Todd Rundgren / Utopia / Nazz: A Critical Essay
Runt (Bearsville) 1970
The Ballad of Todd Rundgren (Bearsville) 1971
Something / Anything? (Bearsville) 1972
A Wizard / A True Star (Bearsville) 1973
Todd (Bearsville) 1974
Initiation (Bearsville) 1975
Faithful (Bearsville) 1976
Hermit of Mink Hollow (Bearsville) 1977
Back To The Bars (Bearsville) 1978
Healing (Bearsville) 1981
The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect (Bearsville) 1982
A Cappella (Warner Brothers) 1985
“Under Cover” Soundtrack (Enigma) 1987
Nearly Human (Warner Brothers) 1989
2nd Wind (Warner Brothers) 1991
No World Order CD-i (Philips) 1992
No World Order (Forward/Rhino) 1993
No World Order Lite (Forward/Rhino) 1994
No World Order CD-ROM (Electronic Arts) 1994
Singles (Bearsville) 1988
Anthology (1968 – 1985) (Rhino) 1989
The Obvious List, The Less Obvious List (Rhino) 1995
The Rundgren Collection (Japan. Pony Canyon) 1996
The Individualist (Ion) 1996
Up Against It (Japan. Pony Canyon) 1997
The Very Best of Todd Rundgren (Rhino) 1997
I Saw The Light and Other Hits (Flashback) 1997
With A Twist… (Guardian) 1997
Free Soul Runt (Japan. Victor) 1998
Somewhere/Anywhere? (Japan. Victor) 1998
Rock Masterpiece Collection (Japan. Victor) 1998
TRTV Vol. I (Patronet) 1998
The Best of Todd Rundgren “Go Ahead. Ignore Me” (UK Castle Music) 1999
Todd Archive Vol. 1 – Live NYC ’78 (Japan. Nippon Crown) 1999
Todd Archive Vol. 2 – Live Tokyo ’79 (Japan. Nippon Crown) 1999
TRTV Vol. 2 (Patronet) 1999
Todd Archive Vol. 3 – Live in Chicago ’81 (Japan. Nippon Crown) 1999
One Long Year (Artemis) 2000
KBFH – Todd Rundgren Live (KBFH) 2000
Reconstructed (Cleopatra) 2000
Todd Archive Vol. 4 – Demos & Lost Albums (Japan. Nippon Crown) 2001
Todd Archive Vol. 7 – A Cappella Tour (Japan. Nippon Crown) 2001
Todd Archive Vol. 8 – Another Side of Roxy (Japan. Nippon Crown) 2001
Extended Versions (Rhino) 2001
Todd Rundgren & His Friends (Purple Pyramid) 2002
Essentials (Rhino) 2002
Bootleg Series Vol. 1 – Live at the Forum, London ’94 (Sanctuary) 2002
Bootleg Series Vol. 3 – Nearly Human Japan ’90 (Sanctuary) 2003
With A Little Help From My Friends (Madacy) 2003
King Biscuit Flower Hour Archive Series: Greatest Hits Live (KBFH) 2003
Liars (Sanctuary) 2004
Todd Rundgren’s Utopia (Bearsville) 1974
Todd Rundgren’s Utopia Another Live (Bearsville) 1975
RA (Bearsville) 1977
Oops! Wrong Planet (Bearsville) 1977
Adventures In Utopia (Bearsville) 1980
Deface The Music (Bearsville) 1980
Swing To The Right (Bearsville) 1982
Utopia (Network) 1982
Oblivion (Passport) 1983
POV (Passport) 1985
Redux ’92: Live in Japan (Rhino) 1993
Trivia (Passport) 1986
The Collection (Bearsville) 1988
Anthology (1974 – 1985) (Rhino) 1989
POV, Oblivion, and Some Trivia (Rhino) 1996
City in My Head (Essential) 1999
Todd Archive Vol. 5 – Oops! Wrong Planet Tour (Japan. Nippon Crown) 2001
Todd Rundgren vs. Utopia (Castle) 2001
Todd Archive Vol. 6 – Deface the Music Tour (Japan. Nippon Crown) 2001
Todd Archive Vol. 9 – Oblivion Tour (Japan. Nippon Crown) 2001
Bootleg Series Vol. 2 – KSAN 95FM Live ’79 (Sanctuary) 2002
Nazz (SGC) 1968 (Rhino) 1984
Nazz Nazz (SGC) 1969 (Rhino) 1984
Nazz III (SGC) 1971 (Rhino) 1984
The Best of Nazz (Rhino) 1984
From Philadelphia (Phantom) 1997
13th and Pine (Distortions) 1998
Todd Sings (Cool Sound) 2002
Nazz vs. Todzila (The Orchard) 2002
Open Our Eyes – The Anthology (Sanctuary) 2002
For the Love of Todd (Third Lock) 1991
An Elpee’s Worth of Productions (Rhino) 1992
Still There’s More (Third Lock) 1995
Todd/A True Star (Japan. Pony Canyon) 1997
