Thirty years ago this month, one of the most profoundly sad songs in pop music history hit Number One on the Hot 100. It was “The Living Years” by Mike + the Mechanics, which forced everyone within earshot of a radio throughout much of 1989 to consider that fact their parents will inevitably die and leave them with profound regret. “I wasn’t there that morning/When my Father passed away,” Paul Carrack sings in a typical verse. “I didn’t get to tell him/All the things I had to say.”
Like many things in the Eighties, the existence of the song can be traced back to Phil Collins. His successful solo career forced Genesis to take long breaks between albums and tours throughout much of the decade. Genesis guitarist Mike Rutherford used the break following the 1983 Mama Tour to form Mike + the Mechanics with singers Paul Carrack and Paul Young. (In a very confusing twist, this is a different Paul Young than the guy that sang “Every Time You Go Away,” but it’s the same Paul Carrack that sang “How Long” in Ace and “Tempted” in Squeeze.)
Their first two singles were “Silent Running (On Dangerous Ground)” and “All I Need Is a Miracle,” both of which became enormous worldwide hits. Rutherford took them back in the studio after the 1986/87 Invisible Touch tour to cut their second record. Not only did Rutherford’s own father die the previous year, but his co-writer B.A. Robertson had just lost his own dad just three months before his son was born. The complex emotions surrounding all of this gave birth to “The Living Years.”
It became the title track to the album and the first single. Within a matter of months, it was Number One, and a generation of children were forced to confront some very serious issues while listening to Casey Kasem’s countdown. It also had some longterm ramifications for Mike + The Mechanics. “We were on rock radio before that,” Rutherford told Rolling Stone in 2014. “That song moved us away from that and sort of dwarfed everything else we did. It’s sort of like what happened to Foreigner after ‘I Want to Know What Love Is.'”
They continued to score hits in England throughout the Nineties with songs like “Word of Mouth” and “Over My Shoulder,” but in America they were basically over after “The Living Years” fell off the charts. No other single got even the tiniest bit of traction on radio. Paul Young died suddenly of a heart attack in 2000 and the group briefly continued under the awkward name “Mike + The Mechanics + Paul Carrack,” but Carrack bolted back to his solo career after their 2004 LP Rewired bombed.
This seemed to doom Mike since he was out of Mechanics, but in 2011 he hired Tim Howar and Andrew Roachford and over the past eight years they’ve cut three albums and toured heavily in Europe. There comes a night at every show where they sing “The Living Years” and the audience has to either remember when their own parents died or face the prospect that it’s going to happen one day. But then a few songs later, it’s time for “All We Need Is a Miracle” and those unpleasant thoughts can be pushed aside.