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Todd Rundgren

+ {Utopia} + {TR-I}

Cosmic craftsman, workhorse wizard, or maverick maestro, heartfelt singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist TODD RUNDGREN is more than qualified to take the mantle of bittersweet balladeer. Shifting musical gear from emotive ear-con to blue-eyed soul man and prog-rock type, Todd shaped a new generation and beyond through his experiments with pop-rock music – he was to the 70s as BRIAN WILSON was to the 60s. “Runt. The Ballad Of Todd Rundgren”, “Something/Anything?”, “A Wizard, A True Star” and down to the mistakenly undervalued “Initiation”, the “Runt” – a nickname handed to him by ex-girlfriend and punk poetess PATTI SMITH – ruled American alt-rock during the first half of the 70s. Producer extraordinaire/royalty to the masses (from NEW YORK DOLLS and MEAT LOAF to The TUBES and XTC), plus time spent with moonlighting rock project, UTOPIA, visionary RUNDGREN has had his fingers in so many pies that even bakeries were frightened of an unscheduled visit.
Born June 22, 1948, Upper Darby in Pennsylvania, TODD RUNDGREN played guitar in local outfit, Woody’s Truck Stop, before taking off with bassist Carson Von Osten in spring ‘67 to join Messrs Robert “Stewkey” Antoni (vocals/keyboards) and Thom Mooney (drums) in the NAZZ. As principle songwriter with the teeny-pop-garage outfit, Todd’s frustrations eventually boiled over in 1969 as he and his talents embarked on a more-than-due solo sojourn, leaving behind a couple of LPs and a minor hit take of his staple, `Hello It’s Me’.
In 1970, Todd became an in-house producer for Albert Grossman’s Bearsville studio imprint, his first job being for the short-lived The American Dream. Later in the year, he formed his own band, RUNT (1970) {*6}, releasing an album of the same name which spawned his first Top 20 hit, the infectious `We Gotta Get You A Woman’; check out also, opener `Broke Down And Busted’ and the gracious `Believe In Me’. While The BAND’s Rick Danko and Levon Helm made a guest appearance on `Once Burned’, his backing at the time came courtesy of rhythm brothers Hunt and Tony Sales (better known to fans of BOWIE’s future TIN MACHINE project).
On the strength of weepy ballads such as `Wailing Wall’, `Be Nice To Me’, `Hope I’m Around’ and `A Long Time, A Long Way To Go’, the introspective and tortured RUNT follow-up, THE BALLAD OF TODD RUNDGREN (1971) {*8} – depicting the man at a piano with noose around neck – was exquisite while many other songs on the set (`Chain Letter’ for one) were sardonic and sweetly sly.
In 1972, after taking over the production duties from GEORGE HARRISON on BADFINGER’s “Straight Up” set, TR unleashed a truly wonderful third set, SOMETHING/ANYTHING? {*9}. The double album reached Top 30 status, while a cut from it, `I Saw The Light’, made the Top 20 (Top 40 a year later in the UK). Playing a raft of instruments himself, the record encompassed almost every style in the pop/rock pantheon. Among the many joyous highlights were the aforementioned single, the equally intimate `It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference’, `Cold Morning Light’, `It Takes Two To Tango (This Is For The Girls)’, `Sweetest Memories’, `The Night The Carousel Burned Down’, `Marlene’ and the bluesy `I Went To The Mirror’ – and that was just disc one. The slightly weaker sides three and four drew from his inspirations: The BEATLES, JIMI HENDRIX, Motown (in Barrett Strong’s `Money’ and JUNIOR WELLS’ `Messin’ With The Kid’) and of course, CAROLE KING, but the rocking `Couldn’t I Just Tell You’, piano-led dirge `Torch Song’ and a fresh rendition of his NAZZ jewel `Hello It’s Me’, hit the right spot.
His next effort, A WIZARD, A TRUE STAR (1973) {*8}, was a wildly ambitious concept piece that attempted to reconstruct psychedelia. Although the record overreached itself, failing commercially as a result, it nevertheless contained a smattering of RUNDGREN gems including closer, `Just One Victory’. Insular and synthetic, it revealed an eclectic and quirky body of work; several songs (including the whimsical `Does Anybody Love You?’) only lasting little over a minute. The sonic exceptions to the rule: `Zen Archer’, `Sometimes I Don’t Know How To Feel’ and the Philly/Motown 10-minute escape medley of `I’m So Proud – Ooh Baby Baby – La La Means I Love You – Cool Jerk’, showcasing TR’s heart of his sleeve.
