Todd Rundgren - Changing Style

Changing Style

The Something? Anything! period marked a singificant change in Rundgren's lifestyle. Up until that time he neither drank nor took any drugs:

"I was a complete teetotaller. I didn't take any kind of drugs or drink or anything. In fact, I had found the behaviour of my peers, while they were high, to be somewhat questionable."

However, he began to change his views after a visit to Philadelphia to see Randy Reed, his closest friend from his school days. Reed introduced Todd to marijuana, and he credited this with having a big effect on his songwriting for his second solo album, The Ballad of Todd Rundgren. In the lead-up to his third album, Something? Anything!, he was experimenting with various mind-altering substances including marijuana, and a range of psychedelics including Dimethyltryptamine (DMT), psylocibin, mescalin and magic mushrooms - athough he says he never (to his knowledge) took LSD. During the recording of Something? Anything!, he began using the stimulant Ritalin and he later said that it had a marked effect both on the style of his music and on his productivity:

"It (Ritalin) caused me to crank out songs at an incredible pace. 'I Saw the Light' took me all of 20 minutes. You can see why, too, the rhymes are just moon/June/spoon kind of stuff..."

Speaking of the effect on A Wizard, A True Star (1973), Rundgren commented:

"With drugs I could suddenly abstract my thought processes in a certain way, and I wanted to see if I could put them on a record. A lot of people recognised it as the dynamics of a psychedelic trip—it was almost like painting with your head."

Though he often revisited the classic popular song format, during the early 1970s Rundgren's music began to incorporate elements of progressive rock. 1973's transitional A Wizard, a True Star marked the beginning of this trend, which came to fruition with his next two solo albums Todd (1974) and Initiation (1975) and the early recordings under the aegis of his new group project Utopia.

Shortly after he had completed work on Something? Anything!, Los Angeles was struck by a strong earthquake, and Rundgren was sufficiently unnerved by this to move back to New York. His return east led to a long and fruitful working relationship with Moogy Klingman and the pair collaborated extensively over the next few years. They built a recording facility in Manhattan which they dubbed Secret Sound Studios, and a large proportion of Rundgren's solo and production work was done there, until his relocation to Woodstock in the mid-70s.

A Wizard, A True Star (1973), which was sequenced as a continuous medley, featured a wildly eclectic range of songs set in dazzling arrangements and production, with Rundgren experimenting with the synthesiser and exploiting virtually every studio effect and technique then available. Backing musicians included renowned horn players Michael Brecker and Randy Brecker, guitarist Rick Derringer and several other musicians, who subsequently joined the original incarnation of Utopia. Although it featured predominantly original material (including the anthemic "Just One Victory", which became a concert favorite), the album set a pattern followed on subsequent solo albums, with Rundgren recording cover versions of his favorite songs — in this case, "Never Never Land", from the Broadway musical version of Peter Pan, and a medley of soul classics, including a unique version of the Capitols' "Cool Jerk" played in the 7/8 time signature. The album was also notable for its extended running time — over 55 minutes in length, compared to around 40–45 minutes for a typical pop-rock LP of the period. This reflected Rundgren's skills as a mastering engineer, since this extended running time took the album close to the practical maximum for an LP. Due to the inherent physical limitations of the vinyl LP medium, on records with running times over 45 minutes there is an unfavorable trade-off between duration and the audio quality and volume. On the album cover, packed with his handwritten notes, he advised listeners to crank up their Victrolas accordingly.

Todd (1974) continued in this vein and featured similarly diverse material. Alongside originals such as "A Dream Goes On Forever" and "Heavy Metal Kids", both of which became concert staples, Rundgren also satirised his chosen profession with the song "An Elpees' Worth of Tunes" and revisited his teenage obsession with the music of Gilbert & Sullivan in a rendition of "The Lord Chancellor's Nightmare Song" (from Iolanthe). "Izzat Love?" was sampled by Indie artist Neon Indian on their song, "Deadbeat Summer" in 2010.

