Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Todd Rundgren on his musical history, from Nazz to The New Cars

Illustration for article titled Todd Rundgren on his musical history, from Nazz to The New Cars

The artist: As a musician, Todd Rundgren has seen success under his own name as well as with such bands as Nazz, Utopia, and—to a decidedly lesser extent—The New Cars. But he has also made a significant mark as a producer, sitting behind the board for artists from the New York Dolls to XTC to Meat Loaf. The A.V. Club recently spoke with Rundgren in conjunction with the release of Shout Factory’s Todd Rundgren’s Utopia: Live At Hammersmith Odeon ’75 CD, taking him through several of the songs from that seminal performance as well as other tracks from his career as a musician and producer.


Nazz, “Open My Eyes” (from 1968’s Nazz)

Todd Rundgren: When I got out of high school, I joined a local blues band in Philadelphia—Woody’s Truck Stop. After about eight months or so, the rest of the guys in the band all discovered the Grateful Dead and the whole West Coast acid-music thing and decided that they, instead of playing blues, wanted to go to the country and get their heads together, if you know what I mean. [Laughs.] So they all left Philadelphia and went out to some farmhouse somewhere and started doing drugs non-stop and writing music. And at the time, I was not into such pursuits. I was still pretty much interested in the broader music scene, I guess, and decided that I would try to put a band together out of local musicians, people in other bands, essentially a Philadelphia super-group, as it were.

First, I got my roommate, Carson van Osten, who was the bassist in Woody’s Truck Stop. He became the bass player, and then we looked for a couple of other guys. A drummer, of course, and we found Thom Mooney in a band called The Munchkins. And Stewkey (Antoni) was playing with another band. I can’t remember the name of them. But, essentially, we asked them all if they’d like to start a new group, and since Woody’s Truck Stop had been kind of the most popular band in downtown Philadelphia at the time, it was pretty easy to convince everyone to stop what they were doing and start a new group with us that was musically based on a combination of The Who and The Beatles and The Yardbirds, mostly English bands that were influential. Particularly on me, since I wound up doing most of the writing. [Laughs.] But we were all into these English bands, and also there was a little bit of Beach Boys mixed in there as well, in terms of the harmonies. And that was probably something we had in common with The Who, because The Who were big Beach Boys fans as well.

AVC: What was the writing process for “Open My Eyes”? Was it the riff first, then the rest of the song?

TR: There was certainly a riff aspect to it. There was a calculation behind the whole thing, to try and, within one song, introduce all of the stylistic elements that we were aiming for. So it had the big kind of Beach Boys vocals—at some point, we were hitting four-part harmonies, which was even beyond The Beatles at the time—and at the same time, there was a very aggressive kind of guitar figure going on, all of it with a general sort of pop structure. And in addition to that, the production gimmick of having the flanging going on during the choruses—yeah, it was definitely some sort of master plan there. [Laughs.] So it was hugely disappointing when the single came out and they flipped it over and played Nazz’s version of “Hello It’s Me” instead.

AVC: It’s certainly gone on to have a tremendous life after the fact.

TR: Well, it got adopted by a lot of other bands. There’s a live version of The Move playing that and another Nazz song (“Under The Ice”) at their concert in San Francisco. And it’s been covered by other bands as well, so that’s what gives it that cache, I think.


Todd Rundgren’s Utopia, “Freedom Fighters” (from 1974’s Todd Rundgren’s Utopia)

TR: The first actual Utopia album came about in a more or less organic manner. I don’t know if there was a point at which we actually declared, “Okay, now there’s this thing called Utopia.” But I was looking for a role that allowed me to play more guitar, because a lot of my writing was getting more and more keyboard-oriented, and I felt like all of the years that I had spent trying to learn and improve as a guitar player were kind of going to waste because I wasn’t writing music that took advantage of it. So part of the reason that Utopia got formed, at least from my standpoint, was so that I could become more of a guitar player. I was still fronting the band, but the percentage of singing was significantly reduced. [Laughs.] You know, I’d sing a little bit, and then we’d play a lot. So that gave me the ability to continue to play guitar and to also interact with other players at a different level. When you’re writing pop songs, you usually have an idea of exactly what you want everybody to play, and in this more collaborative environment of Utopia, people are throwing out ideas all the time, and the challenge is more to figure out a way that they all fit together and integrate everything. It’s a more communal way of making music, and something that I particularly enjoyed. It gave me, I guess, somewhat less responsibility in the greater picture, but that was kind of what I was looking for.


