He was born to synthesize.
"I don't want to work.
I just want to bang on the drum all day."
Todd Rundgren is a musician, singer, multi-instrumentalist
and Record Producer
from Philadelphia, known for his eclectic, experimental style
, incredibly prolific recording and quirky sense of humour. While he's dabbled in numerous styles and has experimented a lot with his material, he largely operates within a few rock subgenres, namely: Power Pop
(coincidentally, the one he made his initial name in), Hard Rock
, Progressive Rock
, Psychedelic Rock
. His mix and match musical genres
approach, dabbling in True Art Is Incomprehensible
, cult following and emphasis on humour has earned him occasional comparisons to Frank Zappa
Rundgren started his career as a guitarist/vocalist in the Psychedelic Rock
band (The) Nazz note
, which he founded in 1967 alongside bassist Carson Van Osten, drummer Thom Mooney and keyboardist/vocalist Robert Antoni. Their first album, Nazz
, showcased both his arranging and composing talents and the band's heavily derivative, Promoted Fanboy
sound - they sounded like a cross between The Beatles
, The Who
and The Yardbirds
. It spawned a minor hit single, "Hello It's Me", and didn't go much anywhere. A planned double album was shortened to a single LP, Nazz Nazz
, and released a year later. Nazz Nazz
showed the band somewhat abandoning its psychedelic trappings and concentrating on catchy, if still not too groundbreaking Power Pop
. Rundgren left the band shortly after, as his newfound love of Carole King
, Laura Nyro
and soul music and the resulting material he was writing didn't fit with the band's Power Pop
sound. The band disintegrated shortly thereafter, and an album of the heavily Nyro-influenced material left over from previous sessions was released, imaginatively titled Nazz III
. Antoni and Mooney briefly ended up joining Fuse, an extremely early incarnation of Cheap Trick
which played throughout the Midwest billed either as "Fuse" or "Nazz", before practically vanishing from the music industry.
Rundgren officially began his solo career in 1970, and has been going steady ever since then with his musical mashups and quirky lyrics. While Power Pop
and Hard Rock
have remained the basic genres he operates in, at various points he's experimented with Psychedelic Rock
, Progressive Rock
(between 1973-1976 and with his band Utopia), jazz fusion, New Wave Music
, Electronic Music
and others. Predictably, he has a very sizeable Fandom
but only a few, fleeting moments of mainstream success, such as the singles "Hello It's Me" (a 1972 upbeat reworking of the Nazz song with Rundgren on all instruments), "I Saw the Light", "Can We Still Be Friends" and "Bang the Drum All Day". His massive output, both solo and with his two bands Nazz and Utopia, can be a frequent source of both Archive Panic
and Seasonal Rot
He is also known for being an early adopter and innovator
in the domains of Music Videos
and use of computers: his video for "Time Heals" was one of the first to be aired on MTV
, he developed one of the first computer paint programs for the Apple II, Utopia Graphics System, way back in 1981, he was an early adopter of the desktop video program Video Toasternote
for Amiga in The Nineties
, and was one of the first people to distribute his work online, long before iTunes or even Napster, through a subscription service, Patro Net
, in the mid-nineties.
Rundgren returned to the band format through the foundation of Utopia in 1973. In its initial incarnation, Utopia was a six-piece ensemble with Rundgren, Kevin Ellman (percussion), Mark "Moogy" Klingman (keyboards), M. Frog Labat (Jean Yves Labat, synthesizers), Ralph Schukett (keyboards), and John Siegler (bass and cello). Their output was largely formed of long
, jammy Progressive Rock
instrumentals that brought a mixed reception. By 1976, Rundgren revamped Utopia and reduced it to a four-piece band consisting of him, Kasim Sulton (bass, vocals), Roger Powell (keyboards, vocals) and Willie Wilcox (drums, vocals). They also switched to a catchy, mainstream pop/Hard Rock
sound, bringing them critical and commercial success. They carried on for a while, leaning increasingly towards Pop and New Wave Music
, before calling it a day in 1986.