By contrast, Rundgren's work with Utopia (see below) and his next solo album took him decisively into progressive rock. Initiation (1975) addressed cosmic themes, showed a strong interest in spirituality (particularly Far Eastern religion and philosophy), and displayed the musical influence of psychedelic rock, as well as the avant-garde jazz fusion of contemporary acts such as the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Frank Zappa. Once again the original LP issue saw Rundgren pushing the medium to its physical limits, with the side-long suite "A Treatise on Cosmic Fire" clocking in at over 35 minutes.

When touring, Rundgren presented the music in a lavish stage setting that echoed the ambitious space-themed shows of acts like Parliament/Funkadelic and he adopted an outlandish space-rock image on stage, including multi-coloured dyed hair.

During 1977 and 1978, Rundgren attempted to tour with a true quadraphonic sound system, however it proved ultimately unworkable - despite successfully delivering high-quality sound in a concert setting - due to the enormous technical requirements involved. Since most concert arenas of the day were ill-equipped to host large towers of sound equipment in the rear of the halls, the speakers often had to be hung from the ceiling rigging. This installation could take up to two days to complete, meaning that it was necessary to send two separate sound systems, each with its own, complete set-up crew, out on the road, so that they could "leapfrog" and allow Rundgren to play dates on consecutive days, which would have otherwise been impossible. The system featured a then-new technology called "signal analysis", which required white and pink noise to be pumped through the speakers, in order to set the active equalizers so as to minimize feedback and distortion. The pink and white noise analysis had to be performed twice: once with the hall empty, and then again with the audience present, which many concertgoers found annoying. Additionally, Rundgren's insistence on personally overseeing the acoustic set-up of the system left him exhausted and unable to continue, and he pulled the plug on the experiment.

During the mid-to-late 1970s, Rundgren regularly played the eye-catching psychedelic Gibson SG (known as "Sunny"), which Eric Clapton had played in Cream. After he had stopped using it ca. 1968, Clapton gave the guitar to George Harrison, who subsequently 'loaned' it to British singer Jackie Lomax. In 1972, after meeting at a recording session, Lomax sold the guitar to Rundgren for $500 with an option to buy it back, which he never took up. Rundgren played it extensively during the early years of Utopia before retiring the instrument, which he eventually auctioned off; he now owns a reproduction.

If I get that one minute of total illumination then I don't care if my whole career goes down the drain. I'd know there was an answer to everything—to existence, to death.

NME—September 1974

The 1976 album Faithful saw Rundgren marking his tenth year as a professional musician by return to the pop/rock genre, featuring one side of original songs and one side of covers of significant songs from 1966, including the Yardbirds' "Happening Ten Years Time Ago" (the B-side of that Yardbirds single gave Nazz its name) and a nearly identical re-creation of the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations".

In the latter half of the 1970s Rundgren moved to Woodstock, where Bearsville Records established a studio under Rundgren's direction. He bought a home nearby and a property adjoining the studio was taken over as acccomodation for arists who used the studio. The Woodstock complex became Rundgren's base until his eventual relocation to the Hawaiian island of Kauai in the 1990s. That move was in part prompted by a violent home invasion at Woodstock in the late 1970s, in which Rundgren and then wife (who was pregnant at the time) were tied up while the house was ransacked by a group of armed men. According to Rundgren's account, the men appeared to believe that he possessed a large quantity of cocaine (which he never used); although the family was unharmed, the men stole some valuable items including a custom-made Alembic guitar. Todd recovered it years later after Alembic staff spotted it for sale on Ebay and it was returned to him, but was by then so badly damaged that it could not be restored.

