Apr 142015


Can somebody explain Todd Rundgren to me?


I am a fan of some of his songs, but even the highly praised Something/Anything I’ve found to be uneven. A Wizard, A True Star is frustrating – sounds really weird but has some amazing moments. I’ve sometimes sensed maybe a mismatch between his musical concepts and his presentation of himself, that he’s basically an earthy guy whose visual image often is disconnected from his musical concepts, or he’s trying to force something. He is clearly extremely talented, his sense of melody and harmony can be amazing. But somehow, all together it has never really clicked for me beyond a song-by-song basis.


  22 Responses to “Please Explain: Todd Rundgren”

  1. This is a question I can’t believe we’ve never tackled before. I fully like my share of songs from Something/Anything as well as another half dozen songs from his huge catalog, including a peppy little number from a Utopia album called “Feet Don’t Fail Me Now.” Often, however, I find myself liking only bits and pieces of songs.

    I’m sure I’m the type of music fan who would drive him crazy, because if I had my druthers he would have contained himself to the blue-eyed pop-soul of his half dozen best-known songs. He would have given Hall & Oates a run for their money. I need to pick up that live album he did in the late-’70s, Back to the Bars, or something like that. I remember liking that when I used to hear it on FM stations in the days when stuff like that would get occasional airplay. It had an “organic” feel that fit my appreciation of his music.

    The whole space-futuristic-prog part of his aesthetic interests baffles me. His music never sounds as futuristic as he seems to want it to be. He reminds me of Lou Reed and Lou’s misguided perception of himself as some audiophile-composer type. I think both guys are gritty, witty city guys at heart who make/made a habit of reaching well beyond their means.

  2. I was a Utopia fan for several years and saw him perform with the band when they were at the peak of their popularity. I guess it was about a year after Adventures in Utopia was released. He put on a great show, mixing in Utopia songs as well as his 70s hits.

    Seeing Rundgren live was quite an experience for me as a teenager who had not been to a lot of shows. He was what I thought a rock star should be, rail thin, great hair, and a big voice. I seem to recall that when he did “Hello It’s Me” a lot of girls brought up flowers to the stage — I guess because of the flowers on the cover of Something/Anything?. Does anyone recall seeing that at one of his shows? Is it some kind of Rundgren insider’s move?

    I’ve had some return flirtations with Rundgren over the years — the new wavish Utopia in 1982 and his 2004 solo album Liars, which I highly recommend if you have not heard it. The cover is kind of ridiculous, but don’t let that scare you off.

    It seems like some bands he’s produced sure don’t like him. His involvement with The New Cars was embarrassing. However, I’ve enjoyed his stuff in fits and starts over the years.

  3. His production work for others is another matter to examine. Is he a good producer ? He’s worked with plenty of cool people, but beside XTC’s Skylarking, I can’t think of a Rundgren-produced album that is distinctive in a way that I think is especially helpful. I like the Patti Smith album he produced, for instance, but it sounds like a Patti Smith album with some helpful treble added. Truth be told, as a huge XTC fan, I think Skylarking is a successful, well-crafted album both because of and in spite of its polished and extremely controlled production. It’s the first XTC album that I felt robbed the band of what made them so special, even if, like eating porridge, it was “good for them.”

    The first New York Dolls album is kind of perfect because it seems to sound exactly like the band, much like the seemingly hands-off “production” John Cale provided Patti Smith on her first album.


  4. cherguevara

    I really like the Psychedlic Furs album he produced – and I like Skylarking very very much. I think Andy Patridge’s “corrected polarity” stance on that album – fed to him by his mastering engineer – is absurd (though the remaster may be better for many other reasons). I don’t like Meatloaf, but they sure sold a whole lot of meatloaf.

    There is a clip from “live from Darryl’s House” where Darryl Hall and Todd cover “I saw the light.” At one point, Hall goes up for a high note, away from the melody, and Rundgren shoots him a very funny sideways glance.

    I really want to like Todd, and some of his tunes are awesome, starting with “Open My Eyes,” but other things just make me think, “what the hell man?”

  5. 2000 Man

    Maybe it’s because he was so huge here in Cleveland, but I really like Todd’s 70’s output. A lot. I like some of the Utopia albums because they were kind of like Progressive Rock for people that really just wanted to Rock. No faeries or Vikings or mountains coming out of the sky. We used to blast that song Utopia all the time.

    I kind of get off the bus after Back to the Bars, but I think that’s a really great live album. Something/Anything holds a special place in my heart because it was just really cool, like A Wizard a True Star. Todd was kind of like Elton John. Girls I knew liked him, and if you wanted to hang with girls, you needed to get in line on the Todd or Elton score.

