I knew a couple Todd’s songs that got played in the radio, but I wasn’t exposed to his other work until a girl across the street introduced me to his early albums. I knew there was a guy with talent. He wrote all his own songs and could play virtually any instrument. Little did I know that in 1973, he was already a whiz kid producer for other musicians.
The album that got Rundgren noticed by a large audience was Something/Anything, a two-disc set released in 1972. “Hello, it’s Me” and “I Saw the Light” were the two big singles, but there were other songs that conveyed his sense of melodic structure, hopeful romanticism and grand style.
Through the 1970’s, Rundgren would be busy, he had a solo career, an off-shoot career with the group Utopia, and was in-demand as a producer. He released 14 solo or group albums, and produced/engineered seventeen other albums. That’s a very busy decade.
In the early 1980’s, he would release two solo albums but would primarily focus on Utopia, where he channeled his musical ideas. He also continued producing other artists. In the 1970’s, he had great success with Badfinger, Grand Funk Railroad, Patti Smith, The Tubes and most of all, Meatloaf. In the 80’s, he stayed with The Tubes but embraced some bands about to break into the big time: XTC, Cheap Trick and The Psychedelic Furs. Rundgren’s production sound was hip at the time and his style of taking over a band, reworking their songs and building them in the studio with the other of other musicians produced hits, but it proved unpopular with the artists. Just like Bat Out of Hell was a monster hit for Meatloaf, Forever Now was a huge step for the Furs and Skylarking for XTC.
Rundgren’s own output in the decade was varied. In his studio, he created and produced his tracks by himself. I noticed his use of guitar lessened as he favored a variety of keyboard instruments. His songs were personal but the style felt impersonal and too machine-made. A Cappella, released in 1985 was the ultimate studio-craftwork. It was made entirely from Rundgren’s voice, processed and overdubbed like instruments. An experimental album for sure, it contributed to Rundgren’s shrinking audience and it would be a few years before he released another solo album. A few years later he released Nearly Human and 2nd Wind, more conventional albums, which got him better reviews but album sales lagged. Rundgren could still write very lovely melodies but he was not content to simply do what he had done before.
In the 1990’s, he again withdrew to the studio and continued his use of new recording technology to make albums, and to create video. He was one of the first musicians to see the potential of video technology to create video imagery and link it to music. He would be one of the first users of the video toaster device for graphics and effects.
His albums during this period are drenched in studio wizardry. He even re-recorded a set of older songs with a bossa-nova backing. He was not just satisfied to create new and different sounds, he re-imagined his past through this new lens.
In 2004, he released Liars, a return to his guitar pop sound of the early 1970’s. That was short-lived as he reverted to the heavily synthesized studio sound for his next album, and then did a tribute album to Robert Johnson, an album of songs he produced for other artists, and then several albums of original material that were a combination of his pop/studio wizardry. Again, he can write some beautiful melodic songs when he is inspired but tends to squeeze any life from them with synthesizers and manufactured drum beats. His most recent album, White Knight (2017), was a collaborative project with many different artists. Reviews were mixed, liking his effort but lamenting his studio production.
I’ve seen Rundgren several times in concert and each is as different an experience as one of his albums. The first time I saw him, in the early 2000’s, he was performing solo, with his keyboard and pre-recorded backing tracks of his songs, with some very interesting arrangements. I even met him before the concert, while he was dining on Kansas City BBQ. I found him the quirky, funny guy that I imagined. As a showman, does not hold back, you get everything he has. The second time was more recent, it wasn’t really a greatest-hits tour, but it featured some hits and some deeper album cuts. On tour he plays only guitar, which surprises me, but he had a very capable keyboard player in his band. The third time, he played nothing but hits, and again, it was the same band line-up. His audience responds to the hits and although these are hardcore fans, they would embrace a few newer songs sprinkled into the set list. A few years ago he even took time out to tour as part of Ringo’s All-Starr Band. And then there was the disastrous project with several member of The Cars, labeled as The New Cars. Best forgotten.
Todd Rundgren has been one of most challenging artists to keep up with, he’s unpredictable and not tied to a particular style. Rundgren loves the freedom of the studio, he is a craftsman, imagining his songs one layer of sound at a time. He seems more comfortable working alone, but at various times he has liked the collaboration of other musicians in the studio or reuniting with Utopia.
Rundgren is a unique cat, he clearly follows his own beat, whether it is a commercial one or something he hears in his head and creates in his studio.
My dozen favorite Rundgren songs:
“Hello, it’s Me” – Something/Anything
“The Cold Morning Light” – Something/Anything
“It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference” – Something/Anything
“Real Man” – Initiation
“Fair Warning” – Initiation
“The Last Ride” – Todd
“Love of the Common Man” – Faithful
“Love is the Answer” – Oops! Wrong Planet
“Fade Away”- Hermit of Mink Hollow
“Compassion” – The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect
“Time Heals” – The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect
“Hideaway” – The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect