A short concert review on Todd Rundgren’s first band The Nazz, taken from a Sept. 21, 1968 issue of Billboard magazine. Also mentioned is Debbie Harry’s obscure first band Wind in the Willows…
Two young groups created varying impressions at the Cafe Au Go Go on Wednesday (11). The Wind in the Willows had the elements and promise of being a winning unit, but were not together, while the Nazz was together, but lacked a distinctive quality.
The latter group was relentless in sound, but rarely showed an individual flair. One such rare instance was in the concluding “Why Is It Me?” when lead guitarist Todd Rundgren flashed his ability.
Until then, the strongest asset of the SGC Records quartet was the singing of Nazz’s organist, known as Stewkey, and by Rundgren. The latter’s bluesy “Skinny Boy” was a good number for him. Bass guitarist Carson van Osten and drummer Thom Mooney occasionally joined in the vocals.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the group was that, despite the emphasis on amplification, the vocals did cut through. “She’s Goin’ Down” and “Back of Your Mind,” from their SGC debut album, were included in the set. But Nazz failed to live up to the strong promotion. Read the rest of this entry »
A recent (Dec. 3rd) Crawdaddy! review by Ric Hickey of a brand new book on Todd Rundgren. I’m definitely looking forward to reading this…
Paul Myers has penned the definitive Todd Rundgren biography. Dispensing with the typically invasive biographical method of delving into a subject’s personal life, Myers here instead sticks to the real meat of the matter: The artist’s work. Dedicated solely to Rundgren’s music and production, the book is a much more intriguing and respectful biography than one could ever pen in the more traditional vein. Forgoing the need to supplant the text with salacious anecdotes and insidious speculation, Myers’ respectful approach is best exemplified by his decision to dedicate no more than a single paragraph to Rundgren’s tumultuous break-up with Bebe Buell.
Though Rundgren’s tongue had already taken up permanent residence in his cheek by the time he named his 1973 magnum opus A Wizard, A True Star, time has proven this moniker to be apt, accurate, and certainly suitable Read the rest of this entry »
Taken from Mix magazine, Feb. 1, 2009 — the return of Todd…
When Todd Rundgren makes a solo album, he makes a solo album. The multifaceted singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist/producer/engineer/tech pioneer first got the urge to do it alone all the way back in 1972, on three of the four sides of his breakthrough Something/Anything? set. Since then, he’s recorded albums in every conceivable way — with bands, without bands, layering instruments one at a time, live in the studio with no overdubs, live onstage; you name it. He’s cut note-for-note replicas of famous pop songs; laid down convoluted guitar-dominated prog-rock tracks; made an album entirely out of treated vocals; hit the charts with catchy, radio-friendly ballads; recorded interactive albums; and even made one with bossa-nova Read the rest of this entry »
One of the earliest known pieces by David Fricke, from June 22, 1978, taken from Circus magazine. He discusses Todd’s then-new album Hermit of Mink Hollow…
Rundgren Produces a One Player, Pop Masterpiece
After ten years and fourteen albums, Todd Rundgren is still a cult figure, a wizard in the recording studio and a true star to a select 200,000 or so who continue to buy his records, no matter what’s on them.
As rock’s most unpredictable prodigy, Todd continually tests his fans’ loyalty with a variety of musical guises that includes the epic 1975 instrumental “A Treatise on Cosmic Fire,” hard forcible rock of the first order as heard on his various albums with Utopia, and some of this decade’s best hook-laden pop music. At one point, five years ago, a young ambitious Rundgren was shifting artistic directions as often as he changed the rainbow tint of his hair.
But Rundgren’s commercial fortunes are about to change for the better if his new solo album Hermit of Mink Hollow (Bearsville) is a reliable barometer. For this is Todd’s most immediately accessible record since his gold double-album opus in 1973, Something/Anything. Produced, engineered, written, and performed by Rundgren with help from absolutely no one, Hermit of Mink Hollow is hardly a compromise to record company powers who, he complains, insist he conform to a middle-of-the-road crossover sound. Yet new songs like the happy, harmonic. “All the Children Sing” and the more aggressive “You Cried Wolf” indicate, if nothing else, that there is a place for Todd Rundgren in a Fleetwood Mac world.
“Quite honestly, I don’t know what this record is about,” he says, his classically thin rock star frame sprawled comfortably on the living room floor of his spacious digs just outside Bearsville, New York. Located at the end of a winding drive adjacent to Mink Hollow Road with a plaque bearing the legend “Utopia” greeting you at the door, his retreat is liberally decorated with rugs, pillows, and Oriental screens. A cursory glance around the premises also reveals a number of small pyramids on bookshelves and tables, reflecting Todd’s interest in their psychic energy and Egyptology in general as displayed on Utopia albums like Ra and Oops! Wrong Planet.
“It’s one of my least conceptualized albums,” he continues, “and most of my albums have the material more or less related to a certain theme. At certain points, though, it’s just good to do whatever it is that you do and let somebody else figure out what the concept is. This time, I guess the theme is me and just some of the things I think about.”
Born in the blue collar Philadelphia suburb of Upper Darby and raised on the same combination of silky urban soul and Anglophilic rock marking the work of fellow Philadelphians Daryl Hall and John Oates, Rundgren soon graduated from the mid-60’s class of that city’s Beatle-copy and suburban blues bands to join Nazz. A full 180 degrees out of step with their acid-rock contemporaries, Rundgren and Nazz emulated the foppish English energy of the Who and Small Faces, only to disband after one modest hit (“Hello It’s Me”) and three albums.
Rundgren then set course for a production career dotted with prominent names like Grand Funk Railroad, Badfinger, and most recently, Meat Loaf. His string of solo recordings, as he tells it, came about almost by accident, “Somewhere around the time I was working with the Band on Stage Fright, Albert Grossman started this label, Bearsville. And as a concession to me, because I was doing all their production work, he gave me a budget and said ‘Go ahead. Do an album.’ So I went to L.A. and recorded Runt. When I brought it back, Bearsville was shocked that I had actually done it and that it displayed a certain degree of originality.”
But despite the implications of reclusive genius on totally solo works like Hermit of Mink Hollow, Utopia’s synthesizer ace Roger Powell explains that “Todd is not the kind of guy who wants to totally isolate himself from everybody. He knows that he needs to work with people and he respects those people for taking care of their business.
On that account, Todd Rundgren admits to an outspoken dissatisfaction with his record company and the industry at large, insisting that his modestly successful but frustratingly static sales record is due to a lack of conviction on the part of Bearsville. “At this point, my album – even before it’s released – is a write-off to them. All my albums are. They never base any kind of faith on them because it doesn’t parallel anything that’s already successful or anything I’ve done already. So all they can do is put it out and wait for people to tell them it’s good, at which point they might promote it.”
Paul Fishkin, Bearsville’s president, denied this. “He’s changed the record’s sequence at our request and the album is going to be his biggest in years. The most frequent response of people is, ‘I love Side One.'”
Todd’s Mink Hollow has Side One labeled “The Easy Side” and the flip, “The Difficult Side.”
“That’s an ‘in’ joke,” he says with a noticeable touch of sarcasm. “When I first delivered-the album to the company, the songs were in different order. But the record company is always going on about these theories on listener response which are supposed to override whatever mood you want to create.
