Mike contributes to The Guardian Family section in conjunction with the release of his book, The Living Years.
As a teenager in the late 1960s, the last thing I wanted was to be like my father. He was a retired naval captain who’d fought in the second world war; I’d just recorded my first album with Genesis, had hair down to my elbows and lived in jeans and a military jacket from Kensington market that smelled like an entire battalion had worn it at some stage or another. It never occurred to me that he might see this as disrespectful.
Dad was always punctual, methodical and orderly, whereas I took after my mother, who wasn’t. At 13, they sent me to Charterhouse school, which I hated, and eventually I got chucked out. He believed that the guitar was a symbol of the youth revolution and even banned me from playing it. I couldn’t stand rules and regulations whereas that’s what Dad’s life revolved around – yet the funny thing is that my life and his have ended up being oddly similar.
My father, William Francis Henry Crawford Rutherford, was born in 1906. When he was eight his father, an army medic, went off to serve in the first world war. I was born in 1950 and 18 months old when Dad went off to the Korean War. I don’t remember him going but I do remember him coming back two years later: he asked how many teeth I had, then let me crawl all over his car – both good opening moves, I thought.
In 1955, Dad was made captain of the gunnery school on Whale Island in Portsmouth Harbour, and my mother, sister and I all went to live in the captain’s house. Dad seemed to me like he was at the centre of everything on the island – every ceremony revolved around him, everyone saluted him – but then he failed to get promotion to the rank of admiral and was expected to retire from the navy. With a young family, that was out of the question.
Dad eventually got a job at Hawker Siddeley (which later became part of British Aerospace) in Cheshire. I didn’t see him much of him as I grew up – by the time he came home from work I’d be in bed and then I was packed off to prep school at the age of seven – and I think that’s probably why those times we were together felt so important.
Dad had also been to boarding school and I’ll never forget his words as he left me behind for my first term: “Now Michael, you’re the son of a naval officer, you must behave like a naval officer and be strong at all times.” And I was, for about three weeks. Then I realised I’d been done and burst into tears one break, as I was drinking my milk. But I got used to it in the end.
My parents took me to my first gig – Cliff Richard at the Manchester Apollo – and Mum even took me to buy my first electric guitar when I was 10. They never stood in the way of my musical career.
By my final year at Charterhouse I was getting terrible reports – the only good thing about being there was meeting Tony Banks, Peter Gabriel and the other founder members of Genesis. By the time Dad decided we should talk about my future I was committed to Genesis. I still don’t understand why he decided to support me after all he’d spent on my education, but he did – he even put up some more money so we could buy equipment and then persuaded Pete and Tony’s fathers to do the same. And when Phil Collins joined the band as our drummer in 1970 my parents let us stay at their house in Farnham while we rehearsed.
My life changed when I married Angie in 1977 and moved to the country to start a family. But a band is a very selfish being and two days after Angie came home from the hospital with our first child, I flew to the Netherlands for three months to work on a new record.
As time went on, I realised I was following in my Dad’s footsteps: like him I was often away from home and touring the world surrounded by a huge crew, only he had medals and I had gold discs. But when I was at home, Angie, the kids and I enjoyed a lot of sport together. It bonded us in a way that I’d never been able to bond with Dad: with him there was no shared language. He’d always ask me how work was going and he read all our press – he even came to concerts, making sure his gunnery earplugs were firmly in place first – but would never just pick up the phone for a chat. I was as bad.
By the early 80s, life was a blur: album, tour, album, tour. We had four US Top 5 singles and our first US No 1. It was great – private planes, the best of everything – but it was also so busy that when I got home, I almost felt I didn’t have to make an effort in other areas of my life. Angie had to nag me to ring my parents, but because I paid for them to go on a cruise each year, I’d kid myself I’d done enough. Then one night in 1986, when I was on tour in America, the phone rang at 3am. Dad was dead.
My biggest regret was not telling him what a wonderful man he’d been in my life. But I’d also been to public school where you learned to hide your feelings to survive. And fathers and sons of my generation just didn’t say things like “I love you” to each other.
What Dad had impressed on me was the importance of duty. In his world, if you had an obligation, you fulfilled it – it was as simple as that.
My third child was born a year after Dad’s death – that’s when BA Robertson and I wrote the song The Living Years, which we recorded with my new band, Mike and the Mechanics. BA and I had both lost our fathers and his lyric tied into both our lives. The number of letters that we’ve had about that song continues to amaze me. When I write something I never really think anyone’s going to hear it, but The Living Years has changed people’s lives – made them pick up the phone to their fathers after years of silence sometimes – and I’m very aware how lucky we were to have a song do that.
It was only after my father died and I was going through an old trunk of his that I discovered my parents had had money worries later in life. I think if only I’d known, I could have given them an allowance instead of just sending them off on a cruise. But I also discovered something else in there: a copy of my father’s memoirs. My grandpa had successfully published two volumes of his memoirs during his lifetime but Dad’s book had been rejected by all the publishers he’d sent it to.
I think now how hard it must have been for Dad to have to face rejection, but the great thing for me is that when I read his book for the first time, it was almost like we were having the conversations I’d missed out on when he was alive. A different side of him came through on paper: he always had a sense of humour, but it really came out in his stories. I also learned what he’d done during the war – including how he’d been involved in sinking the Bismarck – he’d never talked about it.
Dad’s book was the best legacy he could have left me and, having followed in the family memoir-writing tradition, I hope my kids feel the same about my book too. They’re under orders to read it.