Graded on a Curve:
Mike + The Mechanics, Living Years

I know who I won’t be going to for an ear alignment. Mike + the Mechanics, who in 1985 opened a commercially successful pop music chop shop at the intersection of Vapid Avenue and Mediocrity Street. Their specialty? Shiny but generic songs guaranteed to fall out of vogue as listeners find shinier generic songs to spend their money on. Naturally, Mike’s songs come without a warranty. The best you can do is park them in your garage until nostalgia brings them into vogue again. Let us hope this never happens.

Mike + the Mechanics—whose 1988 sophomore LP Living Years is the subject of our horrified scrutiny—are one of those bands that get labeled a supergroup when in fact there isn’t a single superstar in their lineup. The group’s only “star”—and that’s debatable– is long-time Genesis bass player Mike Rutherford. When asked to name members of Genesis your average music fan will likely say Peter Gabriel or Phil Collins; when asked to name the band’s bass player they’ll likely “I don’t know, but if he played on Abacab he has no scruples.”

Mike + the Mechanics’ other so-called stars are vocalists Paul “The Man with the Golden Voice” Carrack and Paul Young. Both are highly respected by fellow musicians who know about such things, but neither ever fronted a band of note. Keyboard player Adrian Lee is a master’s level trivia question. Drummer Peter Van Hooke’s mother has ever heard of him.

You may not know the band’s members, but if you’ve ever visited a supermarket, you know their soaring ballad “Living Years.” It’s one of those swelling anthems along the lines of Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is,” and like the Foreigner song, it comes complete with an uplifting school choir. If you’re not uplifted, you’re Pol Pot. Needless to say, “Living Years” topped the Billboard charts. No one wants to be Pol Pot.

Rutherford was instrumental in steering Genesis to the middle of the road, and he kept to it with Mike + the Mechanics. Out went the technical complexities of progressive rock; in came the generic product tailor made, in the words of Joni Mitchell, to feed “the star making machinery behind the popular song.”

Mike + the Mechanics’ songs were slick, catchy, and short; Mike Rutherford did more than sit by progressive rock’s death bed—he helped bury it. Talk about your career trajectories—the man who’d helped write Genesis’ fiendishly complex 23-plus minute-long “Supper’s Ready” went on to churn out anonymous lowest-common-denominator FM swill. Prog-bashers may despise “Supper’s Ready,” but there’s no denying it’s one of a kind. The songs on Living Years are clones.

The abiding characteristic of the songs—both up and down tempo—is you can’t escape the feeling you’ve heard them before. “Didn’t I sit next to ‘Seeing Is Believing’ at a business seminar a few years back?” “Wasn’t ‘Nobody Knows’ at my next-door neighbor’s 4th of July barbeque last year?” You’ll never know, because the guy at last year’s 4th of July barbeque could be hundreds of guys—he’s perfectly ordinary and would never do anything to distinguish himself from anyone else. He’s a corporate man whose biggest ambition in life is to blend into the corporate crowd.

Similarly, Carrack and Young may have great voices but lots of people have great voices, and the duo’s voices are devoid of character and imagination. They’re consummate pros and always hit their marks, but they don’t have a drop of originality in their bloodstreams.

You’ll find a few traces of Rutherford’s prog past in the songs on Living Years, but they’re merely the nervous twitches of a phantom limb. All serve as brief introductions to the band’s conventional songs, and none establish the tenor of the song that follows. Some Bowie/Eno ambient-lite opens “Don’t”; the same is true of “Blame.” The songs themselves are seminars on the fine art of cliché.

“Seeing Is Believing” could be a Huey Lewis and The News song; I’ll wager Kenny Loggins wishes he’d written “Nobody Knows.” Ballad “Why Me?” makes me ask “Why not?” “Black and Blue” opens with some percussion clang and clamor and I can’t summon up the disgust to hate it, perhaps because it could, in an alternative universe where things suck even more than they do here, be a Michael Jackson song. “Beautiful Day” is a cheerful stroll on a sunny day and reinforces my belief that optimism is a symptom of madness.

Mike + the Mechanic’s lack of distinction is right there in the band’s name; mechanics are nuts and bolts guys, not inventors. They’ll do a bang-up job replacing the engine block on your 2016 Toyota SUV, but ask them to design a new and more exciting car they’ll shrug and tell you it isn’t in the manual. It used to be in the manual for innovators like Genesis, but Rutherford tossed that one in the trash. No one drives prog rock anymore.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
D-

This entry was posted in The TVD Storefront. Bookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.
  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


  • Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text
  • Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text