As a pop musician, Rundgren’s strength and weaknesses are relatively self-evident; on the positive side he’s a skilled musician on multiple instruments, a strong vocalist with a hint of blue eyed soul, a gifted studio technician who’s produced landmark albums from The New York Dolls, Patti Smith, The Psychedelic Furs, Meat Loaf, and XTC, and a capable composer and arranger. On the other hand, his lyrics are often fluffy and lightweight, and his music is much more technically impressive than it is meaningful, although his goofy persona is often endearing in its own right.
But I find his magical run of early 1970s albums very enjoyable; the messy psychedelia of 1973’s A Wizard, A True Star is a particularly favourite of mine. From the mid 1970s, he arguably spread himself too thinly – he formed a band Utopia, while still maintaining a solo career and producing other artist’s records, but 1978’s Hermit of Mink Hollow is an excellent stripped down pop album. I’ve only covered his first five solo albums, plus Hermit; these are generally cited as his best. I’ve never heard his 1960s’ albums with the Nazz, I’ve included a Utopia Anthology below, but I’ve never heard their full albums, and there are other acclaimed Rundgren albums I should hear sometime.
Todd Rundgren Solo Albums (up to 1991)
Runt. The Ballad of Todd Rundgren (1971)
A Wizard, a True Star (1973)
Hermit of Mink Hollow (1978)
The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect (1982)
A Cappella (1985)
Nearly Human (1989)
2nd Wind (1991)
Todd Rundgren Album Reviews
Having already recorded with The Nazz, Rundgren was still only 22 when he recorded his solo debut. Even though he’d grow appreciably with each of his subsequent three albums, Runt is already a remarkably assured solo debut. Musically, Runt veers between 1960s pop – inspired largely from the British Beatles/Zombies/Kinks axis – and early seventies singer-songwriters like Carole King and Laura Nyro. Additionally, Rundgren’s penchant for guitar heroics and progressive rock is also present, especially in the closing ‘Birthday Carol’; Rundgren states in the liner notes that he thought that every album should end with an epic a la ‘A Day In The Life’ on Sgt Peppers. On his first effort with artistic control, Rundgren produced and played the vast majority of the instruments – mostly he’s just assisted by the rhythm section of Tony and Hunt Sales, who later played in Iggy Pop’s band and Bowie’s Tin Machine.
It’s the more lightweight, conventional tunes that are among the weakest, while the two lengthy efforts at the end of the album are among the album’s best. ‘Birthday Carol’ starts off as a blues jam before settling as a pretty piano ballad, while ‘Baby Let’s Swing/The Last Thing You Said/Don’t Tie My Hands’, dedicated to Laura Nyro, jumps effortlessly and joyously through a bunch of melodic tunes, showing the soulful potential in Rundgren’s voice. The appropriately titled ‘There Are No Words’ shows an obvious Brian Wilson influence, while the low, croony vocal in ‘Once Burned’ is actually all natural, created without studio effects. The best known song is the hilarious lightweight piano pop of ‘We Gotta Get You A Woman’.
Runt is a strong start to Rundgren’s solo career – incredibly, each of his three next albums build on the previous, growing in scope without sacrificing his natural tunefulness and playfulness.
Runt: The Ballad Of Todd Rundgren
One of Rundgren’s more focused albums, The Ballad Of is his take on the singer-songwriter idiom prevalent in 1971. Rundgren’s too much of a pop craftsman to give much of himself away, and this is perhaps closer in tone to something like Elton John’s Tumbleweed Connection. Rundgren’s often predominantly on piano or acoustic guitar here, and for most of the tracks, he’s joined by Tony Sales and drummer N.D. Smart.
The radio friendly pop of ‘Long Flowing Robe’ kicks off the record, and it could have easily fitted onto Carole King’s Tapestry with its lush, piano-driven arrangement. At the other end of the spectrum, the haunting ‘The Wailing Wall’ is pared down to just Rundgren’s piano and voice. The fun, faux-country of ‘The Range War’ provides some subtle diversity, while the slighter pieces like ‘A Long Time, A Long Way To Go’ and ‘Remember Me’ are also charming. It’s only the rockier tracks that are slightly problematic; ‘Parole’ especially isn’t abrasive enough to be effective, but still too abrasive to fit onto the album properly.
