The rock guitarist's autobiography, The Living Years, reveals the debt he owes to a loving, tolerant and supportive father. When Mike Rutherford’s father died in 1986, the lead guitarist of the rock band Genesis was feeling "invincible".
"We were on a high, touring America, playing to 20,000 people a night in Chicago, selling 15 million records. It felt like nothing could go wrong," he says. "I was in a bubble, so into myself and our success. If only I’d just stood back a bit and thought: 'Hang on, he’s getting old.’ If only I’d spent more time with him."
At 63, Rutherford is a rock phenomenon. Along with Peter Gabriel, Tony Banks and Anthony Phillips, he founded Genesis 46 years ago when he was at Charterhouse public school. The band has sold 150 million albums and their farewell gig at the Circus Maximus in Rome in 2007 attracted a crowd of 500,000.
In the meantime, Mike + the Mechanics, the band Rutherford set up in 1985 as a "bit of fun", has sold more than 10 million records. The band’s best-loved song, The Living Years – now the title of Rutherford’s new autobiography – expressed his regrets after his father’s death.
"I never told my dad that I loved him or what a wonderful man he’d been in my life. It’s a message I’d like to put out to everyone – talk to your parents while you can, because once they’re gone, they’re gone.
"The Living Years was released in 1988, and ever since, people have regularly written to me or BA Robertson, who wrote the lyrics, saying they’d fallen out with their parents, hadn’t spoken for years, heard the song, got on the phone and rang them up – and it changed their lives."
Rutherford’s father was Captain William Rutherford. Born in 1906, he was an old-school naval officer who fought in the Second World War and the Korean War, before becoming Commanding Officer of Whale Island in Portsmouth harbour.
In preparation for a similar career, Rutherford was sent to boarding school at seven. But instead, to his parents’ consternation, he grew his hair long, wore flares and Afghan coats, and announced he would be pursuing a life in rock’n’roll.
"My father and I symbolised the generational change that was going on," Rutherford says. "Until the 1960s, young men simply became their fathers – they wore the same cavalry twills and tweed jackets – but after the 1960s, they were fighting to become anything but their fathers. The two world wars had a relevance: our fathers were shocked, worn out. After what they had been through, they thought: 'Is long hair really that bad?’"
Today, Rutherford is a grandfather of two, the long blond hair is chin length, the Jesus beard and moustache trimmed to tidy stubble. But in his tartan trousers and fleece, the gangly, softly spoken man is still a world away from his youthful ideas of how a sexagenarian should dress and behave. "Hang on, I’m looking pretty smart today. But it’s true, the barriers between generations have disappeared now. I wear the same clothes as my sons, and they wear the same clothes as me."
That’s not to say that Rutherford didn’t imbibe his father’s values. "He impressed on me the importance of politeness, trust and honour," he says. Sitting in his manager’s offices in Kensington, with a winter tan that’s the badge of someone with a £30 million fortune and houses around the world, Rutherford comes across as having inherited all those qualities: diffident, thoughtful and impeccably polite.
Immediately after his father’s funeral in Aldershot, he flew to Los Angeles to appear in a concert. He arrived with 20 minutes to spare. "My father would have approved utterly. A sense of duty was one of the main things he instilled in me. If you had an obligation, you fulfilled it."
In return, Capt Rutherford never opposed his son’s ambitions. "He went to negotiate my contract with [Genesis producer] Jonathan King, wearing a bowler hat. He’d attend our gigs wearing earplugs like it was a gunnery operation. I’m sure he hoped my wanting to be in a band was a phase, but when you see your child obsessed, you can’t say no."
He was even quietly supportive when Rutherford was expelled from school for – among other things – sneaking to gigs in London. Although Rutherford hated public school, it turned out to be the ideal training for a musical career. "It beat us down and prepared us for life without any home comforts. The other bands were eyeing up those toffs suspiciously, but they saw us lugging gear, driving vans, eating fry-ups at the Blue Boar at 3am, and realised we were actually OK."
His three children all boarded at Wellington College, Berks. "Boarding schools today are completely different – the fun they had! If you’re unhappy now, something’s seriously wrong."
The "toff" tag never went away, though. For four decades, the band’s critics have carped about privilege, and their music being "too safe". Rutherford shrugs. "In the US, no one cares where we went to school. So many bands went to private schools – Keane, Coldplay, Mumford & Sons.
"There’s no reason why good people from good schools can’t be good at what they do. They still have to prove themselves."
Still, the stiff-upper-lip ethos influenced their songs. "We were used to such a repressed environment, we never wrote love songs until [the state-educated] Phil Collins joined the band. He was the joker and fun, the man who lightened the mood. He hadn’t come from the same, rather narrow world, and was much more in touch with emotions and feelings than Tony and me."
This natural reserve means Rutherford’s autobiography is sadly lacking in tales of debauchery. But precisely because he seems to have avoided the sex’n’drugs traps that baited so many of his peers, Rutherford’s life today sounds idyllic. He has been married to Angie for 37 years. They live with horses and dogs on a grand estate in West Sussex.
"Angie’s great fun, very positive, and she’s always had her own dressage business, so it’s not like she was sitting around, waiting for me to come back from tour. In fact, our daughter used to be cross because she was the only person at school with only one set of parents. Everyone else was having dramas, playing one set off against the other."
Angie also ensured that their children Kate (a stay-at-home mother), Tom (who works in advertising in New York) and Harry (a music producer) didn’t become brats. "Their attitude was, Dad’s in a band, so what? When I returned from touring, I’d spoil them a bit because I’d feel guilty, but they’d be so rude I stopped it. In America, they believe in the dream, families and friends make a fuss of you, but I’d come back from touring, go to the local pub and they’d just say, 'Hello, haven’t seen you for a while’, so I’d quickly come back down to earth."
The down-to-earth-ness also ensured that, despite several Genesis cast changes (most notably the lead singer Gabriel leaving and being replaced by drummer Collins), everyone is still friends. "Most bands fall out over money, but that never really was our reason for doing it. Anything we earned was a bonus."
Rutherford is similarly realistic about the future. "Older artists have had their time. People who like you have got a bunch of your songs on the iPod and that’s enough. If they’re going to buy new stuff, they’re going to buy something else."
Mike + the Mechanics tour the UK this year, and although Genesis last played together seven years ago, Rutherford hints at another reunion. "You never know. Phil’s now back in action, he wants to work a bit again. He sort of retired, but I’m not sure it worked, there’s too much music in him."
So will Rutherford keep going for ever? "I do wonder," he says, suddenly anguished. "I’ll be backstage at the Brighton Dome and think, 'Hang on, I was here when I was 20 and I’m here now. Is this OK? Am I doing the right thing? Is no one telling me it’s time to move on?’. I’ve had a great time, do I want to go on past the date… ?"
He then brightens. "But there’s a bit more life left yet."
Order Now: The Living Years
© Telegraph, by Julia Llewelyn Smith