Prolific in his songwriting, the tortured artist returned after only several months with yet another double set, TODD (1974) {*7}, by comparison an unrelentingly self-indulgent affair, although for the most part it worked. Mixing in goofball pieces of pop in `An Elpee’s Worth Of Toons’ and `Drunken Blue Rooster’, alongside usual heartfelt forays, `A Dream Goes On Forever’, `Useless Begging’, `The Last Ride’ and `Izzat Love?’, “Todd” also takes into the realms of opera via Gilbert & Sullivan’s `Lord Chancellor’s Nightmare Song’, chorus-line in `Sons Of 1984’ and hard-rock, `Heavy Metal Kids’.
To complement his wide ranging solo work (he also produced GRAND FUNK, NEW YORK DOLLS and HALL & OATES in the meantime), Todd formed a composite band, UTOPIA, who were a much more free-flowing, progressive rock/jazz outfit, comprising Mark “Moogy” Klingman (keyboards), Ralph Schuckett (bass), John Siegler (bass, cello) and M. Frog Labat (synthesizers). Their inaugural self-titled outing, TODD RUNDGREN’S UTOPIA (1974) {*6} was released to timid response. But for the single-length `Freedom Fighters’, the record’s overblown, ZAPPA-esque timepieces (including the side-long/half-hour `The Ikon’) turned noodling into an art form – stick with it for lasting results.
Ditto RUNDGREN’s INITIATION (1975) {*8}, which followed suit in bombastic proportions, bombastic proportions that drew an unwarranted pasting from the press; the 30-odd minute `A Treatise On Cosmic Fire’ (which was split into four parts), probably too much fiery fusion for most. The first side of the hour-long set revealed the minor classic hit, `Real Man’, the a cappella `Born To Synthesize’, the raucous `The Death Of Rock’n’Roll’, the metaphysical `Eastern Intrigue’ (plus the title track) and his usual suicidal salvo, `Fair Warning’.
Credited to TODD RUNDGREN’S UTOPIA, but confusingly taking in the odd TR solo track, the concert piece ANOTHER LIVE (1975) {*4} was challenging in its unfocused mishmash of tracks, including the best-on-show 9-minute jazz-rock cut, `The Seven Rays’, the Bernstein-Sondheim composition `Something’s Coming’ and The MOVE’s `Do Ya’.
Continuing on his retro theme, the half covers/half original sides, FAITHFUL (1976) {*7}, filled in time, his inspirational 60s-fixated tunes coming through the YARDBIRDS (`Happenings Ten Years Time Ago’), The BEACH BOYS (`Good Vibrations’) – a Top 40 hit!, The BEATLES (`Rain’ and `Strawberry Fields Forever’), BOB DYLAN (`Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)’ and JIMI HENDRIX (`If Six Was Nine’). But for the inclusion of a triumvirate of uplifting ballads, `Love Of The Common Man’, `Cliché’ and seven heavenly minutes of `The Verb “To Love”’, the set was one for the bargain bins.
But on this level, RUNDGREN increasingly seemed to lose his penchant for experimentalism, although UTOPIA’s RA (1977) {*4} album was the exception. Roger Powell, Kasim Salton and John Wilcox were now behind the act, although the conceptual nature of the record was lost on even the ardent of prog fans; the 18-minute `Singring And The Glass Guitar (An Electrified Fairytale)’ just about said it all. Follow-on UTOPIA album, OOPS! WRONG PLANET (also 1977) {*6}, fared better as it took on an arena-friendly commercial direction, but YES had cultivated this market a long time ago. The exceptions were `Love In Action’ and the RUNDGREN-derivative, `Love Is The Answer’. During the same period, Todd was painstakingly producing MEAT LOAF’s grandiose “Bat Out Of Hell”, while TOM ROBINSON and The TUBES respectively called up the man’s services.
Following his relationship crash with long-time girlfriend, Bebe Buell, in which there was doubt to the paternity of her newly-born daughter (Liv Rundgren duly ended up being Liv Tyler, her biological father being the AEROSMITH frontman), RUNDGREN’s THE HERMIT OF MINK HOLLOW (1978) {*8} found the man once again in melancholy mood-swings. A renaissance of sorts for lovers of his early-mid 70s meisterworks, the multi-faceted singer was back in the US Top 30 via `Can We Still Be Friends?’, while there were sublime lush moments on `All The Children Sing’, `Too Far Gone’, `Hurting For You’, `Fade Away’ and the kooky `Onomatopeia’.
