RUTHERFORD’S DAY

Writing a memoir seems to have become a compulsory autumn activity for ageing rock stars. And given the rate at which they are dropping off the twig, a good thing too I reckon. Commit those stories to print before deteriorating faculties and disintegrating memories make it impossible to recall the detail that brings such tomes to life. If, indeed, any detailed memories survived the actual experiences.

Now, taking the “rock ’n’ roll” part as a given, what are the most important things we want from a memoir by a middle-aged rock musician? Here is an inventory*.

Top 10 Things A Rock Memoir Should Have

  1. Lots of sex and drugs
  2. Some personal anecdotes that reveal the real character of the author/artist
  3. More 1, including legally dubious activities
  4. An insider’s insight into the music
  5. Even more 1, preferably with slightly shocking/revolting detail
  6. Some stuff we didn’t already know
  7. Some more 1, dripping with salacious name-dropping
  8. Prose written sufficiently well that it appears effort has gone into the construction of meaningful, entertaining sentences
  9. More 1, with minimal boasting, thanks
  10. An index to look for favourite bits
  11. More 1.

It had to go up to eleven, didn’t it?

Mike Rutherford - Living Years book

I have just finished reading The Living Years by Mike Rutherford, which the cover proudly trumpets is ‘The First Genesis Memoir’. As it covers the musician’s entire life from before birth to the end of the naughties, it is, in fact, an autobiography. But pedantry aside, what do we learn from The Living Years about one of the founder-members of UK rock and prog institution Genesis? As it turns out, quite a lot about his father.

Although it is an act of familial respect to drop paragraphs from his late father’s unpublished memoir into his own book, Mike Rutherford’s story really has little point of contact with his father’s other than the child’s oft-expressed regret over the distance that characterised their relationship. Suggesting that Rutherford Senior’s peripatetic life as a Naval officer is somehow similar to Junior’s life on the road with a struggling, eventually massively successful rock band is unconvincing. Being in the Senior Service during and after the Second World War is simply not the same context as touring the globe with a pop band. It’s like Mike so, so wants to live up to a fantasy of his Dad’s expectations that he is grasping at any point of contact he can find. But really, it’s a bit like a kid on a carousel straddling a painted pony and shouting to the overalled father who built the ride, ‘Look Dad, I’m just like you!’

This is not to diminish Rutherford Junior’s respect for his dad nor to underplay his own achievements in a very different field. It just that they are separate lives. As for Mike’s own story, it is not a particularly gripping read. Genesis formed at an exclusive UK boy’s school, developed their sound over several years, then recorded and toured. This much is known by anyone who has ever read a rock bio. The trick is to bring the well-worn tune alive (again) for a fan of Genesis (or, less likely, of the pedestrian Mike and the Mechanics) who has probably read at least a few articles about the band. This, Rutherford fails to do. He is friendly without ever being intimate, gently teasing while never sticking the boot in, vague when he could be detailed and overall just a nice bloke jotting down a few stories that will offend no-one.

As for sex and drugs, there is a smattering of hinted-at naughtiness in gentlemanly references to those young women King Crimson aptly named ‘ladies of the road’, but nothing suggesting Zeppelin-esque excess. Surprisingly, Mike is much more open about his fondness for a smoke and there are several mildly amusing herb-related stories. My favourite relates to Rutherford recognising the private jet they are using on yet another US tour is the very same aircraft employed previously on the Invisible Touch tour. He locates the porthole window where he stashed some grass on that earlier jaunt and there it is, five years later, still safely wedged between shade and perspex. Score!

About the only new item of interest I encountered in The Living Years concerned a Genesis commercial initiative that resulted in the production (and lucrative hiring-out) of the VARI*LITE, a versatile and flexible stage light that became standard issue for everyone from the Stones to Pink Floyd. Not a bad little earner at all, even though they scarcely needed an income boost by that stage.

Smallcreeps Day Peter Currell Brown

A section of the book I was eagerly looking forward to concerned Rutherford’s first solo album. When I first saw the LP Smallcreep’s Day I’d already been transported by Peter Currell Brown’s novel, in consequence of which I was immediately drawn to an album cover that evoked both the factory setting of the book and the photo-chemical dream-state of the story.