Alongside his solo career and work with bands, Rundgren is also known as a Record Producer
, having produced albums for such acts as Sparks
, New York Dolls, Badfinger, The Band
, Grand Funk Railroad
, Meat Loaf
, Bonnie Tyler, Patti Smith
, The Tubes, XTC
, Bad Religion
, Cheap Trick
, The Psychedelic Furs, Hall and Oates, and so on. Some of the bands have claimed that working with him was difficult and he acted like a Jerk Ass
, most famously XTC, Sparks and Bad Religion. However, for many bands their most successful albums have been produced by him, as is the case with XTC (Skylarking
), Grand Funk Railroad (We're an American Band
) and Meat Loaf (Bat out of Hell
- Nazz (1968)
- Nazz Nazz (1969)
- Nazz III (1970)
- Todd Rundgren's Utopia (1974)
- Another Live (1975)
- Disco Jets (recorded 1976, released 2001)
- Ra (1977)
- Oops! Wrong Planet (1977)
- Adventures in Utopia (1980)
- Deface the Music (1980)
- Swing to the Right (1982)
- Utopia (1982)
- Oblivion (1984)
- P.O.V. (1985)
- Affectionate Parody: The Utopia album Deface the Music is largely a parody of The Beatles, from their early Merseybeat incarnation up to their trippy Psychedelic Rock stuff.
- The cover of Swing to the Right, retouches a photo of fundamentalist Christians burning Beatles memorabilia following John Lennon's 'bigger than Jesus' remarks, to turn it into a Droste Image.
- All There in the Manual: His liner notes for Something/Anything?
- Ascended Fanboy: Musically speaking, his early Nazz output is largely a game of Following The Lead of his favourite bands (The Who, The Beatles, Cream and The Yardbirds, mostly).
- Bishōnen: In the Nazz days — also perhaps in the early 70's.
- Break Up Song: "Hello It's Me"
- Camp Gay: "You Don't Have to Camp Around", supposedly.
- Concept Album: Initiation is one, sort of. Also side four of Something/Anything? is a Rock Opera (see trope entry below).
- Cover Version:
- "Never Never Land" from the Peter Pan musical, "Happenings Ten Years Time Ago" by The Yardbrids, "Good Vibrations" by the Beach Boys, "Rain" and "Strawberry Fields Forever" by The Beatles, "If 6 Was 9" by Jimi Hendrix, "Most Likely You'll Go Your Way (and I'll Go Mine)" by Bob Dylan, "The Lord Chancellor's Nightmare Song" by Gilbert and Sullivan (yes, we're not shitting you), "Two Little Hitlers" by Elvis Costello.
- Todd Rundgren's Johnson is an entire album of Robert Johnson covers (and not what you thought it was), and (re)Production consists of covers of songs from albums Rundgren had previously produced.
- And with Utopia, a cover of "Do Ya" by The Move and "For the Love of Money" by The O'Jays.
- A Wizard, A True Star has a medley of Motown covers: "I'm So Proud of You", "Ooh Baby Baby", "La-La Means I Love You" and, most interestingly, "Cool Jerk" performed in 7/8 instead of its normal 4/4.
- Deadpan Snarker: Known for being an extreme one. It has even damaged relationships with other musicians and left people whose work he produced insecure.
- Distinct Double Album: Something/Anything? cranks this Up to Eleven: each of the four LP sides is in a different style, with the fourth being a mini-Rock Opera.note Furthermore, the only thing that stops Initiation (running time 67:27) and A Wizard, a True Star (running time 56:02) from falling under this trope is that they were pressed on one LP each because Rundgren didn't want to break up the continuous song suites he'd built - both albums were long enough to be double LP sets, and indeed Rundgren's album Todd, released in between them, was a double album shorter than Initiation at 66:51. Both A Wizard and Initation (especially Initiation) display markedly different styles on each side. Rundgren did Distinct Single Albums a lot, actually - Faithful is another example, with the first side consisting of note-for-note covers of other artists' songs as if they were classical music (hence the album title), and the second consisting of original material. Executive Meddling also forced Hermit of Mink Hollow into this - initially Rundgren had a different running order, but the record company insisted on making the first side "The Easy Side" and the second side "The Difficult Side".
- Droste Image: The cover of Swing to the Right.
- Epic Rocking: Particularly in his work with Utopia. "The Ikon" is Utopia's most extreme example of this, being slightly over thirty minutes long. His solo piece "A Treatise in Cosmic Fire" (from Initiation), at thirty-five minutes, is even longer. It's worth noting that these pieces were so long they heavily stretched the limitations of the vinyl format, and resulted in the albums being mastered more quietly than normal LPs (and being easily damaged if played with a worn needle). The sleeve notes of Initiation (which, at sixty-eight minutes in length, is not the longest single LP ever released, but still pretty high on the list) recommended that a person record the album to tape to preserve the sound.
- Exactly What It Says on the Tin: the album A Cappella, named for an Italian phrase meaning "without instruments," involves no instruments whatever, just Rundgren as a Self-Backing Vocalist via lots of overdubbing.