Todd Rundgren is, apparently by design, a bundle of contradictions. A facile composer of hook-filled memorable pop melodies, he has often chosen to make willfully difficult music. A one-man studio whiz proficient on any number of instruments, at the height of his popularity he chose to record and perform as a member of a democratic group. Possessor of a highly original sound all his own, he has painstakingly recreated the popular songs of his youth, and created convincing pastiches and parodies of other artists. A tireless innovator pushing the boundaries of music technology, he has often performed with a lone acoustic guitar and piano. Rundgren’s gifts as a lyricist are not inconsiderable, yet he has produced a fair amount of instrumental workouts. In short, the whiz-kid from Upper Darby PA has made a career out of following his muse wherever it will take him, commercial considerations (with a few notable exceptions) be damned.
Beginning in the late 1990s, scattered Nazz archival recordings, outtakes and alternate versions found release on Nazz From Philadelphia, 13th and Pine and Nazz vs. Toddzilla. Hardcore onionheads will want these; for everyone else, The Best of the Nazz makes a tidy and tuneful summation of this group’s output.
Freed from the constraints of Nazz, Todd’s solo career began in earnest. Well, sort of. Credited to the group of the same name, Runt was musically diverse to such a degree that it is difficult to imagine such and album being released today. The gospel blues of “Broke Down and Busted” contrast wildly with “We Gotta Get you a Woman,” an early example of Rundgren’s Laura Nyro musical fixation (and Todd’s first solo hit). The album rocks hard in places (“Who’s that Man?”) yet offers sweet ballads (“Believe in Me”), adding to the split-personality feel of the album. Fans in search of a single musical style were in for a bumpy ride.
The second “solo” album (credited to Runt but titled The Ballad of Todd Rundgren goes one better. The songcraft is more refined, and the album contains more worthwhile musical ideas than is natural. The leadoff track, “Long Flowing Robe,” a contender for single status, gets the disc off to a hooky start. “The Range War” is a sentimental yet completely convincing country and western song that showcased an important point: as Todd explored different musical styles, he did so in a genuine way, rarely seeming a dilettante. “Chain Letter” breaks from standard song structure and benefits from it. Heavy on piano ballads, the album manages to avoid repetition; each song is fresh and offers its own charms. A winner.
A year later the 23-year old Rundgren unleashed Something/Anything on an unsuspecting public. A sprawling double album, it feels much like a career retrospective. Three-fourths of the album feature Todd alone: writing, playing all the instruments, singing all the vocal parts and producing the session. More diverse than anything Todd had done before, Something/Anything plunged headlong into every musical style in which Todd had interest. Ballads? We got ’em (“Sweeter Memories,” “The Night the Carousel Burned Down”). Looking for powerpop? It’s here (“I Saw the Light,” “Couldn’t I Just Tell You”). Studio trickery, psychedelic experimentation, Hendrix-style riff-rock, candy floss pop…in a word, everything. The final half hour of the disc heads in an entirely different direction: instead of the one-man-band approach, Todd assembled a full band and performed a set of tunes live in the studio, highlighted by the transcendent remake of “Hello It’s Me.” With two dozen swings and nary a miss, Something/Anything is arguably better than any best-of Todd collection.