Mike Rutherford - Smallcreeps Day

In an industrial Hades constructed by an heir of Heironymous Bosch, Pinquean Smallcreep goes searching for the end product of his decades of metallic drudgery. Lost in a nightmarish mechanical Gormenghast, he travels endless platforms and filthy alleys of a dimly lit factory netherworld, encountering birth, death, and every kind of grotesquery along the way. It’s Dickens on the brown acid. If there is a twisted theme in the dreamlike flurries of gothic imagery it is that of a gargantuan world-straddling machine grinding out finely tooled pieces of utterly unknown application while grinding down the human drones tethered to its unyielding mass, the quest for meaning constantly frustrated by either the intransigent barbarity of the working slaves or the sheer enormity of the plant itself. It is an exercise in futility worthy of Beckett’s most despairingly persistent anti-hero.

I would have loved to have read how this dark, polluted tale of working-class existential despair touched a nice boy from a posh public school, but alas, Mike Rutherford simply observes that it was a story he ‘liked’ and ‘had a plot you could explain in a paragraph’ (p.171).

Indeed, more paragraphs are devoted to tussles with Storm Thorgerson of Hipgnosis around cover design than to the music. Of the latter, Rutherford simply observes that ‘Smallcreep’s Day is quite strong instrumentally’ (p.173). It is, but this is a disappointingly brief summary.

The side devoted to the novel is especially strong, with pleasing instrumental sections evoking a toned-down Wind and Wuthering and a couple of excellent songs. ‘Working in line’ is brief and energetic, while ‘At the end of the day’ soars melodically and musically in a way the recent Genesis hit ‘Follow you follow me’ emphatically does not.

Smallcreeps Day inner sleeve

In terms of the sound, Smallcreep’s Day fits neatly between And Then There Were Three and Duke, which is scarcely surprising as it was released between those two Genesis albums, in February 1980. It has more of the classic ‘Genesis sound’ than the former and perhaps less punch and variety than the latter, yet anyone who liked either would find much to enjoy in Mike’s first ‘go it alone’ effort. Certainly it is more interesting and imaginative than his next ‘outside Genesis’ effort, the anodyne Mike and the Mechanics.

And that last adjective brings us back to the autobiography. The Living Years provides almost no insights into the music, so fails fans on the ‘rock and roll’ part of the Rock Memoir Inventory. There are some low-key stories related to illicit substances that do not so much shock as make you think Mike would be a nice bloke to sit around and yarn with over a pint and/or a joint. As for the character of the author/artist, this remains frustratingly sketchy, despite a sense Rutherford has really tried to open up.

Perhaps the answer lies in the spoken introduction to the famous Michael Apted ‘7 Up’ film series; ‘give me a child until seven and I will give you the man’. Referring to his school friend and long-term musical partner Tony Banks (Genesis keyboard/composer), Rutherford observes, ‘Tony and I just weren’t brought up to talk about our feelings. If you’ve been to boarding school at seven, you’ve got to hide your emotions to survive so it becomes inbuilt’ (p. 219). But he also thinks perhaps this is why marriage and his own fatherhood have been ‘so good’.

Outwards or inwards, music or people; it’s all about connection.

Smallcreep's Day Back cover

PS. There isn’t an Index.

Rutherford, Mike [2014] The Living Years, Constable, London, UK

Brown, Peter Currell [1965] Smallcreep’s Day, Picador/Pan, London, UK

Rutherford, Mike [1980] Smallcreep’s Day, Charisma/Polydor Australia

* Enquiries regarding any and all usage of the Rock Memoir Inventory (RMI) should be directed to Vinyl Connection’s legal advisors, Storey and Co., telephone NorthWales 1537.

28 comments

  1. Having a Top 11 is most definitely apt!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. douglasharr · · Reply

    perfect summary of a bio that could have been revealing about more than his father, but was not. particularly glaring to me was the very short words devoted to the album on which Mike lays down his most complex, unique work on bass, Selling England By The Pound (1973). He actually slags off the record…unbelievable. Then to give short notice to Smallcreep’s which is by far (really far) his best album, which also had Simon Phillips I think on drums, and Ant on keys – ridiculous. It’s a beautiful album – one of the best of any post-Gabriel solo works outside Gabriel’s and Brand X. This was a case of an artist who has fallen out of touch with his own catalog of work…lost perspective – very busy over the years defending the simpler pop Genesis instead of recognizing all of their work, and the artistic superiority of the earlier stuff… too bad, but whatever… he remains one of my favorite bass players and songwriters ….

