Number Ones: The Living Years


#1 MAY 8 – 14, 1989

“Every generation blames the one before.” Sheesh, no wonder Burt Bacharach called this “one of the finest set of lyrics in ten years” in 1996.

The most solemn of keyboard panpipes, a rousing singalong chorus, and hushed, mournful verses that implore you to take notice; it’s impossible not to feel the weight of this song, even without immediately realising its subject matter.

Like ‘Cat’s In The Cradle’ before it, and the entire nu-metal genre (and Good Charlotte catalogue) after, ‘The Living Years’ is about the un-leapable chasm that exists between father and son. In ‘The Living Years’, this is brutally accented by the protagonist’s father’s recent passing, and the son’s regret at words left forever unspoken. The birth of his own child shortly after the death adds an extra layer of sadness and frustration. Because for all the inherent sadness (and the crisp ’80s, more-reverb-on-the-drums production), there is a very real anger at differences that – while hopelessly irreconcilable – shouldn’t have caused so much unspoken tension. Like ‘Losing My Religion’, this is a song about saying too much while not saying enough. Unlike ‘Losing My Religion’, it has a chorus.

Bacarach knows what he is talking about. Check some of these poetic, dark lines:

I know that I’m a prisoner

To all my father held so dear

I know that I’m a hostage

To all his hopes and fears

I just wish I could have told him in the living years

We all talk a different language

Talking in defense

And this whole run:

So we open up a quarrel

Between the present and the past

We only sacrifice the future

It’s the bitterness that lasts

So don’t yield to the fortunes

You sometimes see as fate

It may have a new perspective

On a different date

Nice work, Mike. Except Mike Rutherford didn’t actually write the lyrics (or sing them; the band’s vocalist was Paul Carrack of Roxy Music, Ace and Squeeze). It wasn’t even one of his mechanics (who were no doubt on apprentice wages), but co-writer B.A. Robertson, who enjoyed a solo pop career in the ’70s, and wrote ‘Wired for Sound’ for Cliff Richard (and for all subsequent aerobics classes) in the ’80s.

At the time of the song’s release, Atlantic promoted it as being a deeply personal tale inspired by the recent, quite opportune passing of Mike’s father, because when your label was founded on cheating black musicians out of royalties, it’s hard to act reprehensibly by comparison.

The song wasn’t mere cynical fiction though, as Mikey Mike explains: “[Robertson] lost his Dad and it’s about the lack of communication between him and his father before he died. There’s also the irony of him having a baby just after losing his father.”

Granted, it’s a ten-thousand-spoons kinda irony, but the point still stands, and the message was felt: the song rocketed to #1 in both the US and Australia, where it sat for a single week.

The holy spirit was all the rage around this time, with a number of songs dealing in the big issues: life, birth, death, afterlife, Tucker’s daughter  – hitting #1 around that period.

‘The Living Years’ was knocked off the top by Madonna’s controversial ‘Like A Prayer’ (the video dared to suggest that Jesus, a Jew from Israel, didn’t have pale, pure, virginal-white skin) which enjoyed its second of two four-week runs at the top. After a month, it was bumped by Julian Lennon’s only #1, ‘Now You’re In Heaven’. Despite its kooky nature, Beatles fans read the song as a fuck-you to his absent father, because obviously baiting your murdered, idolised dad is the best way to break daytime radio. A cursory glance at the lyrics shows it is actually about either nothing, ventriloquism, or him seducing some bird. The line, “it’s a trip in ecstasy” happily suggests that Julian inherited his father’s knack for sneaking drug references into songs, too.*

The Bangles’ evergreen epic ‘Eternal Flame’ enjoyed a single week at the top after the second-best Lennon child‘s one-week reign, before Bette Midler out-balladed everybody with her scientifically-flawed treatise on aerodynamics, ‘Wind Beneath My Wings’.**

Luckily Roxette came along in June with power-hitting ‘The Look’ to knock all this schmaltz away with the raw, accidental poetry of their English-as-Second-Language lyrics.

Of course, the immovable truth here is that generations aren’t meant to see eye to eye – it’s called progress, and as long as time remains linear and pop stars keep using auto-tune technology and inventing words, you just aren’t going to agree with your parents on how things should be. Your grandfather on the other hand, he is bang on with everything – listen to the man!


* See: Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, With A Little Help From My Friends, Day Tripper, A Day In The Life, the rest of the catalogue

**Bested for scientific flaws only by Vanessa Williams’ declaration that “sometimes the sun goes round the moon” in ‘Save The Best For Last’

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