Friday, December 16, 2016

A Bell In Your Head Will Ring

As I was saying, Todd Rundgren's a weird guy. An ambitious and prolific musical explorer whose 50-year output includes gorgeous Philly soul ballads, blistering guitar rock, dense psychedelia and prog, sugar-coated power pop, novelty songs, electronica, new-agey stuff, solo records where he played everything, bands where he was strictly a guitarist, you name it. Some of his work has been incredibly accessible, some barely listenable, some a little of both.

His parallel life as a producer and engineer for other artists is explored in Paul Myers' A WIZARD, A TRUE STAR, which argues for Rundgren's import in the golden age of rock studio recording, and details the steps Rundgren himself took to make such a job obsolete today. It is well-researched behind primary interviews with Rundgren himself and with many of the musicians whose albums he produced in the 1970s and 80s, with chapters devoted to albums produced for The Band, Sparks, The Psychedelic Furs, Patti Smith, Meat Loaf, XTC, Cheap Trick and others.

Though Myers' telling of the story is largely admiring of Rundgren's talents, the man isn't necessarily the hero of all of his stories. Musicians who have worked with Rundgren call him prickly, impatient and irritating, and at times describe frustration and tense disagreements in the studio. And like Rundgren's own musical career, their projects are a jumble of well-intentioned flops, surprise successes and shoulda-been hits.

As the book primarily focuses on the recordings Rundgren made, we get a brief introduction: Rundgren was born in 1948 in Upper Darby, Pa., was a disaffected teen with interest in technology, popular music and self-made recordings, and left home at 17 with a used guitar on his back. He joined and quit a blues-based jam band, Woody's Truck Stop, and brushed with success as a guitarist and songwriter with the Nazz, whose British Invasion influenced style was more up his alley.

Songs by Jim Steinman; Motorcycle effects by TR
Nazz made its first album in 1968 under a label-assigned old-school producer who had little interest in the project itself: While he was away, Myers writes, Rundgren would toy with the recording equipment, quickly developing a musical understanding of studio engineering. His curiosity -- and subsequent influence on the Nazz sound -- didn't sit well with bandmates and Rundgren departed the group to seek a behind-the-scenes job even before a second Nazz album could be released.

Rundgren found work as a house engineer and producer with legendary folk-rock producer Albert Grossman, and built a reputation as a "boy wonder" with a photojournalistic ability to pursue and then capture a sound even in difficult conditions: The Band, for example, was in disarray (drug use and internal disagreements) and didn't particularly like its young engineer's impatience and sarcasm (at one point, Levon Helm chased him from the studio with a drumstick) but Rundgren was able to guide its STAGE FRIGHT album to the finish line.

As noted, his projects were a mixed bag. Future hit-machine Hall & Oates' WAR BABIES was so free of anything resembling a hit it got them dropped from their first record label. Cheap Trick's NEXT POSITION PLEASE might be an overlooked gem, but it was overlooked for sure. On the flip side Rundgren developed a reputation for midcareer turnarounds for his work with Grand Funk (WE'RE AN AMERICAN BAND) and XTC (SKYLARKING), getting each of those bands unlikely U.S. hits.

He also took on unusual projects -- debuts for weirdos Sparks, the New York Dolls and an artist everybody passed on, Meat Loaf. Rundgren recognized BAT OUT OF HELL's theatrical grandeur, Myers writes, and brought it gloriously to life.

Night time is the right time
Myers shares tidbits from each of these sessions and reveals a few secrets along the way. Rundgren found the drum sound he was seeking when he placed his wallet on a snare drum during Sparks' debut recording. He encouraged Grand Funk to let drummer Don Brewer sing a powerful lead on "American Band." He strapped on a guitar and fiddled with amplifier knobs until he arrived at the "motorcycle revving" bit in "Bat Out of Hell." He papered over the vocal booth walls of Utopia Sound so that Psychedelic Furs singer Richard Butler could imagine it was night while recording within Rudgren's preferred daytime hours. He stood up to XTC's dictatorial Andy Partridge, choosing to record more of bandmate Collin Moulding's tunes for SKYLARKING than was typical.

If there was a signature Rundgren sound they can be heard on his 70s and 80s solo records and those of Utopia (multitracked harmony singing — Rundgren confesses Chorus was the only class he paid attention to in school; a taste for Philly soul and Beatlesque pop) — but also, a willingness to experiment with technology as demonstrated by pioneering video (he ran a spectacularly unprofitable TV studio); an "interactive" solo album the listener could choose to assemble at home under the TR-i name; and a charge into digital recordings that was ahead of contemporaries and hastened the demise of his own production career.

Testimony to Rundgren's talents at times is as grudging as his exclusion from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is baffling -- but Myers captures a good summary in the introduction from guitarist Lenny Kaye: "Todd's aphorism was 'If you know what you want, I'll get it for you. If you don't know what you want, I'll do it for you.'"