It was also something of an albatross for Rundgren. Still in his early twenties, he had done it all: a string of pop hit singles, critical respect and name recognition, and a burgeoning sideline career as a producer. So how to follow the brilliant double album? Todd’s answer was the mostly-solo A Wizard/A True Star. On this album Rundgren threw all of Something/Anything’s concepts into a blender set on high. Deliberately confounding expectations, Todd created an album that is, in turns, hard to listen to and impossible to ignore. The album is bookended by a pair of anthem-like songs (“International Feel” and “Just One Victory”). Several songs are merely fragments of ideas (six songs in a row, in under seven minutes) yet they hold together in some indefinable way. The brilliant medley in the latter half of the album betters just about every other artist’s attempt at blue-eyed Philly soul. At over fifty-five minutes, A Wizard/A True Star was among the lengthiest albums ever released. Its release divided Todd’s fans into two camps: those who found the album overstuffed with noodling and stylistic detours, and those who felts its brilliance rivaled Something/Anything. As ever, the truth is that both assessments are accurate.
Uninterested in ever doing the same thing twice, or in exploiting a commercial lead, Todd formed a psychedelic/progressive group dubbed Utopia. Allowing Rundgren to play the role of guitar god, the group (originally including no less than three synthesizer players) engaged in heavy yet intricate extended works. Todd Rundgren’s Utopia traded on Todd’s name recognition, yet this was a group effort. Another nearly-hour disc, this one had only four songs, the centerpiece of which is the group-penned “The Ikon,” a thirty-plus minute work with several “movements.” But even with the extended synth soloing and screaming guitar leads, Rundgren’s pop melodies shine through. “Utopia Theme” adds another anthem to the Rundgren canon. This album is recommended to committed fans of Rundgren (they’ll want everything) and fans of progressive music in general.
Setting a pattern for the next several years, the tireless Rundgren was busy with another project concurrent with Utopia: the recording and release of another solo album. Titled simply Todd, the album took the approach of piling even more onto the listener. But for the first time the musical quality falters. In all likelihood it was a case of “too much too soon” (ironically the title of a New York Dolls album Rundgren produced around this time), but the album sags under the weight of such indulgences as “In and Out the Chakras We Go (formerly ‘Shaft in Outer Space’).” Still, no Rundgren album is without its redeeming qualities, and Todd has more than a few. “A Dream Goes On Forever” is one of the most beautiful piano ballads ever recorded. “The Last Ride” melds Todd’s pop sensibility with his Philly soul tendencies; “Izzat Love?” could have been the album’s pop single, and the two songs that end the album wash away the taste of some of the album’s more overwrought moments. “Don’t You Ever Learn?” runs over six minutes but wastes not a second with its washes of electric piano and strong melody. And “Sons of 1984” is yet another Todd anthem, this time complete with backing vocals courtesy of a legion of Todd fans (Rundgren was one of the first artists to truly understand and make creative use of the connections between artist and fans). In summary, Todd is a very good, if flawed album that would have benefited from some editing.
For 1975’s Initiation, Todd threw together the best (and worst) characteristics of all his pet projects. Lots of musicians were on board, but this wasn’t a Utopia album. Two of the seven tracks are real standouts: the clever “Real Man,” and the philosophical “Eastern Intrigue.” The treated vocals of the a cappella “Born to Synthesize” offer a glimpse of an experiment Todd would pursue a few years down the road, and “Fair Warning” has elements of ballad and guitar wank-fest in its eight minutes. The long “A Treatise on Cosmic Fire” bogs the album down, and puts the total running time at nearly seventy minutes. Rundgren felt compelled to include a disclaimer on his albums in those days, explaining that the sheer amount of music on the album resulted in a loss of volume; his suggestion was of course to turn up the volume.
Utopia turned out Another Live (a pun on “Another Life,” the album’s leadoff track) within a few months. Comprised largely of new material and well-chosen covers, the album length is (for once) manageable. “The Wheel” brings to mind Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, and the Broadway show tune “Something’s Coming” actually works in this context. A ripping cover of The Move’s “Do Ya?” beat out ELO’s version by nearly a year. In typical Todd/Utopia fashion, the album closes with an anthem, in this case a scintillating version of “Just One Victory.” Still, a bit overwrought, ponderous in places, and (as most live albums of the era) somewhat dated.
1976’s Faithful is, then, something of a welcome retreat. But like most Todd Rundgren albums, it has its own underlying concept. This time around, half of the album was recorded solo; the other with a stripped-down (four-piece) Utopia. The solo half featured painstaking recreations of songs by artists that influenced a young Todd (Yardbirds, Hendrix, Beatles, Beach Boys, Dylan). “Here are my influences” albums were very much in vogue in the mid 1970s: David Bowie, John Lennon and countless others released albums full of covers. But as usual, Todd took the idea to the next level. Not merely “covers,” the songs on Faithful are note-for-note, sound-for-sound copies of the originals. Except for the vocals bearing the unmistakable Rundgren imprint, these tracks transport the listener back to 1966. Never taking the easy road when a more difficult one is available, Rundgren decides to tackle two of the great studio creations of the sixties, “Good Vibrations” and “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Of dubious value to the casual listener (who needs re-creations when one can listen to the originals?) these tracks are essential listening for the dedicated fan. And for some time now, that was the intended audience for Todd’s work.
