David Fricke’s recent Rolling Stone review (from the Jan. 14, 2016 issue) of David Bowie’s brilliant new album, released yesterday…
Bowie Stares Deep Into the Void
The arty, unsettling Blackstar is Bowie’s best anti-pop masterpiece since the Seventies.
Three years ago, with little warning, David Bowie ended a decade-long break from studio releases with The Next Day. The second album he’s released since that unexpected return to the limelight is an even greater surprise: one of the most aggressively experimental records the singer has ever made. Produced with longtime collaborator Tony Visconti and cut with a small combo of New York-based jazz musicians whose sound is wreathed in arctic electronics, Blackstar (★) is a ricochet of textural eccentricity and pictorial-shrapnel writing. It’s confounding on first impact: the firm swing and giddy vulgarity of “‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore”; Bowie’s croons and groans, like a doo-wop Kraftwerk, in the sexual dystopia of “Girl Loves Me”; the spare beaten-spirit soul of “Dollar Days.” But the mounting effect is wickedly compelling. This album represents Bowie’s most fulfilling spin away from glam-legend pop charm since 1977’s Low. Blackstar is that strange, and that good.
The longest reach is up front, in the episodic, ceremonial noir of the title track. Bowie’s gauzy vocal prayer and wordless spectral harmonies hover over drum seizures; saxophonist Donny McCaslin laces the stutter and chill like Andy Mackay in early-Seventies Roxy Music. The song drops to a blues-ballad stroll, but it is an eerie calm with unsettling allusions to violent sacrifice, especially given recent events. (No who or why is specified, but McCaslin has said the song is “about ISIS.”) “Something happened on the day he died/Spirit rose a meter, then stepped aside,” Bowie sings with what sounds like numbed grace. “Somebody else took his place and bravely cried: I’m a blackstar.” His use of an ideogram for the album’s title makes sense here – there is no light at the end of this tale.
The album includes a dynamic honing of Bowie’s 2014 single “Sue (or in a Season of Crime)” with less brass and more malevolent programming; the title song from his current off-Broadway musical production, Lazarus (that’s Bowie firing those grunting blasts of guitar); and a blunt honesty at the finish. Bowie turns 69 on January 8th, the day Blackstar comes out. In “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” he states his case for the dignity of distance – his refusal to tour (so far) and engage with the media circus – against guitarist Ben Monder’s lacerating soprano-fuzz guitar, a sly evocation of Robert Fripp’s iconic soloing in 1977’s “Heroes.” “This is all I ever meant/That’s the message that I sent,” Bowie sings in a voice largely free of effects – clear, elegant and emphatic. This is a rock star who gives when he’s ready – and still gives to extremes. (RS RS 1252)
This comes from the Aug. 29th and latest issue of Rolling Stone, written by the great David Fricke…
Dylan Repaints Self Portrait
What is this great shit? With brilliant box set, Dylan reclaims his weirdest record.
This two-CD set of previously unissued demos, alternate takes, scrapped arrangements and discarded songs from more than 40 years ago is one of the most important, coherent and fulfilling Bob Dylan albums ever released. The performances are immediate and invigorating, often in spare, buoyant arrangements with clear, virile singing. Despite the vintage, or maybe because it’s all been hidden for so long, everything here feels like new music, busy being born and put to tape with crisp impatience. “Let’s just take this one,” Dylan says before a take of the traditional ballad “Little Sadie,” one of 17 raw, magnetic tracks from a single three-day sprint with guitarist David Bromberg and pianist Al Kooper in March 1970. Dylan was, in fact, on the verge of a crossroads: the widely scorned double LP Self Portrait, issued three months later. He sounds eager to get there.
That album is still tough going: a frank, confrontational likeness of the artist at 29 and loose ends, crooning folk tunes, pure corn and odd, plaintive originals, mostly through thick Nashville syrup. There may be no better description of Dylan at the close of his first, whirlwind decade, exhausted and uncertain of his way into the next, than Self Portrait‘s opening mantra, sung in his place by a group of country-gospel angels: “All the tired horses in the sun/How’m I supposed to get any ridin’ done?”
