A wizard, a true star, but not in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
By Phill Marder
“I’m sort of like a piece of flotsam floating in a sea of public acclaim. I just go under for awhile and then bob up again.”
Since the mid-60s, Todd Rundgren has been a vital part of the music industry in just about every established form and some he has constructed himself.
He may have vanished from the surface occasionally, but he’s never been far from the action and he belongs in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame on any number of levels.
In the opener of his website, Rundgren dares you to “Go ahead, ignore me.” And so far, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame has called his bluff, doing just that. Not this blog, though, which makes Rundgren the new year’s initial pitch for induction.
I first encountered Rundgren in a 60’s concert. I can’t remember the exact year, but I think the concert was headlined by The Byrds preceded by The Shadows of Knight with Rundgren’s Woody’s Truck Stop the opener. If I’m not quite sure, keep in mind this was the 60s.
I didn’t know of Rundgren then, but I do remember the band made a good impression. They didn’t stick around long, though, evolving into Nazz, which scored minor hits with “Hello It’s Me” and “Open My Eyes,” both Rundgren compositions. “Hello It’s Me” eventually became a major hit in 1973 and Rundgren’s highest charting single when his solo recording of the tune reached No. 5. I prefer the Nazz version, but what do I know?
Rundgren stuck around for a second Nazz LP, which did much better chartwise than the debut, but left before the third was released, though it was dominated by material he had written. His first solo effort, “We Gotta Get You A Woman,” was an immediate smash, peaking at No. 20. But it did create some confusion, being released as Runt, a nickname Patti Smith bestowed on Rundgren. Was Runt a real group or just Rundgren? The answer came, sort of, with the second Runt album, 1971’s “Runt: The Ballad of Todd Rundgren.” Cleared right up, huh?
There were some others involved, but basically it was Rundgren all the way. Rolling Stone, in typical fashion, called it “the best album Paul McCartney never made.” They loved it probably because it didn’t sell. If it had been a smash, it probably would have been labeled “commercial dreck.” Or maybe it was the magazine’s strong endorsement that contributed to it not selling. allmusic.com rated it five stars, its highest rating.
Rundgren stepped into the limelight on the follow-up, the next year’s “Something/Anything?” The double-record set starts with the No. 16 single “I Saw The Light,” which is followed by what should have been another hit, “It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference.” Except for side four, Rundgren did everything, playing all the instruments, singing all the parts and producing and engineering as well. Rundgren’s effort earned the work five-star ratings from The Rolling Stone Album Guide and allmusic.com.
The next issue, 1973’s “A Wizard/A True Star,” didn’t reach the heights of “Something/Anything?,” which peaked at No. 29 on the Billboard Top 200 album chart, but it did cement the Philadelphian’s reputation as “a wizard” if not “a true star.” The single disc contained 19 tracks, nine of which clock in at under two minutes each, and almost an hours worth of music. With LPs losing much of their sonic punch with extended playing time – the standard LP usually ran about 15-20 minutes per side, Rundgren pushed the vessel’s limits and the LP cover included a message to listeners urging them to crank up the volume. If one did, they heard another remarkable work, one that earned Rundgren his third consecutive five-star rating from allmusic.com.
Continuing through to the present, Rundgren has continued to release an album or two every year. The results have varied, but the quality has remained and every once in awhile another hit single pops up such as 1978’s “Can We Still Be Friends” or 1983’s “Bang The Drum All Day.” His band Utopia also produced a steady stream of best-selling long-players from 1974 through 1985, 10 efforts reaching the charts. Utopia’s 80’s singles, “Set Me Free,” “The Very Last Time” and “Feet Don’t Fail Me Now” helped Rundgren maintain airwave presence.
He also has done soundtracks for TV shows and movies (“Dumb and Dumber” anyone?). In recent years, Rundgren has appeared with Ringo Starr’s All Starr Band & The New Cars.
All this should suffice to get Rundgren into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but there’s so much more it will take a major literary work to do it justice.
allmusicguide.com’s Stephen Thomas Erlewine wrote, “Todd Rundgren’s best-known songs — the Carole King pastiche “I Saw The Light,” the ballads “Hello, It’s Me” and “Can We Still Be Friends,” and the goofy novelty “Bang on the Drum All Day” (sic) — suggest that he is a talented pop craftsman, but nothing more than that. On one level, that perception is true since he is undoubtedly a gifted pop songwriter, but at his core Rundgren is a rock & roll maverick. Once he had a taste of success with his 1972 masterwork, “Something/Anything?”, Rundgren chose to abandon stardom and, with it, conventional pop music. He began a course through uncharted musical territory, becoming a pioneer not only in electronic music and prog rock, but in music video, computer software, and internet music delivery as well.”
On top of all that, there’s his resume as a producer. After working as engineer on The Band’s “Stage Fright” album, he produced his own hits as Nazz, Runt, Todd Rundgren and Utopia, most of Badfinger’s classic “Straight Up” LP, Foghat, Ian & Sylvia, Patti Smith, Paul Butterfield, Grand Funk, Meat Loaf’s mammoth “Bat Out Of Hell,” Hall & Oates, The Tubes, the New York Dolls, XTC, the Psychedelic Furs and many others. Jim Steinman, Meat Loaf’s collaborator, said, “”Todd Rundgren is a genius and I don’t use that word a lot.”
And Erlewine added, “Rundgren may have existed largely on the fringes of pop music, but he produced a body of work that ranks as one of the most intriguing in rock & roll.”
Rundgren is reported to have said, “I guess I’m like those old-fashioned artists – da Vinci and Rembrandt. You don’t get discovered until you’re dead.”
He underestimates his notoriety. Obviously a lot of fans and many in the music industry discovered him long ago. Now it’s up to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame to follow suit.
(For those regular readers waiting for the inevitable, we won’t disappoint. Nazz was on the SGC label. Rundgren walked away from the group after two albums. SGC was distributed by … Atlantic Records.)