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I”ve noticed previously that one should beware asking artists about their favourite or un-favourite works. There’s often a gap between their experiences and our enjoyment. I think it is helpful to remember the huge span of time Rutherford’s career covers, though. Perhaps, after writing, playing, performing, recording with so many musicians over such a long time it is just too difficult to pick out particular moments or details. Still, it does leave the book in the ‘bland’ category irrespective of how pleasant Mike seems.

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  3. Great post, thanks for writing it. I have had this book on my reading list, but sadly I’ve just had too many in front of it. But now after reading this I will try and move it closer to the front. Those picky contributors on the Genesis discussion boards had largely trashed it (no surprise since they find fault with nearly everything). In their eyes nothing new was revealed — they wanted salacious stories. I have such respect for Mike as a songwriter and musician, though, that I really don’t care if he failed to tell tales out of school or not. He’s a decent enough bloke, and quite frankly I’m satisfied enough with that. His bass playing on “Afterglow,” “Suppers Ready,” and “No Reply at All” ain’t too shabby either.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I guess what the Rock Memoir Inventory was trying to satirise was that tendency towards voyeurism when reading a pop star story. Though it isn’t really the absence of salacious detail here that’s the problem, it’s the absence of ANY detail. Nothing about the Genesis albums or the writing or the creation of what is an entertaining and hugely creative body of work. But as you observe, we’ll always have the music.

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  4. Having seen plenty of Rutherford interviews over the years, I have to imagine this is a particularly tame rock ‘n roll memoir/autobiography. I barely have time to read blog posts (or even proof read my own) so I doubt I’ll ever get around to reading this. Maybe if he narrates his own audio book I’ll find the time. I love Smallcreep’s Day as well as Acting Very Strange. Any mid-period Genesis fan who missed them is in for a pleasant surprise whenever they hear them. Mike & The Mechanics was a hit-and-miss affair but they’ve got enough good songs for a compilation, which is what I own (plus a vinyl copy of their first album). I also love his contribution to the Against All Odds soundtrack, “Making A Big Mistake.” It may be best known for his bandmate’s title track, but between his song and Big Country’s “Balcony” it was a particular favorite back in ’84.

    I know this post was more about the book, but you got me thinking about Rutherford’s brief but wonderful solo discography and I had to share my thoughts. Thanks for indulging me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes Rich, I believe you can skip over Mike’s Memoir without missing much.

      Wasn’t ‘Against All Odds’ a fine soundtrack? It also included the excellent Peter Gabriel piece, ‘Walk through the fire’.

      Glad you enjoyed having Rutherford’s solo stuff triggered in your mind – shared thoughts always welcome here!

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  5. thank you for this, bruce. i’m just disappointed at the fact that you didn’t mention 70’s sex (sex in the 70’s will always remain unique in contemporary history, no need to explain why) as one of the expectations one has when reading a rock star bio…
    😛

    Liked by 1 person

    1. 😛 indeed! How could I have overlooked that!

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      1. ahah 🙂 i recently read an interview to Don Henley (it was on the guardian) apropos of life as rockers in the late 70’s and even there, in the little column of the article, the subject of promiscuous sex found its place, eheh. sex is recorded in the grooves of the records and soaks their paper covers, unmistakably. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  6. With regards to the autobiog….. If you look at the original cover it very much indicates what the driving force of the narrative is (http://bestclassicbands.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/Rutherford-book-cover.jpg). I also remember that in the pre-press for the book Mike was clear that it focussed much more on his relationship with his father than other more “traditional” rock biogs. I think that reprinting is slightly misleading in terms of the picture. Either way – great review!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s an interesting question, isn’t it? What would most people expect on opening a ‘memoir’ by a major rock/pop figure? Not that person’s father’s story, I’m willing to bet. Of course Mr Rutherford (or anyone else) is entitled to write about whatever he chooses and tell his story however he wants, but I think that many would be rather disappointed in this one. And I imagine that the publisher was not keen on a cover disclaimer along the lines of “Not really about the music at all”.