Self Portrait and the country-folk assurance of its late-’70 follow-up, New Morning, were actually part of a long, connected act of self-examination and re-ignition. Most of Another Self Portrait comes from those sessions, highlighting Dylan’s breadth of drive at a time when many thought he had no direction forward. The horns on this set’s “New Morning” are busy in the verses but a delightful Stax-like reveille in the chorus, while a pre-overdub version of Self Portrait‘s ghost story “Days of ’49” has more room for the haunting in Dylan’s voice. “I contemplated every move, or at least I tried,” he sings in a moving take of “Went to See the Gypsy,” effectively summing up this period in a line he then cut from the song on New Morning.
Dylan was no writing engine that year. The few previously unissued originals here are quirky pleasures (the shaggy-dog dada of “Tattle O’Day”). But the music is consistently alive and astonishingly modern. The honky-tonk walk “Alberta #3” could have been cut for last year’s Tempest. The exploration of different roads in the same song; the restorative power Dylan draws from traditional sources like “House Carpenter,” a song in this set that he first cut in 1962: Dylan still makes his best work that way. The difference here: He did it, then gave us something else.
A deluxe edition of this set has Dylan’s 1969 Isle of Wight concert with the Band, a romping affair (excerpted on Self Portrait) that, except for the mileage on Dylan’s voice now, doesn’t sound that distant from his shows of the past 20 years. There is also a remastered Self Portrait, an instructive bonus if you’ve never heard it. But you won’t go back to it that often. There will be no need.
A Nov. 28, 1981 Melody Maker article on Bill Laswell’s avant-rock band Material by none other than David Fricke…
“We completely confuse people and they think that’s one of the most wonderful things about us. We move ahead. Fuck them if they’re still in the same space where we were yesterday.”
– Michael Beinhorn
It seems like only yesterday. In fact, it’s last April. AtNew York’s now-defunct Hurrah, where a sparse but self-consciously hip crowd drifts through the smoke and shadows like beatnik ghosts, a Massacre is in session. Avant-garde guitar strategist Fred Frith is firing on all six strings, slicing the murky air in front of the stage with sharp metallic chords and steely leads of alien composition. Beneath and behind him, bassist Bill Laswell and drummer Fred Maher – banging away with a vengeance and wisdom beyond his 18 years – hold tight to a gripping beat that for the most part seems 4/4 only by association.
Laswell, whose bass seems to speak in tongues, and (for the time being) Maher are actually two-thirds of another ensemble,New Yorkfusion mavericks Material. Frith is a long-time friend and collaborator with Material. Together, they moonlight as Massacre. Tonight, they encore with a radically customized version of “Apache”. Only a few days later, Material proper opens for James Blood Ulmer at the cavernousManhattandisco Bonds. A group of musicians under that name play musical structures written for and associated with that name. Read the rest of this entry »
David Fricke wrote this review for the Nov. 2, 2006 issue of Rolling Stone about this quasi-bootleg 6-CD box set from Detroit’s nearly-forgotten, high-octane rock ‘n’ roll titans, Sonic’s Rendezvous Band…
MC5 guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith’s holy rank in the Detroit Church of High Energy Rock is sealed forever by the three albums he made with the 5, between 1969 and 1971, and one song, “City Slang,” that appeared in 1978 on both sides of the only single by his Seventies group, Sonic’s Rendezvous Band. SRB have long been a footnote instead of a chapter in the MC5 story. In the Seventies, while the 5 became legend and Bob Seger and Ted Nugent took Michigan rock to arena-ville, SRB – Smith, ex-Rationals singer-guitarist Scott Morgan, former Stooges drummer Scott Asheton and bassist Gary Rasmussen of the Up – played bars and high schools, opening local gigs for the Ramones and Smith’s future wife, Patti Smith. “City Slang” – 5:15 of assault guitars, railroad drumming and Smith’s determined rebel-call – has all you need to know why SRB were masters of their domain. But it was never enough.