“When The Shit Hits The Fan / Sunset Blvd.” / “Le Feel Internacionale” (from 1973’s A Wizard, A True Star)

AVC: When you were doing the early Utopia shows, how did you decide which of your solo songs would make the cut? Like, for instance, you did a trifecta of tracks from A Wizard, A True Star, but they certainly weren’t what you’d call the hits of the album.


TR: Well, it was funny. Some of it was so dependent on studio trickery. A Wizard, A True Star was also the first record that we recorded in a brand new studio that I had built, principally for the purposes of being able to take a different approach to recording, to be able to use the studio more interactively, to not be restricted in terms of how you could use the equipment. Because I owned all the equipment, I could plug A into B and crank it up all the way and not have anyone tell me, “No, you can’t do that.” [Laughs.] As a result, we wound up creating sounds that were uncommon at the time. In some cases, it just was too difficult to reproduce them live, so I would literally just tape parts of it and use it as—I would be the opening act for Utopia. I would come out with a tape machine and a piano, by myself, and I would play various songs, many of which were on Something/Anything? and some of which were on A Wizard, A True Star. And then the band itself would come out, and we’d play a lot of prog rock. [Laughs.] So essentially it was our inability at the time to easily move some of the technology that we were using to the live stage, and so the simplest thing to do was just to take a tape machine along.

“Couldn’t I Just Tell You” (from 1972’s Something/Anything?)

TR: Something/Anything? was kind of a different record, since I’m playing everything myself. A lot of the songs on there have a particular kind of instrumentation that is much like a guitar quartet, and in some ways it’s an exceptional song on that record because so much of the writing on Something/Anything? is piano-oriented. There are lots of ballads throughout it, and I think the only reason why there wasn’t more rock on that record, a la “Couldn’t I Just Tell You,” is because it was difficult for me to play. [Laughs.] You know, I couldn’t get through a whole take of drums playing real fast. Likely it had a lot to do with me learning how to play the drums at the same time while making a record, and that established some sort of limiting factor on how much of that kind of material I could do. I was pretty happy with the song, because I realized it was the kind of thing I would probably have done more of if I had been using other players. 


“We Gotta Get You A Woman” (from 1970’s Runt)

TR: That was just a little ditty, I guess you’d call it. [Laughs.] When I got out of the Nazz, I had it in my mind that simply to be eclectic was an important aspect of making music. It was something that I derived from The Beatles. The Beatles didn’t look for one kind of music and then just play that exclusively. They were always incorporating other styles and sounds and instrumentation and stuff into what they were doing, and I thought that’s what a musician’s life should be about: absorbing new influences and synthesizing them into new music. So my first solo album essentially is all over the map, and when I delivered the record to the label, they were impressed by the eclecticism of it, but they weren’t sure what to do with it. But they heard this one song, “We Gotta Get You A Woman,” and they said, “That’s a pleasant ditty, that could possibly be on the radio.” So they released it. But what happened next was not exactly according to plan. There was a very fired-up women’s liberation movement right around the same time, and through some misconstruction of the lyrics, some women’s groups started protesting the song—and went so far, I think, in some cases to call in bomb threats to radio stations that played the song. [Laughs.] So it never really reached its full potential, let’s say. It kind of did more in retrospect, from people hearing the song and having some attraction to it, but not because it was, like, a top-10 single. It never made the top 10. I’m not sure how high it went, but I can tell you that it was never as popular as people think it was. 


“I Saw the Light” / “Hello It’s Me” (from 1972’s Something/Anything?)

AVC: Are you surprised that “I Saw the Light” and “Hello It’s Me” have become defining songs not just for that album but, for a lot of casual listeners, your entire career?


