Philadelphia uber-talent Todd Rundgren started his recorded career with The Nazz, acting as songwriter and guitarist. When The Nazz broke up, Rundgren learned how to use the studio, frustrated by his lack of technical control in The Nazz.
While his writing in The Nazz was influenced by The Who and The Beatles, Rundgren had become a fan of Laura Nyro, and when his solo career commenced with 1970’s Runt* he’d added piano-pop to his genre cache. 1971’s Runt. The Ballad of Todd Rundgren focused on piano ballads, not unlike contemporary records by Carole King or Elton John.
As the 1970s continued, Rundgren became more ambitious. 1972’s Something/Anything was an eclectic double album with three of the four LP sides recorded by Rundgren solo, handling all the instruments, vocals, and production. It’s especially loved for power-pop classics like ‘Couldn’t I Just Tell You’ and a re-working of The Nazz’s ‘Hello It’s Me’.
1973’s A Wizard, a True Star was also planned as a double album, but an oil shortage forced it to be condensed into a single record. Rundgren squeezed 56 minutes of music onto a single LP. He also squeezed a bewildering array of styles into A Wizard, a True Star – hard rock, psychedelia, and blue-eyed soul are all important strands of this fast-paced musical stew, while his production skills allowed him to present his weird ideas in a coherent fashion.
On side one of A Wizard, a True Star the excellent rocker ‘International Feel’ gives way to snippets as diverse as a brief cover of ‘Never Never Land’ from Peter Pan, the silly sound collage of ‘Dogfight Giggle’, and the headbanging rock of ‘You Need Your Head’ and ‘Rock and Roll Pussy’. The second side is more conventional, but the ten minute medley of 1960s R&B covers is an unexpected diversion. It culminates with the show stopping gospel/soul of ‘Just One Victory’.
Rundgren had avoided drugs and alcohol early in his career, but began experimenting with Ritalin, mushrooms, and peyote by the the time of A Wizard, a True Star. Rundgren later stated that:
“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 recognized it as the dynamics of a psychedelic trip—it was almost like painting with your head.”Todd Rundgren, interview with The Independent, 2004.
* Runt was recorded as the trio Runt (Rundgren accompanied by the Sales brothers), but it’s so dominated by Rundgren that it’s generally considered as a solo album, and he’s alone on the cover.
Why A Wizard, A True Star is Todd Rundgren’s Best Album
A Wizard, a True Star presents an ideal balance between Rundgren’s pop sense and his experimental tendencies. There are fully developed songs at key points at the record; ‘International Feel’ and ‘Just One Victory’ are terrific bookends, while other excellent songs like ‘Zen Archer’ and ‘Sometimes I Don’t Know What To Feel’ keep the album anchored, and there’s plenty of musicality in the less serious moments. While his earlier records were sometimes compared to Carole King, Rundgren asserted his own musical identity on A Wizard, A True Star.
Rundgren himself looks back fondly at the record, saying:
“And so I made this crazy record called A Wizard, a True Star in which I threw out all the rules of record making and decided I would try to imprint the chaos in my head onto a record without trying to clean it up for everyone else’s benefit.”Todd Rundgren Berklee College of Music Address, 2017
That album A Wizard, a True Star, which was such an abomination to everyone at the time it came out, eventually became a signature moment in my career.Todd Rundgren Berklee College of Music Address, 2017
After A Wizard, a True Star Rundgren seemed to spread himself too thinly. 1974’s Todd is a similar record, but less compelling, while Rundgren also formed the band Utopia and enjoyed a successful career as a producer, with landmark records like New York Dolls, Meatloaf’s Bat Out of Hell, and XTC’s Skylarking.
While A Wizard, a True Star is the pinnacle, Rundgren’s 1970s catalogue is enjoyable and worth exploring further. My other favourites are 1972’s eclectic double album Something/Anything, and the pop song-craft on 1978’s Hermit of Mink Hollow.
Rundgren was a master of the studio by this point, and the thirty seconds of sound affects before the opening keyboard riff opens the album magnificently. The below Youtube clip combines ‘International Feel’ with the reprise at the end of the first side, ‘La Feel Internacionale’.
Is It My Name?
It’s a great rocker, but I can’t imagine ‘Is It My Name?’ passing muster in the modern era without some significant lyrical changes. “There is cause and effect/There’s a reason I’m so erect” is the direct opening line, while later Rundgren brags that “My voice goes so high you would think I was gay/But I play my guitar in such a man-cock way” before launching into a thrilling solo.
Just One Victory
Rundgren closes A Wizard, a True Star with an inspirational anthem, stuffing the mix with auditory candy – a great bass-line, gospel organ, ornate backing vocals, and frenzied guitar soloing. It’s a terrific climax to a terrific album.
Do The Experts Agree?
In a contemporary review in Rolling Stone, James Isaacs wrote, “I doubt that even the staunchest Rundgren cultists will want to subject themselves to most of the japery on side one, which would be better suited for a cartoon soundtrack.”
On the website Rate Your Music, A Wizard, a True Star is ranked the highest of Todd Rundgren’s albums. It has an average rating of 3.82/5, and is ranked as the #1,123 album of all time.
On the website Acclaimed Music, A Wizard, a True Star is ranked as the second best Todd Rundgren album, and the 665th best album of all time, behind Something/Anything.
A Wizard, a True Star is included in the original edition of 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.