Nevertheless, Rundgren reluctantly conceded and re-sequenced the album, putting all those songs the company found “acceptable on the M-O-R crossover theorem” on one side and the ones “they figured were too challenging” on the other. And he says he went along with the idea because it made no difference to him in this case. Conceptually, the record didn’t suffer for it, he claims. The notion that Hermit of Mink Hollow could mean new heights in popularity doesn’t faze him either.
“I guess I’m out of sync with everybody else. And eventually, they’ll all get into sync with me.”
A PopMatters review from the early 2000s, by Jason Thompson, concerning Todd Rundgren’s first major band…
The early years of Todd Rundgren’s career were no less inconspicuous than everything else he’s done down through the years. As a guitarist, songwriter, and vocalist for Philadelphia’s Nazz, Rundgren cut his chops on both sides of the studio glass, whipping out ferocious rockers while at the same time mastering the machines that recorded his band’s work. And while the Nazz set themselves up as superstars from the beginning, they never actually achieved nationwide success.
Their first LP Nazz spawned the semi-hits “Open My Eyes” and “Hello, It’s Me”, a tune that would be come Todd’s signature piece after he re-recorded it for his Something/Anything? solo masterpiece. The group’s second release Nazz Nazz has been derided by some rock guides as being too stuck in the psychedelia of 1967 (the album was released in 1969). However, it’s a great mix of all sorts of styles and ultimately the best of the Nazz trilogy. Nazz III was actually the second half of Nazz Nazz, but at the time the rest of the group outvoted Rundgren who wanted to release a double album. That’s quite all right, as the bulk of III leaves a lot to be desired.
Nazz consisted of Rundgren on guitars, Carson Van Osten on bass, Thom Mooney on drums, and Stewkey Antoni on vocals and keyboards. Stewkey’s vocals weren’t always the strongest, but on this second album he actually put forth some real feeling behind the tunes, giving them the punch they needed. By this time, Todd had taught himself how to read music, so his songs were even more dynamic and complex. Thom Mooney always sounded as if he wanted to be Keith Moon with a little more restraint, and Carson Van Osten was a more than capable bassist.
Nazz Nazz kicks off with the furious “Forget All About It,” an absolutely breathtaking rock-fest complete with great harmony vocals and a scorching guitar solo by Todd. In the middle of the song, the band offers some advice to its audience. “If you haven’t got time to rest / Then take the record off now!”. It’s as if they were demanding full attention to their record and didn’t want their fans to just dance to it. They needn’t have worried. “Forget All About It” is the farthest thing away from a pop dance tune.
“Not Wrong Long” contains some searing organ work, and some venomous lyrics. “I can see by the look in your eyes / You may be wrong / But you’re tellin’ lies”. A bit of an egotistical title wrapped around a 20/20 hindsight breakup tune. “I may be wrong / But I’m not wrong long”. Terrific. The punch of this song is somewhat undermined by the unintentionally silly “Rain Rider.” “Some men sail the waters / Some men live on the land / I was born Apollo / With the reins in the grip of my hand.” Goofy. However, Todd saves the day a bit by singing the lines of the bridge, but all seems lost again when that chorus kicks in with the “Ride my chariot, baby!” getting lodged in the brain stem for a long time after.
“Gonna Cry Today” is one of Todd’s best and earliest heartbreak tunes. “You know as long as I can remember / Nobody ever / Got anybody back this way / But it sure doesn’t look like it makes a difference now / So I’m gonna cry today”. Again, an organ is used to great effect here, and Stewkey’s singing with Todd on backup is near perfect. This is great, because Stewkey most often had the most difficulty on the Nazz’s slower tunes. Here, “Gonna Cry Today” fits him like a glove.
From there, Todd dives into his own take on Sgt. Peppers and Magical Mystery Tour in under four minutes on “Meridian Leeward,” a song about a pig who is changed into a human. “I’m a human being now, but I used to be a pig / Till they shortened off my snout / And they made me wear a wig.” It’s whimsical and fun, with plenty of phased and flanged instruments popping in and out of the mix. And of course, they just had to take a swipe at cops. “You look like a cop / But you know you’re a pig”. Perhaps that joke was actually fresh back in 1968. In relation to the civil unrest the nation was going through at the time, it makes a bit more sense.
“Under the Ice” is Nazz Nazz‘s second hard rock tune. Another should have been hit with a guitar hook that sounds as familiar as your mom calling your name, “Under the Ice” is pure rock and roll. Harmony vocals add to the tense mix, and Thom’s drumming seems to want to topple the whole song over. If he ever sound like Moon the Loon, it’s right here in this tune. After that, is the British pop of “Hang on Paul” (written about Paul Fishkin, the manager of Woody’s Truck Stop, which had been Todd and Carson’s first band). The band put a strange warble throughout the tune on purpose, making it sound as if it was warped. It truly was in spirit, if nothing else.
Todd sings the entire rock-blues workout “Kiddie Boy.” Even at this point, his voice was strong and easily the better over Stewkey’s. “Kiddie Boy” features some ragtag horns and a great bunch of killer guitar lines from Todd. And the guitar just keeps getting better on the slinky “Featherbedding Lover.” “Ain’t it nice / To have somebody waitin’ at home.” The song may just as well have been called “Mattress Back,” but I doubt it would have been recorded if it was. Todd’s guitar work throughout sounds downright Hendrixian, especially at the solo. Good and meaty rock.
“Letters Don’t Count” opens with wine glasses being played. This is another great slow song that Stewkey handles effortlessly. It sounds just as new and fresh today as it probably did then. Though a bit wordy at times, “Letters Don’t Count” is a great song, filled with harmony vocals and pretty acoustic guitar by Todd. But forget all about that, and listen to the 11 minute-15 second fury of “A Beautiful Song,” which splits into various styles. Opening with more incredible guitar, and a horn section that sounds like early Chicago when they were actually interesting, “A Beautiful Song” continues its mutations and puts the cap on Nazz Nazz and sends it soundly to bed.
As I said before, this is the best album the Nazz released. Its variety of styles, great slow songs, and fantastic guitar work by Rundgren make it a must have for any Todd fan. The rest of the world will no doubt continue to not really know who the Nazz was, and probably won’t care. So be it. Nazz Nazz is one killer rock record from the late ’60s that still holds its own more than 30 years later. And that’s nothing to sneeze at.
Todd Rundgren wrote this for Record magazine, March 1974, around the time that his double album Todd was released…
With the success of “Hello It’s Me” as well as his productions with Grand Funk, the New York Dolls and others, Todd Rundgren has become one of the most important figures on today’s pop scene. Recently Todd took time out to discuss his forthcoming album, Todd, and his plans for the future, with our New York correspondent Alan Betrock.
Todd was recorded mostly during July; actually July & August, 1973, and it was my usual hodgepodge approach to performance in the album. I did a lot of the tracks solely myself, and I guess on about half of them, there was a drummer, bassist, keyboardist etc… various combinations of personnel. There wasn’t any set backup band. I had some songs left over from my last album, but not any leftover tracks. If I don’t use a track on a particular album, it usually doesn’t have any relevance by the time the next LP comes around. I usually don’t have a specific concept that is fully realized when I start the album. It gets more realized as the record happens. I thought Todd was going to be a single album, but it just turned out to be too long, so I had to put it on two records. This was all decided before the plastic shortage. I don’t think. I’m going to have to compromise because of the energy shortage, but if I had known that there was going to be this shortage when I made the record, I would have made definite attempts not to exceed a single album’s worth of material.
