Nominee Todd Rundgren was passed over for induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame this year. I concede that T. Rex was overdue for recognition, and that Nine Inch Nails and the Notorious B.I.G. have made contributions significant enough to warrant induction. But I can’t imagine Depeche Mode or Trent Reznor without Rundgren’s influence -- and don’t get me started on the Doobie Brothers.
For more than 50 years, Rundgren has been an original, unpredictable composer and performer, as well as a busy and successful producer of a diverse list of musicians that includes XTC, the New York Dolls, and Meatloaf (some fans keep mum about that one). He’s released 25 solo albums and nine albums with Utopia, the band he fronted for ten years beginning in 1974, while maintaining his solo career. The three LPs he recorded with Nazz, the group he founded in Philadelphia that led to his break into the big time, are minor classics of the late 1960s.
Rundgren’s determination not to repeat himself, and the sheer variety of music that has resulted, are perhaps what kept voters at the Rock Hall from choosing him. Those qualities have often confounded rock critics, who reacted to many of his albums with puzzlement and occasional hostility. Most critics and rock historians agree, however, that Rundgren’s third solo album, Something/Anything?, is not only his masterpiece, but one of the very best rock albums ever.
Todd Rundgren grew up in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, a township that borders Philadelphia. His parents listened to classical music and show tunes, influences that Rundgren absorbed while also listening to AM pop radio. He was especially impressed with the bands of the British Invasion, and the recordings of Philadelphia soul produced by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. In 1966 he joined a local blues band, Woody’s Truck Stop, which soon became one of Philadelphia’s most popular bands.
The following year, he and bassist Carson Van Osten left Woody’s Truck Stop, recruited drummer Thom Mooney and singer-keyboardist Robert “Stewkey” Antoni, and formed Nazz, named for the Yardbirds tune “The Nazz Are Blue.” Rundgren wrote the songs, which leaned toward British pop, with a touch of soul. Screen Gems Company Records (SGC), a subsidiary of Atlantic Records, signed the band on the basis of a four-song demo, and in April 1968, in Los Angeles, they began recording their first album.
After the sessions for Nazz were completed, producer Bill Traut spent a day on the mixes. Although it was Rundgren’s first time in a recording studio, he asked engineer James Lowe if he could try his own hand at mixing the album. A quick study, Rundgren improved on Lowe’s work; Lowe later said he thought Rundgren should have been given a production credit. Lowe, who’d been the lead singer and guitarist for the Electric Prunes, would later engineer Rundgren’s first four solo albums.
SGC released Nazz in October 1968. The B-side of a single from the album, “Hello It’s Me,” peaked at 66 on Billboard’s Pop Singles chart, and the album stalled at 118 on the Pop Albums chart. The A-side, “Open My Eyes,” is a good example of Rundgren’s work on the final mix. The flanging on the song creates a swirling effect that provides atmosphere and momentum. Although “Open My Eyes” wasn’t a hit, it appeared on guitarist and rock critic Lenny Kaye’s terrific Nuggets compilation in 1972, and, with other songs from Nazz, is in heavy rotation on the streaming stations Psychedelicized and Little Steven’s Underground Garage.
Nazz returned to the studio in late 1968 to record its second LP. Nazz Nazz, released in April 1969, charted higher than its predecessor (80 on the Pop Albums chart) but didn’t cause a sensation. It was originally planned as a two-disc set titled Fungo Bat that would have included songs reflecting Rundgren’s expanding songwriting interests. He’d heard Laura Nyro’s Eli and the Thirteenth Confession (1968), and was writing more songs for the piano that included sophisticated chord changes typical of Nyro’s work.
Instead, SGC released Nazz Nazz as a single LP, and the tracks cut from it were later released as Nazz III (1971). But Rundgren had left Nazz by the end of 1969 -- the band had been unable to adjust to his changing tastes in songwriting. Albert Grossman, who managed Bob Dylan, the Band, Peter, Paul & Mary, and other prominent musicians, hired him as a staff producer and engineer for his Bearsville Studios. Rundgren worked as a recording engineer on the Butterfield Blues Band’s Live (1970), Jesse Winchester’s eponymous first album, and produced James Cotton’s Taking Care of Business and the self-titled debut album by Great Speckled Bird, a Canadian folk-rock group established by Ian and Sylvia Tyson.
Rundgren approached Grossman about putting together a solo album, and in June 1970 the short-lived Ampex Records released Runt. (The album was later reissued by Grossman’s Bearsville Records.) Rundgren didn’t want to release it as a solo effort, so Runt became the name of the band he fronted, with Tony Sales on bass and Hunt Sales on drums -- both are sons of comedian Soupy Sales. Other musicians, including the Band’s Levon Helm and Rick Danko, helped out.