    I thought he was a good producer. Grand Funk’s We’re an American Band is punched up in all the right places and he made sure they made good decisions that expanded the fan base and didn’t alienate the old ones. Todd is cool in my book.

  6. I forgot he produced that song! No complaints there.

  7. hrrundivbakshi

    Ugh, Todd Rundgren. Boy, do I have some mixed feelings about that guy. On the one hand, there are tracks like “Hello, It’s Me” or “I Saw the Light” or “Couldn’t I Just Tell You” — I mean, A-1, certifiable, great American Songbook winners of the highest order. On the other hand, there’s so much Todd crawling up Todd’s own ass that I really don’t know whether to love or hate him.

    I will say this: his album “Liars” has a lot of great stuff on it, including one song that may be one of my favorite tracks by any artist, ever; it just grabs me by the lump in my throat and pins me to the emotional mat every time. Check it out here, and marvel at how *wrong* I am, in your humble opinion: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5pMhk8-lSNM

    (Side note: this is one of those songs where, for me, the lyrics are completely ill-suited to the tone of the music behind them. I fell in love with the song assuming it was a wistful allegory about lost love, or a regretful acknowledgement of letting the love of one’s life down, or something. But no, instead it’s yet another Rundgren-ian rumination about some intellectual construct or another. No matter; the music still has me by the emotional short-hairs, and it gets me every time.)


  8. I don’t like any of the songs that I’ve heard except for I Saw The Light but I love that song so much that I can listen to it over and over.

    I like the production stuff that people have mentioned so far. He produced The Pursuit of Happiness’ first album which I liked quite a bit when it came out but haven’t heard in about 20 years so I don’t know how it holds up.

  9. TSOP! I need to pull them out of the stacks.

  10. misterioso

    Todd. When he’s good, he’s great. When he’s not, zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. And I think, mostly, he’s not; but the stuff I like I like a whole lot and I tend to just not think about the rest. Such as Utopia.

  11. BigSteve

    I’m tempted to say he should have quit after Nazz broke up, and he would be more highly admired.

    My take on Todd has always been that he’s very, very smart, with a mastery of all aspects of writing, making, and recording music, but with a total lack of judgment on how to use those skills. To me he resembles Zappa in some respects. I may be wrong about this, but, unlike Zappa, he seems to be too stoned to know how to direct his energies. Certainly in that Darryl’s House episode, which was filmed at him place in Hawaii, he seemed totally blunted. He (and Zappa) always come off as disturbingly soulless to me.

    I may have told this story before, but at some point in the early 70s he played at my college — the first half of the show being him singing along to taped backing tacks of he blue-eyed stuff, and the second half being the first iteration of Utopia. It was weird and senseless.

    He produced the first Dolls album, but I actually prefer the second one. He engineered the Band’s Stage Fright, but they ended up releasing Glyn John’s mixes. In the 90s his mixes came out on some kind of special release gold CD. I would not say his mixes are better, but I love the Band, so hearing those tracks with a different mix is worth my time.

    I generally don’t think his music is worth my time, not even the amount of time I’ve spent expounding about him.

  12. Well they were in Hawaii for that episode.

    Here’s “I Saw The Light” from that show — with Todd kind of hamming it up at the end.


  13. pudman13

    I always felt like he had so many interests that he couldn’t contain himself. It’s like he could have made some great pop music but he would have bored himself. He seems like the most talented guy ever but he never made an album that doesn’t disappoint me at least a little. At the same time I admire all of his experimentation and some of my favorite of his songs are ones that someone else would have not even bothered to release. (i.e. the instrumentals on TODD.)

  14. saturnismine

    Todd’s a Philly kid with a space cadet persona who plays a wicked guitar, has a sweet spot for the Beatles, soul, and prog. He also kinda doesn’t have it together…only ever had it together in flashes.

    It’s all very endearing to me.

    I can listen to any of his albums all the way through, without skipping tracks. That’s especially true of the “Murderer’s Row” spanning from Runt through to Todd.I know that’s not how most people feel about him.

    However, there’s no question that when the “Couldn’t I Just Tell You” tracks play, I know that’s what keeps me coming back.

    There is a bio called “A Wizard, a True Star” that spills a lot of ink on his career as a producer of others. There’s more than what we’ve named thus far:

    He had some hand in the Pearl sessions for Janis Joplin. The Band’s Stage Fright is his engineering, and he also did the classic New York Dolls album.

