“Word Of Mouth and Tales From a Beach of Gold” - The Mike + The Mechanics Story continued. Your narrator: Alan Hewitt. Photographs: Jon Guntrip, Alan Perry and Wesley McDowell. Memorabilia: TWR Archive.
It’s difficult to believe that it has been almost twenty years since the release of the Word Of Mouth album, and almost seventeen since Beggar On A Beach of Gold took the record buying public by storm. With the impending release of the new Mechanics album; The Road, I thought it might be interesting to revisit this purple patch in the band’s career.
By the summer of 1989 Mike and the band could look back on an extremely successful year. A number one album in numerous territories, their most successful series of singles and a highly successful series of gigs both in the UK, Europe and the USA. The band had established their profile as a popular outfit in their own right.
However, the follow up to Living Years was to be far more problematic than anyone would have suspected. The balancing act that Phil Collins had already undertaken for duties in Genesis and his solo career would now begin to affect Mike as well.
Work began on the follow up to Living Years in late 1990, by which time Mike’s thoughts were also turning toward the successor to Genesis’s enormously successful 1986 album, Invisible Touch. Many bands don’t even get past their first album let alone their third, and the new Mechanics album was to prove a problematic creation at times. Mike opted to bring in a new producer for the project and drafted in Russ Titelman who had worked with several major artists in the past. Unfortunately, the experiment didn’t quite go according to plan as Mike recalls…
“I decided to make a change in the choice of producer. Russ was originally producing it and I like his work very much but it just didn’t seem to work and on the second day I said to everyone in the band ’I don’t think this is going to work’ and they all said; ’oh, give it a try…’ Sometimes things would go great but after about two and a half months, I wasn’t enjoying it and found myself driving to work very slowly! (laughs)”.
With the pressure increasing on Mike to return to the fold with Genesis, he eventually brought Chris Neil back into the producer’s chair to bring the album to completion and eventually the finished result emerged as Word Of Mouth on 25th March 1991, preceded by the title track from the album which was issued as the first single on 4th March. This track gave a far more upbeat impression than the album subsequently deserved and its origin was something that Mike recalls…
“An interesting song that. We kind of half recorded it in the studio and half live just around the corner actually, at Barnes Village Hall. It was made to sound like it was in a huge stadium. And if you saw Barnes Village Hall… it’s how you imagine it. We got a lot of friends and friends of friends to come along and sing on the chorus…”
Certainly the promotional video that accompanied the single showed Paul Young in his rabble rousing element and the single achieved the respectable number 13 position in the UK charts. The album itself received mixed reviews, no doubt in part due to the fragmentary nature of the project itself. Certain songs worked far better than others as Mike himself acknowledges…
“Then Chris Neil came back and we weeded out some songs and by then the whole thing had become a bit of a problem. I’d lost interest and it was laboured. I’m sure that was reflected on the album, but having said that; some stuff was very good. Get Up I like very much, and Word Of Mouth as well… There’s a bit more drive to it and The Mechanics are more about moods and atmospheres and somehow I think that was missing from this album…”
That being said, the electronic press kit which was released to promote the album which covers the rehearsal and recording of the Word Of Mouth single has some wonderfully humorous moments showing a band relaxed and enjoying themselves, including the ubiquitous table tennis tournament which seems to be a staple of many bands. The promotional treadmill soon got into action with Mike appearing on several UK TV shows talking about the album. No performances of the material from it were done apart from a couple of mimed performances on European TV during the subsequent promotional drive there later in the spring.
With no live shows to bolster the album, it was down to the performance of the subsequent singles to keep the album’s profile high enough to garner public interest. In all a further three singles were issued from the album, none of which emulated the success of the first. Technically, there are actually four singles from this album but one; Get Up was withdrawn from stores and replaced by Stop Baby for reasons which remain a mystery. Stock and promotional copies of either the 7” or CD version of this single are hard to find these days - they even were at the time, I can assure you!