Runt established the template for several Rundgren albums that followed. Hard-edged blues-rock tracks such as “Broke Down and Busted” and “Devil’s Bite” sit alongside the sensitive ballad “Believe in Me” and the oddly humorous “I’m in the Clique.” In the original medley “Baby Let’s Swing / The Last Thing You Said / Don’t Tie My Hands” Rundgren pays tribute to Nyro, the Brill Building, and ’60s pop, and reveals his experimental side in the nine-minute “Birthday Carol.” A bouncy, soulful single, “We Gotta Get You a Woman,” reached number 20 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart, but the album hit only 185.
Tony Sales was on board for Runt’s second album, The Ballad of Todd Rundgren (June 1971). A few other musicians, including Hunt Sales, helped out, but Rundgren played a battery of instruments, and on two tracks, “Wailing Wall” and “Remember Me,” he played everything. Rundgren the guitar hero is present on “Bleeding” and “Parole,” but all 12 tracks on Ballad are notable for their involving and hummable melodies, their complex and beautiful multitracked harmony vocals, and the wit and sophistication of their arrangements and recording.
The first track, “Long Flowing Robe,” contains echoes of Nyro and pre-Beatles pop filtered through Rundgren’s unique vision. “The Ballad (Denny & Jean),” “Wailing Wall,” and “Be Nice to Me” show Rundgren’s talent for exquisite ballads, as does “Hope I’m Around,” with its beautifully layered harmony vocals and deft use of dynamics. “Chain Letter” is an epic in five minutes, and “The Range War” is an amusing sideways C&W parody. The Ballad of Todd Rundgren is more confident and tight than Runt, with fewer loose ends and even stronger, more personal songwriting.
Though Ballad wasn’t a hit, when Rundgren entered I.D. Studios in Los Angeles in late 1971 to record his next album, he was a self-assured songwriter and instrumentalist, and had had extensive studio experience as a performer, engineer, and producer. This time he decided to play every instrument on every track, and did some of the recording at his apartment in L.A.
He recorded more than an LP’s worth of songs, but when an earthquake hit L.A., Rundgren pulled in other musicians to help him complete the album in New York, at the Record Plant (Manhattan) and Bearsville Studios (Woodstock). The resulting two-disc set, Something/Anything?, comprised three sides performed solely by Rundgren, and a fourth recorded live in the studio, with other musicians but without overdubs.
Rundgren included notes on the album’s lyric sheet, and assigned a theme to each side: “A Bouquet of Ear-catching Melodies,” “The Cerebral Side,” “The Kid Gets Heavy,” and “Baby Needs a New Pair of Snakeskin Boots (A Pop Operetta).” Each title more or less accurately evokes its side’s music, though genres and approaches are shared across sides. The unifying theme is Rundgren’s abilities to draw from a seemingly bottomless well of inspiration across time and musical styles, and to combine them in fresh ways.
To open Something/Anything?, Rundgren followed the Motown tradition of starting with what he was sure would be a hit. “I Saw the Light” gave him his first slot in the top 40, reaching 16 on the Billboard Hot 100. As in many Rundgren tunes, it’s possible to hear in it everything from classic soul to Burt Bacharach, reassembled into something original. The guitar solo advances the song without calling attention to itself, the keyboards are simple but effective, and the harmony vocals are as rich as anyone who’d followed Rundgren up to that point would expect.
But “I Saw the Light” is just one slice of the album’s pop romanticism. “It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference,” “Cold Morning Light,” “It Takes Two to Tango (This Is for the Girls),” “Couldn’t I Just Tell You,” and “Torch Song” are good, old-fashioned love songs full of hope, regret, and the sometimes inexpressible emotions that come out of romance. Rundgren even returned to “Hello It’s Me,” and this time it went to number 5 on the Hot 100. For all the humor, philosophizing, and high concepts Rundgren has played with over the years -- and all are parts of Something/Anything? -- he’s always been able to crank out a good love song.
And sometimes he makes love rock. “Couldn’t I Just Tell You” is filled with bright, chiming electric and acoustic guitars, stinging power chords, and a slashing, multitracked guitar break. This solo definitely calls attention to itself, but without overwhelming the song. Rundgren doesn’t keep his guitar chops under wraps on this album -- “Black Maria” contains enough fire and flash to satisfy any guitar head, something that’s even truer of the riff-heavy “Little Red Lights,” in which he mimics on guitar the sound of a revving motor. In each case, his guitaristry adorns a memorable song with a strong melody and high production values.
Some of Rundgren’s musical progenitors are easy to pick out, even when he mashes them up. “The Night the Carousel Burned Down” sounds like something Carole King might have written after dropping by EMI’s Abbey Road studios while the Beatles were recording Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Halfway through, the song becomes an homage to that album’s “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite.”