I only once did an album by myself (Something/Anything), or at least a major part of it was myself. It was the only album where I had the attitude that I had to do it all. It was only because I was experimenting, not because I was establishing myself as a solo virtuoso artist. On this new album, it was just a case of hearing certain things, and if I couldn’t perform it, I’d get someone else to do it. You can only have so much technique, and I always hear things that exceed my technique.
The success of “Hello It’s Me” doesn’t bother me, but having to perform the song does bother me. Having to do anything bothers me when it’s not something I feel naturally inspired to do. I’m not really into singles; I don’t record records specifically to be singles. I may do it for somebody else, but I don’t do it for myself. If I do things that sound like singles, it’s just that that’s the way I think it should sound.
It probably seems to most people that I’m into ballads more, but I think that’s only because of the success of “Hello It’s Me.” And people also want to limit things. I don’t do what I consider to be a whole lot of ballads. I did one album that had a bunch of ballads on it, and that was the only one like that. There are some songs that people may think of as ballads that are not ballads to me — they’re pieces of music that have different ideas. Todd has the least number of ballads, I think, of all the albums I’ve done. It also has more guitar playing. It varies… I do what I feel inspired to do. If I don’t feel like playing that much rock ‘n roll, I don’t need another outlet — another band to play rock and roll. Being a producer in certain terms is just a job.
I’m starting to produce Grand Funk’s new album now. I went out to Flint and they played me some new material. We just make records together. For some reason they find me necessary to the production of their records, so we make ‘em together. With the Dolls, it wasn’t just my producing. They had spent so long trying to get a recording situation together, and had so many people involved, it was like the whole of NYC was producing the Dolls. Everyone had to get in and have their hands on the knobs, and I don’t particularly dig that. The band was the most laid back, of all the people involved. I don’t look back at that album at all. Just like Bobby Zimmerman said: “Don’t Look Back.”
“Heavy Metal Kids” is, in certain terms, a takeoff of the NY scene. It’s always a satire. I mean how serious can you get? I wouldn’t die for any of it. I still like to present it the way I want to present it — the alternative would not be to die — it would be not to do it at all — rather than change it. It’s mostly all satire, I guess – it’s only as serious as you can get about it. But people are always looking for something — a clear cut thing — when I make the music, I’m trying to be open to influences at the time it’s being made — not just straight musical influences, but all kinds — social, emotional, cosmic and things like that — and this is all supposed to be reflected in the music. If people walk around all day and make judgment after judgment, it gets to be a drag after awhile. Sometimes you just like to wander around and not make any judgments — just let it exist.
The kind of music that I do is supposed to be the kind of music that other people aren’t doing — because I don’t feel any need to do it otherwise. As soon as somebody or something becomes popular, like let’s say “space-rock” was becoming the big thing, there’s all of a sudden loads of bands coming up to me saying “well, man, last week we were into glitter rock, and now we’re into space rock.” Whatever is hip or the happening formula, they just change into that. Some people can recognize it after it happens; my whole thing is trying to discover it before it happens. Just because I like to hear different things — if no one else is doing something new, I have to come up with them myself.
I’m definitely lagged out now, being that Todd was recorded, and reflects where I was last July. I don’t know what the impact of the music will be now. It’s still probably a year or two ahead of where most people are at — at least.
The reason why I do any particular song in any particular way is just because there’s a whole idea. And what you try to do as effectively as possible is render that idea musically so that someone listening can understand that idea — some music is done so vaguely that the interpretation of it is left completely up to the person listening — but sometimes you’re trying to say something specifically in the most effective way possible. In doing that, you try to use recognizable styles — essences of recognizable performances. For instance, Jimi Hendrix. “Number One Lowest Common Denominator” is just about sex, and it seemed to me one of the most obvious musical inferences you could make along those lines, was to recreate in certain terms that Jimi Hendrix sound. Because to me that influence represented, from a guitar player’s point of view, that central attitude most effectively. I don’t listen to a song and then sit down and copy it. The guitar playing was obviously influenced — the whole thing really — the phasing, the trippy effects; in certain terms the song is a satire too. It’s really a pretty funny song as far as I’m concerned.
The last song on the album (“Sons of 1984″) was recorded live in Central Park and Griffith Park. We went in and taught the audience the lyrics and they sang it. I guess I was a little surprised that it really worked out. I thought the problems would be hideous. The microphones were hung out over the audience, and in Griffith Park, they were actually hanging out of trees. It was fed into a remote 16-track machine. It was a funny experiment. We were considering doing. a whole record that way, as part of our touring show. Teach the audience a song, then record it, and you have a whole album’s worth of these songs from different cities, with the audience singing on them. It would be really strange. But as it is now, on “Sons of 1984,” we have Central Park on one side, and Griffith Park on the other.
I’ve been offered a lot of production work, most of which I don’t want to do. Either because it’s with somebody that doesn’t need me, or with somebody I just don’t want to work with. But I am considering a couple of things.
Describing my new album is really a hard thing to do. It’s really impossible to render an accurate idea of where the album is at musically and lyrically just by trying to describe isolated moments of it. The only difference about this album I guess, from the others I’ve made, is in terms of lyrics. My lyrical attitude is a lot more unified, and different from what I used to write about. In the past, I usually wrote about boy-girl relationships, which at this point doesn’t interest me. I have very little to say about that — that might disappoint a few people, but they have all those old songs to listen to, if they want. The whole record (Todd) is about states of consciousness. The Wizard album marked a beginning of new forms of communication — basing my musical ideas on responses other than just purely physical or material. In the Wizard album I was just discovering a different language. In the new album, it is more of a discourse in this new language — telling what I’ve discovered with this new attitude — that is, out of directing my attention to things other than material – to other states on consciousness. It’s very hard to describe even that aspect of it. It’s more apparent if you listen to the record, than if I try to describe it — or use terms like “cosmic” or “astral.” It all has very little relevance in a conversational context.
Right now I’m working on an album with Utopia, which expresses other ideas. It’s a separate group that I’m a member of, where we do music written by all the members of the band — M. Frog; Moogy Klingman; John Siegler; Kevin Ellman; Ralph Shuckett; and me — six in all. The first original concept of Utopia seemed to be a little too far out for everybody, and we took it out on the road for about two weeks to mixed reaction, so we just decided it was a waste of energy. I had a lot of things to do at the time, and was having a change of attitude, so I decided to take it off the road for awhile. Now we’ve toured very successfully, with a change of personnel and show concept, and we’re touring again in March. I do a solo set first, which sometimes involves the use of pre-recorded tapes. Some people don’t get used to it too easily, but to me it’s like television — it’s really like a big TV show – then in the second half I come out with the whole band.
One of the things about the musical direction I’m moving in is to experience fewer and fewer limitations in terms of who you are and what you have to do. Things are becoming less and less stylized in any one direction. I also recorded a type of eclectic music in the past, but at the same time I was still writing within the “song style” — songs 3 – 4 minutes long, six on a side, etc. I was very involved in perfecting that style, and I just got fed up with that. Then I did the Wizard album where the song ideas ranged from 15 seconds to 10 minutes. A further refinement of that idea is represented in Todd, and the refinement is that I’m breaking down all these barriers — removing the six spirals – just saying there are no limitations as to what is sung about or what the music sounds like, or how long it is… or whether it is even music at all.
