Popular Culture (Music) 20110506: Todd Rundgren

(9 pm. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

For those of you who read my pieces (here, and my other two regular series, Pique the Geek and My Little Town), you know that I appreciate multitalented individuals.  This artist certainly fulfills that criterion.  Not only a talented musician himself, he is also a studio wizard, outstanding technician, and excellent music producer.

I am not his biggest fan, but I do appreciate his talent and like very much several of his original works.  Please do not take this statement as holding him in some sort of dislike:  I like him very much but there are others that I like better.  This is not to detract from his contributions, but rather to describe my musical tastes.

He has been around for a long, long time with no apparent sign of quitting.  Please come with us to examine the career and some of the better (in my opinion) work of this creative genius.

Todd Harry Rundgren was born in Philadelphia, PA on 19480622, and is still with us.  That makes him almost 63 years old, thus eligible for Social Security!  Tempus fuget.  Although I could not find any statistics, my recollections from photographs that appeared in Creem Magazine and other sources from the mid 1970s indicate that he is a very slight person physically, both in stature and in weight.  The latter seems to have increased somewhat in recent years, but that is not uncommon.

He pretty much started performing when I was ten years old, in 1967.  That would make him 19 or so, and did not really have much other than local success for quite a while.  Interestingly, whilst associated with the band that he and several others formed then, Nazz, his most remembered song was written and performed, but no one knew it except for mainly locals.  That song is the justifiably well received Hello, It’s Me from 1969.  He recorded it years later (1972) as a solo, and many people still remember it, even if they do not relate it to the name.

He was a real fan of the Beach Boys, and also of The Who.  That is enough for me, since I like the Beach Boys a lot and most of you know what I think about The Who (just the best rock and roll band, EVER!).  He had an extremely eclectic set of influences, and it shows.

He was also heavily influenced by the extremely underappreciated American artist Laura Nyro (19481018 – 19970408) who is hardly remembered at all.  I should do a piece about her, because she was marvelous.  I guess that she is best remembered for writing the song And When I Die that was a major hit for the mediocre band Blood, Sweat, and Tears.  They did not even get the Churchill quote right, and were only Top 40 stuff.

Anyway, Rundgren evolved and expanded musically.  He was under contract, and thus could not accept her invitation to work exclusively with her, but was still heavily influenced by her.  I have not been able to find any documentary evidence that they were involved romantically, but I would not say that it was implausible.  Certainly they had some sort of an emotional and mental link.

In any event, skipping over his very early works with others, he released his first solo record, Runt, in June of 1970.  The title reinforces the recollection that I have of him as being slight.  There is some controversy about whether it was really a solo record or one issued by a group with the same name.  Here is the lineup:

Todd Rundgren:  All writing, all major vocals, and all instruments except bass and drums

Tony Sales:  Bass guitar

Hunt Sales:  Drums

Note that this vinyl ran over 40 minutes, close to the limit of the technology at the time. He was always looking for a way to overcome that limit.

This album had his first big hit, We Got to Get You a Woman, and my old flamethrower FM station, the mighty KMAG in Fort Smith, Arkansas played it often as I was just turning into a teenager.  I was attracted to the song, but I did not know anything about the musical arts at the time.  Here it is, from 1970:

That was the studio version.  I could not easily find a live one, but I am sure that they exist.  Readers, please seek and post live ones in the comments.  By the way, this song is recognized as being heavily influenced by Nyro.

Even more telling is the wonderful Baby, Let’s Swing that is even more like her style.  I really like that song!  And he even mentions her name, with some extremely heartfelt words.  I think that they were lovers, at least on some level.  What do you think?  Here it is:

We shall skip a year or two (remember, I am more faithful to The Who for detail) and go to his really big album, Something, Anything?.  This was a remarkable record, from both a musical and a technological perspective.

From a technical perspective, the vinyl ran over 86 minutes!  That is twice as long as most vinyl records ever had done before.  Remember, 45 minutes or so was about the limit at the time (1972).  This genius found a way to use the RIAA curve that already compressed bass and use the idea to compress further midrange and highrange sounds onto a conventional, otherwise, vinyl record.

Without getting too technical, he used a stylus recording technique that placed the grooves of the record about twice as close as the standard at the time.  He recognized that the trade would be volume, and expressed as much on the liner notes, saying that it would not be as loud, nor have as much dynamic range as standard vinyl records.  At the time, excellent quality, low noise magnetic pickups were standard, as were cassette tape decks.  His recommendation, in the liner notes, was that if you wanted to play it loud, was to record it onto a high bias cassette, and play the cassette.  He did not mention that the compressed groove technology meant that the high frequencies on such records were compromised much faster than on “normal” ones.

I was fortunate to have a direct drive BIC turntable with an excellent, magnetic cartridge, a Kenwood KA-8100 direct coupled stereo amplifier, and a pair of Klipsch Heresy loudspeakers.  I did not need to rerecord the record to make it loud!  By the way, I still have the Kenwood (I affectionately call it Old Sparky) and the Klipsh loudspeakers.  The BIC pushed daises, but I still have an even better one if I want to play vinyl.

For me, the real benefit derived from the combination of the 200 watt per channel integrated amplifier and the horn loaded loudspeakers.  Old Sparky is still with us, and the Klipshes will be heirlooms for my great grandchildren.  I really need to do a piece on Paul Klipsch here, and soon.  The Klipsch design was so efficient that I many times put those loudspeakers in the rear seat of my 1967 Camaro (which I still have) and used my 8-track player to drive them.  You could turn it up so loud that you could not stay in the car.