The double-live BACK TO THE BARS (1978) {*6} – culled from recent nights at the Bottom Line in NY, The Roxy in L.A. and The Agora in Cleveland – was a true star retrospective from every aspect of his career; the “Peter Pan” musical cue, `Never Never Land’, was the odd one out.
Throughout the first half of the 80s, Todd combined his solo output with UTOPIA releases, and it was with his latter backers that he once again found a market. With modern new wave sensibilities and a hint of pop about its quirkiness (the BILLY JOEL-like, Kasim Sulton-sung `Set Me Free’ was a Top 30 hit), ADVENTURES IN UTOPIA (1980) {*6} was much more of a group effort. Glossy and typically arena-friendly from the get-go, the Todd team turned on the schmaltz, sounding very much like they were paving the way for ASIA and their ilk; `You Make Me Crazy’, `The Very Last Time’ (a minor US chart entry) and `Caravan’ a long way from their prog-rock embargos of a few years back.
In total contrast, DEFACE THE MUSIC (1980) {*6}, ran through a gamut of criticism in UTOPIA’s Fab Four send-ups – but it was no RUTLES, just plain chronological-like pastiche from Beatle-mania opener `I Want To Touch You’ to “Sgt. Pepper”-cloned finale, `Everything Else Is Wrong’. One could almost put a corresponding BEATLES song (or two) to just about every track on board. For true followers of Todd, this was indeed a backward step for the man.
Back in solo territory, RUNDGREN struck the Top 50 again with HEALING (1981) {*6}, a record that proved he’d lost none of his seamless sophisti-pop presence. While the MTV-aimed, `Time Heals’ and its flip `Tiny Demons’, were only available on single and an album freebie, Todd put heart and soul into the HALL & OATES-esque, `Healer’, `Flesh’ and `Compassion’.
In between working as knob-twiddler for Brits, The PSYCHEDELIC FURS, Todd and his UTOPIA were back in action on two further sets, SWING TO THE RIGHT (1982) {*6} – featuring a cover of the O’JAYS `For The Love Of Money’ – and the group’s inaugural Network Records-delivered eponymous album, UTOPIA (1982) {*5}. As contemporary and in keeping with suffocating new wave acts surrounding them, these sets sounded like a hundred other quirky-cum-ballad acts: The KNACK, DEVO, et al.
Todd was often unfairly savaged by a media who’d served him so well in the previous decade. Time then for another bi-annual solo outing. THE EVER POPULAR TORTURED ARTIST EFFECT (1983) {*7} struck a cord with his legions (and reached Top 75), providing as it did a minor hit in the brain-numbingly hooky, `Bang The Drum All Day’. All but a re-tread of the SMALL FACES’ `Tin Soldier’, he just might’ve struck chart gold had he released `Influenza’, `Chant’, `Drive’ and The DOOBIE BROTHERS-esque `There Goes Your Baybay’.
OBLIVION (1984) {*4} and POV (1985) {*4} signalled the end for his flagging UTOPIA project. Several albums in, and now with ever-decreasing sales figures, it was probably the best time to lay songs such as `Crybaby’ and `Mated’ to rest. Holders of his solo contract, Bearsville Records, were non-plus with RUNDGREN’s next proposition, A CAPPELLA (1985) {*5}, although it’d be Warner Brothers that shouldered full responsibility. But for the mandatory soul cover (this time through finale piece, `Mighty Love’), the many aspects of TR’s multi-tracked larynx only appealed to his ever tortured fanbase.
RUNDGREN subsequently spent a few years studio-bound working on other people’s projects (including high-profile XTC and BOURGEOIS TAGG) before recruiting ex-JOURNEY bassist Ross Valory and former TUBES drummer Prairie Prince for the impressive, soul-centric live-in-the-studio set, NEARLY HUMAN (1989) {*6}. Featuring an unlikely cover of ELVIS COSTELLO’s `Two Little Hitlers’, and his usual array of soul-searching ballads (`The Want Of An Nail’, `Fidelity’, `Parallel Lines’ and the 9-minute `I Love My Life’), the record at least put Todd back on the musical map; much of the set was borrowed for Joe Orton’s off-Broadway production of “Beatles third movie script”, Up Against It.