Faithful was followed by Hermit of Mink Hollow (1978); this included the hit ballad "Can We Still Be Friends" (covered a year later by Robert Palmer), which reached #29 in the U.S. (Palmer's version reached No. 52) and was accompanied by an innovative self-produced music video, and the album became the second most successful of his career (after Something? Anything!), reaching #36 in the U.S. During 1978 Rundgren undertook an American tour playing at smaller venues including The Bottom Line in New York and the Roxy in Los Angeles; this resulted in the double live album Back to the Bars, which featured a mixture of material from his solo work and Utopia, performed with backing musicians including Utopia, Edgar Winter, Spencer Davis, Daryl Hall and John Oates and Stevie Nicks.

Subsequent solo releases included the album-long concept work Healing (1981) and the New Wave -tinged The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect (1982), which included a cover of The Small Faces hit "Tin Soldier". The latter album also marked the end of Rundgren's tenure with Bearsville Records. He then signed with Warner Bros. Records, who issued his next album, A Cappella (1985), which was recorded using Rundgren's multi-tracked voice, accompanied by arrangements constructed entirely from programmed vocal samples. "Bang the Drum All Day", from The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect was a minor chart hit, which has become more prominent in subsequent years, having been adopted as an unofficial theme by several professional sports franchises, notably the Green Bay Packers, and becoming popular on radio, where it was often featured on Friday afternoons. "Bang..." was also used prominently in a Carnival Cruises television advertising campaign. It is now considered one of Rundgren's most popular songs. In 1986, Rundgren scored four episodes of the popular children's television show Pee Wee's Playhouse.

Nearly Human (1989) and 2nd Wind (1991) were both recorded live—the former in the studio, the latter in a theater before a live audience, whom were instructed to remain silent. Each song on these albums was recorded as a complete single take with no later overdubbing. Both albums marked, in part, a return to his Philly soul roots. 2nd Wind also included several excerpts from Rundgren's musical Up Against It, which was adapted from the screenplay (originally titled "Prick Up Your Ears"), that British playwright Joe Orton had originally offered to The Beatles for their never-made follow-up to Help!. 2nd Wind was Rundgren's last release through a major label and all his subsequent recordings have been self-released.

After a long absence from touring, Rundgren hit the road with Nearly Human—2nd Wind band, which included brass and a trio of slinky backup singers (one of whom, Michele Gray, Rundgren married). He also toured during this period with Ringo Starr's All-Starr band.

The next few years saw Rundgren recording under the pseudonym TR-i ("Todd Rundgren interactive") for two albums. The first of these, 1993's No World Order, consisted of hundreds of seconds-long snippets of music, that could be combined in various ways to suit the listener. Initially targeted for the Philips CD-i platform, No World Order featured interactive controls for tempo, mood, and other parameters, along with pre-programmed mixes by Rundgren himself, Bob Clearmountain, Don Was, and Jerry Harrison. The disc was also released for PC and Macintosh and in two versions on standard audio CD, the continuous mix disc No World Order and, later, the more song-oriented No World Order Lite. The music itself was quite a departure from Rundgren's previous work, with a dance/techno feel and much rapping by Rundgren. The follow-up, 1995's The Individualist, featured interactive video content, that could be viewed or in one case, played; it was a simple video game along with the music, which was more rock-oriented than No World Order.

Rundgren returned to recording under his own name for With a Twist (1997), an album of bossa-nova covers of his older material. His Patronet work, which trickled out to subscribers over more than a year, was released in 2000 as One Long Year. In 2004, Rundgren released Liars, a concept album about "paucity of truth", that features a mixture of his older and newer sounds.

In early 2008, Rundgren launched his official MySpace page. Later that year, he released the rock album Arena. In concert, he had been performing the album in full and in sequence before its release.

Rundgren released the live compilation album, For Lack of Honest Work, in 2010. The album was advertised as a collection of bootleg recordings, that were approved by Rundgren himself.

April 2011 saw the release of Todd Rundgren's Johnson, a collection of Robert Johnson covers, which had been recorded more than a year earlier. On another 2011 release, scheduled for September 13, a further album of covers entitled re:Production sees him performing tracks he had previously produced for other acts, including Grand Funk Railroad's "Walk Like a Man" and XTC's "Dear God."

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