Pop song lyrics often deal in trivialities. But every once in a while, a big hit manages to elucidate something important about the human condition. “The Living Years,” by Mike +The Mechanics, is one of those songs, as it speaks eloquently of the generational chasm and how those on both sides often stumble trying to fill it.
Mike + The Mechanics began as Mike Rutherford’s side-project supergroup to keep him busy between Genesis albums. On the band’s self-titled debut, Rutherford enlisted the songwriting help of BA Robertson, who had been a hitmaker in the UK as a performer but was looking for a lower profile. “Someone from the Genesis office called me, asked me if I would like to meet with Mike, with a view to collaborating with him,” Robertson explained to American Songwriter. “It was never my plan to be a pop star/television personality, which I was by then. I knew it was all about the writing. So going to work with Mike was worth a drive down to Guildford.”
The collaboration immediately proved fruitful, as Robertson helped Rutherford write much of Mike + The Mechanics self-titled debut in 1985, including the smash single “Silent Running.” For the band’s second album in 1988, Robertson brought in a piece of music and lyrics that touched on the death of his father, an experience that his co-writer Rutherford has also recently undergone.
“The lyrics were an assembly,” Robertson explains. “I had the first two verses before I took it to Mike. The third verse I wrote pulled over on the A3, the road from Guildford to London. I wrote the last verse in Los Angeles at a house I had just bought. I wrote it outside the kitchen window, leaning on the ledge one afternoon. Then I couldn’t play it to anyone, because I would break down when I sung it. I knew if I did this with Mike, that would be the end of it. I did manage to sing it eventually, but he still wasn’t convinced.”
“The Living Years” starts out with a simple yet accurate statement: “Every generation blames the one before.” From there, Robertson’s lyrics lay out the difficulty of communicating complicated emotions: “Crumpled bits of paper/Filled with imperfect thought/Stilted conversations/I’m afraid that’s all we’ve got.”
As the soulful ballad progresses, the narrator uses his own example to advise the listener. “It’s the bitterness that lasts,” he warns. Concerned about those who would take the easy way out to deal with this generational divide, he pleads, “So don’t yield to the fortunes you sometimes see as fate.” Each time the chorus comes around, we are reminded how suddenly the window for reconciliation can close: “It’s too late/When we die/To admit we don’t see eye to eye.”
In the final verse, the father dies and the son becomes a father. Although it is too late in one respect, the new life provides the narrator with a chance to apply the lessons he has learned, this time from a different perspective. But still, regret lingers, inevitably: “I just wish I could have told him in the living years.”
Although Robertson himself struggled to get through the song, he and Rutherford had the perfect guy to deliver the message in Paul Carrack. His stunning vocal performance was informed by the death of his own father when he was a boy, something that Robertson didn’t even realize when he handed the song over.
“I was overwhelmed,” Robertson says of hearing the finished song. “I played on the track, including those opening changes. But I wasn’t around as it evolved. They did a great job, especially Paul. It was written for him, and I didn’t even know. It wasn’t until I called him from Disney one day to thank him, that he blurted out to me about what happened with his father. I did feel a bit of a berk that I never asked him what he felt about the song.”
“The Living Years” smoothly transitioned from intensely personal song to award-winning hit, in part because of the gorgeous recording, in part because its themes resonated so deeply. Still, the way it has endured somewhat stupefies BA Robertson, who recently released his own version of the song. “Who would have thought that 30 years on that Paul Carrack, for everything that he has achieved, would still be the man who sang ‘The Living Years?’” he asks. “And Mike, who Is in one of the biggest bands in the world, before he gets to ‘Supper’s Ready,’ ‘Invisible Touch,’ or ‘Turn It On Again,’ everyone wants to know about ‘The Living Years.’”
“The problem is, if you really want to know,’ Robertson laughs, “you have to ask the big-nosed, long-faced, loud-mouthed Scot.”