The remainder of Faithful covered all the usual stylistic bases in short order, with an emphasis of songs over sonics. “Love of the Common Man” is hook-filled and contains a short yet transcendent lead guitar solo. “Black and White” is a classic heavy rocker, and “The Verb ‘To Love'” is yet another beautiful ballad complete with a chorus that sticks in the listener’s head like glue (a Rundgren trademark).
The solo Hermit of Mink Hollow was positioned as an attempt to split the difference. Rundgren went so far as to divide the album into the “The Easy Side” and “The Difficult Side.” In truth the album was easier on the ears than much of Todd’s recent work. In many ways Hermit was a commercial bid, yet (as ever) strictly on Rundgren’s terms. Melody is to the fore on tracks like “All The Children Sing” and the hit “Can We Still Be Friends.” Echoes of Something/Anything abound, including the “Wolfman Jack” retread “You Cried Wolf.” The album is lyrically introspective, especially on the three-handkerchief “Bag Lady.” And since no Rundgren album would be complete without a powerpop-style anthem, the winning “Determination” is served up. It fits the bill nicely and remains an overlooked gem.
1977 was an especially busy year for Todd. In addition to the release of Hermit, his Utopia project released two albums. The first, RA, was the first to feature Roger Powell. The Rundgren / Powell / Kasim Sulton / John (Willie) Wilcox lineup would hold fast for the remainder of Utopia’s existence. RA is something of a bridge between the art/prog pretensions of the old larger group and the future; Powell easily kept up with the pyrotechnics of the multi-keyboard lineup. Not only was songwriting shared among the members, but all four took turns on lead vocals, giving the group a wide sonic palette. Still, RA is a transitional record, with no major standout tracks (and certainly no hits). Longer tracks like “Sunburst Finish,” “Singring and the Glass Guitar (An Electrified Fairytale)” tend to overstay their welcome.
From the packaging on down, Oops! Wrong Planet took a different approach. Where RA had displayed the band members in ersatz Egyptian Pharaoh garb compete with goofy poses, Oops! Wrong Planet sported black-and white mug shots of the four band members who — from the looks of it — had been holed up in the studio for quite some time. The democratic musical approach remained in force, although the other three studied at the feet of master Todd when it came to writing songs. The leadoff “Trapped” introduces the tight, compact, harder-rocking Utopia. Harmonies are perfectly blended and mixed to the fore. The ballad/anthem “Love is the Answer” would become a perennial in-concert favorite for the group and Rundgren, but it was the cover of that song by MOR duo England Dan and John Ford Coley that yielded a hit single. “Love In Action” is a catchy mid-tempo rocker and something of a template for the next Utopia studio album, three years later. 2001’s Todd Archive Vol. 5 – Oops! Wrong Planet Tour is a good concert artifact of the era.
By 1978 the thirty-year old Rundgren was ripe for a career retrospective. Never content to do things the traditional or easy way, Todd assembled a virtual who’s who of his associates (The Hello People, Hall & Oates, Rick Derringer, Stevie Nicks, plus past and present Utopia personnel) and forsook large arenas for more intimate club venues. The resulting soundboard tapes were culled to create Back to the Bars. The live album runs the gamut. Solo Rundgren pieces, most notably a solo piano rendition of “A Dream Goes on Forever” sit alongside c’mon-everybody-out-on-stage numbers like “Hello It’s Me.” Todd reaches far back in his own history to perform “Range War,” and succeeds in providing listeners with a suitable overview of his work to date. Todd Archive Vol. 1 – Live NYC ’78 offers more from that era.
1979 was remarkable as the first year in a decade without released product form the prolific Rundgren. However that year’s concert tour is represented by Todd Archive Vol. 2 – Live Tokyo ’79. Meanwhile Todd was busy with construction of a state-of-the-art audio/video studio.
