitar?" And I said, "No, it's great."

Not that it happens all the time, but I have a confidence in knowing that something is the right thing to do.

Songfacts: Tell me about the song "Another Cup Of Coffee."

Most Genesis videos and the early M+TM clips were directed by Jim Yukich, but Gregg Masuak took the order for "Another Cup Of Coffee," brewing up a clever, piercing video starring Stephanie Buttle as the harried and neglected wife. The story behind it is here.
Rutherford: It started with that phrase. I just sang that line, "She pours herself another cup of coffee" and on those chords. And once again that sums up the whole song really - the sadness of married life and the frustrations of a married life.

I like using everyday words like coffee. Squeeze are great at using very everyday words [like coffee] and I find it very attractive that way: "another cup of coffee," "stare across the wall," "suitcases." Everyday things give you a nice imagery.

Songfacts: Paul Carrack did a lot of stuff with Squeeze.

Rutherford: I didn't know he sang one of the verses until way after.

Songfacts: Yeah, he shows up all over the place.

"Nobody Knows" is one of these great lesser-known – at least over here – Mike + The Mechanics songs. Can you talk about that song?

Rutherford: I love it, but it kind of got away. We played it on stage a few years ago and I loved it.

It sounded great, but the crowd didn't get it. It's one of my favorite songs, actually, from the early days. Just a lovely example of what I do with chords and weird bass notes and the way Paul Carrack sings it. The middle eight's a bit sharp and it's probably got the wrong drums, but I think it has a lovely, warm sound. When I hear it, it relaxes me.

Songfacts: I wonder if the lyric has anything to do with why it didn't connect.

Rutherford: I don't know. "Nobody knows what we had" is the point really. Maybe the world isn't very interested. No one really knows how great it was, and it didn't work, didn't stay good. So, it's slightly sad.

I think the middle eight is the weak point or the chorus or the loud bit. The verse part and the lead part of the verse I think is fabulous, but I think the next parts of the song jumped too much.

Songfacts: Is there a Genesis song like that, that kind of "got away" as you say?

Rutherford: Probably "Submarine."

But normally the song just stops in the writing stage if it's getting away from us. Because there's three of us, it's a tougher crowd. If we don't all like it a lot, it doesn't happen. You can have a song two-thirds done and then we can sort of lose interest in doing it.

Mike wrote the lyric to "Turn It On Again," a standout track from the 1980 Genesis album Duke. It's about a guy whose deepest relationships are with the people on his TV screen:

You're just another face, that I know from the TV show
I have known you for so very long, feel like a friend
Songfacts: The reason I brought up "Turn It On Again" earlier is the whole social media thing: the idea of people looking at their screens, which replaces their friends. Is that something that you have followed? Have you gone into this screen culture at all?

Rutherford: Well, you can't not, because the world works around that now. I have a slight problem with it and a complaint is that at the moment no one lives in the now. They're all somewhere else on their screen talking to someone else, doing something else. There's a big lack of just being where you are, enjoying the moment, blue sky, people you're talking to.

The screen means they're somewhere else, they're mentally not near, and that's a shame I think. I see families round the table who are on the phone, on the screen. I never allow that in my household. My kids are big now, but the danger is that everyone is somewhere else mentally.

Songfacts: What's one of the Genesis songs that shows off your best work, be it a lyric or a musical section?

Rutherford: I think "Turn It On Again" was one of our favorite songs, actually. Lyrically I'd say "Land Of Confusion." I wrote that lyric and I think it stands out well today.

Songfacts: Do you remember if there was a specific news story or something that triggered that in you?

Rutherford: No, I can't remember specifically. Everything you read in the paper gives you it, you know what I mean?

I've always shied away from doing what I call a preachy song, a protest song, but it seemed to work. Maybe because the music was quite angry it made it work.

Songfacts: Well, it also said something that hadn't been said in that way. We hadn't thought of this as a land of confusion before.

Rutherford: Yeah.

Songfacts: From a technical standpoint, be it a piece of gear or some innovation, what has had the biggest impact on your work?