The willingness to experiment which has always been the band’s creed was nowhere better demonstrated than on one of the subsequent singles; Everybody Gets A Second Chance which went through several changes as Mike remembers…
“It was one of those songs … we had two cracks at it. I had a different version. You have an idea in your head on how a song’s going to be and we put it down my way and it wasn’t working and then Paul Carrack who actually came in one day and fiddled about on the keyboard and tried it much more in the style of the old Tamla Motown sort of swing vein and suddenly it came to life. It’s one of those moments in the recording studio where you get a bit of luck…”
The album and its promotional efforts had run their course effectively by the summer of 1991 by which time Mike had reconvened with Tony Banks and Phil Collins for what was to be another pivotal album in Genesis’ career and the subsequent recording, promotion and touring for We Can’t Dance precluded any further activity from The Mechanics until the end of 1992.
Perhaps with the difficulties associated with Word Of Mouth, Mike appeared to be in no hurry to reassemble The Mechanics but eventually in the summer of 1994 rumours began to circulate that a new album from the band was in the pipeline.
Working with Chris Neil again on production, the album took shape during the summer and autumn of 1994. Expanding the writing team, Mike also worked closer with Paul Carrack on this project than previously and Mike revealed how much things had improved this time round in an interview he gave to TWR at the time…
“I have written more with Paul Carrack this time. I think that we have improved an awful lot as a writing team second time around. There are thirteen tracks on the album. Thirteen is a lucky number for me; I got married on the thirteenth. I lived for years at number 13 Coal Street in London and A Trick Of The Tail came out on 13th. I actually recorded nineteen songs and two cover versions - twenty one tracks in all. I started off thinking that we would drop some of these but as things went on they felt so strong so we finished them all, which is why it took longer than I had intended. I started in January and it took about four or five months to record because of the number of songs that I had. I wouldn’t do it again but nothing sounded weak…”
Mike’s lucky streak continued and the first single from the album; Over My Shoulder was duly released on 13th February 1995 and soon had the public whistling its highly infectious refrain as it climbed the UK charts. The album itself was released on the same day and took the band back to the top of the UK charts.
A Beggar On A Beach of Gold was evidently made of far stronger stuff than its predecessor, helped no doubt by the increasing creative input of the band members themselves as Mike acknowledged…
“I am very pleased with this album. To me The Mechanics are more about moods and atmospheres and this album is more like that. I had great difficulty selecting the tracks for this one; there were six that I thought were definite and seven that could be on there and I could chop and choose but then in the middle of all that, Tony Smith suggested that we tried a couple of cover versions. I said ‘why? I’ve already written nineteen songs I don’t think I need any more’. But he said; ‘try it; The Mechanics have a certain sound - just see what you can do with it. If you don’t like it you don’t have to use it as there are so many Mechanics tracks but it might produce something worthwhile’. I went in and recorded a Shadows medley and the Stevie Wonder song Help Me When I Fall in Love. That was done fairly straight and Paul sang it on the first day and it sounded good so we put it down there and then with the keyboards and everything.
The other song Chris Neil suggested; You Really Got A Hold On Me by Smokey Robinson. I wasn’t too sure about that one so we put it down at The Farm and it didn’t quite work so we did it differently with a straight 4/4. The two Pauls duetted on it after all these years, which was something I had been after and it really came out strong….”
Indeed, the strength of the writing this time can be seen from the sheer amount and quality of the tracks that ended up relegated to B Side status for the various singles that the album spawned in the subsequent months. In fact, Beggar….was to elevate The Mechanics to one of the most popular bands in the UK with numerous TV interviews and performances including several on Top Of The Pops - a sure sign that the band had made it!
Promotional work began with a half hour set as a launch for the album at the Victory Club in London, an exercise which brought its very own problems as Mike remembers….
“Virgin are going to do a sort of album launch on January 18th where we are going to play a half-hour set which is actually worse than rehearsing for a full show! (laughs) but that should be good fun…”
From the clip of the show which appeared on TV, it certainly appeared that the band were indeed enjoying themselves although the keen eyed among you would have noticed changes among the ranks of the band which Mike was eager to explain at the time…
“Adrian (Lee) isn’t with us this time on keyboards and this album is very different because I played a lot of the keyboards on it with the guitar synth and it was very easy getting the sounds I like and many of the songs left this room (Mike’s home recording studio) with character, quite a lot of character and sounding quite full. By the time I had done my parts and B A Robertson had no problem on the songs we wrote together. Then Paul Carrack obviously played keyboards on the songs that we wrote together and so I wondered what the point of getting Adrian to do it was….”
