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Todd Rundgren: With A Twist

| December 30, 2010 | 0 Comments

Todd Rundgren reached a crossroads on November 10, 1973, when his sentimental ballad, “Hello It’s Me” rose to number five on the Billboard singles chart. One way pointed to superstardom.  The other to the shadowy land of cult status.

But for Todd, it wasn’t a matter of choosing. While Something/Anything, the double album that spawned “Hello It’s Me,” was catching on a year after its release, it was already a speck in Todd’s rearview mirror. He had followed his muses into new experimental territory, releasing the ambitious Wizard, A True Star, an eclectic tour-de-force on which the 25-year old wunderkind wrote, arranged, engineered, produced, and played every instrument. Though Something/Anything was chocked full of potential hits, Todd refused to backtrack. “No f—ing way am I releasing anything else off that album,” he told his label.

He did however concede to perform “Hello It’s Me” on Wolfman Jack’s TV show, The Midnight Special, a move that sealed his commercial fate. Fans who were seeing him for the first time must’ve been shocked. Sporting blue-orange hair, eyes painted with glitter teardrops, dark lipstick, and a skimpy top made of iridescent feathers, Todd looked like a cross between a drag queen and the NBC peacock.

This incident typifies the erratic career choices that Todd would make over the next three decades and 30 albums, choices that would test the allegiance of even his most faithful followers. Looks, bands, labels, philosophies, styles—if it were a skin that could be shed, Todd would shed it.

The constant in this ever-evolving journey has been his masterful songwriting. Whether he was writing beautiful love songs such as “It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference,” 30-minute prog-rock pieces like “The Ikon,” ferocious rockers like “Trapped,” or silly pop ditties such as “Bang The Drum All Day,” he couldn’t hide his enormous gift for lyrics that addressed the human condition with an open mind and heart and tuneful melodies (Todd said in the foreword of a songbook collection, “These are songs that would’ve been hits if I hadn’t subverted them”).

Todd Rundgren was born in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania on June 22, 1948. As a kid, he kept his ears glued to the diverse sounds pouring out of the family hi-fi—everything from Debussy to Richard Rodgers to The Beatles to Marvin Gaye. By the time he was in junior high, he was staying after school exploring major and minor 7th chords on a piano in the empty auditorium, which served as the genesis for many of his trademark chord progressions. By 18, he’d also become a rabid guitar fanatic, copping blues licks off records by Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck.

After cutting his teeth in a blues-rock band, Woody’s Truck Stop, Todd formed The Nazz in 1967. Though the group had pop idol looks, stage presence, and tunes right for the times, they failed to deliver on the promise of early comparisons to The Beatles. Their albums are collector’s items now, of interest to Todd fans for his early compositions such as the original version of “Hello It’s Me.”

In 1969, after The Nazz split up, Todd caught the attention of legendary manager Albert Grossman, who steered the careers of Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, and The Band. Recognizing his new client’s whiz-kid abilities in the studio, Grossman set out to make him the highest-paid producer in the world.  He began by pairing him with, among others, The Band, Jesse Winchester, and Badfinger on their classic Straight Up album. While Todd was masterful at producing records, he was no star when it came to social skills. From his earliest projects, he had a knack for alienating and infuriating the artists that he worked with. Stories of his tyrannical, rude, self-absorbed behavior are rampant in the industry.

Todd’s production gigs segued naturally into a solo career with a series of brilliant albums such as Runt, The Ballad Of …, Something/Anything, Wizard, A True Star and Todd.  In four years, the prolific one-man band covered more stylistic ground than most artists do in a 20-year career. But still, Todd was restless.

In 1974, he formed Utopia, an ever-changing unit which became his vehicle over the next 10 years for excursions into progressive rock (Utopia, Another Live, Ra ), power pop (Oops! Wrong Planet, Adventures In Utopia, Utopia II), and political rock (Swing To The Right, Oblivion ). At the same time, he continued to release solo albums such as Hermit Of Mink Hollow and Healing.  One great thing about being a Todd fan was that you never had to wait long for a new batch of songs.

For all his activity, he was still on the fringe. It wasn’t a matter of success eluding Todd so much as the opposite. In 1980, when Utopia’s Adventures In Utopia hit the charts with “Set Me Free,” the other members of the band were anxious to follow up with more of the same bouncy new wave. Todd decided instead they should do a Beatles parody. Though Deface The Music was brilliant in its dead-on musical nods to the Fab Four, it confused fans and effectively stalled Utopia’s career. Once again, Todd was following a muse known only to himself.

One immensely commercial decision he did make was to produce the debut of an unknown singer named Meat Loaf. The melodramatic goth of Bat Out Of Hell caught on in a big way, selling multi-platinum on its way to becoming one of those rock perennials, right up there with Dark Side Of The Moon for consecutive weeks on the chart. “It became a giant cash cow for me,” Todd explains. “It created an incredible amount of money that I found all kinds of ways to squander.”