      Thanks for the link to the ‘alt’ cover, btw, and for your kind words.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’d have loved it if there HAD been a sticker on the cover that read “WARNING: Does not contain much sex, drugs or rock & roll. Reader discretion is advised” 😀

        Liked by 1 person

  7. So, eh, not recommended then? Sounds much like how I felt about Neil Young’s Waging Heavy Peace, actually. That wss so, um, insightful that I put it down without finishing it. With absolutely no intention of ever returning to it.

    … Mike & The Mechanics, eh? I’d forgot all about them. I’m fairly intrigued in that Smallcreep’s Day LP, though.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. For anyone who enjoys that Wind and Wuthering period Genesis, Smallcreep’s Day is an enjoyable listen. As for M & the Ms, forgettable is a pretty apt word!

      Shame about Neil’s tome (it was a monster, was it not?). At least Mike’s was a thinner volume!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Unlike Rutherford’s memoir, this post was filled to the brim with goodness. My takeaway is that I really want to read the Smallcreep novel now. “Dickens on the brown acid” – I hope that’s how they marketed it because that sells!

    I fully concur with your rock memoir list generally, with the following exception: I’m currently reading Patti Smith’s latest entitled M Train and despite it only having items 2, 6, and 8 from your list and no “music” at all, it may be the best music memoir I’ve ever read. I’m finding that experiencing through her prose the uniqueness of her mind makes subsequent listens to her music even better. (I really liked her previous, Just Kids too.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve been meaning to track down Patti’s memoirs for a while. She is such an interesting multi-faceted artist. (I do hope my tongue was firmly visible in my cheek, with the RMI!)

      Glad the bit on the novel piqued your interest, Victim. I’m ¾ way through my re-read and enjoying it. It is really very dark but much of the acidic satire (in both senses of the work ‘acid’) is still apposite. Not an easy read, but a fascinating one. Good luck tracking it down!

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  9. I’ve always been just a passerby in the Genesis storefront window. I occasionally stop to gawk at the pretty colors and awkward displays, but ultimately keep walking because I think it’s just not for me. I do, however, enjoy a good music autobiography regardless of whether I’m a fan or not. This one doesn’t sound like it gets to the meat of things very much, though.

    So what Genesis should I listen to if I want to find my in? What am I not seeing that I should see?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Despite being a long-term prog felon, I really can see your point. The Genesis album most fans agree on is Foxtrot, and I’d not nay-say that. I’m still a big fan of their live releases – particularly the first one (here). I like the muscle and extra energy that seem to cut through what can often be quite mannered.

      The problem is perhaps that most of the albums have highs that are really brilliant and lows that are pretty ordinary. Take A Trick of the Tail for example. ‘Squonk’ and ‘Dance on a volcano’ are outstanding but ‘Robbery, assault and battery’ is pretty ropey. Wind and Withering, the last with Steve Hackett is consistently entertaining too. But as I say, ask any Genesis fan and you’ll get a different answer!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Well, Lamb Lies Down was the only LP I ever owned, and while I enjoyed some of it, a good portion never clicked.

        I’ll give the live one a spin and see what happens. For some bands the live records show musical muscle studio records don’t.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Lamb is another fan fave, but one, like you, I’ve never really connected with. Good luck!

          Liked by 1 person

    2. This is an old post but I’m just now seeing this so I will answer.

      Studio: Selling England By the Pound, Duke, Genesis
      Live: Live, Seconds Out, Three Sides Live

      Hope this helps. yes, the Genesis highs are very high and the poor stuff is…well there’s always Marillion.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I think it was always going to be a safe bet that a Mike Rutherford bio was going to be a little short on laviciousness….

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Okay so you’ve sold me on the Smallcreep novel but definitely not the biog – shame. I think all the best rock biogs need to detail at least one sexual encounter that would be in breach of all health and safety, not to mention the food hygiene, laws of most civilised countries.

    Legal representation duties accepted.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Reckon you’d like the book, Joe. Still a powerful read (and imaginative fireworks display) in 2016.

      I had thought of sub-contracting out the RMI to 1537 but in the end decided that would probably result in an ‘R’ or even ‘X’ rating and probably banning by Goggle. QED.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. […] have to point out my fellow blogger Bruce who itemized the important considerations of such in his memoir book review last […]

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  13. […] RUTHERFORD’S DAY by Vinyl Connection […]

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