The changes which Mike mentioned also affected the drum and guitar positions too. Mike had met both Tim Renwick and Gary Wallis when they had been part of Pink Floyd and they had shared the billing with Genesis at the Cowdrey Ruins charity gig in 1993 as Gary explains…
“There was a charity gig at Cowdrey Ruins and they were doing it and Tim (Renwick) was playing with Mike and they needed somebody to do it and it was suggested that they give me a call because I do a lot of work with the Prince’s Trust and I showed up and did the gig, met Mike and it was great and a few weeks later Mike called me up and asked me to record the album. It’s always quite simple like that really… I enjoy The Mechanics most out of all the bands I’ve worked for. Mike really is the gentleman of pop and we haven’t got anything to prove. It’s such a great band to be in and as you can see, everyone is totally relaxed, whereas in other bands it can be pretty tough; the artists themselves can be pretty uptight and that goes down the chain of command…”
With an evidently successful album to their credit, the band eventually took to the road in the summer of 1995, timing their first dates with the beginning of the rugby world cup in South Africa and a series of shows in that country which made the band one of the first to play there since the downfall of Apartheid. Thankfully, one of these shows was filmed and broadcast by South African TV and a clip from another one even made it to the UK news, although the emphasis was definitely more on the rugby as Paul Young remembered…
“It was great but there was a really odd vibe. I found it sinister, that’s how I would describe it. Everyone was smiling but there was an undercurrent as if any minute there was going to be a really bloody civil war and I don’t think a lot of those guys out there have lost their attitudes, especially up North in Pretoria. But anyway, I was very pleased to be there when the rugby was on… they just booed us forever when we wore the England rugby shirts but I think they were booing us because they liked us really….”
The emphasis on moods and atmosphere which the band always regard as their strongpoint was re-emphasised by Mike….
“At that Virgin 21st birthday gig we did this summer, we did a version of Over Your Shoulder which was different to the album but it made me think that maybe we should have a couple of backing singers this time and do more with the vocals. We are thinking of changing drummer on this tour. I have spoken to Peter (Van Hooke) about it and he has made some enquiries. The main tour will be in the summer and I think it will be called ‘Have Backline Will Travel’ (laughs), because the Mechanics show last time had this lighting rig and a nice stage setting that was cheap and cheerful and this Virgin gig made me realise that I just want to go to the gig, I don’t want all this fuss! It’s easy and so much fun and I think we should move towards that. It’s much more of a small R & B band or at least more like that, that’s my feeling…”
Well, maybe the lighting effects were cheaper but they were no less effective as anyone who caught the band during the extended summer tour of the UK and Europe will tell you. The singles continued to keep the band in the charts throughout the year too and by the end of 1995 Mike & The Mechanics were definitely re-established as one of the UK’s most popular acts something which proved that hard work and good songs will win out in the end. The band’s profile was even high enough to merit attention when their recording a slot on the prestigious Top Of The Pops show clashed with a gig the same evening at the Civic Hall in Wolverhampton, the band were flown to the gig by helicopter, meriting a piece in the local newspaper no less!
However, the story of the Beggar … album doesn’t quite end there. With such a successful album on their hands, Virgin Records wisely decided to capitalise on it by rounding up all of the band’s chart singles along with a remixed version of All I Need Is A Miracle and release it on 4th March 1996 under the appropriate title “Hits”. The album was preceded by a single which coupled the ‘96 remix of All I Need Is A Miracle with album tracks and live versions spread over the two C Ds which it comprised. The single didn’t dent the charts but the album secured a top ten spot in the UK aided no doubt, by the band undertaking a second UK tour throughout March and April with guest slots at two of the biggest festivals in Germany in May. A second single coupled Silent Running with more album tracks. This was released in April 1996 but once again, failed to dent the charts. Fans were also treated to the Hits album being accompanied by a video which rounded up pretty much all of the band’s promotional videos making it another excellent addition to fans’ collections.
With two hugely successful albums under their belts, by the summer of 1996, Mike and the band could bask in their most successful period thus far and take stock of their position in the music scene. Developments elsewhere were to ensure that The Mechanics were not to reconvene until 1999 but that, of course, is another story, folks!