    I think he applies a light touch for the most part, but somehow, I also think I can always spot a Todd production. There’s something about his approach that always seems to work its way into the mix, albeit subtly. It’s hard to pin down and it changed as the geist of recording aesthetics changed. But I think if you put “That’s Really Super, Supergirl” on right after listening to “American Band” you might know what I mean (so might I).

    I love the guy’s work for so many reasons…but I don’t think his talent could thrive if he stayed in the pop songwriting box and only did that. His dedication to expanding his horizons while never forsaking his roots for too long is pretty admirable in my book.

  15. underthefloat

    I am with the sentiment that Mod expressed. His diversions away from blue eyed soul were a mistake (in my book). Maybe because prog isn’t really my thing but I just never thought any of that came close to his pop and power pop tracks. What I’ve always heard about him is he just gets bored and moves on the the next thing. My only time seeing him in concert was maybe 12 years ago or so. He was wearing tight bicycle shorts and a tight top as well. The only thing missing was a bike helmet. He had moments of just wonder and sang some of the classic songs with brilliance. Then he broke into a few hip-hop rap like songs and I thought “what are you doing here”? From brilliance to confusingly strange and bordering on pathetic (to me). But, that’s Todd. Probably who sees no limits for what he can do and wants to break through all barriers. But to me really would have been better served to stick closer to his strengths. A bit like when Michael Jordan deciding to play baseball instead of basketball.

  16. cherguevara

    There seems to be a fairly unanimous view that Todd can be uneven, so my follow-up question would be: Which songs would make it to your “best of?”

  17. tonyola

    If there is an artist who fits the definition of “uneven”, it’s Todd. Even a prog-head like me finds much of his output maddening. I have several of his albums, but frankly I don’t listen to them very much. Stuff like “A Treatise on Cosmic Fire” pushes my patience – my patience, considering that I’m the 20 minutes per song fan – to the limits.

    By the way, I know I’ve been gone a long, long time but I’m back and plan on being a regular again.

  18. Well, well, look who’s here. Welcome back! I hope all is well.

  19. misterioso

    Oh my God! I thought our Lord would return before tonyola. Somebody cue the angels with flaming swords! Wait, this is starting to sound like a cut from Tales from Topographic Oceans…

    Welcome back!

  20. tonyola

    Naw, your “Somebody cue the angels with flaming swords!” comment is far too succinct and coherent for Tales. You’d need to blather endlessly about obscure non-Western philosophies in order to make the grade.

  21. I got into Todd when I was in high school after seeing Utopia’s video for “Feet Don’t Fail Me Now” on Dr. Demento’s Demented Countdown on MTV. It was just around that time that Rhino had reissued Todd’s catalog, so the pickings were plentiful.

    However, the first album of his I bought was A Wizard, A True Star. I thought the cover looked really cool and it was jam packed with songs, a lot of them with goofy titles, which appealed to me. I remember sitting in the back of my mom and dad’s car and playing it for the first time in my Walkman and really digging it. From there, it was an always interesting journey through the rest of his catalog.

    Dude’s a terrific guitarist. His licks throughout the 30 minute track “The Ikon” on the first Utopia album are right up there for me alongside of something like “Son of Mr. Green Genes” by Frank Zappa. His production can sometimes be a little naff, although I’ve never heard anyone else get the same sound out of a snare drum like Todd does. I often think if he had taken a little more time producing some of those Utopia albums, they could have been a hit group. In their original six-piece prog version, they actually did very well as far as touring and the whole rock and roll shebang. But the “pop” version of Utopia just never really fit in, for whatever reason, despite some great songs and really solid albums (the self-titled LP from ’82).

    I never minded that Todd never really did the same thing twice, I suppose because my first purchase of his was an acid-fueled freakshow, so by the time I did get around to buying S/A? it was cool to hear his pure pop side as well. Funny enough, I’ve never been big on Hermit of Mink Hollow, his “return to pop” sound from ’78 that many other fans really dig. I always preferred the stuff on Faithful for comparison.

    On the other hand, I still love his foray into techno with No World Order. It was the moment when technology caught up with Todd, more or less and the tour brought him a whole new audience of raver kids and that scene. Yet at the same time, he can absolutely bore me with albums like 2nd Wind that seem to eschew any hint of a catchy tune in favor of some sort of “serious composer” type moment. Todd’s more fun when he isn’t taking himself too seriously (the second side of the Initiation LP from ’75 is godawful prog noodling at its absolute worst).

    He hasn’t put out anything in a while that I’ve really gotten into, but I’m glad he’s still around. And as for his early stuff with Nazz, I think their second album is killer. Most raves usually go to the debut, but Nazz Nazz hits on a variety of styles and works 99% of the time. Stewkey’s voice was something that had to grow on me over time, though.

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