By Ken Sharp
Away from Utopia, Todd Rundgren built a formidable solo career built on transcendence and transformation with work equally ambitious, idiosyncratic and deeply personal. More often than not with his solo work, Rundgren could be counted upon delivering his own share of consummately conceived power-pop miniatures. Rundgren pulls back the curtain to discuss the inspiration behind five pop-infused gems.
“I Saw the Light”
Todd Rundgren: By the time I got to the actual work of doing Something/Anything?, in those days I didn’t have a studio of my own, so I had to write outside the studio and essentially record in more or less a conventional way. I had a couple of songs done for the record, and I certainly had enough songs to get the record started. I didn’t have all the songs, and indeed when I started Something/Anything?, I didn’t know that it was gonna turn out to be a double album. The stuff started coming out, and when it stopped (laughs), there was a double album. I got into this sort of almost a habit of songwriting that as that particular era was coming to a head, a lot of songs used the basic patterns of major seventh chords ascending and descending. By the time I sat down to write “I Saw the Light,” I just had this little grain of an idea and 20 minutes later the song, words and all was finished. (laughs) It just kind of spurted out because things were becoming a bit habitual. For me, I had an aversion to the real flat sort of chords unless you were doing them on a loud guitar, just playing triads and things like that didn’t appeal to me as much on the piano. I like a lot of suspensions. As for the guitar solo, I have no idea what inspired it. It just came out. I knew I had to have a solo and the first part was easy because that was just the melody of the song, but the second half of it I’m not exactly sure what I was thinking at the time but it was all done in the studio. I hadn’t worked it out beforehand. I just started messing with some ideas, and that’s what I came up with. It’s a little bit of The Beatles’ “And Your Bird Can Sing,” I guess, but the exact influence on it I can’t tell you.
“Couldn’t I Just Tell You”
Rundgren: There likely was some influence of The Who in there for “Couldn’t I Just Tell You.” It had a resemblance in some ways of the more jangly Who songs like “Substitute” or “Pictures of Lily,” although Pete Townshend eventually kind of eschewed a lot of the pattern playing for just power chording. But I would say that would be a legitimate influence; all of that pre-’70s pop. By the time Something/Anything? came out, music was moving towards the singer-songwriter thing, and then it went quickly onto jazz-rock fusion until everything fell apart into disco. “Couldn’t I Just Tell You” is part of an era, the era where I was principally a guitar player. As time went on, I started to do more and more of the songwriting on piano until you got to Hermit of Mink Hollow, which was almost completely a piano album with a few guitar parts on it. I started out as a guitar player even before I had written any songs, and I needed things to play guitar on (laughs) and indeed in a lot of our early shows that song was pretty much the encore, the last song in the set every night so it has something of a special place because of that.
“Long Flowing Robe”
Rundgren: The clavinet was just another instrument in the studio. Stevie Wonder could play that like he owned it, but for me, it was the same as playing a piano or anything else. I was just looking for a different sound, a different color. So sometimes it worked in a song like “Long Flowing Robe,” and sometimes if you can play it funky enough like Stevie Wonder does (laughs), it works in that context and then another context it’s not really an appropriate sound. It’s very undynamic. The way that the instrument works is it’s like a harpsichord; there’s no way to control the dynamics. You can’t play it softer. It’s always the same volume so it works for some things and then for others it’s not at all appropriate. For “Long Flowing Robe,” it gave it a baroque-ish quality with the introduction and turnarounds. I thought that was the appropriate sound for that song.
Rundgren: It’s pretty much a guitar song. It’s kind of an antidote in the context of Hermit of Mink Hollow where things can get early piano-y and singer-songwriter. When I go out live, I’m the least comfortable at the piano. I’m comfortable flailing away on the guitar and when I get warmed up playing a few solos. The piano is this sort of combination of precision and complexity; both hands have to be exactly in the right place (laughs) at all times. I find that when I’m singing I can lose track of that and if I do it’s a potential disaster. I was pleased with “Determination” as a song. I do these records pretty much myself, and I’m the arbiter of what belongs on the record and what doesn’t belong on the record, and I really usually know where I’m going and hopefully I realize when I’ve arrived (laughs) at where I’m going. “Determination” was a good one.
“Love of the Common Man”
Rundgren: That song was part of half a record, the Faithful album; the other half of the record being covers of songs from the ’60s. I wanted to do something a little different with each song on that side; I think we had six songs and I wanted each one to be somewhat different. In fact, I was trying to be purposefully eclectic in the way that radio was 10 years earlier; that’s what I was trying to convey. The cover songs on Faithful were from all different genres, and that’s the way that radio was in 1966. Then things got worse (laughs), but all that aside, in the case of “Love of the Common Man,” it was almost like a country song. I don’t really like country music, but maybe it was something more like the Eagles, I guess. I don’t think in terms of, I have to make a song like that song. Sometimes the ideas just come to me and they just spin out into whatever they turn into. In the particular case of “Love of the Common Man,” I had some guitar chords worked out but the way that it actually came out made it sound to my ears like contemporary country music. That was never the intention to do that but it came out to my ears sounding a little bit like the Eagles — but with chords that they wouldn’t normally play. But then the Eagles became a little more sophisticated as well as time went on, so they might be playing a few major seventh chords. (laughs)
Read a full interview with Todd Rundgren — regarding his recent induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the anniversary of the album Something/Anything? and much more — in the December 2021 edition of Goldmine magazine (at left). You can order a copy here.
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