But this is supposed to be about Todd, so here is more.

Here is the studio version of I Saw the Light.  I like that song.

Here is another version, with a bit more rotund Todd:

That one is not very good.  The acoustics are way off for my taste.  Have you a better live one?

Also from that record was The Night that the Carousal Burned Down.  You who read me on a regular basis probably know that I would have used the spelling “burnt”.  I think that it is a metaphor for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but it is an excellent song.  Please enjoy it with me.

On a darker note, Black Maria seems to be quite threatening.   I have never been able to figure out his point, so if a reader has more insight please let us know.  Here it is.

What do you think?

There is a more snappy one about STDs.  It is sort of a Happy Jack like, silly song, called You Left me Sore.  Please enjoy it with me.

The song of his that caused me to write this piece is now being used on an advert for some firm that I do not remember.  It is called Bang the Drum all Day, and here is a live version.  You know that I like live versions.  He is really quite good, and yes, that is him banging the drum.  If anyone knows what product that is being hawked currently using this song, please respond in with a comment.  The song was originally released in 1983.

He is so prolific that I can not possibly do justice to him with a mere single piece, but I have lots left to cover to try to give a complete treatment of The Who (I have only treated through The Who Sell Out), so this will have to suffice.  However, there are still some highlights left to go here.

He finally pulled another band together, called Utopia, in 1973.  It underwent a number of personnel changes before finally ending in 1992  They were really actually quite good, but for my taste quite a bit overproduced.  I know that many die hard Rundgren fans will disagree vehemently with me, but that is OK.  I just found it to lack some of the charm that his earlier work had.  It is a matter of personal taste, and I am not indicating that Utopia were a poor band:  just one less to my liking.

Here is Utopia Theme, a very long piece, from Todd Rundgren’s Utopia, released in 1974.  Again, please do not get me wrong, it is excellent, but to my taste too ponderous for what he was trying to do.  I guess what I mean is that is seems not to be at all spontaneous.  Please do not condemn me for my opinion.  It sort of sound to me like King Crimson, but I like Crimson better.

Now I shall reveal a little about Todd the chameleon.  This is also why he was such a good music producer, because he knows how to get certain sounds from people who were never associated with the originals.  These are not really covers, since that term implies performing a piece with one’s own style.  These are more like copies, and after a couple of them you will see what I mean.  For comparison, I have included the original artists’ version, but in no particular order.  I tried to set up a poll so that you could vote for which was the original and which was the copy, but the cover of the record was visible, so it would be too easy.  Anyway, here is some of his work.  This is why the album from which they were taken was called Faithful, released in 1976.

Here is the first one, Good Vibrations.

Strawberry Fields

How about a harder one?

I would not have included this one except for the big Ox to his right, playing bass.  Yes, indeed, that is John Entwistle!  The sound and video quality is low, but it WAS John!

I shall add one last song, Rain.  He does it well.

For you real Todd Rundgren fans, I realize that this is an extremely slight treatment.  I would wager you, though, that there are now many more fans of his, and if so, I am glad.  He is really a very, very good artist who ended up in relative obscurity.  I hope that the real fans fill in, in the comments, what I left out, and that those of you who just now are coming to know his genius say so in the comments as well.  The comments are always the best part of anything that I write, and I would be interested to get a feel for how many people have not heard of him (I suspect that you at least have heard some of his songs).

Warmest regards,



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  1. an extremely talented individual?

    Next time back the The Who with Magic Bus:  The Who on Tour.

    Warmest regards,


  2. I very much appreciate it.

    Warmest regards,


  3. anything really good about any of this stuff.  I get what they were trying with Utopia, it’s a good try,  there’s some good individual stuff, but in the end, it’s just a bunch of really good players making music that doesn’t quite work.  But hey, if it were easy, it would be called snowboarding… and then again, in the 70s there were folks that ate this stuff up, along with some really overblown stuff from ELP, Yes, Genesis and so on. King Crimson & Belew could be a bit better than those-I saw them play once — they were OK.  

  4. I’ve been a fan since A Wizard, A True Star and have all of his albums from Nazz through Nearly Human (okay, I’m missing a bunch of the new stuff). I’ve seen Todd maybe 100 times between 1978 and 1998, most of those between 1978 and 1985. Utopia was the predominant musical vehicle for those shows, with occasional actual solo shows. Solo shows were often Todd and a tape machine of backing tracks while he played some instrument he had omitted from the tape. Interesting.

    I recall a Rolling Stone interview (titled “The $100,000 Producer”? I don’t recall) with him where he said his Production jobs (Badfinger, Grand Funk, Meatloaf, etc) were what financed his Utopia projects. After the Ra Tour I can see how that may have been true, it was a very elaborate stage show. One of the most amazing shows I’ve seen, and I’ve been to many, many shows (I worked for a concert promoter for a few years).

    It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say Todd changed my life. I may have taken LSD as a result of A Wizard, A True Star, who knows. Huge influence. And the Todd album would have convinced me anyway.

    And then there’s all those Utopia albums….

    Thanks for some Todd, no one seems to remember him anymore.

    How’s about some Rory Gallagher some time?

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