“People do albums and say, ‘I just do it for myself’ – that’s absolute rubbish. No one ever really means that”: How Mike Rutherford measures his success

Mike Rutherford
(Image credit: Getty Images)

The success of Mike + The Mechanics took Genesis co-founder Mike Rutherford by surprise; but, inspired by the results of the first incarnation, he built a second one and took it on the road. In 2017, around the time the Mechanics release eighth album Let Me Fly, Rutherford told Prog the story so far.

“I still think of Mike + The Mechanics naturally as something that happened later in my career, and then you realise it’s been 32 years and you think, ‘Blimey!’” Mike Rutherford laughs.

Quietly and stealthily, the Mechanic-in-Chief has now racked up those decades, alongside eight albums, with his ‘hobby band,’ as many dismissed it at the time. After realising that he was no lead vocalist himself (have you ever heard his 1982 solo album Acting Very Strange?), in 1985 Rutherford launched a studio-based group – featuring singers Paul Carrack and Sad Café’s Paul Young – that grew out of a songwriting project. Within months, their single Silent Running (On Dangerous Ground) was high in the US charts, a sleek piece of AOR that was very much of its era.

After many twists and turns, in 2010 Rutherford assembled a new Mechanics band to support the album The Road. He brought together some crack players, led by Tim Howar and Andrew Roachford, who took on the mantle of vocalists from Young (who sadly died in 2000) and Carrack. Supporting Rutherford’s guitar were young keyboard whizz Luke Juby (who’d worked with Emeli Sandé and Professor Green), post-Roger Waters Pink Floyd percussionist Gary Wallis on drums, and Calling All Stations-era Genesis touring guitarist Anthony Drennan.

The rapturously-received shows include not only a smattering of later-period Genesis material but also Roachford’s solo showstopper Cuddly Toy. The audiences are very mixed, age and gender-wise, and few are there because of Rutherford’s Genesis past. As he observes: “I’d say some fans do both, but perhaps Mike + The Mechanics fans found Genesis a little too heavy, especially the early stuff.”

Arguably more so than his fellow writers in his original group Genesis, Rutherford was the purest ‘pop’ writer, not having Tony Banks’ or Steve Hackett’s classical bent, Phil Collins’ jazzy undertones or Peter Gabriel’s idiosyncrasy. Ever one with his ears open for a catchy tune, in the past Rutherford wrote with Carrack, BA Robertson and Christopher Neil, and he has far more hits than you recall: The Living Years, sure; All I Need Is A Miracle, of course; but also Over My Shoulder, One More Cup Of Coffee and Word Of Mouth, to name a few. 

His penchant for collaboration continues – for Let Me Fly, he worked with former Johnny Hates Jazz singer Clark Datchler, Fraser T Smith (writer for Sam Smith and Ellie Goulding) and Ed Drewett, who has contributed material for Olly Murs and One Direction.

It’s not often that you’ll see One Direction mentioned in Prog [Only, perhaps, in the lyrics to The Carpet Crawlers – Smart Alec Ed], but Let Me Fly is tremendously well-constructed adult pop – several of the songs you could imagine being sung by 1D themselves. Moreover, much of the album is overseen by Rutherford’s old friend Brian Rawling, who produced – among other things – Cher’s globe-conquering single Believe.

How does Rutherford feel about being in a ‘man band?’ He laughs: “I hadn’t seen myself as in a mature boy band, but I don’t take that in a bad way. I grew up with The Beatles, the Stones, The Who, The Kinks, the Small Faces. They were pop groups. There was something memorable to their songs.”

As with those illustrious turns, there’s definite grit in the oyster – at times, Rutherford’s guitar is edgy and angular, and there’s contrast in the voices – Howar’s rock and Roachford’s R&B add an extra dimension. Let Me Fly returns to the Mike + The Mechanics sound of the first two albums. “Brian suggested we went back to the early material,” Rutherford says, “and use some of the quirky, odd sounds that I used to use. He was a pair of ears that I haven’t had for a long time.”

The process began in 2015: “I got six songs together and played them for Brian. I also played him some fragments and he said that they were the best things he’d heard. Having someone outside listening helps the song selection and the quality control.”