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Forgotten But Not Gone

What you have here just might be the greatest New Wave album of all time, and one of the most unusual to boot.

It came and went in a flash in 1982, and despite a minor MTV video hit, is easily overlooked among the varied projects and complicated narrative of Todd Rundgren, including the entire Utopia thing. It was released on a label doomed to a quick death and featured a helping of 15 would-be power-pop classics spread over 3 vinyl sides - A, B, C and a blank side D. Weird.

The Utopia of this early 1980s era was a far cry from the early assemblages under the same name in the 1970s, with only Rundgren participating across its lifetime. Utopia initially was Rundgren's touring band accompanying the leader's "psychedelic" era, and its first album -- then under the "Todd Rundgren's Utopia" moniker -- saw them performing dense, progressive songs including a single 30-minute song ("The Ikon") that ate up an entire album side.

Rundgren, described by some as a "genre tourist," never stayed in one place for long. He and Utopia gradually morphed from a prog outfit into a tight, pop-leaning quartet (Rundgren, McCartneyesque singing bassist Kasim Sulton, drummer John "Willie" Wilcox and keyboardist Roger Powell) with a goofy sense of humor where each of its members contributed songs and vocals. Powell dated to the psych era; Wilcox was Hall & Oates' drummer who joined following Rundgren's production of their WAR BABIES album; and Sulton was an up-and-coming player with Cherry Vanilla.

ADVENTURES IN UTOPIA (1980) bridged Utopia's evolving sound profiles with an album generating a few arena-like FM radio hits like "Caravan," the title track and Sulton's "Set Me Free" but that vibe didn't last either when they followed up with DEFACE THE MUSIC, a poker-faced pastiche of the Beatles where each and every song was a recognizable take-off of pre-1966 Fab Four classics.

By then quite busy serving as Rundgren's go-to backing band on a variety of his big and not-so-big production work (Meat Loaf's BAT OUT OF HELL for one, teen idol Shaun Cassidy's bizarre reinvention attempt WASP for another), Utopia drew well on the road but didn't sell many records, in part because the prolific Rundgren released slightly-more successful solo albums for each Utopia effort.

Bearsville Records was reluctant to pull the trigger on Utopia's next album, SWING TO THE RIGHT, a collection of off-kilter political pop-rock inspired by the dawning of the Reagan era. Utopia fled to upstart Network Records to establish itself again with the self-titled album reviewed here just as Bearsville relented and released SWING, resulting in a two-and-a-half new Utopia albums hitting shelves within months of one another, crowding a market that already had little appetite.

But if you could forget all that and just consider the album, UTOPIA was a stupefyingly taut, magnificently manufactured effort in which Utopia offered 15 variations on the three-minute, keyboard-and-guitar pop song, divided the songwriting and lead vocals in four easy pieces, harmonized beautifully and wrote particularly snappy lyrics making nearly every song a gigantic, awful pun. It wasn't exactly great art, but it was everything New Wave aspired to be.

Opener "Libertine," sung by Sulton, is one of the best rockers on the record, and should have been a hit. Others in that vein include "Princess of the Universe" sung by Wilcox, and Powell's ridiculous "Burn Three Times" which tells a lust story via awful kitchen metaphors: "I'm no Burger King/I'm no pizza pie spinner/It's a gourmet thing/not a TV dinner."

Rundgren's "Hammer in My Heart" -- an irresistible older cousin of his forthcoming solo smash "Bang the Drum All Day" -- was a minor dance floor hit based on the exact rhythm Utopia had laid down for Cassidy's bomb of a "Rebel Rebel" cover off WASP:

Wilcox's beat also anchors the psychedelic rave-up "Infrared and Ultraviolet" in which Rundgren and Sulton harmonize over the swirling noise of Powell's keyboards. "Chapter and Verse" "Bad Little Actress" "There Goes My Inspiration" "Neck on Up" and "Say Yeah" are jammed with power hooks and stuffed with silly metaphors. There's also a requisite Rundgrenesque ballad -- "I'm Looking at You But I'm Talking to Myself" -- and the country-ish "Forgotten but not Gone."

For pure goofiness it's difficult to beat the Powell-sung "Feet Don't Fail Me Now" and accompanying "state of the art" comedy video that early survivors of MTV should remember fondly.

Network Records folded only months following the release of UTOPIA and the band was largely forgotten when Rundrgren's EVER-POPULAR TORTURED ARTIST EFFECT solo album of 1983 produced "Bang the Drum All Day." Utopia hung around for a few more platters: OBLIVION (1984) and POV (1985) but they didn't have quite the spark.

Here's the entire glorious three-sided, four-singered thing: