By Dave Thompson
It was called Faithful—because that’s what it was. Released in 1976, it was Todd Rundgren’s tribute, he told Goldmine, to “the milieu that I became a musician in. It had been 10 years since I got out of high school and first got into a band; I graduated in 1966 and so by ’76 it had been 10 years and it was a tribute to the songs and music of that era.”
Half of it was, anyway. Faithful is very much a record of two halves — side two comprises all new material, and has been universally praised as one of the strongest sets of self-composed songs he ever released
Side one, on the other hand…
Rundgren: “In 1966, there was no such thing as syndicated radio in this country, where one person would decide what the entire country is going to hear. But in 1966, you had your local DJs competing with each other, and the end result was radio that was very eclectic.
“You’d hear the latest Beatles song, then you would hear Judy Collins and then Bill Evans, it was whatever the DJ thought would entertain his audience. And if you were out on the street listening to the radio and what was coming out of the boutiques… I chose the songs that were just ubiquitous; I’d just moved into the city and these songs were everywhere.”
In the end, he continued, “I didn’t do Judy Collins or Bill Evans, because some things were beyond my grasp. But I did try to do Bob Dylan!”
Cover albums were something of a fashion at that time. Bowie’s Pin Ups and John Lennon’s Rock ‘n’ Roll both preceded Faithful in their encapsulation of a bygone era… the British beat boom in the first instance; ‘50s rock in the second. Bryan Ferry, too, had released a pair of solo albums that were largely comprised of revamped oldies.
Rundgren didn’t deviate from their models; indeed, though he doesn’t admit it, it was probably the presence of the Yardbirds’ “Shapes of Things” on Pin Ups which dissuaded him from recording his own take on a song that “completely blew my mind in terms of what you could do with a guitar.
“Aside from all the other bits of trickery they were using, just the sheer spookiness of the guitar… I literally got the creeps the first time I heard that song, in a good way, like ‘I didn’t realize you could do that with a guitar!’ ‘Shapes of Things’ completely changed the way I looked at the guitar.”
Instead, he selected another Yardbirds track that meant just as much to him. “‘Happenings Ten Years Time Ago’ was a significant record for me because the B-side [in America] was ‘The Nazz Are Blue’ and in 1967, when I started my first band, we called ourselves The Nazz and that’s where we found the name. The Yardbirds were a huge influence on me, I had to do a Yardbirds song, and I wanted one with a signature Yardbirds rave-up in it.
He didn’t make things easy for himself. Indeed, by opting to record covers as close as possible to the originals, but at the same redolent of the era, he found himself facing some of the most remarkable musicians, and painstaking arrangements the entire decade ever saw.
Jimi Hendrix’s “If Six Was Nine,” for example, “was a challenge, because you don’t want to take him head-on because you’re never going to be as good. I had to pick something that depended less on that sheer mystical out-there stuff that he could so easily whip off, and more about the effect of it, the very echoey sort of thing. You have to change the texture to make it a little harder to evaluate how well you play the guitar.”
The magic of Faithful, however, was not Rundgren’s self-imposed adherence to the original records, but the little bits of himself that he could not help but introduce — elements that even he is hard pressed to quantify, preferring to credit the advance of new technology (and the corresponding loss of old), and his own vocal limitations for the shift.
“A lot of those records were in mono when they were originally released; I usually went back to the album tracks, the stereo versions, to deconstruct and figure out what was in it. We had certain limitations, too — I wasn’t going to hire a cello section to come in for ‘Good Vibrations,’ because that would have been too literal, so I had to figure out how to make a guitar sound like a cello. Which wasn’t too difficult because the cellos are only playing one note.
“Also, you have the original records but you don’t have the documentation, these incredibly detailed accounts of what went on at a Beatles session. So you had to guess how they did it. For instance, nobody knew that that part in ‘Strawberry Fields Forever,’ where the key drops wasn’t actually written into the song, but was them slowing the tape down to match keys between two different parts. I thought it was written, and tried to figure out how it was done!”
He succeeded, too, and that is the other thing that’s remarkable about this album. Rundgren may not have been trying to shed fresh light on the originals, but by solving old problems with new technology, he accomplished it regardless.
And while the critics will doubtless continue to describe Faithless as an album of one side — the admittedly brilliant second — it’s the other that most dramatically echoes the brilliance of its creator.
Even if his Dylan voice is a little peculiar.