It was Rawling, too, who recommended Datchler to Rutherford. “Clark brought something really nice to the project, a bit like the BA Robertson role. He’s from a poppy world but actually not that poppy. You can give him a platform and that made him quite brave. Writing took a lot longer than the recording – it was our goal to get the words, and the form and the melodies correct.”

The album was demoed by Rutherford, Datchler, Smith and Drewett sending material between each other, as well as doing some recording at The Farm. The first song Rutherford and Datchler collaborated on was Let Me Fly. “I love the idea, an aspirational song saying that if you don’t go for it in life, you’ll never know what you can achieve,” Rutherford says. It’s as simple as that. We brought in a six-piece gospel choir on it. I tried to tell them what to do, and then I thought, ‘You do it all the time – you’ve got the right harmonies, the right blend.’”

One of the album’s highlights is the high-dudgeon mini-drama of a one-night stand in Don’t Know What Came Over Me. “I came up with the phrase. I just love the idea of a man whose life is good without worries, but he had this moment of madness on a big night out. He wakes up in the morning and thinks, ‘Oh my God.’ It’s how one little act like that can change your life completely.”

It’s these believable scenarios that have made the group’s material such a success across the years. In addition, Let Me Fly feels like an old-school album, with a beginning, a middle and an end. “The first five or six songs needed to be a natural fit. I miss the old days when the best track was the last track on side two. We have a vinyl version of this, too. The cover looks lovely – a rotated picture of a base jumper on a trampoline.”

Touring with the Mechanics has been a revelation for Rutherford. “The English theatres are great – they have a lot of character. I like that. There were no shortcuts. We had to go out there the first time – and the theatres weren’t full, by any means – and we had to prove that we’re a good live band.

There were no shortcuts … the theatres weren’t full, by any means – we had to prove we’re a good live band

“We hadn’t played those songs very much. We’ve done that and we’ve earned our success. We’re doing the same around Europe now. Last time the venues were slightly smaller, this time they’re bigger. It’s nice to achieve a bit of growth, reaching people as you go along.”

The Let Me Fly tour culminates in support slots for his old drummer and vocalist Phil Collins at Hyde Park and Dublin’s Aviva Stadium in June and July. Could Rutherford and Collins play together on stage for the first time in 10 years? “Nothing is planned – let’s get to those shows first of all,” Rutherford laughs. “It’s nice for us to play to audiences that are very much on our side. It will be great fun.”

Rutherford’s book, The Living Years, was well-received on its publication in 2014. Looking back, he says writing it was a pleasurable experience. “Books never go away, really. It got really nice reviews. In a funny way, it made Phil write his book and allowed us to remember just what a good time we had, the three of us especially.”

Speaking of ‘the three of us’, does he ever consider what his old Genesis chums make of his material? “Never did really – we keep it separate.”

But he’s delighted that the music he originally made his name with is back in fashion: “Prog got the most terrible bashing in the press; I think that’s unfair because it was interesting, brave people trying to do something a bit challenging. The good bits are always fantastic.”

Ever charming, Rutherford has the air of a man who genuinely doesn’t know what will happen next. The Mechanics had no grand plan and here they are, in their second incarnation, producing music that’s still a comfortable fit on the airwaves. How does someone who has been in the game for so long, topping the US charts, measure his success?

“I’d like to get a little bit of radio play, a bit of reaction; as simple as that,” says Rutherford. “You want to feel that you’re reaching people. People do albums and say, ‘I just do it for myself’ – that’s absolute rubbish. No one ever really means that. I judge success by it reaching people a little bit.”

For those who like well-crafted pop rock, Let Me Fly is just the ticket.

Daryl Easlea

Daryl Easlea has contributed to Prog since its first edition, and has written cover features on Pink Floyd, Genesis, Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel and Gentle Giant. After 20 years in music retail, when Daryl worked full-time at Record Collector, his broad tastes and knowledge led to him being deemed a ‘generalist.’ DJ, compere, and consultant to record companies, his books explore prog, populist African-American music and pop eccentrics. Currently writing Whatever Happened To Slade?, Daryl broadcasts Easlea Like A Sunday Morning on Ship Full Of Bombs, can be seen on Channel 5 talking about pop and hosts the M Means Music podcast.