A Wizard, A True Star was such an abrupt about-face for Todd Rundgren after the 1972 pop classic Something/Anything? that some wondered if he was hell-bent on committing career hari-kari.
Still alive, more than three decades later, Rundgren is, once again, throwing the dogs off the scent with Arena, a new LP released Sept. 30 that finds the chameleon embracing “arena” rock, of all things, and doing so without even a touch of irony.
“You don’t want to be just completely arch and totally imitative of an era,” says Rundgren. “You have to kind of approach it not so much scientifically but kind of like nostalgically, let’s say (chuckles).”
Pulling out the big guns — namely, heavy guitar riffs and hooks with real teeth — Rundgren boils the blood with the angry, metallic barrage of “Mad,” “Mercenary” and the AC/DC-like “Strike,” while negotiating the Southern-fried boogie of “Gun” with intensity.
“The touchstone elements were, for me, that the guitar was the central instrument,” says Rundgren, “and that the songs had a basic accessibility, so that by the time you got to the end of any particular song, you might be able to sing along with it. And while those individual elements may be a part of some other projects I’ve done, I haven’t really made those the rule, the actual modus operandi of the whole record.”
That “accessibility” wasn’t immediately apparent in the weird, and somewhat unsettling, psychedelia of Something/Anything?’s quirky, multi-layered 1973 successor. A Wizard, A True Star left everyone guessing, and it effectively killed off the Rundgren everyone thought they knew.
After Something/Anything?, Rundgren decided that he “… was evolving as a songwriter to the point where I was becoming somewhat formulaic… and I took a step back. It was hard to realize the songs were all about the same things, and they were using the same chordal structures, and I [figured I] was eventually going to get found out.”
With A Wizard, A True Star, Rundgren made sure they never did. To get out of that creative rut, he needed to do something drastic, even if that meant confounding the following he’d developed from one of the most ambitious, and wonderfully crafted, pop records of all-time.
“When I started Something/Anything?, it wasn’t intended to be a double album,” says Rundgren. “It was just going to be the next bunch of songs. But, once I started recording it, I kept writing. Songs just kept coming out, and I wound up with an album and a half’s worth, at least.”
Rundgren couldn’t bear the thought of repeating himself, and so, A Wizard, A True Star was born, and it was “… in many ways unlike any other record that was out at the time,” says Rundgren. “In the long run, that record came to define me as much as any of my other records and came to be as popular as, and as signature a record in its own way, as Something/Anything? was.”
Understandably, perhaps, “… people thought it was a deliberate attempt to sabotage my career…” says Rundgren.
It didn’t. Working as a producer on Meat Loaf’s monster LP Bat Out of Hell, as well as on records by The New York Dolls, Grand Funk Railroad, Badfinger, Patti Smith, The Tubes and Cheap Trick, among others, has been Rundgren’s meal ticket. But, he’s also made a name for himself as a musician and songwriter, with hits like “I Saw the Light” and the Top Ten smash “Hello, It’s Me.”
Originally, “Hello, It’s Me&rd