An early piece by David Fricke (before he went to Rolling Stone) on Todd Rundgren. Taken from the July 1978 issue of Trouser Press magazine…
From Here to Utopia
Todd Rundgren lies comfortably against a pillow on the living room floor of his Bearsville, New York retreat, located just off a winding, ill-paved driver’s challenge called Mink Hollow Road. Against one knee-high landing is a row of records encroaching its way across the room. The first one, front and center, is a copy of Rundgren’s first solo album, Runt, no doubt the result of a quiet stroll down memory lane.
“Actually, I just produced a punk album by Jean-Yves Labat – M. Frog – the original synthesizer player in Utopia. One of the tunes is a re-working of a song from that album called ‘I’m in the Clique.’ His new album is called Froggy Goes A’Punkin’.” Right there, in barely over 25 words, is the gist of Todd Rundgren’s stormy ten-year career as one of American rock’s most prodigious and, at times, petulant geniuses. Alternately a defiantly individualistic solo artist, a much-sought-after producer of hits for other occasionally less-talented folk, and the democratically inclined lead guitarist for a band and ideology called Utopia, Todd Rundgren is all things to only a few understanding people. His records with and without Utopia since 1973’s A Wizard, A True Star have sold at a modest but discouragingly fixed rate of approximately 200,000 a pop – enough to keep his commercial momentum at a respectable pace, but not enough to keep him from languishing in the shadowed obscurity that is the scourge of all cult figures. But Rundgren would seem totally unaffected by his inability to make a large-scale artistic impact on an audience he feels is brainwashed by the false promises of 70s pop and the insensitive record industry prophets that make them. Much like the Number 6 character portrayed by Patrick McGoohan in The Prisoner, Todd Rundgren writes for himself the role of a man who consistently defies the powers-that-be who, in this case, would emasculate the creative potential of any single musical project he might care to name. He will cite such scurrilous activity as going back as far as his celebrated late ’60s stint with Nazz and then detail the problems he claims he faces in pursuing a musical career, either on his lonesome or in the company of fellow Utopians. Take, for example, his solo recording contract with Bearsville Records. “I deliver albums on approval. I’m not obligated to deliver any albums to them, but I can’t take an album to another label either. I just sort of do what I feel like doing and they have the option of putting them out or not putting them out. The way they behave when I deliver them, I don’t understand why they bother. You’ll have to ask them.”
I did just that, calling Bearsville’s California office to ask company head and long-time Rundgren confidante Paul Fishkin about Rundgren’s business circumstances and the company’s attitudes toward the music Rundgren says they have no commercial faith in.
“There is a certain level,” Fishkin replies, “on which Todd likes to think of himself as independent. He’s also a very – what’s the word? – mercurial personality and much to his credit he’s never wanted to be categorized. That’s what makes him so unique. But that also makes it very frustrating for us because we would like to sell more records.”
So would Todd, but for him, that’s not the bottom line.
“That’s another argument I have with the record company. They feel that selling 150,000 albums in this day and age makes you irrelevant, that it has to be a million and a half albums to be worth anything. Their whole attitude is like world conquest or manifest destiny where you’re just supposed to expand and expand and expand in the same way the economy does until you hit your recession and your economy collapses.
“I don’t particularly feel that way. I feel that it seeks its own level. I can’t force it any greater. I’m not attempting to be anyplace, underground or overground. I’m just attempting to do what I feel I should do in terms of making records.”
Fishkin, a week later and 3000 miles away, makes Todd’s point for him.
“He makes the music in his head at a given moment. And that music is the story of his life at that moment.”
The fourth largest music market in the country, Philadelphia nevertheless endures a perennially bad rock’n’roll reputation. The East Coast industry focus makes an occasional stop there, paying due respects to the bastard children of Dick Clark’s American Bandstand – that South Philly brigade of acne-free faces like Frankie Avalon and the imminently forgettable Fabian – with more recent tributes paid the R&B factory run by Philadelphia International’s Gamble and Huff.
As a result, the city’s young white rockers still fight an uphill battle trying to make even their own local audience aware of the talent developing there, only to find their fortune in a two-hour drive to the north. The psychedelic joyride we now know as the late ’60s found many of Philly’s aspiring rock bands coming about as close as they ever would. Mandrake Memorial, Edison Electric Band, Elizabeth, Sweet Stavin Chain, High Treason – they all snagged fleeting moments of recognition with albums of fair to excellent quality. But by 1968, there was no question about who reigned supreme, even if they didn’t gig with the same regularity and took a casual pass on hippie ethics. Nazz – generally through the services of the still-18-year-old Todd Rundgren – were unanimously, if begrudgingly, voted most likely to succeed. That, in the end, Nazz dissolved in a flurry of infighting and managerial mishaps, Rundgren attributes more to the times than the place.
“Nazz was certainly out of context in the sense that it wasn’t typical of what was happening at the time.”
Rundgren has been talking about his own musical tendencies at any given time vis a vis those considered in vogue at that given time. It is a theme he sounds throughout the conversation and Nazz is just another case in point.
“It wasn’t exactly out of context,” he submits, “because we were the premiere local band at the time. We did have a large following. But the Nazz was considered out of context because the music that was happening was not at all like ours.
“First of all, everybody was taking a lot of drugs. The whole thing was that late ’60s music evolved out of this street-level thing, like San Francisco and so on. Like, ‘hey, blues.’ Except I’d already gone through the blues trip with Woody’s Truck Stop.”
Actually, Rundgren had been through that and more by 1967 when Nazz first reared its Anglo-foppish head. He could count to his credit the usual Beatle-copy and Britrock cover bands like Money (the same heard at the start of side four of Something/Anything). As a young, impressionable lad growing up in the depressingly nondescript Philly suburb of Upper Darby, he ignored Elvis Presley (“A lot of people who emulated him were machismo-greaser-killer types who were always out to kill me.”), opting for what he describes as the “art school personality” personified by the Beatles, “wanting to be a little different and strange and still have people like you.”
Come 1966 and Rundgren fancied himself a budding white bluesman, heading for center city Philadelphia and joining forces with an early hippie configuration, Woody’s Truck Stop, which held forth at the bohemian Walnut Street hangout called the Artist’s Hut. Paul Fishkin, who managed the Truck Stop for a time, describes the group as “sort of the Grateful Dead of Philadelphia.” However, their few claims to fame were Todd, a marginally excitable album on Smash (post-Todd), and a guitar player by the name of Alan Miller who raised a court ruckus when his high school suspended him for not cutting his hair to a regimental length. Such were the times and the times were not with Todd because he was (depending on whom you believe) either tossed out of the Truck Stop for not taking drugs (Fishkin’s story) or because he didn’t like the band’s drug scene (Todd, natch).
His next stop was what he calls “high concept,” a very Beatle-y trip to include singer-organist Stewkey (from the group Elizabeth), bass guitarist, occasional songwriter, and old friend Carson Van Osten, and ex-Munchkins drummer Thom Mooney. Stewkey remembers that it was Todd and Carson who formulated the idea for Nazz, then recruited him and Mooney to complete the band. As Nazz, they eventually released the first so-called progressive rock record out of Philadelphia (“Open My Eyes” b/w “Hello It’s Me”) and, with the debut album Nazz, defined an entirely new 1967 sound that could be described in today’s terminology as “power pop.”