Utopia returned to the scene with 1980’s Adventures in Utopia. Offering the group’s most consistent clutch of songs yet, Adventures was an unabashed bid for the Big Time. Surprisingly, the minor hit “Set Me Free” features Rundgren in a backup role; bassist Kasim Sulton ably takes the lead vocal. A few pieces push the five- and six-minute marks (the mini-epic “Caravan” and the discofied “Rock Love”) but for the most part Adventures played by the radio-ready rules of the day. The video-themed packaging reinforced the group’s desire to sell a TV pilot they had been working on, about a group not unlike Utopia (that project never saw the light of day). The album sold well; the single increased the group’s profile; Utopia was now a “name” group, and the future was theirs to exploit.
Or not. Utopia’s next release came within months of Adventures, and arguably chased away much of their newfound audience. Not that Deface the Music wasn’t a good album. What it was, really, was an uncommercial blind alley. A droll piss-take of the Beatles (right down to its cover art), Deface offered up parody ersatz Beatles songs. Within that framework, the songs were pretty good. Punters could play spot-the-influence with songs like the rocking “Take It Home” (“Day Tripper” rewritten), “Everybody Else is Wrong” (“I Am the Walrus” 1980s style), the chiming “Feel Too Good” (Kasim Sulton does “Getting Better”) and so on. The highlight of the album is “I Just Want to Touch You,” which apes “I Want to Hold Your Hand”-era Beatles, complete with handclaps, harmonica and bobble-headed “oohs.” Deface the Music didn’t sell well. How could it? Maybe Todd and friends missed The Rutles TV special. The brief tour to promote the album is enshrined on Todd Archive Vol. 6 – Deface the Music Tour.
For 1981’s Healing, Todd Rundgren returned to the one-man-band approach of Hermit. The multi-part title track comprised half of the album, but effectively. Emotionally evocative, “Healing” feels shorter than its twenty-minute running time. “Compassion” ranks among the finest ballads Rundgren has composed, and the track is beautifully played and sung. Oddly, two of the finest songs from the sessions, “Time Heals” and “Tiny Demons” were included as an after thought, on a 7″ disc (the CD reissue corrected that commercial misfire). “Time Heals” was finely-wrapped ear candy with a catchy beat and melody, and was the subject of an innovative music video, remembered now as the second video shown on fledgling MTV. Back on the album proper, the throwaway “Golden Goose” is a turkey that serves only to interrupt the flow of the album.
Todd recorded the solo The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect knowing it would be his final album for Bearsville. But this knowledge did not result in a holdback of top-quality material. Instead TEPTAE touched on various themes — lyrical and musical — of Rundgren’s career to date. “Hideaway” leads off the album, and is the single-that-never was. The song marry Rundgren’s best characteristics with the sound of 1982. “Influenza” continues the march of quality songs. While a cover of The Small Faces’ “Tin Soldier” adds little to the original (and would have been displayed to better effect on Faithful), “Drive” turns a droning guitar figure into a wonderful, memorable song. “Emperor of the Highway” evokes “The Lord Chancellor’s Nightmare Song.” The surprise hit off the album, the throwaway “Band the Drum All Day” would become both an albatross for Todd and a major revenue stream for both him and Bearsville. Perversely, this unrepresentative track became the most well-known song Todd Rundgren ever wrote.
Still reeling from the Deface the Music debacle, Utopia released the politically- and morally-themed Swing to the Right in 1982. Not nearly as bad as that description suggests, Swing included a number of tuneful, catchy songs with lyrics that were in turn clever, thoughtful and wry. The group’s Bearsville swan song, the album deftly tackles Reaganism (“Swing to the Right,”), war (“Lysistrata,”), craven greed (“Last Dollar on Earth” and a cover of “For the Love of Money”). The album wraps up with the anthemic “One World,” which features buzzing, barely-in-tune fretwork from Rundgren and a shout-along chorus. The album headed straight for the cutout bin, effectively closing the door on Utopia’s association with major record labels.