Rutherford: Without doubt, the bass pedals. I'll tell you why. A piano player can play the right hand or the left hand - the guitarist can't really. When I write, the pedals make me choose some odd, odd notes.

Sometimes I'm writing a song and the guitar is playing three notes but the pedals make the chords. The recent Mechanics – Roachford and Tim – couldn't believe the kind of sound you could make. It's just something to the way you write. Once a song is written, to bring a weird bass line to it, it just makes you play some unusual chords, and that's part of my sound now.

Songfacts: When did you get these bass pedals?

Rutherford: Way, way back. When we started out with Peter Gabriel, it was two guitarists, myself and Anthony Phillips, but he played better guitar so I played bass - some songs guitar and some bass. And then suddenly we were doing those long pieces with Genesis, and having to change from guitar to bass and back all the time got too hard so I just started doing guitar and bass. I actually covered the guitar parts and the bass pedal part and bass notes. That was way, way back.

May 22, 2017
Get Let Me Fly here

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Comments: 6

  • Marble Man from Any Town UsaReagen did nothing but monkey movies and broke the middle class. He did not bring down the wall no one in Europe believes that . Rock and roll brought it down. The only other president that was worse than ronnie is trump. History will show it.
  • Tom from Pittsburgh Michael has been a gift to Genesis and the Mechanics for his belief and skill. I’m sure he made some mistakes but interpreting the meaning of his songs is based on the recipients belief and attitude.
  • Cyril Wilkinson from Co. Wicklow. Republic Of Ireland.Have ye ever heard of White Plains? Their hits included My Baby Loves Lovin', Julie Do Ya Love Me and When You Are A King and also ''Step Into A Dream''
  • John from UsaAt the end of the "Land Of Confusion" video Reagan rolls over in bed and accidentally presses "the red button." A nuclear explosion ensues. Hollywood and these musicians at the time pegged Reagan as a war monger and incompetent. They also today find it entertaining to step on peoples' graves and mock people who suffered from Alzheimer's like Reagan did. The actual history is that Reagan helped to dissolve the Iron Curtain, the Soviet Union, and set a lot of people free from outright awful living conditions created from the Soviet command economy. Reagan did this with political and financial pressure, without firing a single shot. He should have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for this. The members of Genesis who created that video completely misinterpreted history due to their personal feelings. Our current history has not played out yet, but since Rutherford is applying his completely wrong interpretation again today, it is likely that history will prove him wrong again. MR I love your music, but like a math teacher should not be teaching cooking, you musicians should not be commenting on history, anthropology, politics and the such. You are bound to make nothing but the worst of omelettes when you do...
  • Jeremy from Usa"Ever since Trump got in I harken back to that video."

    He's turned out to be the greatest American President in modern history. It saddens me that so many of my favorite entertainers are so dense. It seems to be a kind of political immaturity.

    President Trump:
    Lowest black unemployment rate in history
    Lowest Latino unemployment rate in history
    Lowest female unemployment rate in 65 years
    Lowest overall unemployment rate 50 years
    Highest consumer confidence in 18 years
    Climbing GDP
    Highest stock market in history
    Got the US out of TPP
    Got the US out of PCA
    Destroyed ISIS' Middle Eastern Caliphate
    Withdrew from the Iran Nuclear Payment Deal
    Renegotiated NAFTA for America's benefit
    Demanding (and getting) other countries to pay their fair share for America's contribution to their national defense
    Denuclearization of North Korea as verified by inspections
    V.A. reform
    Prison reform
    Executive Order Protecting Free Speech On College Campuses
    Pay raises for our troops

    This is an abbreviated list. We (American patriots) are not at all confused.
  • Paul from UkIts interesting that you don't mention Smallcreep's Day which was Mike's first album? Its an album that I find myself listening to quite a lot... I know that it had mixed reviews and probably takes a couple of listens to get into but it is definitely worth the effort if you haven't heard it. I have seen Mike + The Mechanics a couple of times in concert and they are a great band to see live....
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