“Nazz was a high concept band,” reiterates Rundgren. “We emulated a lot of English bands like the Who and Small Faces and really wanted to be as big as the Beatles, so we conceptualized everything on that level. The music was designed to have more of a common denominator, play more of an eclectic thing – a lot more vocals than what was happening at the time. At the time, everything was endless guitar solos. We had long conceptual songs, but even those were a high level of composition, as opposed to dropping acid and jamming.”
But was it just guitar solos and acid? Few of the bands, local or otherwise, who played Philly’s psychedelic showplaces like the Trauma, the Electric Factory, and the Second Fret coffeehouse even dented the charts with their extended paeans to the new consciousness. A glance at any one of the Top 100 lists of the late ’60s would reveal the Beatles at the height of their power, the Who slipping in every once in a while, and American groups like the Grass Roots, the Union Gap, and Paul Revere and the Raiders taking their turns with alarming regularity. If anything, Nazz’s neo-Whoish energy wedded with Rundgren’s gift for writing inescapable melodic hooks should have made them prime contenders.
“Well, Nazz wasn’t really counter to things that were happening,” he’ll say, implying that maybe it was more the creative atmosphere which was at fault.
“As I recall, a lot of my influences at the time were popular, but in other aspects. Like Jimmy Webb and the type of things he was doing influenced me to write ‘A Beautiful Song’ (the extended orchestral opus on Nazz Nazz). It’s just that we were joining a lot of disparate influences in the Nazz and it was a combination that wasn’t necessarily accessible.
“It’s also conceivable that the Nazz could have been more successful if our management had been a little more realistic. If we had played around more consistently and had a chance to develop our performance to the extent that we were developing our recording, then things might have happened differently. But our manager had this theory that if we had played around too much, we would establish ourselves as having a ‘low’ price tag. He was very money-oriented, mostly because he spent money at an incredible rate.”
So even with the first album, Nazz were left to their own devises. Despite production credits for Chicago producer Bill Traut (Shadows of Knight, etc.) and, on “Open My Eyes” and “Hello It’s Me,” Michael Friedman, Rundgren says that Nazz went the whole thing alone. “He (Traut) just sat there and read the trades while we were working. Then he mixed the album and a couple of hours later flew back to Chicago. We wound up remixing the whole album anyway. Michael Friedman was the partner of our manager at the time and he just wanted to have his name on the record somewhere. But all he did was sit around…”
…and read the trades, no doubt. But the end result soon obscured any of the shit flying around in the managerial arena. Nazz was and still is a refreshing, uplifting experience, totally lacking in artistic pretension. The rock (“Open My Eyes,” “Lemming Song,” “When I Get My Plane”) is raw at the core with a distinctive and imaginative polish to complement the gentility of ballads like “If That’s the Way You Feel” and “Hello It’s Me” (still an undeniable classic reflecting the urban soul colorings of Rundgren’s musical upbringing). Only “Crowded” bears compositional credits other than Todd’s (“Wildwood Song” is a group effort), in this case Stewkey and Thom Mooney. So while Nazz was not totally a Rundgren showcase, it set an auspicious example for the future.
Somebody then had the ingenious notion of sending Nazz to London in the fall of ’68 for recording purposes, sheer brilliance when you consider the wealth of English influences displayed on Nazz (the opening chords from “Open My Eyes” are straight out of the Who’s “I Can’t Explain”). Work permits being what they are, Nazz finished only one track in their two weeks there – a Carson Van Osten song called “Christopher Columbus” that later showed up in re-recorded form on Nazz III. (The original version of “Christopher Columbus” along with a different studio take of “Open My Eyes” can be heard on The Todd Rundgren Radio Show, a 1972 Bearsville promotional issue.) Nazz then headed for California’s sunny climes to do the second album and there the problems began in earnest.
“The Nazz always had internal problems, personality conflicts. For instance, the lead singer, Stewkey, was not inspired to do a lot except sing. Originally he was supposed to be an organ player, but he never practiced organ. I had been playing piano in the meantime and subsequently, by the time we got to the second record, I ended up doing most of the keyboard work.
“The drummer, Thom, and I had constant conflicts of an ego nature that had nothing to do with the professional direction of the band. We would get in the studio and if I were to say ‘play it this way,’ he would purposely play it another way, just to keep things going. By the time we got to the second album, we were just stomping in and out of the studio, fights all the time and shit like that. It was not the best set-up internally.”
Stewkey takes some exception to Todd’s criticisms, concurring that, yes, there were internal problems but Todd was just as much a part of the proceedings. As for his own role as organ player, “Todd knew that I didn’t play well. I never took piano lessons or anything. I just started to play as a music fill-in at the time. And I proceeded to get into the singing aspect of it. I never thought I was meant to be a virtuoso.” He does, however, play all of the ivories heard on Nazz.
When queried about Todd’s domineering role as composer, arranger, and de facto producer, Stewkey claims that ‘Todd always felt like he was the only one anyway. It got to a point where we weren’t even important anymore. On the second album, for instance, there are some tunes that I’d never heard before I even got into the studio. He would be off by himself and we didn’t even know what he was doing. A lot of hassles went down with the band and he just separated himself from them.”
For Rundgren, though, the breaking point came with a controversy involving the group’s second album, released in 1969 as Nazz Nazz. As he explains it, all of the material found on both Nazz Nazz and Nazz III came from the same 1968 Hollywood sessions, done after Nazz returned from London. Together they would comprise a double album – at least, he thought so – entitled Fungo Bat. (“We were really getting out there…” – Todd.) But the real bone of contention for Todd was the fact that on most of the Nazz III tracks he, not Stewkey, had originally sung lead vocals.
“I wanted that record to be a double album, including all the material. In fact, we had a whole double album mix. Somewhere around here” – Rundgren gestures casually across his living room – “I have the lacquers or the master tapes of it.
“But they (meaning a combination of band members and record company higher-ups) decided to make it a single album and on the songs I sang removed my voice from the master tapes and put Stewkey on instead. That became Nazz III.”
Yet Stewkey was just as surprised to see Nazz III in a record store in Madison, Wisconsin almost two years later. Regarding the erasure of Todd’s voice from the tapes he comments, “They just didn’t sound good as far as I was concerned.” “First of all, I didn’t want a double album. I thought it was bad timing – we had a hard enough time selling a single one. And a lot of that material on Nazz III shouldn’t have come out.”
If that was the case, why bother to overdub the new vocals? “They – the record company and the people involved in it – wanted me to.”
While Rundgren claims that was only one of the points of dispute within Nazz, the Nazz Nazz controversy was his last. He and Carson Van Osten took their leave almost simultaneously. “Carson was a pretty mellow, easy-going guy and just didn’t like the situation,” says Todd. “I split shortly after that.”
Stewkey and Thom Mooney kept a version of Nazz alive until mid-1970, when Mooney split for California (only to resurface briefly on albums by the Curtis Brothers and Tattoo with ex-Raspberry Wally Bryson). Carson retired to a promising career as an animation artist, Stewkey eventually hooked up with Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen for a couple of short-lived projects, and Todd set his sights on production work. With hardly more than two years and three mildly successful records to show for them, Nazz dissolved without a whimper. Easily years ahead of their time, they swam upstream in a river of sonic psychodaisical jive that, with their Marshall stacks and tie-dyed shirts, had no time for classic pop melodies. Today, the rock’n’roll pundits would call it power pop and “Open My Eyes” would be a Top 10 charter all over again. Or would it?
Stewkey: “We went too fast. I think if we had played around and functioned like any band that takes two or three years to get up the ladder, we would have hit really big.”
