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.