The import box Sonic’s Rendezvous Band (Easy Action) corrects that with a vengeance: six CDs of live, demo and rehearsal tapes – most previously unavailable, even as bootlegs – plus the studio versions of “City Slang” and its intended B-side, Morgan’s “Electrophonic Tonic.” Two concert discs from 1975 and ‘76 (the first with original bassist W.R. Cooke) are rough in sound but show off the manic-white-Motown streak that Morgan, in particular, brought to SRB. The live CDs from ’78 – one from that Ramones date, the other a soundboard tape first released a few years ago on the Mack Aborn label – have SRB tearing with fine-tuned tension through songs from the greatest debut album never made: Smith’s “Sweet Nothin’” and “Do It Again,” Morgan’s “Asteroid B-612” and “Dangerous.” Discs Five and Six are of mixed fidelity and origin (the deluxe booklet lacks specific track annotation, although it has a detailed account of SRB’s history and breakup). But a highlight is the sixteen-minute “American Boy,” on which Smith plays a long, heated-raga solo on saxophone, evoking the MC5’s earlier holidays in the music of Sun Ra and Pharoah Sanders.
Sonic’s Rendezvous Bandcomes with its own controversy. On his web site, SRB road manager Freddie Brooks, who runs Mack Aborn, claims the box is a bootleg. Robert Matheu, the set’s executive producer, says in a Web interview that the surviving members were all involved and that he spoke with Smith’s son Jackson. (Fred died in 1994.) A credit line declares, “All tracks licensed exclusively from Sonic’s Rendezvous Band.” I’m not taking sides. I just want as much of the best of this band as I can get, in good faith and quality. Right now, this is what I have. And I am playing it. Loud.
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.”
David Fricke’s October 1982 Musician magazine review of the Captain’s final album…
It happens every two or three years. Captain Beefheart, easily rock’s most abused underdog, after fifteen years of beating his head against fame’s door, issues another of his brilliant, confounding vinyl missives — vivid demanding documents of colliding technicolor imagery, exhausting primal rhythms divided into bizarre fractious and alien instrumental eloquence and the critics cry “Breakthrough! Hitsville! This is the one!” The rock comics’ oracle has predicted Beefheart’s commercial triumph so many times it’s no wonder the AOR mind-slaves dismiss it as the empty bluster of a few dozen typewriting malcontents.
But just maybe this time he’s really pulled it off with this album’s breathless opening shot, “Ice Cream for Crow.” “Turn up the speakers / Hop flop sqwack / It’s a keeper,” Beefheart bellows in an awesome tubercular rap over new drummer Cliff Martinez’s whiplash boogie rush, roaring like a demon-possessed caller at some offworld square dance. The song’s double-time crack with the polyrhythmic fragments flying off Jeff Moris Tepper and Gary Lucas’s steely choogling guitars is guaranteed to liven up the platter selection at even the hippest rock disco, at once giant steps ahead of today’s plague of synthetic funk records, yet still deeply rooted in its elemental John Lee Hooker rasp and Beefheart’s glass-shattering Boy-oh-boy blues harp bursts.
And it you think I’m just crying wolf here, note that Epic Records which distributes Virgin is releasing “Ice Cream for Crow” as a single (with a non-LP instrumental B-side). The dance-floor beckons.
As a whole, Ice Cream for Crow — Beefheart’s twelfth album on his eighth label (if you include Epic and count Warner Bros. twice) is a spirited successor in the recent Shiny Beast and Doc at the Radar Station line of Trout Mask Replica-rooted experiments with some bold distinguishing marks. With the exception of “Ink Mathematics” and “The Witch Doctor Life,” in which his voice tumbles over the words in cracked growls, crusty croons and wizened trollish cackles, Beefheart does not so much sing here with his usual octave-defying bravado as rant, rave and rap like a poet in motion over the boiling beat cauldron of the Magic Band. He bitterly swallows the Molotov lyric cocktail of apocalyptic fear and barbed religious imagery in “The Host, the Ghost, the Most Holy-O” (“Why, not even a rustler’d have anything to do / With this branded bum steer world”), read in a stony monotone heavy with dread and scolding over Martinez’s choppy drumming and the guitar’s pleading whine. In a lighter mood is “Cardboard Cutout Sundown,” a typically Beetheartian word landscape of a picture-postcard desert evening intensified by the overlapping contrast of pointed melodic stabbing and altered Western twang in the Tepper-Lucas guitars.
Which is the other thing Ice Cream for Crow is all about — guitars and Beefheart’s inventive harmonies and voicings for the instrument. Consider Gary Lucas’s solo spot “Evening Bell,” an astonishing exercise (in the style of his brief Doc outing “Flavor Bud Living”) in knuckle-cracking inversions and flamenco trills played live on a Fender Strat (the bass sound is actually the low F string tuned down to D). Then consider that Lucas transcribed the piece note-for-note from a piano study by Beefheart. That combination – piano-based note clusters and jagged electric attack — gives the Magic Band’s ensemble guitar frolics a physical rock ‘n’ roll thrust belying the daunting complexity of Beefheart’s song structures. Which is one way of saying that “The Past Sure Is Tense” and the fearsome instrumental traffic jam underneath the free verse of “Hey Garland, I Dig Your Tweed Coat” both cook with smarts.
