Utopia’s Adventures Continue (Part Two)
Continued from Part One…
The most durable Utopia lineup now in place, the band made a concerted effort toward internal democracy. Or at least as much of a democracy as possible when the group included Rundgren, a star with his own separate record contract. “It was as democratic as any marriage is democratic,” says Wilcox, choosing his words carefully. “All four band members were contributing.”
“That was the goal,” Sulton says. “Everybody had a 25% vote; any one member could be voted down by the other three, and if there was a tie, we had to work it out.” But he goes on to explain that “it was a little touchy, because the band was started by Todd. So his opinion and his wishes had a little bit more weight.” For his part, Rundgren says that having four vocalists meant that each musician got his turn being the front man. “And it appears more democratic once everybody gets a shot at taking a star turn,” he says.
Ra featured an ambitious, 18-minute prog opus, “Singring and the Glass Guitar (An Electrified Fairytale),” but it also included more concise pop tunes like “Magic Dragon Theatre” (a Rundgren-Sulton co-composition) and “Jealousy,” written by Rundgren and Wilcox. The tour in support of the album featured the spectacle of a giant pyramid backdrop; during guitar solos Rundgren would climb atop the structure and play his ankh-shaped guitar.
Oops! Wrong Planet (1977)
Later in that year, Utopia released its second album as a quartet. Oops! Wrong Planet continued the group’s move toward mainstream rock, albeit of an ambitious sort. “I think it was a conscious effort by the band to try to increase our appeal,” Sulton says. “On Oops! we were settling into what was comfortable for us in terms of songwriting, which was 4-minute pop songs.” Wilcox describes Utopia’s collective character at that time as “more singing, more songwriting, more band-oriented. And so the music started to reflect that intimacy.” The album included Rundgren’s anthemic “Love in Action” and the ballad “Love is the Answer.” The latter song was a hit (#1 on the U.S. Billboard Adult Contemporary chart) in a cover version by soft rockers England Dan and John Ford Coley.
Adventures in Utopia (1979)
By 1979, Utopia had built its own audio and video production studio in New York; the group’s next album channeled the group’s multimedia ambitions into its most commercially-successful set of songs yet. Adventures in Utopia would come to be seen by many as the apex of the post-prog lineup’s work. And for the first time, the group scored a Top 40 single. “Set Me Free” featured a Kasim Sulton lead vocal and spent 12 weeks on the U.S. singles chart, reaching #27.
The album’s inner sleeve included these words: “All songs originally performed for the Utopia video television production, Utopia.” But neither Rundgren, Wilcox nor Sulton recalls there ever being such a program. “There may have been some talk about it, and maybe some attempt at putting a 3-page treatment together to shop to networks,” says Sulton. “But the idea was, ‘If we had a television show, and if we were doing episodic versions every week, what would the accompanying soundtrack be like?’ That’s where Adventures in Utopia came from.”
Having gained some commercial traction, most bands would have sought to build on the momentum of Adventures in Utopia, creating a similar set of radio-ready songs. But Utopia was never a typical group.
Deface the Music (1980)
“Todd is extremely uncomfortable doing the same thing twice,” says Kasim Sulton. So rather than craft a follow-up to Adventures, Rundgren decided to make a Beatles pastiche album. “We all recognized the influence the Beatles had,” says Rundgren. He characterizes Deface the Music as “a kind of flippant and contrarian reaction; we had a perverse sense of humor.” The album grew out of a one-off song Utopia had intended for the soundtrack of the 1980 film Roadie. “It was like an experiment in what was supposed to be the new music at the time, which was power pop: ‘My Sharona’ and that sort of thing.” But the filmmakers balked when they heard “I Just Want to Touch You.” Rundgren laughs at the memory. “They said, ‘We’re afraid the Beatles are gonna sue us, so we’re not gonna put it on the album.’”
“Get sued by the Beatles? We could only hope to get sued by the Beatles,” Rundgren recalls thinking. “We’re gonna do a whole record of this!” So the group recorded 12 more original songs in a Beatles style, parodying “Eleanor Rigby” with “Life Goes On,” skewering “And I Love Her” with “Alone,” and taking on both “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “I Am the Walrus” with “Everybody Else is Wrong.” Considered on its own – and out of the context of Utopia’s career, the album has artistic merit, and it’s a fun listen.
Some critics believed that the album was the latest (and quite ill-timed) salvo from Rundgren in a supposed feud with John Lennon; others saw it as a musical mash note to Rundgren’s heroes. Either way, Face the Music was a commercial flop. “We had started to head in the right direction,” says Wilcox. “And doing that was certainly not the best idea for our careers; absolutely not. But musically it was a blast.” Sulton is more direct on the subject. “At the time, I thought it was a mistake,” he says. “More often than not, we chose to acquiesce to what Todd felt that the band should do.”
Swing to the Right (1982)
Among executives at Utopia’s record label Bearsville, support for the band had always been minimal. And the band felt that lack of enthusiasm. “They thought that Utopia was a distraction from Todd’s solo career,” Sulton says. As Swing would be the last record under the band’s contract, Sulton believes the label decided not to put any effort into promoting it. “I think that had some effect on our ability to move the band forward,” says Wilcox.
Rundgren’s perspective is more measured. “It was hard enough to promote me, let alone my other projects,” he says. “I have to say that Bearsville were probably pretty indulgent, because they gave us tour support and stuff like that when they probably really didn’t want to. They were hoping that I would give up the band at a certain point, but I had my own reasons for keeping the band together: it allowed me to focus on my playing. So there was a certain point at which they just kind of said, ‘We know you’re gonna do this. We’ll do whatever we’re strictly required to do, but we don’t have great expectations of the band.’”
Bearsville was initially reluctant to release the album, and did so only after fans – encouraged by the band – petitioned that it be issued. Despite some solid songs – “Lysistrata,” “One World” and the ballad “Only Human” – Swing to the Right received mixed reviews, virtually no radio airplay and disappointing sales.
For his part, Sulton was frustrated and decided to leave for a solo career. “I was a little cocky in terms of what makes a good record,” he admits. “What makes a good record is good songs, and at that point in my career – I was 24 or 25 – I was still finding my way as a songwriter. I might have bitten off more than I could chew.” His 1982 album Kasim didn’t make a ripple in the music world, and Sulton would soon return to Utopia.