- For Want of a Nail: "The Want of a Nail".
- Friends with Benefits: One common interpretation of "Hello It's Me" is that it's about this.
- In The Style Of: Did this with his own songs on the album With a Twist, which offered bossa nova tiki lounge versions of his most familiar hits.
- Mind Screw: A Wizard, A True Star for sure. And Todd to an extent. It was his psychedelic period!
- Minimalistic Cover Art: Faithful
- Done specifically because he figured his fans were "faithful" enough to know it's his music and buy it.
- Mundane Made Awesome: "I Hate My Frickin' ISP", from One Long Year, is a hard-rocking rant about how much Todd's internet connection sucks.
- Musical Pastiche:
- Many of the songs from the first Nazz album are pretty blatantly derivative of British Invasion bands. Doesn't stop them from being enjoyable, though.
- "Open My Eyes" is basically ripping off The Who's Power Pop era, a fact that the intro makes abundantly clear when it yanks the riff of "I Can't Explain".
- "When I Get My Plane" sounds like it was beamed in from A Hard Day's Night, specifically imitating "When I Get Home".
- "Back of Your Mind" sounds like a Cream song stripped of instrumental virtuosity; Antoni and Rundgren even do a convincing job of sounding like Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton.
- "I Saw The Light" is a Carole King pastiche.
- Also "Baby Let's Swing" (included as a medley on Runt) is both about and in the style of Laura Nyro, his other major influence from this period.
- Deface the Music is a whole album of these. It's composed entirely of Affectionate Parodies of Beatles songs, similar to The Rutles' music, and as with The Rutles, a listener could be forgiven for thinking these are lost Beatles songs (although the production sounds like a product of of the 1980s - maybe it was a Beatles reunion from an alternate universe where John Lennon didn't die). It should be noted that Utopia don't do dead-on Beatles vocal impersonations as the Rutles did, however.
- Must Have Caffeine: "Hot Espresso (All Jacked Up)" from The Individualist.
- My Girl Is a Slut: "Slut".
- Neoclassical Punk Zydeco Rockabilly: A Wizard, A True Star is psychedelic without a doubt, but...what exactly is it?
- New Sound Album: Almost every one of them.
- Pop Star Composer: He scored Dumb and Dumber.
- Protest Song: Todd began moving more into this during The Eighties, with songs like Utopia's cover of "For the Love of Money", "Swing to the Right", "Johnee Jingo", and later on, just about all of Liars.
- Rearrange the Song: With a Twist consists of previously recorded songs, rearranged in a bossa-nova style.
- Record Producer
- Rock Opera: Side four of Something/Anything? is devoted to "Baby Needs a New Pair of Snakeskin Boots (A Pop Operetta)".
- Self-Backing Vocalist: Todd layers his own voice, especially in his early work, a lot for his solo.
- Self-Deprecation: "An Elpee's Worth of Tunes".
- Straight Edge: Todd used to be straight edge while playing with Nazz and working on his early albums, but he got into marijuana with The Ballad of Todd Rundgren, proceeded to experiment with ever more psychedelic substances, and when he began recording Something/Anything? he was heavily into Ritalin.
"I was a complete teetotaller. I didn't take any kind of drugs or drink or anything. In fact, I had found the behaviour of my peers, while they were high, to be somewhat questionable."
"With drugs I could suddenly abstract my thought processes in a certain way, and I wanted to see if I could put them on a record. A lot of people recognised it as the dynamics of a psychedelic trip—it was almost like painting with your head."
- Spoken Word In Music: He does this often. "Intro" from Something/Anything, for example, wherein Todd jokingly demonstrates some of the engineering flaws that can affect an LP.
- Take That, Critics!: Initiation as a whole was Rundgren yelling "tough shit" to his fans and critics who complained that he was wading too deeply into synthesizers and Eastern spirituality. The topic is lyrically addressed at face value in the song "The Death of Rock and Roll". The album also closes with a 35 minute synthesizer orgasm, with movements named after the seven chakras and prana, the breath of life.
- The Something Song: "Song of the Viking"
- Torch Song, from the same album.
- Throw It In + Studio Chatter: Something/Anything?
- Uncommon Time: "Cool Jerk" amongst other things. Particularly common in his Progressive Rock days.
- Ye Olde Butcherede Englishe: In the liner notes to Something/Anything?, several lines of "Song of the Viking" are written with added silent Es, even though Vikings don't originate from the British Isles.