TR: Well, it’s not surprising. The course of my career, the arc of my career, has been conditioned by the fact that I early on decided that I wanted to get into record production and didn’t particularly want to be a musical personality. I still wanted to write songs and make music, but I didn’t want to go through what was necessary to be singularly successful at it. And I was making so much money producing other people’s records that I had this kind of liberation that most artists don’t have when they go in to make records. So when I was making Something/Anything?, I wasn’t thinking, “I’m struggling to become successful with this record.” I didn’t even intend for it to be a double album when I started. It was just a process that I started, and by the time I got done with it, it wouldn’t fit on one record. [Laughs.] But it wasn’t like some scheme of mine to be successful. So by the time I got to the album after that, I made what was in my mind a more or less musical progression, or at least a justified musical progression away from the kind of structured song forms that made up most of Something/Anything? and I had the freedom to do that because I was producing other people. Of course, the label thought I was purposefully committing career suicide, but that’s because that’s how they estimate a career. [Laughs.] You know, they estimate a career in terms of hit singles and record sales and things like that. And my estimation of my career was, “Can I do something that nobody else is doing? Can I do something that I will be comfortable saying, ‘Yeah, that represents my approach to music’?” And, y’know, a little bit of it was reactive, because after Something/Anything? people started calling me “the male Carole King.” And I said, “I don’t want to be the male anybody else.” [Laughs.] 

New York Dolls, “Trash” (from 1973’s New York Dolls)

TR: From my standpoint, that first New York Dolls album was more or less like a valentine to New York City. I had been living in the city for a number of years and had decided that I wanted to experience more solitude and quiet and nature and stuff, so I bought a house in Woodstock, and I knew that I was going to be leaving the city, pretty much. There was a whole scene going on in New York. There were a lot of different bands. Ironically enough, most of them liked to get dressed up in girls’ clothes. [Laughs.] But in the case of the New York Dolls, I think that they were just emulating The Rolling Stones in drag. The New York Dolls did not think of themselves as punk rock. There was no such term at the time. They were just another band in what was called the New York scene. So I looked around at all the bands, and I said, “Well, this is the only band that seems like they have any consistency.” Or any chance of, well, breaking out of New York, let’s put it that way. [Laughs.]


I knew that they had just gotten signed and were looking for producers, and they were perfectly happy to have me do it, because I was so successful at the time. Making the record turned out to be, for me, an unprecedented exercise in crowd management and psychology. [Laughs.] And interpersonal politics and all of that stuff. As the band so aptly demonstrated after their record came out, they were an extremely volatile group of people. I mean, people started dying immediately afterwards! And there was such a scene around the band. Not only the typical groupies and things like that, but of New York rock writers who all kind of were living vicariously through the band. There was this phase, it was kind of led by Lester Bangs, where critics were only supposed to like bands whose musical capabilities they could understand and emulate. In other words, if a band played something that you couldn’t play, they were snobby. [Laughs.] So a lot of these critics loved this band because they could imagine themselves being in it. And so there was just this entire scene going on the entire time the record is being made, and then we get to the final phase, and they’ve got a gig in Long Island somewhere, and they’re just in so much of a hurry to get the record mixed and mastered that I think it was somewhat of a detriment to the final product. But it seems like maybe that haste is something that jaded critics appreciated as well. [Laughs.] It looked like we kind of just slapped the whole thing together, in a way. 


Meat Loaf, “Paradise By The Dashboard Light” (from 1977’s Bat Out Of Hell)

TR: Well, of course, I didn’t write that one. I only framed it, I guess you’d say. [Laughs.] It was one of the songs that Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman performed for me live when they auditioned for making the record. It was just Meat Loaf on piano and two back-up singers, so everything else about it had to be sort of imagined. But I imagined that, as well as many other parts of the record, as being a spoof on Bruce Springsteen, so that kind of informed what the band would sound like, in a way. And, indeed, we hired a couple of the guys from the E Street Band to play on the record. [Laughs.] Just to reinforce the metaphor. I guess the funniest thing about it—or the most peculiar thing about it, from my standpoint, since I knew nothing about baseball—was Jim Steinman’s insistence on using Phil Rizzuto as the voice of the announcer. And I think that may have been an element that helped get it on the radio, because a lot of people knew who Phil Rizzuto was even if they didn’t know who Meat Loaf was.


