Todd Rundgren, a wizard, not a star

By Sergio Ariza

Todd Rundgren had it all to be a big star, he was a multi-instrumentalist, production magician, great composer and, as a finishing touch, a guitar ace (which would lead him, some time later, to be part of Ringo Starr's All Stars). But at the moment when success crossed his path, he decided to throw it overboard to follow his own creative path and make the albums he wanted.   

Todd Harry Rundgren was born on June 22, 1948, in Philadelphia. Since childhood he fell in love with his parents' collection of records, basically operettas and musicals, but soon found himself under the spell of rock & roll. The first song that prompted him to pick up a guitar was the Walk, Don't Run
by the Ventures, but the moment he decided he wanted to devote himself to music was when he discovered the Beatles. Rundgren became a staunch supporter of the 'British Invasion' groups, such as the Beatles themselves, the Yardbirds or The Who, and the electric blues revival led by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers. Mike Bloomfield and Eric Clapton became his models and when he finished high school and enrolled in Philadelphia's most famous blues band, Woody's Truck Stop, he decided he couldn't have any other guitar but a Les Paul, a guitar he got for the incredible (for today) price of $85.


He soon mastered the instrument fluently but in 1967 his bandmates discovered the Grateful Dead
(and acid), and went to the West Coast in search of nirvana through endless 'jams'. Rundgren was still in love with his English bands and wanted to compose his own songs, so he decided to stay home and form a band with the best local musicians. He stayed with his friend, and bassist in Woody's Truck Stop, Carson van Osten, and formed Nazz, a band named after one of the Yardbirds' songs. He soon wrote the first song of his career, Hello It's Me, based on a high school girl who had rejected him. Soon he came up with the magnificent riff of Open My Eyes, the song that was going to land them their first record contract. Rundgren was still not comfortable with his voice, so it was Robert "Stewkey" Antoni who was in charge of the lead vocals, while he dedicated himself to the guitar and chorus. By then he had already bought a 1967 Flying V Sunburst and a Fender Bassman. When they entered the studio to record those two songs Rundgren got them to let him play with the recording board and began what would be an extensive career as an engineer and producer. In July 1968 the single appeared, with Open My Eyes on the A side, and Hello It's Me on the B, despite the irresistible strength of the former, with an excellent solo by Rundgren, the second was more successful.


By that time the band had already recorded their first album, but Rundgren had discovered a new singer-songwriter who would become a major influence in his life, it was Laura Nyro who had just released her first album, Eli and the Thirteenth Confession. Her mix of soul and jazz elements with piano pop ballads, as well as her personal voice, made Rundgren's compositional approach change.  He now began to write more with the piano and, above all, he began to write thinking of himself as a performer. Even so, the Nazz had committed to a second album. Rundgren got down to work and began to write an album that mixed his old influences like the Who with the new piano ballads. It had so many songs that the album had to be a double. But neither the company, nor their bandmates, were very convinced with their new, more experimental facet of the singer-songwriter on the piano, so all that material was discarded and only the songs close to the 'British Invasion' and Cream's blues-rock were left. Despite having such notable songs as
Forget All About It, Rain Rider or Hang on Paul, with an incredible solo by Rundgren, this was not the composer's vision of his career. So he ended Nazz and left to work as an engineer and producer for Albert Grossman's Bearsville label. It was Grossman who put him in touch with Robbie Robertson and soon Rundgren began working as an engineer on The Band's Stage Fright. It was during the recording of this album at Woodstock that Rundgren became the owner of one of the most mythical guitars in history, the SG 'The Fool' of his six-stringed idol, Eric Clapton. The psychedelic painted guitar with which he had recorded most of Disraeli Gears, including Sunshine Of Your Love solo.