Other musical strains will be more obscure to rock fans. Rundgren notes that “Song of the Viking” was “written in the feverish grip of the dreaded ‘d’oyle [sic] carte,’ a chronic disease dating back to my youth.” He’s referring to Richard D’Oyly Carte, who in the 19th century produced the premiere performances of all but the very first of Gilbert & Sullivan’s 14 operettas; his D’Oyly Carte Opera Company continued, off and on, almost to the present day. It’s easy to hear an indirect G&S influence in “I’m in the Clique,” from Runt, and it’s arguable that the duo’s odd humor has been a touchstone throughout his career. Two years later, on Todd (1974), Rundgren made clear his debt in a cover of the “Lord Chancellor’s Nightmare Song,” from G&S’s Iolanthe (1882).
I don’t recall reading any interviews in which Rundgren pays tribute to or even mentions Frank Zappa, but two songs on side 4 of Something/Anything?, “Piss Aaron” and “Slut,” seem to be nods to Zappa. Rundgren’s love of a good tune led him to include his friend Mark Klingman’s “Dust in the Wind” -- it’s the only song on the album that Rundgren didn’t write, aside from snatches of two old tunes also covered by his early bands Money and Woody’s Truck stop: respectively, Janie Bradford and Berry Gordy’s “Money (That’s What I Want)” and Mel London’s “Messin’ with the Kid.”
If Something/Anything? were nothing more than pastiche, it would still be an entertaining novelty. Instead, it’s a work of genius by a musician who’s not only absorbed but fully digested, with affection, a multitude of sounds and genres. It’s easy to hear a bit of early Motown in “Wolfman Jack,” especially in the backing vocals, but the result isn’t really Motown. “Sweeter Memories” owes a little to the Band (“Yes, I stole the drum part from Levon [Helm],” Rundgren writes in his liner note), but no one hearing it would think they were listening to the Band.
“It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference,” “Cold Morning Light,” and “Marlene” suggest that Rundgren’s family often played Original Broadway Cast albums on the home hi-fi. In the same way that British Invasion songwriters -- especially Ray Davies, Pete Townshend, and Lennon-McCartney -- soaked up music from their country’s music-hall tradition, Rundgren’s subconscious and imagination must have absorbed American show tunes -- they’re audible in his music, and, as did those other songwriters, he bent them toward rock.
“Breathless,” the second track on side 2 of Something/Anything?, presages the strange flights Rundgren’s career would later take as studio effects, synthesizers and other electronic instruments, and a general aural playfulness became increasing parts of his music. His next album, A Wizard, a True Star (1973), subverted any expectations fans might have built up based on his first three solo albums. This sprawling, far-ranging album put great songs alongside fragments and strange sound experiments. Yet A Wizard’s strong melodies, densely complex mixes, and the way Rundgren makes everything flow together into a satisfying whole make it one of his best.
Rundgren’s next album, Todd (1974), was a two-record set with some strange moments as well as a number of good tunes, including “Don’t You Ever Learn?” Side 1 of Initiation (1975) was tuneful, but the 36-minute “A Treatise on Cosmic Fire” on the flip crams too much sound into a single LP side, and probably tries the patience of all but the most ardent fan. This ardent fan spent many hours listening to this track through headphones, and I wouldn’t be surprised if many ambient and electronica musicians gained inspiration from it.
I don’t have the space for a detailed discussion of Rundgren’s entire solo oeuvre, but Hermit of Mink Hollow (1978), Healing (1981), and The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect (1983) all find him in fine songwriting form. Side 1 of Faithful (1976) is a likable collection of covers of songs made famous by others, but side 2 contains some of Rundgren’s own best songs, especially “Cliché.” Nearly Human (1989) is Rundgren at his best -- its nine original white-soul gems (plus a cover of Elvis Costello’s “Two Little Hitlers”) put the album just below Something/Anything? and A Wizard, a True Star. Of his later albums, Liars (2004) and Arena (2008) stand out -- and his most recent, White Knight (2017), is the work of a musician who may yet create a late-career masterpiece.
Nor do I have the space to go into Utopia’s albums, although Deface the Music (1980), an affectionate Beatles parody, is a high point. On this 50th anniversary of Rundgren’s career as a solo artist, it’s worth pointing out that few of his contemporaries can match his ambition or his continued willingness to try new things. He’s among the few musicians whose weakest albums still have something that makes them worth hearing. And on balance, he’s had more hits than misses.
But by any measure, Something/Anything? is Todd Rundgren’s finest moment, and one of the best records released by any musician of the classic-rock era. My vinyl copy, which I bought soon after the album’s release, has spent many hours on many turntables -- every time I play it, and even as it brings back fond memories, I find new things to like about it.
. . . Joseph Taylor