2ND WIND (1991) {*5} was another disappointing and average venture, the album only serving to prove that RUNDGREN’s operatic to soul-rock try-outs grated on the critics; `The Smell Of Money’ and `Love In Disguise’ in that particular mould, although the live-in-San Fran/ZAPPA-type title track finale stood out. A reunification of UTOPIA was hardly what the doctor ordered, but the retrospective REDUX ’92: LIVE IN JAPAN (1992) {*5} at least gave Todd another option, while hardcore homeboy fans were finding it all a bit bizarre.
Although limited in its CD-ROM/computerised capacity, Todd’s detached and non-interactive audio project, TR-I, hardly set his solo career alight; NO WORLD ORDER (1994) {*3}, sort of putting his political (rap!) manifesto on the dance-floor. 1995’s THE INDIVIDUALIST {*4} was another in this ill-advised, unproductive range; Rhino Records giving him the heave forthwith.
Having worked as a disc-jockey on his own radio show, The Difference With Todd, E.M.I. (through Guardian Records) sponsored the quasi-lounge/bossa nova revisionism of 1997’s WITH A TWIST… {*4}. Featuring makeovers of `I Saw The Light’, `Can We Still Be Friends?’ and `Hello It’s Me’, it certainly did make a difference that `It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference’, was butchered beyond recognition. The late 90s also saw the release of his “Up Against It” album in Japan, while further production work came through SPLENDER and BAD RELIGION, plus the foundation of his Waking Dreams enterprise under the PatroNet umbrella; note too, that he teamed up with his old idol RINGO STARR and his All-Starr Band.
ONE LONG YEAR (2000) {*5} garnered together bits and pieces he’d already channelled and previewed online, although on the evidence of `I Hate My Frickin I.S.P.’, RUNDGREN’s cyberspace adventures weren’t without mishap. A pastel-shaped re-take of `Love Of The Common Man’ and the punk-y `Yer Fast (And I Like It)’, embraced the new millennium with a bit of the old, but this “tortured artist” wasn’t about to give up the ghost.
Impatient fans waiting for a return to form, greeted LIARS (2004) {*7} like a sermon from the mount, Todd’s back-to-basics formula evident on tracks such as `Past’, `Truth’ and the closing title track, making this his best album for twenty years – no question. His decision to team up with CARS/New Cars alumni (Elliot Easton and Greg Hawkes) plus respective UTOPIA/RUNDGREN musos, Kasim Sulton and Prairie Prince, looked an unlikely proposition, but one could hear the results on their retrospective, “It’s Alive” set of 2005/6.
Once again it would be another four years leading up to a RUNDGREN solo record; ARENA (2008) {*6} turning up the volume and fuelling rock’n’roll fire into songs such `Mercenary’, the very ZZ TOP `Gun’, `Mad’ and `Pissin’.
On a mission to re-tread his past glories such as “A Wizard”, “Todd” and “Healing” in their entirety through live tours, the sixty-something RUNDGREN was back in tribute mode via TODD RUNDGREN’S JOHNSON (2011) {*4}, echoing songs from his favourite blues artist, ROBERT JOHNSON. While the jury was out on this “100th Birthday Anniversary” set, Todd’s trawled back the time again with the revisionism project, [RE]PRODUCTION (2011) {*4}. As it said on the tin, this was TR bending tradition and letting loose on electro-exercises from his production experiences with MEAT LOAF (`Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad’), NEW YORK DOLLS (`Personality Crisis’) and XTC (`Dear God’).
Stalwart and exasperated devotees of the wry RUNDGREN had long since given up on the Utopian, a man who’d given us the seminal “Something/Anything” on one hand, or the discomforting “No World Order” on the other. Still, he always garners a certain degree of interest when the odd, or the very odd album, surfaces from his studio HQ. 2013’s STATE {*7} threads a needle between arty rock, distorted disco and quirky pop classicism. In these three cavort-like categories, fans might identify with respective genre-busters, `Imagination’, `Serious’ and `Party Liquor’.
As one awaited another colossal masterpiece from the maestro, jettisoned in from the outer limits of Todd’s mind was the flirtatious concept, GLOBAL (2015) {*6}. Underlining poignant protest pop in a manner that recalled 80s power-ballad synth (there was a nod to a twerking Miss Miley on `Evrybody’), RUNDGREN intertwined his God and Earth policies and everything else that jives and jousts in between. `Holyland’ was typically tropical and annoyingly catchy for a man more rooted in literary introspection, but dispensing with his colour-me-pop nuances here, `Blind’ (featuring Bobby Strickland), `Terra Firma’ and `This Island Earth’ would appeal to wizards and true stars – so to speak.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/GRD / rev-up MCS Dec2012-Apr2015

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