A few months later Utopia reappeared with a far superior eponymous album. Utopia (no relation at all to the similarly-titled 1974 Bearsville album) righted many of the perceived wrongs of the previous release. Arguably the group’s most democratic effort, Utopia sported strong compositions from all four members. The album sounds as if the quartet held back all of their potential “hit single” material, only to throw it all onto one clear-the-vaults record. Midtempo rockers abound (“Libertine,” “Call It What You Will,” “Infrared and Ultraviolet”). The requisite plaintive ballad/anthems are in evidence (“”I’m Looking At You But I’m Talking to Myself,” “Chapter and Verse”). The semi-successful single “Feet Don’t Fail Me Now” provided fodder for a clever music video with the group suited up in “Cootie” outfits. And the pounding rocker “Hammer in My Heart” keeps things moving with its insistent bass/synth doubled bottom end. In sum, a fine effort that should have put Utopia back on track. But the label releasing this second Utopia went under not long after release, blunting whatever momentum the album had gained.
Unified thematic approach (if not an actual concept) again reared its head with Utopia’s 1983 Oblivion. Released on yet another doomed label, the title was sadly prophetic. Oblivion was longer on hard-rocking songs than was its predecessor, and in a few cases (“Itch in My Brain,” “Too Much Water”) the group resorts to rewriting “Hammer in My Heart.” Just in time to capitalize on George Orwell mania, Utopia serves up titles like “Winston Smith Takes it On the Jaw” and “Welcome to My Revolution.” Despite the strong ballad work of “Maybe I Could Change” and “”I Will Wait,” Oblivion never really takes off. However, Bootleg Series Vol. 2 – KSAN 95FM Live ’79 shows that live, the band played with muscle and enthusiasm in the face of increasing commercial indifference.
In 1985 Utopia released their last studio album of original material, POV. Fatally flawed by too-trendy-by-half sounding production, the album sounded sterile, computerized. Drums sounded artificial, and the whole album had the feel of being programmed into a sequencer. A few songs survive the production botch: the powerpop “Play This Game” could have been a hit, and “Mated” is a fine song that would work better for Todd years later in another context. POV is of a piece with Love Bomb, the album Rundgren produced (and played on) for The Tubes; the two albums share a strong sonic similarity. It didn’t work for the Tubes, either. And so ended Utopia as a recording unit.
Meanwhile, Todd’s musical odyssey continued in earnest. A Cappella (1985) had been in the can for a few years; Rundgren had much difficulty getting it released. In retrospect it’s not hard to understand why. All the sounds on the album are supplied by Todd’s voice (as processed and realized by the Emulator, a sampling device/keyboard). Drums, bass lines, everything: all synthesized versions of the master’s voice. In spite of the technology, A Cappella is a remarkably organic sounding album. “Something to Fall Back On” is a pop gem of the highest order; “Pretending to Care” is a soulful ballad. Sonic experiments like “Miracle in the Bazaar” can be rough going, and “Lockjaw” is just plain silly (in an unintended way). A cover of “Mighty Love” works well, and the in-concert versions of all the songs (featuring a “vocal orchestra”) were a thing to behold, as documented on Todd Archive Vol. 7 – A Cappella Tour. If nothing else, the A Cappella project evidenced the persistence of Rundgren’s vision.
The late 1980s saw release of no less than three Utopia compilations. Trivia attempted to collect the best moments from Utopia, Oblivion and POV; while that was an admirable goal with respect to the latter two albums, Utopia should not be missed. The Collection is an estimable overview of the Bearsville years (i.e. everything before the Trivia period), but with a group like Utopia, fans will doubtless have serious disagreements about the songs included and left off. Anthology (1974 – 1985) attempts to have it both ways, and in fact tracks very well, but it too leaves off some excellent material in favor of tracks of questionable merit. Ultimately, since Utopia was never a major singles act, a greatest hits package was never a serious proposition; instead any compilation comes down to the few hits plus a sampling of the best album tracks. With that in mind, 1999’s City in My Head is, finally, as close to a perfect Utopia compilation as can exist outside a mix-tape or homemade CDR.
Little was heard on record from Todd until 1989’s Nearly Human. This time the musical concept was straightforward: all real musicians, playing “live” in the studio. Rundgren enlisted some of the finest live and session players for this effort, including Vince Welnick and Prairie Prince (Tubes), Bourgeois/Tagg and Bobby Womack. Taking the organic approach to extremes, the album featured few overdubs yet note-perfect, soulful renditions of new Rundgren songs. With some of the strongest melodies heard on a Rundgren album in years, Nearly Human was in some ways a rethinking of Todd’s work. A new and vastly improved version of “Feel It” put to shame the Tubes’ Love Bomb version. The scintillating “The Want of A Nail” and album closer “I Love My Life” bring back the rousing feel of “Jus One Victory” from many year earlier. Several songs on Nearly Human were part of the musical Up Against It; the renditions on this album have a better feel than the later “stage” versions. Rundgren toured larger halls (for the first time in quite a few years) to promote the album, bringing along a large group to perform the songs. This excellent lineup can be heard on Bootleg Series Vol. 3 – Nearly Human Japan ’90.