Ice Cream for Crow does not have the expanded orchestral colour of Doc (with its Stravinskian string synths), and at times Beefheart’s poet-speak takes on the tones of a lecture-in-rhyme. But with the rockum-sockum of the title track on one hand and the harrowing guitar stutter and Beefheart’s overdubbed crying-geese sax duet of “The Thousandth and Tenth Day of the Human Totem Pole” on the other, what you can’t dance to you won’t be able to ignore either. Maybe this won’t sell big. But like Beef heart says, if you’re gonna eat crow it might as well be ice cream. Dig right in.
This February 2001 preface to the book “The Savage Rose Story” by David Fricke talks about his lifelong love of this Danish psych band, and how Lester Bangs turned him on to them. Their album In the Plain has many excellent examples of psych madness…
It was the late, great rock critic Lester Bangs who made me a lifelong fan of the Savage Rose. He did it with a review of In the Plain, that ran in the October 18, 1969 issue of Rolling Stone. On page 42, to be exact.
“This is a rather peculiar album,” Bangs said before rolling out a set of juicy metaphors in praise of the singular electricity of the band’s powerhouse singer Anisette: “Grace Slick at 78 RPM”; “Minnie Mouse on a belladonna jag.” He also wrote about organ notes “pouring like star drifts down from vast black skies” and made flattering comparisons to old Bela Lugosi movie scores and the 1960s doo-wop exotica of Rosie and the Originals. “This group isn’t coming on in a blaze of glory,” Bangs signed off. “They are working very hard at the incredibly difficult process of learning to sing their own song.”
I knew what he meant when I heard In the Plain. The Savage Rose were a band of rare beauty and courage – formed in Denmark, singing in English but rapidly inventing their own rock & roll tongue, a new soul born of psychedelia, Beatlemania, Harlem gospel and European art song. In Anisette, the Savage Rose possessed an extraordinary instrument of confession and jubilation, a mighty R&B angel packed into a slender stick of hellfire. There was rich drama, too, in the group’s exquisite keyboard interplay, the avant-garage tension of their riffs and rhythms and the dynamic songwriting of Thomas and Anders Koppel.
I still shake with awe and relish when I listen to In the Plain – to the exuberant salvation song “Ride My Mountain” or the bittersweet gypsy dance “Evening’s Child.” I also think about what might have been. The Savage Rose seemed ripe for big things in America then. They shared the stage with Jethro Tull and James Brown at the 1969 Newport Jazz Festival; the albums Your Daily Gift and Refugee were underground sensations here. In his 1971 Rolling Stone review of Refugee, Lester Bangs cited it, alongside Who’s Next, as a reason to keep believing in the magic and life force of rock & roll.
I feel the same way about the Savage Rose music that has followed: the bluesy 1972 diamond, Babylon; the explosive title song of 1973’s Wild Child; the band’s powerful Danish-language reading of Thomas Koppel’s ballet score, Dødens Triumf (Triumph of Death); the 1984 set of acoustic political-action songs, Vi Kæmper For at Sejre (We Struggle for Victory). And I find sweet irony in the fact that while the Savage Rose are now remembered in America mostly as an acid-rock curio, a colorful echo of Europe’s hippie renaissance, Thomas and Anisette currently live in Los Angeles, where they are writing and recording some of the finest music of their lives. The Savage Rose are not prisoners of history – because they never stopped making it.
Lester Bangs died in 1982. I never got to thank him for turning me on to the Savage Rose. But a few years after his death, I found a worn, apparently well-loved first edition of The Savage Rose, the band’s Danish 1968 debut, in a used-record store in Greenwich Village. On the back cover, written in blue ink, was the name of the original owner: “Bangs.” That album now sits on my record shelf, right next to my original 1969 copy of In the Plain. I think he would appreciate that.