The Meat Loaf royalties certainly helped finance Todd’s pet project of the early 80’s, a state-of-the-art video studio near his home in Woodstock, New York. Ever the pioneer, Todd was attaching video images to music before any teenager had ever uttered the words, “I want my MTV.”

He spent the remainder of the ‘80s switching hats from solo artist to Utopia leader to producer, overseeing albums by Cheap Trick, The Tubes, XTC, The Psychedelic Furs, and The Pursuit Of Happiness. And there were more ground-breaking projects: 1985‘s A Capella featured Todd performing fully-arranged compositions where every sound—from the drums on up—was produced by his voice. In 1989, he composed music and lyrics for an Off-Broadway production of Joe Orton’s Up Against It (a project originally written as The Beatles’ third motion picture, which was never made).

In the ‘90s, Todd worked to blend music, media and new technology. In 1993, he established a new genre when he released the world’s first interactive audio-only CD-ROM project, No World Order. 1995’s The Individualist continued his forays into enhanced CDs, featuring multi-media accompaniment to the music. It was also one of the first CDs to be offered over the Internet, where subscribers could download the music before it was released in stores. At the same time, he indulged in a bit of nostalgia by releasing With A Twist, where he revisited some of his best-loved songs in a bossa nova style.

Since With A Twist, Rundgren has released or been involved with almost two dozen other projects, his latest of which is 2008’s Arena. Below are excerpts from an interview with Todd from Issue 31, July/August 1998, written by Bill DeMain.

I’d like to get your reactions to a few of the songs that you’ve revisited on your album, With A Twist: “Influenza.”

That song is off an album called The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect, and, at the time, I had no great concept that I was laboring under in making the record. In point of fact, I was a little bit annoyed at my label, and was, in the back of my mind, doing what I thought was a half-assed record. I was trying to see how little work I could do and satisfy my recording obligation (laughs). So I think that for the most part, the songs were meant to be relatively lightweight, sort of poppy songs that I wasn’t heavily invested in emotionally, and that song would definitely qualify, in that it isn’t about some personal trauma or anything. It’s just a pleasant little ditty.

One that seems to have a lot of emotional investment is “Mated.”

It was a Utopia song. A lot of the music Willie Wilcox [Utopia’s drummer] wrote, and he and I sort of resolved the musical part of it, then I put the lyrics on it. It was just an idea that popped into my head, not necessarily anything I was dwelling on. But once you start writing about something, you have to draw on your own personal experience if the song is going to sound real. So I suppose that if there’s a philosophical underpinning to that, it’s that I don’t believe in or never have been married and never will be. To me, marriage always equals entrapment or divorce (laughs). So a lot of times when I write about things that are emotionally familiar to people, I’m doing it from a completely other place, and, in my particular case, it’s about making commitments that transcend public proclamation.

Do you recall writing “Can We Still Be Friends?”

Not really. I usually merge the act of writing and recording into one episode, so it’s hard for me to separate the performance of the song from the writing of the song. I’ll often sit down and write the lyrics moments before I actually sing them, which is something of a challenge because you’re trying to figure out how to deliver in vocal terms what you’re trying to say as well as resolving the ideas that are in there. I think in a way, it may work out better, rather than writing out a bunch of lyrics and then trying to figure out exactly how I’m supposed to sing them. I make that resolution on an almost line by line basis, in that I won’t write the whole song out. I’ll write, “Okay, I’ve got choruses now and I’ve got a little block on the verses, so I’ll sing the choruses, (laughs) since that’s what I’ve got.” Sometimes in the process of that, by the time I get to the end of the song, I’ll realize that maybe I could’ve sung part of it differently or better and then go back and make the necessary patches on it. It really is my main method of transcription, in that I have never known how to write music, write out notes and things like that. And I’ve always procrastinated on the lyrics. So the way that things actually get transcribed is onto tape.

Name 5 records that affected you most as a songwriter.

One of those early Beatles records like “I Want To Hold Your Hand” probably had an influence on me, in that I never even considered writing songs. After that, I think that there was Marvin Gaye, What’s Goin’ On. There was an album by Bill Evans called Bill Evans & The Symphony Orchestra that had a whole influence on the way I thought about music, and a lot of the tonality found its way into my songwriting. This Year’s Model by Elvis Costello. I think that, at the time, he set a new standard for consistently high quality in songwriting. Squeeze did something of the same thing. There were a lot of people making music but not so many who knew what a song was (laughs).  And there was a Yes album, Close To The Edge, that affected an entire phase of my writing, the early Utopia days when we were writing these epic numbers almost like opera (laughs).

—By Bill DeMain

Category: Be Heard Jukebox Archive

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