2nd Wind continued in a similar vein, though Rundgren’s efforts on the Up Against It project meant that more of a Broadway musical approach found its way into the songs. Though the album title suggested Rundgren viewed the project as a new direction, musically Todd was treading water for the first time in his career. The showy approach meas that even rockers such as “Public Servant” end up sounding like musical theatre (which, in fact, they were). The album made prominent use of shrill female vocals throughout; this made 2nd Wind sound utterly unlike the work of Todd Rundgren. Even so, “Change Myself” and “If I Have to Be Alone” are mid- to upper-quality Rundgren ballads. Remarkably, Rundgren served more as musical director than actual playing musician on both Nearly Human and 2nd Wind. Finally, since they were designed for performance, many of these arrangements are shown to better effect on Todd Archive Vol. 3 – Live in Chicago ’81, a complete concert document.
All of which made No World Order (released 1992, 1993 or 1994 depending on format/permutation) totally unexpected. A blind alley to beat all, No World Order found Todd (dubbing himself TR-I) stage-diving headlong into electronica, hip-hop and rap. This much-maligned album actually represented a continuation of Rundgren’s musical approach from as far back as A Wizard/A True Star, and in some ways the album visuals seek to reinforce that connection. The all-singing, all-playing NWO featured Todd on all instruments, forming hundreds of song snippets into a (semi-) cohesive whole via a cut-and-paste methodology. Many of the songs (or, more accurately, song fragments) are first-rate, especially Worldwide Epiphany” and “Word Made Flesh.” This time around the single-oriented track is “Property,” and it would have served that role well. While the track sequencing is a bit jarring (in fact, the songs sequence nearly as well when the CD player is set to random play), the album maintains an odd sort of flow. Recurring musical motifs and an underlying musical cohesion allow the songs to stand alone or together. “Day Job” uses found sounds (including what sounds uncannily like a circle saw) to heighten its sense of dread. “Fascist Christ” takes sharp aim at hypocritical religious conservatives, one of Rundgren’s favorite targets. Both the ethereal “Time Stood Still” and “Fever Broke” slow the breakneck pace, and offer a respite from Todd-rap), but Rundgren’s ear for a strong melody never allows technology or doggerel to overwhelm No World Order‘s songcraft. The archival release Bootleg Series Vol. 1 – Live at the Forum, London ’94 is a compilation of two excellent live shows from the innovative solo tour.
One of the formats for No World Order was the short-lived CD-I. This interactive disc, placed in a proprietary and expensive player, allowed the user to “remix” the album into endless variations. Rundgren embarked on a series of in-store demonstrations across the USA to promote the CD-I, tantalizing fans with talk of reissuing his back catalog in this new interactive format. The high price of the hardware, coupled with a dearth of available material in the format, doomed CD-I to a swift, quiet death.
1993 saw release of a Utopia reunion show from the previous year, Redux ’92: Live in Japan. Packed to the brim with songs (exceeding the then-standard 74-minute CD format) Redux offers tight performances of songs from throughout the Utopia era (including a condensed “The Ikon”) and servers as a reasonable live sampler of the group’s work.
In 1995 Todd released The Individualist, his multimedia follow-up to No World Order. Musically surveying the territory staked out from Nearly Human onward, the album positioned Rundgren as guitar god, a mantle he had not exploited since the A Wizard days. The description of a rapping Rundgren alongside blistering Stratocaster solos evokes images of Rage Against the Machine, but the reality was pure Todd. Working samples of Dan Quayle into the clever “Family Values,” Todd manages to bring a funky, danceable vibe to the proceedings. The scathing “Cast The First Stone” is something of a “Fascist Christ Part Two,” but with some of the most ominous sounds ever to find their way onto a Rundgren disc. If Rundgren’s musical journey sometimes led down dead-end streets, he supplied his hardcore fans with tuneful yet challenging music along the way.