Todd: “If Nazz were together now, it would be really sick!”
Promise ‘Em Something, Promise ‘Em Anything, But Give ‘Em the Hits
Ironic, isn’t it? Todd Rundgren’s latest solo opus, Hermit of Mink Hollow, currently garners more airplay and public attention within a month of release than most of his recorded output since the puzzling Wizard. Both the solo and Utopian Rundgrens have been making undeniably curious if not totally accessible music for nigh on those ensuing five years and while even Todd admits to certain flaws in the flow, he won’t even recognize criticisms of his refusal to follow the pop path laid out by the gold record success of 1972’s Something/Anything. Add to that a prestigious track record of hits produced for other folks and you wonder where one – Todd, Runt, Utopia, etc. – ends and the other begins. They all, in fact, begin in 1969.
More interested in “developing a musical style without having to deal with someone’s reaction to it,” Rundgren passed on both forming a band and going solo in order to acquaint himself with the wonders of the studio. It would be fair enough, then, to say that Rundgren’s decision to head straight off for the console instead of the microphone has colored his solo and group activity since. Although his voice has become almost immediately recognizable, all Rundgren records possess a studio gleam, a definitive “sound” that can only be his, and the same goes for, among others, the Hall and Oates, Grand Funk, and Meatloaf records he has produced with variable success. Whatever the content, however recorded, they all literally scream “Rundgren.”
About his “sound” Todd says, “It’s very hard for me to describe it in words, but I know the difference between the way I produce and the way other producers work. For instance, my main area is in terms of the sound and the arrangements can vary very broadly. For example, I probably do the widest variety of types of production of almost any producer – country, blues, jazz-rock, straight-ahead rock’n’roll, nearly MOR, and then my own albums. That’s opposed to, say, Richard Perry who only does a certain MOR-type of album. He uses the same musicians, exact same drum sound – it sounds like a Richard Perry record with a different lead singer on it.”
Todd describes his first production assignment, a Philly band called the American Dream, as a “chance to learn certain basics” which proved beneficial in more ways than one. With the 1969 job came the opportunity to christen the just-opened Record Plant in New York. A brand new console and similarly shiny new equipment presented considerable deterrents for the three or four engineers who tried their hands at the Dream album. Finally, Todd took the matter into his own eager hands, working the board and subsequently learning the most advantageous thing you could possibly know as a budding young producer – how to engineer.
That ability allows him maximum control when recording himself or Utopia. Still, he insists that recording all by your lonesome – instruments, vocals, the works – is no big deal if you know your way around the limitations. Most of the instrumental and vocal work on his first two solo works, Runt (1970) and The Ballad of Todd Rundgren (1971), were his own with only rhythmic help from the Sales brothers (Hunt and Tony), some guys from the Band, and on one Runt track, from the American Dream.
In fact, Runt was recorded on speculation by Todd after Bearsville Records, for whom he was staff producer, gave him a budget (“as a concession”) and told him, literally, to go make an album. Prior to this, Todd had done some writing, little outside playing, and a lot of session-engineering, including the Band’s Stage Fright. Apparently Bearsville expected nothing much above the ordinary because, as Todd tells it, “when I brought back Runt, they were more or less shocked that I had actually done it and that it displayed a certain amount of originality. So they signed me up after the album was finished.” Nine months later, Bearsville figured they had some hot property. Through the good promotional offices of the aforementioned Paul Fishkin, “We Gotta Get You a Woman” (written for and about Fishkin) went Top 10 and everybody waited with baited breath for the follow-up. But The Ballad Of… spawned no hits, even if the stuff of which they are made was there in spades, and went on to an all-time sales dive for Todd. “That was my least successful album in terms of sales, although people say it is the most coherent in terms of songwriting and nowadays could be one of your across-the-board MOR-type records. But at the time it wasn’t fashionable. Nothing I do is fashionable at the time I do it.”
But if The Ballad of Todd Rundgren is an album Billy Joel would kill to call his own, then Something/Anything is the best album Paul McCartney never made and, in retrospect, it is easy to see how S/A can be singled out by (generally former) fans as the quintessential Todd, the absolute height of his melodic and lyrical powers. Here was a four-sided, 24-song declaration of independent genius, further set aside from the mainstream by two common denominator hits, the extraordinary “I Saw the Light” and a re-recording of “Hello It’s Me,” and, as Todd calls it in the liner notes for side one, “a bouquet of ear-catching melodies.” Besides, recording it was a cinch.
“I originally planned to do Something/ Anything all myself because on the previous albums I did everything except the bass and drums – the bass just being sort of a big guitar and the drums I had sort of fooled around with to some extent.
“The only challenge in doing that was playing the drums. Since everything was so highly arranged, it didn’t amount to a lot of complexity. It was essentially just arrangements, which was no problem for me. Y’know, sit down, take a half hour, and work out the part. After that, it was easy. “You usually start with the drums and it’s hard to play the drums to nothing, the reason being that halfway between the song you forget where you are. It’s hard going through the song, trying to sing it all to yourself, the whole arrangement, and keep it in your head without getting lost. And a lot of times, I would have to use an edit or two to get through the song. I’d forget and stop, but the first part would be so good that I couldn’t do it over again. I’d start in the middle, edit it together, and overdub everything from there.
“Since then, I’ve been influenced by a lot of R&B drum players, so the style’s a little different, a little more syncopated, more complicated turn-arounds and things like that. On Something/Anything, for the most part, I was playing rhythm, whereas on my new album, I’m playing, to some degree, what they call “melodic rhythm.”
“The operetta (‘Baby Needs a New Pair of Snakeskin Boots’) only took a day or so to do – three songs in one session and the rest in another. The other three sides only took like three weeks to do. I would essentially do a track a day, working on some stuff at home on the 8-track. I did ‘Breathless’ and ‘One More Day’ at home.
“I can’t remember, but I think Something/Anything was conceived as a single album and just turned into a double. I was writing material so fast that it became a double album. That was one reason why I changed my style so radically on the next album – because it just became too simple to write songs like that, almost mechanical. I would sit down at the piano and there would just be standard changes and combinations and lyrically it was the same subject matter. I had to break out of that rut. I didn’t feel I was doing myself creative justice.”
Ooops! Wrong Rundgren!
“In terms of cycles, I guess my apogee is their perigee and vice versa. I’m just cyclically 180-degree off from whatever else is happening. But it’s a big world and there’s a lot of people in the same boat as me and somebody’s gotta appeal to them.”
If only by default, that somebody is Rundgren, a rationalization that accounts for the continued release of records bearing his name, even if the general public and press corps eye each waxen item with the suspicion that there is something on that record they want little or no part of. To some, it’s the frantic instrumental deluge marking “A Treatise on Cosmic Fire,” a 30-minute epic from Initiation which Todd admits will appeal “to very few people that aren’t musicians. It appeals to musicians who want to hear something different as well as on a technical level, particularly people who are more or less removed from the mainstream of pop music.”
To others, the idealistic sociology coloring his Utopian lyrics should have nothing to do with the business of making popular music, a criticism that Todd vehemently denies. In again referring to the roundly panned Initiation, he insists that, like with any record or song, “I was determined to write lyrics entirely about something I believed in, rather than something I simply speculated about or had idle thought about.” The success and subsequent constant critical referrals to Something/Anything drained him, at least temporarily, of the urge to write love songs of the moon-June-spoon variety. A Wizard, A True Star and Utopia were the almost disastrous result.
