Mike Rutherford, a solo star? Who would have figured it?
Of the three Genesis members, guitarist/bassist Rutherford seemed the least likely for solo fame. When Genesis is on stage, he doesn’t attract much attention. He’s talented, but not the flashy type. In concert, singer/drummer Phil Collins and keyboardist Tony Banks are much more appealing.
Yet Rutherford, 35, has blossomed into a solo star. It’s one of the big surprises of the year in pop music. Now he’s in two popular English groups--Genesis and his new one, Mike and the Mechanics. Not only is his Atlantic Records album “Mike and the Mechanics” a big hit, but it has yielded two Top 10 singles, “Silent Running” and “All I Need Is a Miracle.” His group is currently on a five-week tour that includes dates at the Universal Amphitheatre (July 1) and at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre (July 2).
The big rap against Rutherford’s solo chances was his voice. He is, to put it bluntly, not a good singer. Some would even say that’s an understatement. But Rutherford realized his vocal shortcomings after his second solo album, “Acting Very Strange,” in 1982.
“When I was doing that album, I knew I wasn’t a singer,” he said. “I sang then because I realize that people who don’t have great voices can still make certain songs sound very good. But in the end I was frustrated. There’s not enough vocal emotion on the album.”
But some fans are saying he’s a terrific singer. They’ve been praising his singing on his solo album, particularly his vocal on “Silent Running.” Rutherford gets a kick out of hearing that. The vocals on the album are not his.
“I thought most people knew that by now,” he said. Obviously not. Paul Young and Paul Carrack are the vocalists. Drummer Peter Van Hooke and keyboardist Adrian Lee are the remaining Mechanics.
Another misconception about the group’s singing needs to be cleared up. Some of those who realize Young is one of the vocalists don’t know this is not the same Paul Young who became a star last year singing “Everytime You Go Away.” The Mechanics’ Young is known for singing with the English group Sad Cafe.
“I saw the other Paul Young the other day,” Rutherford said. “He said people keep saying to him, ‘I love your singing on ‘Silent Running’ . . . I know that’s your voice.’ ”
When the members of Genesis were bitten by the solo-album bug in the ‘70s, Rutherford was stung too, but not until the end of the decade. His first solo effort, “Smallcreep’s Day,” was released in 1979. He wasn’t very happy with it.
“It might have been stronger,” he lamented. “My first two solo albums were guilty of the same thing. They had great ideas and potentially good songs but I didn’t quite do them right. I didn’t get the best out of that material. The material was much stronger than the arrangements and the performance.”
Not only wasn’t Rutherford happy with two albums, they didn’t sell well either. “I was thinking maybe I wasn’t meant to have a career outside of Genesis, except maybe as a songwriter,” he recalled. “I finally decided to do another album but I did it very differently.”
In other words, Rutherford confronted his limits. So on the Mike and the Mechanics project, he didn’t repeat the mistakes he made on the first two albums.
“I realized there were certain areas I needed help in,” he said. “When I work with Genesis, Phil (Collins) and Tony (Banks) work in areas where I’m not strong--like singing and choosing material. I’m really not a good judge of material. Chris Neil (the producer) did that for me on this album.”
Rutherford’s sense of adventure seems to have abandoned him. His first two solo albums were fairly offbeat and experimental but “Mike and the Mechanics” is merely melodic, middle-of-the-road pop-rock. Members of popular bands usually make solo albums because they want to explore different musical territories. But Rutherford is covering the same ground that Genesis is covering these days.
Genesis has a new album, “Invisible Touch"--its first in nearly three years--which debuted on the Billboard pop album chart at No. 23 and should make the Top 10 in two weeks. It is, in the eyes of pop fans, another Phil Collins album, considering that he handles the vocals. His fans would prefer a solo Collins work, but a Genesis album will do. So, like a Collins solo album, “Invisible Touch” is a gold mine.
Rutherford claimed that Collins’ popularity hasn’t changed him or Genesis: “He’s still the same. Nothing that happens outside seem to have much effect on us. We still go into the studio and write our songs as a group. We still do what we did before. Phil’s solo success hasn’t changed him.”
But Genesis really isn’t what it used to be. The group began in 1966 in England’s prestigious Charthouse school, when Rutherford joined up with three other teen-agers--Tony Banks, Peter Gabriel and Anthony Phillips. Personnel changes began almost immediately. Phil Collins and Steve Hackett were hired as replacements in 1970.
The biggest change in Genesis was the exit of Gabriel in 1974. Collins became the lead singer, with Banks largely shaping the band’s music--then moody, atmospheric and mired in fantasy. When Hackett left in 1977, the band became a trio--Banks, Collins and Rutherford.
Genesis’ progressive rock, which seemed so refreshing and far-ranging at the beginning of the ‘70s, had become tired and old-fashioned by the end of decade. Though the band never ceased to be a strong concert attraction, album sales fell.
In the ‘80s, Genesis gradually dumped progressive rock and dived into mainstream pop-rock. Banks’ grip on the music has loosened. Genesis is now Collins’ vehicle.
“We’ve changed with the times,” Rutherford explained. “Our tastes have changed and pop music has changed. But we’re still doing music that interests us.”
Of course, Genesis has been under fire for becoming so flagrantly commercial. But with a bankable commodity like Collins in the band, you can’t blame them for choosing this direction.
Genesis begins touring in September. The first stage will be five to six weeks of dates in major cities. The second stage, beginning in January, will be six weeks in secondary markets.
This won’t conflict with the Mike and the Mechanics tour, which is Rutherford’s first as a solo artist. He made sure of that. “This tour I’m doing now could have been much longer than five weeks,” he pointed out. “My manager is always trying to add dates. But I don’t want to. I don’t want this tour to be a grind. I want it to be enjoyable, the way it’s been so far.”
Though the tour isn’t a smash hit, it is doing fairly well, Rutherford noted: “We’re doing theaters, outdoor places and amusement parks, basically small places. We’re getting good crowds, but we’re not filling these places. I’ve got to prove myself as a solo artist first.”
The show, Rutherford said, is a very simple, no-frills affair. Assessing it after the first two weeks, he concluded: “Right now, we’re six musicians (guitarist/bassist Ashley Mulford was added for the tour) who are trying to become a cohesive unit. We’re not really a solid band yet. We’re not as good as I’d like us to be.”