Even dedicated fans were caught off guard by 1997’s With a Twist. Packaging depicted a stylishly-suited Todd complete with umbrella-drink may have evoked thoughts of Bryan Ferry, and the music bore a whiff of bandwagon-jumping. “Bachelor pad” and “cocktail” music genres of the late 1950s and early 60s were enjoying a brief vogue; when Guardian approached Todd with an offer to subsidize a “greatest hits in lounge style” he took the bait. He also took the project more seriously than most would have, restructuring some of his favorites (and not just the hits) into “authentic” Bossa Nova arrangements. More often than not, With a Twist actually worked. Some obvious songs are restyled (“I Saw the Light,” “Hello, It’s Me”) but alongside those stand some of Todd’s best album tracks (“Influenza,” “A Dream Goes On Forever,”) done in the tiki lounge style. In subsequent live shows, Rundgren extended the treatment to even more of his back catalogue, most notably with Utopia’s “Caravan.”
The With a Twist was a one-off project, so — whether by circumstance, design or both — by the late 1990s Todd was without a recording contract. The launch of his online PatroNet service was an early, groundbreaking attempt to eliminate the middleman and deliver the music directly to the hardcore fan. Subscribers to the service were to be granted exclusive access to new works, works-in-progress, and more. The reality was something short of the concept, largely because (once again) Rundgren found himself out front and on a limb in terms of technology. After a bumpy start, some mini-CDs found their way into patrons’ hands, including the limited releases TRTV Vol. 1 and TRTV Vol. 2. These were largely superseded by Todd’s next “real” album.
The 2000 release One Long Year sounded like what it was: an amalgam of various songs recorded at different times, without an overall thematic vision. Some of the songs are obviously new, reflecting Todd’s then-current obsessions (the clever and rocking “I Hate My Frickin I.S.P.”). “Love of the Common Man” is an obvious outtake from the With a Twist sessions; “Bang on the Ukulele Daily” is a live goof familiar to live audiences. And “Where Does the Time Go?” sounds uncannily like an unused demo, possibly dating from as far back as the Hermit of Mink Hollow sessions.
Todd did attempt to make good (after a fashion) of his 1993 plan of releasing his back catalog in interactive CD-I format. This took the form of 2000’s Reconstructed, in which Rundgren turned over master tapes of his songs to supposedly up-and-coming producers and remix artists. As a concept this may have seemed like a good idea; the results are unlistenable, managing to reduce Todd’s gift for melody to but one of a number of sonic tricks on a remix disc. Nonetheless, credit is due to Todd for gamely allowing use of his masters in this way.
Todd Rundgren busied himself with PatroNet and touring, not releasing another CD until Liars in 2004. This was his most (musically and thematically) unified album since The Individualist. In particular, “Sweet” maintains a soulful vibe. But “Soul Brother” mines familiar territory with a well-worn chord structure. And “Stood Up” too easily evokes memories of “Temporary Sanity” from The Individualist. Liars makes use of hypnotic, repeating musical and lyrical phrases; it makes pleasant background music. But taken as a whole, Liars drifts by, with a disquieting sameness to the songs. The lyrics are thought-provoking as ever, but in many cases Todd’s vocals are buried in the mix to such a degree that they become just another instrument. The run-on sequencing of the album only reinforces the feeling of stasis; what worked so well on, say, A Wizard/A True Star serves in this case only to emphasize the formulaic aspect of the songs.
As with Utopia, there have been a number of “best of” compilations attempting to distill Todd’s work down to one or two discs. Most are unsatisfactory, because Rundgren’s oeuvre is so expansive, so eclectic, that a compilation simply can’t help but present a skewed vision of the artist. This is true of other prolific artists with their own vision: there are no satisfactory career compilations of Frank Zappa or Neil Young. So while all of the Rundgren compilations are inevitably filled with fine music; newcomers are still advised to start with one of Todd’s best albums (Something/Anything, Hermit of Mink Hollow, The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect or even No World Order) and go in any direction from there.
Todd has lent his unmistakable (detractors would say heavy-handed) production talents to many artists over the years. The most notable among these include Badfinger’s Straight Up; the eponymous New York Dolls; Meat Loaf’s Bat out of Hell; Remote Control by the Tubes; Patti Smith Group’s Wave; The Psychedelic Furs’ Forever Now; and XTC’s Skylarking. In many cases Rundgren also engineered, mixed, played, sang and even composed songs for these projects.