“After doing Something/Anything, I had become deeply involved with production and sound. From that, I conceptualized this whole recording studio and built it from scratch. That was Secret Sound in New York and Wizard was the first album done there. The studio was designed to be able to produce all these sonic illusions and the whole Wizard album was an attempt to do that.”
A collection of songlets ranging from the fluid electronic backdrop of “International Feel” to the hard pull of those Philly-soul roots in the “Cool Jerk/Smokey Robinson/Curtis Mayfield medley, Wizard was certainly, as Rundgren indulges in characteristic understatement, “the most radical departure that I’d made up to that point.” His follow-up to Something/Anything, it could not help but alienate his substantial singles-buying audience. And the album scarfers had a time of it, too, something for which the aborted first Utopia tour can be properly blamed.
Undertaken in the spring of ’73 and lasting no more than three gigs, the first Utopia tour was an unmitigated bomb. Even in his hometown, Rundgren found few believers and while he admits that not a lot of folks had yet made the transition from S/A to Wizard, he feels it might have worked if his manager at the time, Albert Grossman (Dylan, Band, etc.) had shown a little more faith in financing the stage extravaganza. Still, survivors of the Philadelphia show opened appropriately by King Crimson can only babble about lengthy Mahavishnu-like jams, a large dome under which M. Frog conducted extensive business on synthesizer, and the black outfits offset by shocks of white fur on top of each and every head. It was trouble enough telling Rundgren from Moogy Klingman, much less sitting back and trying to catch a few bonafide songs.
Since then, Utopia – now a streamlined four-piece with Todd the only original left, in the company of Roger Powell, Kasim Sulton, and John Wilcox – has developed a stage show so high on P.T. Barnum showmanship that it’s no small wonder that Utopia’s tours are underwritten by record advances and royalties. Despite that, Rundgren says that all the Utopia records have been performance-inspired. “In all cases, the material was either performed live first or was designed to highlight the stage show, as with the Ra album and the sphinx and pyramid staging that went with it.”
But for every Utopia album, there is a solo Rundgren issue, a pattern to which he has no explanation. “Actually, Faithful preceded Ra by a considerable stretch of time and then after Ra, there was Ooops! Wrong Planet! which was another Utopia album. You see, I’d been pretty much totally involved with the Utopia road concept and, as a result, didn’t record a Todd Rundgren record in something like two years. We’ve been touring extensively, so our records have reflected our touring experience, whereas my solo albums are more or less closed environment things.”
The latest in the lengthening line of Rundgren solo projects, Hermit of Mink Hollow takes that assessment to its logical conclusion. Where Todd, Initiation, and Faithful were all recorded with a variety of Utopians and sympathetic outsiders, Hermit takes Something/Anything that final step further – it was produced, arranged, written, played, and sung by Todd R. with the unsolicited help of absolutely no one. What that has to do with the fact that it is his most immediately accessible album since S/A is anybody’s guess. Even Todd’s.
“In my solo albums, except for a few instances, I have always dealt in song styles. Initiation had at least one side of songs. Todd was very song-related, too, although it incorporated the instrumental stuff that came to a head on Initiation. Wizard was more like songlets, an attempt to break certain restrictions in songwriting. Faithful was all songs as well. In fact, Faithful was the penultimate song album in a way because I took archetypal songs of the ’60s like ‘Good Vibrations’ and ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and reviewed those with a ’70s approach. Then on the ‘original’ side, I did my interpretation of those ’60s influences. So, for me, that was the ultimate song album, totally self-conscious song stylizations.
“As for the recent album, I wrote songs as an opportunity for me to sing as opposed to playing, which is what I mostly do with Utopia. It is a chance to do a number of different styles of singing and essentially highlight my voice.”
Case in point is the opening track, “All the Children Sing,” a light, harmonic exercise of vocal expertise overlaying a rhythm track of guitars, basic bottom, and harpsichord. The choral break in the middle, though, is a classic example of Rundgren’s studio methodology. You think you hear about a dozen little Rundgren’s ooh-aahing in the background when, in fact, Todd has overdubbed himself maybe three times to achieve the effect. And the same goes for the lead vocal harmonies. “When I do vocals, I essentially have a lead voice and three background .voices. The way that they are arranged is what gives you the impression that there are more or less. Essentially, it’s studio dressing. I used to double each voice in the background vocals. Now I just do them all with one voice. So there are actually less voices than there have been on previous albums. But the point is that I have different vocal control now and there is different technology for creating sound…” Here he pauses, as if to think of a way to summarize the recorded effect, “…sound-picture sound.” Technology not withstanding, Hermit of Mink Hollow literally glows with melodic light, a vivid aurora borealis of lyrical changes, high harmonies, and instrumental gloss. “Hurting For You,” “Bag Lady,” “Bread,” and “Fade Away” are all living testament, not only to Todd’s wizardly control of the mixer, but also to write songs that, despite possessing the obvious hooks upon which commercial success is hung, are head and shoulders above the AM and FM wallpaper against which Rundgren incessantly rails.
“Any record company executive now will tell you that people don’t listen to music and that’s what music now is designed to be — not listened to. It’s essentially wallpaper and people don’t want to hear music that puts them through an emotional trip, some kind of spectrum of feelings.”
On that account, notice the legend appearing on each side of your copy of Hermit. Side one is tagged “The Easy Side,” side two “The Difficult Side.” Be not dismayed because Todd assures you that this is merely a clever “in” joke. He explains that when he first delivered the album to Bearsville for release, the twelve songs were in an entirely different order. However, the company felt that demographic theories on such matters made a difference in his case (“These different theories on such matters made a difference in his case (“These different theories about listener response are supposed to override whatever it is you intended, the mood you want to create.”). Bearsville prexy Paul Fishkin feels that Rundgren “could make those changes and not affect the album as a whole, but he considers it meddling.”
In any case, Bearsville presented Todd with a list of songs they felt would program better together on one side (“Those tunes acceptable on the MOR crossover theorem…”) with the ones they figured were too challenging – in other words, annoying and grating” on the other. Hence, “Easy” and “Difficult.”
“The funny thing is that it makes no difference to me whatever. The only reason I did it was because, in that particular instance, it made no difference to me. I don’t know what the fuck they were talking about. So I did it, figuring it was their particular wank and they can think what they want.
“You see, record companies just sell the record, so they say it can be done. But it’s not their obligation to play it and then live with it once they do. That’s what is so hypocritical about the business. The artist has to live with what he creates. In that way, most things that record company people say to me goes in one ear and out the other.”
Todd’s relationship with Bearsville and the industry at large cannot be all that bad since he still makes records and at least gets them on the street, which is more than a lot of other die-hard idealists can say. And Fishkin admits to an undying respect for Todd’s independent stance. Still, respect doesn’t count in the $7.98 retail race.
“I guess,” he says in conclusion, “I’ll always be a revolutionary because I don’t want to be part of the establishment. I don’t care who the establishment is, either. I just want the option to be exactly who I am and, as a result, I will always be on the outside.”
Meanwhile, Back in Philly…
What, I’m sure you’re all asking, happened to that post-Rundgren Nazz that went to Dallas and eventually went the way of all has-beens? And what does Cheap Trick have to do with it?
Yes, these are questions to which you no doubt want the answers and ex-Nazz lead singer Stewkey was more than happy to oblige.