Immediately after recording Stage Fright, in May 1970, the company, happy with his work, gave him a small budget to record an album of his own. Rundgren got his hands on it and, together with the brothers
Hunt and Tony Sales as a rhythm section, he began recording Runt, an album in which he wanted to include all his influences, from his love for blues-rock, to his admiration for Laura Nyro. The album begins with Broke Down And Busted, a song in which the shadow of Cream and Clapton, (the solo included), is present, demonstrating an enormous versatility from the beginning. In Who's That Man and Devil's Bite he's back on guitar, showing off his rockier side. His experimental part can be seen with I'm In The Clique. The song medley is a summary of their different styles, starts with the piano ballad, Baby Let's Swing, a heartfelt tribute to Laura Nyro, then comes the melodic The Last Thing You Said and ends with the rocker Don't Tie My Hands. The album closes just as it began with a powerful blues-rock that serves to demonstrate his ability on the guitar until, suddenly, it becomes one of those piano ballads, the house brand, only to fall back into another burst of blues-rock guitar-slinger style, and ending up in an orchestral piece. Maybe, without realizing it, Todd was giving us clues about a career in which he was not going to be easily labeled, jumping from one genre to another at will. Although his great success came with We Gotta Get You a Woman, another song inspired by Laura Nyro. That would made that his next work, Runt: The Ballad Of Todd Rundgren, were based on piano pieces, the only exceptions being Bleeding, Parole and Chain Letter. The first is one of the best songs of his career, being one of the first examples of power pop, as well as containing two of his best solos, with his guitar through a Leslie amp.


The following year would come his great masterpiece, Something/Anything, a double album in which Rundgren is responsible for all the instruments and voices (except the last side), in addition to producing the entire album. The album is divided into four parts, a first where he is in his best singer-songwriter mode, with the best-known song of his career, I Saw the Light, then goes into production magician mode, exploring the limits of the recording studio, the third sees him bring out 'The Fool' and the best sounds of the guitar, either with the best song of his career Couldn't I Just Tell You, a wonderful power pop pill, or the blues-rock of Black Mariah. Finally, the album closes by inviting other musicians to the party. It was an absolute success and led to two hit singles, I Saw The Light, and a re-reading of Hello It's Me. The fact that the first one was a kind of homage to Carole King
led the short-sighted to brand him the 'Male Carole King'.

Rundgren would react by recording one of the most extreme albums in memory, A Wizard, A True Star, an album that many saw as a kind of commercial suicide, in which he dislocates his followers with an experimental and hallucinogenic first side. No wonder then that Rundgren would flee fame but had embraced the life of a rock star, consuming LSD and other psychedelic drugs and initiating his mediatic relationship with Bebe Buell. But, in addition, this studio addict had built a new one at home and spent the day locked up in there deconstructing the songs to his liking. However, as the second side proved he had not forgotten to write great pop songs such as Is It My Name, another magnificent show of his talent as a guitarist, or Just One Victory.


It could be considered the pinnacle of his career, an album as excessive as the 70's themselves. Of course, Rundgren would be engulfed in so much excess, mainly with the formation of Utopia, a band with which he would channel towards progressive rock, using mainly a Fender Mustang and a bizarre custom guitar in the shape of Ankh, but that would improve at the end of the 70's when they turned to power pop. Anyway, the best things on his career would come back to being a solo act, such as Faithful, with a first side dedicated to loyal covers of his favorite songs and a second of his own songs where he regained his best compositional pulse with pieces like
Love of the Common Man or Black And White, a song that contains a wonderful psychedelic solo, clearly inspired by the classics of the first side, or Hermit of Mink Hollow, where he regains his best facet as pop singer-songwriter with songs like Can We Still Be Friends?.


But his career has always been exposed to changes that followed his creative impulse of the moment, something that is also noticeable in his important facet as a producer, with his work with New York Dolls,
Meat Loaf, Patti Smith or XTC, with which he recorded the wonderful Skylarking in 1986.

Todd Rundgren has announced a return to live performances later this year, when he launches the Individualist, a True Star 2021 Tour on Oct. 1 in Boston. He'll then travel across the U.S.. It's something this guy can afford as he has always preferred creative freedom to fame. Todd Rundgren didn't want to be a star but has been able to have a career of more than 50 years doing, literally, whatever he wants.