AVC: How well did you and Jim Steinman get along in the studio? It seems like you’re both pretty strong-willed when it comes to making music.

TR: Well, on the first record, we rehearsed everything outside of the studio, so it was pretty much all performed live. As I say, Steinman had ideas about things that he wanted on the record, and sometimes they were practical and sometimes they weren’t, being that it was the very first record and there was actually no label financing the making of the record. So at certain points I had to take his toys away. [Laughs.] Because we couldn’t afford them!


“Can We Still Be Friends” (from 1978’s Hermit Of Mink Hollow)

TR: With the Hermit Of Mink Hollow album, I was making a concerted effort to tame my songwriting once again. I’d been doing a lot of high-concept records, like Initiation and things like that, where there were long, extended instrumental sections and two drummers playing fusion at once, that kind of thing. So I wanted to get back to a simpler songwriting style, and essentially “Can We Still Be Friends” is an arch representation of that. [Laughs.] It actually is a song that doesn’t even have a chorus. It has only verses and bridges in it. Verses, bridges, and interludes. I was always a little bit surprised at how much response it got. It’s probably my most covered song. I’ve heard Mandy Moore’s version, Rod Stewart, Robert Palmer, Colin Blunstone. I can’t remember who else.


Utopia, “Feet Don’t Fail Me Now” (from 1982’s Utopia)

TR: Well, you must be talking about the video. [Laughs.] Because that’s the most interesting thing about that song.


AVC: Fair enough: that video was a lot of people’s first introduction to Utopia. In my case, it came via “Weird Al” Yankovic playing it during one of his Al TV specials on MTV.

TR: [Laughs.] Yeah, that seems like something Al would appreciate. Well, I got heavily into video at one point. I took all the money that I made from Meat Loaf and spent it on video equipment, and the purpose was mostly to experiment. There wasn’t MTV yet. It was mostly to experiment, and also to make video to be distributed in foreign countries where you couldn’t tour. And my particular slant on it was, we concentrated and focused on special effects and green-screen and that sort of thing. And miniatures and models. Not a lot of computer graphics, because there wasn’t much available yet, so there were a lot of costumes, lights, that whole thing. [Laughs.] In this particular instance, we decided that we were going to dress up for the entire song as insects. And, hey, it got us on MTV! 


The Psychedelic Furs, “Love My Way” (from 1982’s Forever Now)

TR: That was an interesting record, because the band was going through a lot of personnel transitions even as we were making the record. Before they came to my studio in upstate New York, they had already trimmed two guys out of the band—the keyboard player and sax player —and during the course of making the record, the drummer also left the band, although he at least completed the record! [Laughs.] So by the time we finished the record, the band was down to three people: the Butler brothers and John Ashton. So I had an opportunity to fill in a lot of stuff that was kind of missing, like keyboard parts, and I also convinced them to let Flo And Eddie come in and do background vocals, because I heard background vocals also as kind of an instrument, in a way. I think they were only there for a day or two, but we accomplished a lot. As I say, we weren’t doing super-elaborate vocals, but the reason that I wanted them to do it was because of the sound that they got on T. Rex’s “Bang A Gong.”


“Bang On The Drum All Day” (from 1983’s The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect)

TR: Well, that was kind of a gift to me from the great beyond. [Laughs.] I was in the process of recording The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect, and sometimes when I start writing for a record my subconscious will take over the process. In this particular instance, it gave me this song at about three in the morning, this weird ska kind of song. I heard pretty much the arrangement and everything. I was in Woodstock, where I had my studio right next to the house, so as soon as I woke up, I went down, recorded what I could remember of it, and kind of filled in the blanks for the rest.


AVC: Given how ubiquitous the song has become, without being specific, is it fair to say that you’ve had no problem funding your creative endeavors since that song?

TR: Well, the record label didn’t really do much with it at the time. The album itself was something of a “well, if you don’t care, I don’t care” record. [Laughs.] I didn’t make an attempt to imbue it with any concept or anything else. I was just kind of whipping the stuff off as soon as it popped into my head. So it wasn’t released as a single in any kind of relevant time frame. But it eventually became a Friday drive-time song for some DJs across the country, and then it somehow worked its way into the sporting arenas and became a chant song and a celebration song for hockey teams and basketball teams and football teams. And now it’s more or less the Carnival Cruises theme song. [Laughs.] So, in other words, it took some time before I was really able to cash in on it.


