To me, Todd Rundgren’s 1972 Something/Anything? is kind of the white Sign ‘O’ the Times. Like Prince’s masterwork, Rundgren’s is a sprawling, two disc, self-contained epic, bouncing from style to style and voice to voice, where pure pop pleasure press up against faux artiste spiritualism. Another thing they share is at least a couple of songs that bring a dash of creepy to the musical stew. For Prince, the weirdness surfaces via the inclusion of songs from an aborted album recorded by his female persona, Camille. In fact, the biggest hit single “U Got the Look,” is actually listed on Sign‘s liner notes as a duet between Sheena Easton and Camille, not Prince.
But I’ve written about Prince just within the last couple of months, and enough ink has been spilled over the years on both His Purple Badness and this album in particular. There’s no joy in repetition of previous articles that have likely come before me. And besides, most anyone reading this is both familiar with Sign ‘O’ the Times and used to Prince’s weirdness. Rather, I’m here to focus on a couple of Rundgren’s more experimental (and creepy) tracks from the first disc of his oft-called magnum opus.
“The Day the Carousel Burnt Down” (download) starts out like a Carole King solo song, with a slow but jaunty electric piano line. It has a nice switch twice within the song from 4/4 to 3/4 time and back that feels natural and appropriate given the subject matter and arrangement.
At 1:56 at the first musical break, though, things start to get weird. The sounds in the right channel start to back off and shift to the left channel, then reverse back to the right. At 2:09, Rundgren starts to play with the tape speed slightly while he continues to make the music swirl from channel to channel–like a carousel going in a circle around its central musical source, only inverted. After a few rejoinders of the tag line, the second musical break begins in 3:20 with a another slight speed change. Then, around 3:35 a whooshing noise starts in the back, emulating a fire, and the speed changes becomes more distorted and pronounced. This continues on for another 20 seconds, until this madness sinks behind the original piano line that began the song, and plays itself out into the fade for the last half-minute.
But, even before the musical madness begins, there are a couple of lines give you an additional shudder as to what this song is actually supposed to be about. At 0:35 comes the first invocation of the tag line:
And we all left town the next day.
Wait….why? Did “they” all work on the ride at a carnival, and now they’re out of a job? Probably not, as the next verse seems to give another, slightly disturbing clue:
The children all cried when the carousel burnt down
The old ladies sighed and the carousel burnt down
The rest of us lied as the carousel burned down
And they melted down the midway
And we all left town the next day
Oooookay. Two things spring to mind here. The first, that there was more than just the carousel that was burning here. And second, that if “they” lied and then left down the next day, “they” did something. Something bad. How bad? Well, the narrator addresses the first verse to an unknown “you”:
Weren’t you there when the carousel burned down
The fire and confusion, the smoke and the sound
I swear you were there when the carousel burned down
We were all around
So, who is this “you,” and what relation does she or he have to the “they” who may have burnt down the carousel and had to leave the next day? Accomplice, bystander, or victim?
“I Went to the Mirror” (download) is just as weird a song as the former, but for much different reasons. In this song, Rundgren tries to create an actual feeling through sound: the sensation of waking up from a long night of sleep (perhaps prefaced by a night of debauchery) and viewing your face in the mirror in the moments before you actually recognize yourself. This song works well in the age of ear buds, as in the album’s liner notes, Rundgren suggests lying down with the speakers on either side of your head to listen to it. An echo-drenched piano track bleeding from the right channel to the left opens the tune, and Rundgren intentionally slurs his lyrics like he’s been set upon by lockjaw.
This goes along nice and mellow like for a few seconds, until the startling pulse of a Moog note breaks the calm like the pound of a hangover headache, as Rundgren describes the creepy image of “a face wrapped all around my head.” A couple of more Moog notes follow, along with what seems like the sound of either a jug being played or one side of an obscene phone call. Then at about the 1:15 mark, Rundgren says “Uh oh, here I go,” and…..stuff starts to happen. Like the rewinding of a reel to reel tape, and sci-fi ray gun pulses. By this time, the listener is bound to start thinking “Uh oh” as well–as in “Uh oh. What the hell’s going to happen next“?
These little sonic intricacies continue throughout the track until the three-minute mark, when a hi-hat starts cutting through the sleep. Then the song speeds up as drums and crunching guitars take the lead, and Rundgren becomes excited about telling us that he sees the various parts of his face. This song fades out as Rundgren notices that he’s losing his hair in the sink, and-as the song ends the first disc of both the LP and CD versions of the album-the listener is left to think to themselves in complete silence about what the hell it was that just happened, and whether they have the mental fortitude to listen to this crazy-ass tune again.