The Ballad Of Todd Rundgren doesn’t smack you over the head, as pretty much every other album in Rundgren’s catalogue tries to, but every song here is a worthwhile, subtly ingratiating, piece of pop-craft.
Rundgren got very ambitious with his third solo album, the double LP Something/Anything?. The first three album sides are performed and produced by Rundgren alone, working with just an engineer. It’s also extremely eclectic, running the gamut from Gilbert and Sullivan showtunes to psychedelic freakouts. It’s also loose, broken up with skits, but it’s also relentlessly melodic and entertaining, and it’s one of the strongest sprawling double albums of its era. Some people criticise the novelty songs on the fourth side, but I’m fine with them; it’s not like sincerity and lyrics are Rundgren’s main strength, and I even enjoy the STD and heartbreak double entendres of the vaguely heartfelt ‘You Left Me Sore’.
Initially I wasn’t impressed by Something/Anything outside the obvious highlights – the opening double punch of ‘I Saw The Light’ and the Neil Young balladry of ‘It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference’, the power pop majesty of ‘Couldn’t I Just Tell You’ and the reworking of The Nazz’s ‘Hello It’s Me’ – but the remainder is also strong. Earnest ballads like ‘Marlene’ and ‘One More Day (No Word)’, the gospel of ‘Dust In The Wind’, the weirded-out ‘I Went To The Mirror’ (Rundgren’s excellent track by track liner notes suggest lying with your head between the speakers and looking into a mirror while listening), and even the synth instrumental ‘Breathless’.
I can understand someone being left cold by Something/Anything – it’s much more a technical achievement than an emotional one, but I enjoy it the whole way through and think it’s one of the best double albums of the 1970s.
A Wizard, A True Star
If Something/Anything was eclectic, its successor, A Wizard, A True Star, is insane, reeling between a ten minute medley of Motown covers, a gorgeous version of ‘Never Never Land’ from Peter Pan, a bunch of noises that sound like Todd rubbing a balloon, some lovely ballads, and a touch of hard rock. A Wizard, A True Star isn’t a double album, but at 55 minutes it pushed the limits of the single LP. Rundgren has the musical facility to pull the disparate threads of A Wizard, A True Star together, showing off his impressive production skills, vocal range, and guitar playing.
As good as the whole thing is, the most impressive parts of A Wizard, A True Star are at the beginning and end; the album opens with ‘International Feel’ before segueing into a frenetic medley of short pieces. At the conclusion the lovely ballad ‘I Don’t Want To Tie You Down’ is followed by the hard rocking ‘Is It My Name?’, complete with ridiculous lyrics and a ridiculous guitar-hero solo (the defining lyric is “My voice goes so high you’d think I was gay/But I play my guitar in such a man-cock way.”).
To cap A Wizard, A True Star off the closer ‘Just One Victory’ is an intricately arranged ballad providing a lovely dessert to a veritable feast of randomness.
Another double album, and this time it’s weaker than A Wizard, A True Star and Something/Anything? From a cynical perspective a lot of the material on Todd is flaky instrumentals, where Rundgren shows off his growing fascination with synthesisers, or sentimental ballads that sound cooler than they are actually are as they’re meshed between flaky synth instrumentals. Of course, there’s lots of other cool stuff hidden among the double album sprawl, like the Gilbert & Sullivan cover ‘Lord Chancellor’s Nightmare Song’ or the anthemic closer ‘Sons Of 1984’, but I could cut Todd down to a single disc without missing too much.