AVC: Just in time for it to reach a saturation point where everyone’s saying, “Good lord, could you please play some other Todd Rundgren song for a change?”

TR: Yeah, well, most people don’t even know that song is me. [Laughs.] They know the song, but they have no idea who’s singing it or where it came from or anything. Oh, well. C’est la vie.


Laura Nyro, “Trees Of The Ages” (from 1984’s Mother’s Spiritual)

TR: I had an interesting history with Laura Nyro. She was a big influence on me, which a lot of people already know, but in addition, when I was in the Nazz, I arranged to meet her right after Eli And The 13th Confession came out. David Geffen was just an accountant at CBS Records, but he had kind of taken her under his wing, so he set up the meeting. I went up to her apartment, I think she was living in the Dakota at the time, and she made tuna fish casserole, the only thing she knew how to cook. That’s why her music company was called Tuna Fish Music. [Laughs.] And she sat at the piano and played, and I was just really fascinated. She wanted me to sing with her, but I wasn’t confident as a singer, so I just kind of sat and listened to her. And about two weeks later, she called me up and asked me to be her band leader. The Nazz was still under contract, and I think we were just about to do our second record, so I wasn’t able to take advantage of the opportunity, which disappointed me greatly. And I probably was not musically up to it, either.


Years and years later, she was in the midst of trying to get a record started in a studio she had built in her house in Connecticut, and she had called all of her old cohorts to try and get the thing started. Roy Halee showed up at one point, and I don’t know that Bones Howe was involved at all, but, y’know, a lot of people who had worked on her previous records came to try and get her started, and it just seemed to be stalling. And out of desperation, she called me and asked me to come down and see if I could somehow break the logjam. And over the course of a couple of days, we finally got something that she thought was a take, and after that finally got another song, and after that another song. And finally, as time went on, she managed to complete the record. But before that happened, I kind of withdrew, because I was so incompatible with the process. She liked to do maybe two or three dozen takes of a song. [Laughs.] And decide later which one it was going to be. And I just philosophically never saw that as the way to get the best performance. I philosophically believe that you have to try and get it the first time, or as close to the first time as possible, because after that you just wind up thinking about it too much. So I didn’t finish the record, but at least I had the privilege of working with her for a little while and getting the record started. 

“Something To Fall Back On” (from 1985’s A Cappella)

AVC: A Cappella would seem to rank up right up there with Neil Young’s mid-’80s output as an album most designed to give a major-label publicist a stroke.


TR: Well, I can’t speak for Neil Young’s publicist. [Laughs.] But A Cappella was a record that I wanted to make for quite awhile, and after I finished the principal part of the record, I realized that there wasn’t anything that resembled a single on it. So I did “Something To Fall Back On” as a more or less out and out imitation of more conventional instruments while still using just the voice and vocal sounds to build it with, but doing it in a way that it sounded more like a pop song, I guess, than the vocal experimentation that was on a lot of the record.

AVC: Do you remember how the label reacted when you handed them the album?

TR: Well, it wasn’t their reaction to the content to the record. What happened was that it was supposed to be my last album for Bearsville Records, and Albert Grossman was notorious for not wanting to take his hooks out of you once he got them in. [Laughs.] So he essentially held the record up for a year until I agreed to give him the publishing for my next three albums. So they finally released A Cappella, and Warner Bros. signed me to a three-album deal, so I got off of Bearsville. And then I did two of those three albums and then requested that they just not advance me for the last one. And they said, “Fine.” And that was the end of my major-label affiliation. [Laughs.]


