Mechanical Years

mikebookIt was with great anticipation that I ordered and devoured Mike Rutherford‘s autobiography The Living Years.  After all, Mike’s been a musical hero to me, from his early days in Genesis to their triumphant years of global popularity through to his solo work.  His underrated guitar and Rickenbacker bass playing, particularly during the early years of the band is studied and assured.  In fact, there have been several chances lately with The Musical Box and Steve Hackett performing early Genesis to witness how Mike played that double necked instrument and it’s a striking thing to behold.  Once Peter Gabriel left the group followed by Steve Hackett two years later, I stuck with the band, never being one to hate on later Genesis for being more pop and less progressive (okay, save maybe for the title track to Invisible Touch.)   So while I looked forward to Mike’s story about the early formative days, I expected to be pleased with the coverage of his entire career and what he might share of his personal life.

After reading the work, there are some pro’s and con’s to the autobiography.  There is a key framing device – Mike’s love for his father, and feelings that they did not connect sufficiently during his lifetime – it’s a beautiful sentiment and I would expect nothing less from this gentle soul.  But the book is short at only 239 pages, and the amount of space spent explaining his father’s life, including writings from his journals, leaves too little room for Mike to reflect at proper length on the different stages of his career.  He does offer a comparatively thorough assessment of his early years growing up, becoming rebellious as a teen, and joining Anthony Phillips and the gang in early groups, leading the reader through those times, including how the group that became Genesis formed, their debut album, and first par release Trespass.  But after giving those very early formative years full attention, each album or major event afterwards, from the years 1971 on, are addressed with shorter passages, each revealing fewer observations and gems from Mike as author than would be hoped.  In some cases, Mike seems not to have perspective on his work, particularly it’s early, more progressive leanings.

mikepikNotably, there’s only a page and a half about the brilliant Selling England by the Pound in which Mike does not reflect on his growth, saying it “wasn’t my favorite album” and wondering how they ended up writing a hit single “I Know What I Like” – even though we can all recall that was a riff Steve Hackett developed and contributed.  Little else is said about the artistry of Hackett other than the usual track about how he left the band, his timing in deciding to release his first solo album (just after Gabriel’s departure) and how he had some trouble fitting in to the group.  Also, though a lot is said about their friendship, nothing substantial is written about his work with Anthony on the gorgeous Geese and the Ghost record.  Mike also gives short mention to the wonderful lyrics he’s written, reflecting that his writing in later years was more fitting.

On the plus side, it’s common for biographers to write at length about the early years, before the fame hits, and the first many chapters of this book covering those years through 1970 are complete.  Mike does discuss his first solo album, Smallcreep’s Day, which surprised me a bit and I was glad to see that work recognized as an achievement.  Also there is good attention paid to Mike and the Mechanics, of which he is justly proud.  These are interesting passages, some with new information for this reader and fan.  In a rare moment of personal import he explains what was happening with Paul Young up to his untimely death.  Also throughout, there are fun recollections from Mike on the adventure of being on the road – the hotels, food, some fun times, and lots of speeding on America’s highways – when caught he admits using his British charm to get out a few tickets. Though we don’t get too deep in the psyche, there are some great passages about these times.

So on the whole, I liked the book well enough as a quick read and can recommend that at least fans of Genesis, Mike’s solo work and related music give it a try.  From another lens, I suppose it’s just what you would expect from the person Mike seems to be – humble, honest and kind, not to mention being one of the greatest songwriters, string men and lyricists of our lifetimes.

Selling England by the Note

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATribute band The Musical Box brought their wares to the Regency Ballroom in San Francisco February 21, and 22 2014.  The first night they recreated the 1973 Genesis tour that supported Selling England by the Pound (SEBTP).  On the second night they performed the 1972 tour for the prior Genesis release, Foxtrot.

The performances were striking in their accuracy, and transported this viewer and those in the audience to a time long ago when to many of us, Genesis owned the English progressive rock mantle.  The experience of seeing this band is something better than tribute.  They actually recreate these shows down to the set design, including slides, costumes, and props, and very faithfully perform the live music itself, with the same interpretation the band employed during the shows from the era.

Having thus far only seen The Musical Box perform the 1974 masterwork The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, it was a rare treat to see these two prior tours.  For me personally, the SEBTP album and tour represent the best, most realized work in their early days.  Between the touching opening of “Dancing With the Moonlit Knight” to the majestic “Firth of Fifth” and melodic refrains of “The Cinema Show” this is where the band really hit it’s stride.  The Musical Box capture the live experience deftly, and hearing the work in it’s live format, complete with visuals, and Peter’s stories, explain what all the fuss was way back in those days.  It was even grand to see them wind their way through “The Battle of Epping Forest” usually dismissed by the actual members of Genesis as a bit of a mess.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOn the second night, the band recreated the Foxtrot tour.  What was remarkable about this was how effective the simple white curtain was compared to later more complex backdrops.  Without projections, and with lots of black lights and some fog, the opener “Watcher of the Skies” was able to be appreciated even more than on later renditions.  The rather minimalist stage and use of fewer costume changes actually focuses the audience more on the music, making me for one appreciate “The Return of the Giant Hogweed,” “Can-Utility and the Coastliners” and “The Fountain or Salmacis” more than any time in the past.

Notably, both shows included the classic prog masterpiece “Supper’s Ready” and encore “The Knife” which were highlights of both nights.  This is a highly recommended experience for any fan of early Genesis or of progressive rock in general.  Catch it before they are gone!