“All the lies, all the truth, all the things that I offer you / All the sights, all the sounds, all the times that you turned me down / Is it my name? / … Why don’t you love me? / Is it my name?” —Todd Rundgren, “Is It My Name?” (from 1973’s A Wizard, a True Star)
A few weeks ago, when Jeff Giles asked Popdose’s writers to brainstorm the names of bands and artists who aren’t in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame yet, I said I’d like to write about Daryl Hall & John Oates. Their albums are spotty, and Hall doesn’t seem to have a humble bone in his body, but I’m sick of their hits being called guilty pleasures by people who just aren’t man enough to admit how much they really like them. Hall & Oates should be inducted just to spite hipsters. (Eat it, skinny boys in tight pants.)
Then my mind made the leap to Todd Rundgren, the producer of Hall & Oates’s 1974 album War Babies. He’s been one of my favorites since I was a sophomore in college; his songs about girls, whether dressed up as guitar-driven power-pop numbers (“Couldn’t I Just Tell You”) or dressed down as sad, swooning piano ballads (“Hope I’m Around”), provided a perfect soundtrack for my years as a sensitive pussy. I figured he must be in the Hall of Fame already in some capacity, at least as a producer if not as a recording artist. But he’s not. Why don’t you love him, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
I doubt it’s his Philadelphia connection — Rundgren’s from Upper Darby, a suburb of the City of Brotherly Love. Writer-producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, two of the architects of the 1970s Philly soul sound, were inducted into the Hall of Fame this year, and the honor was overdue — they’ve created timeless music. But so has Rundgren.
His commercial peak was in the ’70s, just like Gamble and Huff’s, and I’d say his artistic peak was in the first half of the decade, with the recording of three classic albums: 1971’s Runt. The Ballad of Todd Rundgren, 1972’s Something/Anything?, and 1973’s A Wizard, a True Star (it ain’t braggin’ if it’s true). Rundgren’s mastery of pop conventions, songwriting, and production are on full display, and the results are spectacular.
Runt. The Ballad of Todd Rundgren is my favorite album — not just of Rundgren’s, but of all the albums I own. (It’s also one of Mark David Chapman’s favorites, but he’s a sensitive cat of a different stripe.) Every one of its songs works wonders, to the point that a country-and-western-style throwaway like “The Range War” becomes one of the most mournfully pretty tunes you’ve ever heard. Ballad is a masterpiece, recorded by Rundgren when he was only 22.
His next album, Something/Anything?, is much more kaleidoscopic and scattered, but it’s another triumph — gorgeous, funny, rude, strange, slick, indulgent, brutally honest, and worth a thousand listens or more. A Wizard, a True Star was probably an album that new fans bought in ’73 with hopes that it would be a more-of-the-same sequel to Something/Anything?, but instead it showed Rundgren going wherever his artistic sensibilities wanted to take him: an opening “song suite” containing six consecutive one-minute compositions, including “Rock and Roll Pussy,” a veiled attack on John Lennon; a reverent medley of ’60s soul classics like the Impressions’ “I’m So Proud” and the Delfonics’ “La La Means I Love You”; and a couple of paranoid tracks — “Sometimes I Don’t Know What to Feel” and “When the Shit Hits the Fan/Sunset Blvd.” — that fit the prevailing mood of the early ’70s. Throughout, Rundgren’s melodic instincts never waver. As weird as things get, it’s still pop music, and gloriously so.
I bought Ballad, Wizard, 1970’s Runt, 1978’s Hermit of Mink Hollow, 1976’s Faithful, and 1974’s Todd (the follow-up to Wizard, where it really gets weird and Rundgren finally goes off the rails) in quick succession in ’96 after first taking a risk on Something/Anything?, originally a four-sided double LP. I’d known “Hello It’s Me,” the album’s biggest hit and Rundgren’s only top-ten single, since childhood thanks to heavy rotation on light-rock radio, but I don’t think I ever knew who sang it. (I used to be under the impression that the album’s opener and second-biggest hit, “I Saw the Light,” was a Carole King song.) Once I made the connection in college I bought Something/Anything? and entered what Ed Grieze called Rundgren’s “pop factory.” I never wanted to leave.
In a decade marked by artists churning out new albums at a rapid clip, Rundgren was a factory unto himself, recording ambitious solo albums as well as albums with his prog-rock band, Utopia. He apparently decided early on that he’d sleep when he was dead or 40, whichever came first, so he also found time to produce LPs for Badfinger (Straight Up), the New York Dolls (their self-titled 1973 debut), Grand Funk Railroad (We’re an American Band, whose title track was the group’s first #1 single), Meat Loaf (the inescapable Bat Out of Hell), and many more. Then in the ’80s he produced the Psychedelic Furs’ Forever Now, the Pursuit of Happiness‘s Love Junk, Bourgeois Tagg’s Yoyo (“I Don’t Mind at All” is as good as Beatlesque songs get), and XTC’s Skylarking, an experience that left the band and Rundgren hating each other’s guts, but creating worthwhile music can’t be easy. Certainly the Hall of Fame can appreciate that.
Rundgren also helped pave the way for the advancement of music-video technology in the late ’70s and early ’80s right before MTV changed everything. He then concentrated on the Internet and interactive technology in the early ’90s before other artists or record labels could see the future laid out in front of them, and back in 2003 he was discussing a business model for how the labels can start making real money again in this new era of music consumption — that’s four years before people like Columbia Records co-head Rick Rubin hopped on the bandwagon. (Maybe Rubin was on the bandwagon earlier than last year, but I’m going to give all the credit to Rundgren. He’s wicked smart.)
Specifically, in an interview with the Onion AV Club in May of ’03, Rundgren said, “If I were in the record business, I would start getting out of the brick-and-mortar side of it and stop thinking of music as a commodity, and start thinking of it as a service, and develop models that more resemble cable television, where you pay a monthly fee and listen to as much as you can consume.” In September of last year, in a New York Times profile of Rubin, Lynn Hirschberg wrote: “To combat the devastating impact of file sharing, [Rubin], like others in the music business (Doug Morris and Jimmy Iovine at Universal, for instance), says that the future of the industry is a subscription model, much like paid cable on a television set. ‘You would subscribe to music,’ Rubin explained…. ‘You’d pay, say, $19.95 a month, and the music will come anywhere you’d like…. The service can have demos, bootlegs, concerts, whatever context the artist wants to put out. And once that model is put into place, the industry will grow 10 times the size it is now.'”
See, Hall of Fame? Todd Rundgren can even predict the music industry’s future! What more do you want? Should he sing for his induction-ceremony supper? He certainly can sing. Maybe I haven’t made it clear that he’s not just some producer who imagines himself to be a great performer when he’s really better off behind the boards — the pop-music equivalent of Quentin Tarantino, for lack of a better example. Rundgren had a terrific set of pipes in his prime. When Björk released 2004’s Medúlla, an album that used only singing and vocal samples to create its sound, I was reminded that Rundgren took the same approach on his album A Cappella; he just happened to do it 19 years earlier.
He can also play a bunch of instruments, just like Prince and Stevie Wonder, and they’re both in the Hall of Fame, so is it his name? Like Stevie, Rundgren’s a wonder, and like Prince, he’s rock royalty. In terms of his record sales he may be something of a “runt,” but in terms of his musical legacy, influence, and contributions to the industry, he’s one of the giants.
Be Nice to Me (from 1971’s Runt. The Ballad of Todd Rundgren)
Saving Grace (from 1972’s Something/Anything?)
Just One Victory (from 1973’s A Wizard, a True Star)
Pretending to Care (from 1985’s A Cappella)
Future (from 2004’s Liars)