XTC, “Earn Enough For Us” (from 1986’s Skylarking)

TR: It’s funny: That was the only song where they actually played live, the three guys from XTC and Prairie Prince. We recorded the album sort of in three phases. We did a preparatory phase in my studio in upstate New York, then we went to San Francisco and put on a lot of the overdubs and drums and things like that, and then we went back to my studio and completed the vocals and commenced the mixing. But the band left the country and let me finish the mixing myself. Which was remarkable. [Laughs.] But as easy as that song kind of was to play, it nearly broke the band up,


Andy [Partridge] was so megalomaniacal about things. He brought in Colin [Moulding] the day after we recorded the track, before I ever got to the studio, and I come in and he’s making Colin punch in the bass part note by note. He’s not changing his guitar part or anything. He’s making Colin re-do his entire part. And I asked him why he was doing it. After all, we had left the studio the night before thinking that we had really captured the band, in a way, because there was no other instance in the entire record where they had played together. But Andy got all bent out of shape, like he was doing every other day. [Laughs.] And Colin got fed up and quit the band. He said, “That’s it, I’m leaving.” Right in the middle of the record. So we didn’t go into the studio for a couple of days, but then we finally talked him into finishing it. But, you know, in essence, quitting XTC is kind of a moot point, anyway, because they only ever make records. They never go out and play live. But at least we got the record finished. And, ironically enough, it turned out to be a breath of life for the band. 

“The Want Of A Nail” (from 1989’s Nearly Human)

TR: Nearly Human was an attempt to recover a sort of way of recording that, to my mind, had become old-fashioned in the late ’80s. Most records were made by people coming in one or two at a time and perfecting their parts, and you wouldn’t know what you had until everyone was done. And I wanted to make a record in the old fashioned way. Kind of like Frank Sinatra’s Capitol Records sessions, where everything was played at once, so that you got to hear the final product even as you were doing it.


“The Want Of A Nail” was one of the first songs I wrote for the record, but it was one of the last songs we recorded because it took me a long time to find someone who would do the duet with me. Partially it was scheduling, and partially it was that people preferred not to do duets, or something like that. But finally I got somebody from my more-or-less short list, and that was Bobby Womack, and when he decided to do the song, then we could finally go into the studio and complete it. And not only did he knock it out of the park there, but he also joined me to perform it on the Letterman show.

AVC: Not that Mr. Womack wasn’t awesome, but do you happen to recall who else had been on that more-or-less short list?


TR: I think Peter Gabriel was on there, but I’m not sure who else. Maybe Elvis Costello? There were a couple of other names, but I can’t remember them off the top of my head.

The New Cars, “Not Tonight” (from 2006’s It’s Alive!)

TR: We were trying—struggling, really—to come up with something that resembled The Cars but, y’know, was obviously not The Cars, since it was The New Cars. And that’s kind of what we came up with. We experimented with a few things. We realized that there was a lot of pressure on the group to not only be able to recapture some of the essence of the original material, but also to come up with something that didn’t sound like me, that sounded more like something The Cars might’ve evolved into. And that’s what we came up with. I think Elliot Easton came up with the basic verse and chorus, and then the bridge part, Greg Hawkes came up with that. And I sort of wrote the lyrics, and that’s how it evolved.


AVC: How do you look back at the whole New Cars experience?

TR: Bittersweet. You know, we all put a lot of effort into it, but we got practically nothing out of it but aggravation.


TR-i, “Fascist Christ” (from 1993’s No World Order)

TR: No World Order was an experiment in interactive music and recontexturalized music. It was processed into about a thousand two- to eight-bar chunks that later got assembled into what was almost a stream-of-consciousness of music. While “Fascist Christ” was recorded as a song, it was eventually chopped up and various pieces of it were dropped into the original master. There was a version of No World Order that was called No World Order Lite, and that contains all of the pieces of the songs put together pretty much as they were originally written, so it wasn’t until a year after the record came out that people were able to hear the song in the way that it was actually intended—if, indeed, it was intended to be, anyway. [Laughs.] As I say, the whole thing was part of an experiment in recontexturalizing music, moving the parts around in ways that essentially revealed how accepting an audience is of a song. They accept it the way that they hear it, even though that may not have been the way that I wrote it.


AVC: How successful would you say it was as an experiment?

TR: Well, I get e-mails every once in awhile from somebody who’s found their old CDI player and managed to get it working again, and now their kids are playing with it. [Laughs.] In those days, the whole idea of computers and music was fairly new, but nowadays there’s a generation that kind of automatically associates their interactive devices and music. So I think it may be a concept that would work better nowadays than it did 20-some years ago.