How I wrote ‘The Living Years’ by Mike + The Mechanics’ Mike Rutherford

Mike + The Mechanics
Mike + The Mechanics

Mike Rutherford: “I turned to B. A. and said, ‘Are we sure we can write a song about death?’” Photo: Patrick Balls

The Mechanics main man and co-founding member of Genesis tells the tragic and compelling story behind the award-winning 80s ballad

English musician Mike Rutherford was the co-founder and one of the longest-standing members of the rock band Genesis, before breaking away to form the highly successful supergroup Mike + The Mechanics. Fronted by Paul Carrack, the latter outfit became a chart-topping act thanks to the hit single The Living Years, which Mike wrote with Scottish songwriter Brian Alexander ‘B. A.’ Robertson. The song went on to win the Ivor Novello for Best Song Musically & Lyrically in 1989, and was nominated for the Grammy for Song Of The Year in 1990.

The emotive ballad addresses a son’s regret over unresolved conflict with his now-deceased father. And, as we learn from Mike, the song’s painful subject matter resonated with its singer more than he realised…

The Living Years by Mike + The Mechanics

Released: 27 Dec 1988
Artist: Mike + The Mechanics
Label: WEA
Songwriter: Mike Rutherford, B. A. Robertson
Producer: Christopher Neil, Mike Rutherford
UK chart position: 2
US chart position: 1
Misc: In 1996, Burt Bacharach called this “one of the finest lyrics of the last 10 years”

“I suppose there are stories behind most songs, this one especially. The background was coincidental: B. A.’s father died about the same time as my father, and then B. A. had a son, so he’d never met his grandfather. So he had this idea of doing the song.

“Being of similar age, we both came from an era where our parents had lived through two world wars, when young men wanted to be like their fathers – wear the same clothes, do the same things. But then there was a huge change and our generation wanted to be anything but their fathers. It wasn’t our parents’ fault, there was just a big social change. Pop music had come along, The Beatles, denim trousers… for the first time, teens had their own culture. That’s how our generation couldn’t really talk to our parents in the same way.

“So we had the idea of writing a song about how you never really talk to your father, and you miss out on these things. It’s all very well to start working on it, but it’s a pretty heavy lyric, so I turned to B. A. and said, ‘Are we sure we can write a song about death?’ If we’d got it wrong, it would’ve been very schmaltzy – that was always my worry.

“I didn’t realise at the time that Paul Carrack’s father died when he was young. So, in a sense, the song had a resonance for him that, at the time, I didn’t really know. Although, at the end of the album, I remember Chris Neil shaking my hand and saying, ‘I just want to thank you because it’s one of the best songs I’ve ever worked on.’ I was like, ‘Oh okay!’ You know it’s good, but often when you’re so close to a song you can’t see it.

“Like with all of these things, there are two parts: the writing and the recording. They’re both equally important. And also, I remember now that The Living Years had a sort of four-minute, ‘left-turn’ middle section at one point, which B. A. and I liked. It was a rambling instrumental and I can’t remember how it went, but Chris Neil said, ‘Guys, are you really sure it needs that?’ We were like, ‘Hang on a minute, maybe you’re right.’ So we dropped it and he was right – it could’ve been a seven-minute song.

“I also remember that during the writing of it, B. A. would come down some days towards the end when we’d just do lyrics, and a couple of times I had to leave the room! The eyes started welling up – it touched a nerve with both of us. To have a song that is a hit and becomes part of people’s life is wonderful, but to have a song that touches them like this… most nights on the Mechanics tour you’ll see someone in the audience crying!”

“It started off with the chords. I played a little guitar part, with a semitone change… actually it’s an A-flat chord. You’re putting a couple of notes in there – if you held the note it’s a horrible clash, but if you touch and go back, alternate, it presents something that makes the chord that B. A. held sound more interesting.

“Often with songwriting, it’s that combination of things that’s very good. Unusual clashes that on their own don’t mean very much, but put together they create something. I think that defines the mood of the song. It’s quite a simple song: there aren’t that many chords and it’s quite repetitive. But if the lyric is taking you on a journey, it doesn’t really matter.”

Mike Batt at French House Party 2024

EXPERT OPINION by James Linderman
“Some topics, like the relationship between son and father and the nuances of guilt and regret, are best served with careful reflection, followed by more careful reflection! This song makes a lot of people cry, but they’re good tears.”

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