“After Todd and Carson quit the band, Thom Mooney and I went to Dallas bringing two people with us from Philly, a bass player named Greg Simpler and a guitar player named Craig Bolan, who used to play with Thom a long time ago in the Munchkins. As the Nazz, we played around the Southwest. We tried to hook up with some management people out there, but that didn’t work out. So we finally disbanded the group after about six or seven months. That was in mid-1970.
“Thom went to California, while I stayed in Texas. Maybe a year or so later, I got a phone call from Rick Nielsen. He wanted to know if I wanted to come to Illinois to sing with his band. So I went up there and sang with his band – it was called Fuse at the time.”
This version of Fuse came together after their lone Epic album (of which Nielsen has little good to say), was recorded. According to Stewkey, Thom Mooney played with Fuse for a time in Illinois, but left again, and eventually Fuse headed to Philadelphia and were rechristened Sick Man of Europe. The personnel changed with some regularity, with the band including at times Nielsen, Stewkey, Tom Petersson (also of Cheap Trick), and Philadelphians Hank Ransome (longtime Philly drummer) and Cotton Kent (jazz-rocker and Sigma Sound session regular). As Sick Man of Europe, they recorded a number of demos which have since turned up on a bootleg album, Retrospective Foresight, as a collection of Nazz out-takes, although most of the tracks actually aren’t. It actually features Nazz III tracks, a live take of “Open My Eyes” that Stewkey thinks might be the Texan Nazz, and rough takes of “Lemming Song” and “Train Kept a ‘Rollin’.” The Sick Man of Europe tunes on the record are “I Ain’t Got You” (a Stewkey original), “He Was” (another Stewkey comp), and Nielsen’s “So Good to See You” (billed there as “Ready I Am”).
In any case, Sick Man eventually brought in a drummer from Illinois (not Bun E. Carlos) whose name Stewkey can’t remember. And then…
“I don’t know. I left again. Actually, I got fired. I just had bad luck with two bands.”
Stewkey is now living in Philadelphia, doing sporadic writing and, for awhile, was gigging acoustically in a duo. When asked about his personal relationship with Todd during the Nazz period, he refers back to Todd’s aversion to drugs.
“When I was playing with Todd when Nazz was first together, I’d like to go out and get high. And he didn’t like that. I thought Todd really got impossible after awhile. If we weren’t working and I wanted to go out and see a chick or get high with a couple of friends, he’d really get upset about that. Which I didn’t understand. Y’know, people like to have fun, Todd.”
From a copy of Todd Rundgren’s 1973 album A Wizard, A True Star, which included a Patti “Band-Aid” poem. It’s 3-1/4″ by 12-1/2″, the background was a pinkish bandaid, and the poem was printed in green ink, in her handwriting…
by patti smith
They can not harm me
They can not harm me
They can only
burn out my eyes
beat my limbs
black and blue
legs cant run
hands cant play
face cant sing
cant sing cant say
They can not harm me
They can only
turn in my eyes
rip out my teeth
spit pure ivory
carve my face like a clock
alarm me clock clock me
bleed me scape goat me
chain me to a rock me
rock me rock me
clever as a fox me
brand a star on/my left shoulder
a star on my left
clever as a fox
my spirit lights
behind the boulder
holding to my name forever
Knowing I’ll go on forever
Spirit laughing free as water
in a ring of fire
with its hair aflame
Notes on the actual print of this poem…
Looking at the pink “bandaid” print, there is a drawing in it of a woman,
hair aflame, behind a boulder. There is writing above her that says:
revenge is golden. silence is shit.
On the boulder is written:
Then down below it says:
Taken from the German TV show Rockpalast…
Note: The picture quality on this is not the greatest. sorry…
Written for Rolling Stone (issue #89) by Patti Smith (pre-recording career), Aug. 19, 1971…
The runt in any good litter or legend always manages to rise up and above the limits imposed on him. Like Mozart, Todd Rundgren never wanted to be born; his mother labored hard to put him here and he’s fought hard to singe his musical autograph in the progressive pages of rock & roll.
Now after a couple of years of rock plodding in sleazy Wildwood, N.J., dives, a flashy fizz called Nazz and an underrated streaming rockin’ autobiography called Runt, Todd is at last enforcing his position as a producer-composer with the ballad.
A ballad is a story set to music; usually a tale of woe–a horse thief, a hanging and a weeping girl. Todd’s music is layered and intricate but his lyrics are easy; containing all the tragic ballad elements only the subjects are real contemporary. He has the ability to devour and juggle the best of what has passed and shoot it into future perfect.
“Long Flowing Robe” is an elegantly arranged cinderella story, only much dirtier. It also has the great 1958 school-dance cruising overtones Bobby Day voiced in his “… I said over and over and over again, this dance is gonna be a drag.” “Range War” is reminiscent of the notorious Hatfield and McCoy feud, only again, much dirtier.
“The Ballad of Denny and Jean” and “Wailing Wall” are more personal and float in more tears than all the children in the world. The “Ballad” drifts through real beautiful music, further saddened by Waldo the singing guitar and the pain of corruption in original love.
A ballad is a song to dance to. There’s a lot of good music, rock & roll slow dance music. About a quarter of the album consists of good grind songs. Especially fine is “Hope I’m Around,” which hit me as hard as any of the great grinders of the late Fifties. Critics tend to question Todd’s commercial value and have labeled him as too esoteric but in truth he is one of the few people around who are still writing and singing songs like they used to, along with Smokey Robinson and Ronnie Spector. His voice too is both unique and nostalgic; sometimes as slick as a Las Vegas choir boy, and often strained and honest as back street acappella.
“Parole” is the most bitchin’ track, bringing back memories of Bobby Fuller’s “I Fought the Law.” “Parole” hits out with hot prison jargon: “If they catch me out of line .. I’ll be down in the slammer” escaping with “.. guitars, guitars, guitars, electric clavinette and plenty of sweat.”
As “Parole” testifies, as well as “Devil’s Bite” and “Who’s that Man” on Runt, Todd pulses rock & roll, though it’s evident from tracks like “Boat on the Charles” and “Chain Letter” he’s a composer at heart, a sort of rock & roll Ravel. “Boat on the Charles” has a cinematic feel a real motion media cut. It has the most atmosphere produced around it: fog, despair and a truck going south on New Year’s Eve. Listening to it is like going through a little movie .. plunging into the Charles with the anti-hero as the ferry passes by.
Though he has always created from the best of a pre-formed world, he is slowly enveloping these sources with his personal vision. “Chain Letter” is the cut which most seems to reflect this vision. The lyrics have his typical left-handed optimism and just when they get jaded the track opens up; and multiplies, as Hey Jude did. But “Chain Letter” has more balls and goes through several changes while “Hey Jude” never went past spirited repetition.
If the album seems unbalanced it is after all the ballad album, yet not without comic relief. Todd releases a little protest through some good ole sick ‘n’ sleazy satire in “Bleeding”; with the aid of some beer can percussion from that noted satanic drummer N.D. Smart: “Be a big man Take up that gun If you lose your hand. You got another one …”
Todd Rundgren has a fine hand in everything. For the Ballad he mixes his hard-edge comic book humor with the various musical colors of the putney; produced in a sort of warped rock space that most people have still failed to enter.
About a hundred years ago the runt of a Sioux tribe breathed his visions on his people. They dropped that runt crap and crowned him Crazy Horse. I think it’s time “runt” be dropped from Todd Rundgren.