David Fricke’s May 17, 1990 Rolling Stone (issue #578) review of experimental guitarist Henry Kaiser’s live album of freewheeling improvisation, Heart’s Desire…
Guitarist Henry Kaiser wasn’t just blowing paisley smoke when he inscribed the words a psychedelic dance party on an advance tape of this album a few months back. Heart’s Desire is genuine fry-yer-mind fun. Recorded live with no studio funny business, it ping-pongs between heavy blooze, loony tunes and giddy acid jamming, rich with the motley strains of Jimi Hendrix, Richard Thompson, Captain Beefheart, Burt Bacharach and Karlheinz Stockhausen.
This double album (also available as a slightly abridged single CD) is actually an in-concert reprise of Kaiser’s 1988 covers LP, Those Who Know History Are Doomed to Repeat It, in which he hot-wired great lost hits by Beefheart and the Grateful Dead. Four History numbers, including the Dead’s epic “Dark Star,” reappear on Heart’s Desire. All but one of Kaiser’s present band mates also played on History; the new recruit is Dead keyboard alumnus Tom Constanten.
While History was a refined studio testament to psychedelia’s continuing vitality, the performances on Heart’s Desire capture the rough, exploratory spirit of a late set at the Fillmore. Neil Young’s song “The Loner,” Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billy Joe” and “Are You Experienced?” all get extended freakout treatment, with Kaiser and second guitarist Bruce Anderson going on long, turbulent solo tangents. Robbie Robertson’s “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)” climaxes with a shower of staccato guitar shrapnel, while Richard Thompson’s “Don’t Let a Thief Steal Into Your Heart” is taken at a hopped-up avant-bar band groove.
Of course, when anything goes, anything can go awry. “Anyone Who Had a Heart” gets an ill-advised blues-rock mauling; Constanten’s flat singing deep-sixes “The Ballad of Shane Muscatell.” Also, the dominance of distinguished covers here does not always flatter the band’s few originals. But whereas History was a conscious exercise in futurist psychedelia, this is a celebration of the free-flow performance style that characterized the ballroom glory days in San Francisco. Forget that tab of acid you’ve been saving for a rainy day – drop this on your Victrola instead and psych out to your heart’s desire.
July 1992 Rolling Stone review by longtime Oil champion David Fricke…
Never mind the Puget Sound, this is real guitar nirvana: crisp, catalytic agit-twang, pregnant with steely menace, shivering with skittish vibrato and erupting in enraged screams of ice-pick feedback. Midnight Oil is well known for its eco-political agenda, but Scream in Blue – culled from live performances dating back as far as 1982 – is the first Oils album devoted to the band’s sheer, stampeding force.
Eschewing greatest hits (“Beds Are Burning” excepted) for enduring show-time fireballs like “Sometimes,” from Diesel and Dust, and the prophetic “Powderworks,” from their 1978 debut album, the Oils damn the popcraft and turn up the rage. Vocalist Peter Garrett, a daunting presence even in sensitive-ballad gear, has to fight hard to ride the tide of the band’s Live at Leeds-ish attack, in particular the vigorous dogfighting guitars of Jim Moginie and Martin Rotsey. He barely gets a breath in edgewise amid the torrent of flinty power chords, Rob Hirst’s mulekick drumming and the brassy choral hurrahs in “Read About It.” “Only the Strong,” recorded at a 1982 show in Sydney during the band’s first flush of super-stardom in Australia, is an archetypal Oils stage raver, spiked with stop-start rhythms and spooky a cappella harmony breaks, while Moginie’s and Rotsey’s guitars echo Garrett’s vocal psychodrama with their own saw-toothed howls of indignation.
The orange-flame incandescence of these performances will be nothing new to anyone who’s been torched firsthand at an Oils gig. Recent converts swung over by the more refined agitation on Diesel and Dust and Blue Sky Mining may be taken aback by the clatter of the damn-near-atonal opening title track and the desperate hammering of “Progress” (recorded at the infamous 1990 lunchtime protest show at the foot of Exxon’s Manhattan HQ), but they’ll get over it. The noise is contagious, and the sense of purpose coursing through it has its own locomotive tug. The album actually ends with an unlisted, acoustic studio reprise of “Burnie,” from the 1981 LP Place Without a Postcard, but don’t be fooled by the throaty introspection in Garrett’s singing. The theme, as always, is No Surrender, the only difference is in the volume.
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.”