Even if Rundgren’s experimentation is going off the deep end here, he’s still capable of creating gorgeous pop melodies like the pretty ‘A Dream Goes On Forever’ and the majestic, half-instrumental ‘Don’t You Ever Learn’. ‘Izzat Love?’ is superficially simple, but it’s the product of a pop mastermind, packing ridiculous numbers of key changes, tempo changes, and shifting time signatures into less than 2 minutes. The cock rock of ‘Heavy Metal Kids’ (“When I die I’ll probably come back as a Sherman tank”) also shows up the lack of Rundgren’s guitar in some of the other tracks. I’m sure there are lots of Rundgren fans who regard Todd as a masterpiece on the level of A Wizard, A True Star, but in my eyes it’s too disjointed to reach anywhere near the same heights.
In its favour though, there are plenty of great moments over its 66 minutes – a forty minute version of the album could potentially rival Something/Anything as my second favourite Rundgren record.
Hermit Of Mink Hollow
After a series of ambitious works with Utopia and solo projects (the very conceptual Initiation and the painstaking recreation of classic rock standards on the first side of Faithful), Rundgren dropped back into straightforward pop with the completely solo Hermit Of Mink Hollow. It’s still intricately produced, and Rundgren’s skills as a multi-instrumentalist are stronger than they were when he made Something/Anything; if that album had a few rough edges, it’s difficult to tell that Hermit is a one man effort at all, even pulling out a credible saxophone solo in ‘Bag Lady’.
The best known song here is the syncopated piano groove of ‘Can We Still Be Friends’, one of the few genuinely expressive pieces in the Rundgren catalogue, like he wrote a song to express feelings rather than demonstrate his technical prowess. In the same category is the simple ‘Lucky Guy’ (“When there’s pain, he never minds it/When it’s lost, he always finds it.”) and the melodic ‘Hurting For You’, where the staggered vocals on the chorus are a great arrangement touch. There’s also the aggressive rocker ‘Out Of Control’, while ‘Onomatopoeia’ is a production masterpiece, a novelty song that actually bears repeated listening, with tons of sound effects inserted seamlessly into the song. There’s tons of catchy mid-tempo stuff – the opening ‘All The Children Sing’ and the bouncy ‘You Cried Wolf’, and apart from a couple of naive social commentary lyrics, there’s little to complain about.
Hermit Of Mink Hollow is a terrific, tight little record where every track is likeable.
Rundgren formed Utopia as his live backing band, and to allow him to pursue more of a progressive rock direction. The original lineup even included three keyboard players, although in the face of punk, they scaled down into a slimmer and more pop-oriented outfit (Rundgren: “there just wasn’t that much of a market for players’ band…. we didn’t want to become baroque.”) The group became more of a democracy that you’d expect with something involving Rundgren, but this Anthology puts the spotlight on Rundgren’s compositions.
Most of Anthology tends towards the guilty pleasure category, even compared to Rundgren’s solo work; this is strictly pop geek territory, it’s often hollow and constantly dorky. Anthology is drawn from ten Utopia studio albums, which is amazing given how much solo work and production for other artists Rundgren released over the same period. Opener ‘Crybaby’, with its stacked, histrionic vocals, and the gentle sappy ‘Mated’ are both top grade Rundgren songs. ‘Love Is The Answer’ is strangely memorable with its over the top gospel bridge, while the goofy ‘Trapped’ also benefits from the group’s strong vocals, as all members in Utopia’s pop edition were competent singers. There are only a few representatives from the band’s progressive rock side, and they’re fine if somewhat monotonous: the gentle ‘The Wheel’ and the bombastic ‘Overture: Mountaintop and Sunrise/Communion With The Sun.’ The songs from 1980’s Beatles’ pastiche Deface The Music and 1980’s Adventures In Utopia are mostly irritating.
I’m not sure if I want to explore Utopia further, but there’s enough here to make it worthwhile for Rundgren fans.
Ten Favourite Todd Rundgren Songs
Just One Victory
Hello, It’s Me
Couldn’t I Just Tell You
Don’t You Ever Learn?
Can We Still Be Friends
Baby Let’s Swing/The Last Thing You Said/Don’t Tie My Hands