Space-rock hero teams with Norwegians on a far-out trip
An eclectically accomplished musician and studio virtuoso, Todd Rundgren has been recording for more than three decades. His musical career has gone from simple pop that never brought the success some critics felt he deserved (only one gold LP, Something/Anything?) to the more complex progressive rock of Utopia, which did gain Rundgren a devoted cult following. Through it all, this multi-instrumentalist has maintained a prolific sideline career as a producer; he must also be regarded as a pioneer of rock video, interactive CD, and Web-based music.
Rundgren began playing in a high-school band, Money, then went on to play with Woody's Truckstop in the mid-'60s (a tape recording of the latter makes a brief appearance on Something/Anything?). In 1967 he formed the Nazz [see entry], which, contrary to then-prevailing West Coast psychedelic trends, tried to replicate the look of Swinging London in its clothes, Mod haircuts, and Beatles-ish pop sound. In some ways the Nazz was ahead of its time, especially in terms of Rundgren's studio facility and the band's musical sophistication. But the quartet remained a local Philadelphia phenomenon, with one minor hit single, the original version of "Hello It's Me." The Nazz broke up in 1969, at which point Rundgren formed the studio band Runt and hit the Top 20 in 1971 with the single "We Gotta Get You a Woman."
By this time Rundgren had become associated with manager Albert Grossman, who let him produce for his new Bearsville label. By 1972 Rundgren had taken over production of Badfinger's Straight Up LP from George Harrison (who was involved with his Bangla Desh concerts) and had engineered the Band's Stage Fright and Jesse Winchester's self-titled 1971 LP, as well as produced records by the Hello People, bluesman James Cotton, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and Halfnelson (who later became Sparks). In 1973 he would produce the New York Dolls' debut LP, Grand Funk Railroad's We're an American Band, and Fanny's Mother's Pride.
For many, Something/Anything? (Number 29, 1972) is the high-water mark of Rundgren's solo career. On it he played nearly all the instruments, overdubbed scores of vocals, and managed to cover pop bases from Motown to Hendrix, from the Beach Boys to the Beatles. The album yielded hit singles in "I Saw the Light" (Number 16, 1972) and "Hello It's Me" (Number 5, 1973).
A Wizard/A True Star (Number 86, 1973), while in much the same vein, was more of a critical than commercial success. However, Rundgren's cult following was growing. In Wizard's liner notes he asked fans to send their names to him for inclusion in a poster to be contained in his next LP. As promised, 1974's Todd included that poster —with some 10,000 names printed on it in tiny type.
That same year Rundgren unveiled his cosmic/symphonic progressive-rock band Utopia, which gradually expanded his following to mammoth proportions. Utopia was a more democratic band, in which Rundgren shared songwriting and lead vocals with other members (from 1977 on: Roger Powell, Kasim Sulton, and Willie Wilcox). In the mid-'70s Utopia played bombastic suites with "cosmic" lyrics and used pyramids as a backdrop, but in the 1980s it returned to Beatles/new wave–style pop (Faithful [Number 54, 1976]). Despite some excellent music, the quartet never placed a single in the Top 40 or saw any of its 11 albums go gold. One of their songs, "Love Is the Answer," was a 1979 Top 10 hit for England Dan and John Ford Coley.
In 1975 Rundgren produced Gong guitarist Steve Hillage's L, on which Utopia played backup. A trip to the Middle East in 1978 led Rundgren to a brief flirtation with Sufism; that same year Hermit of Mink Hollow (Number 36, 1978) produced his first hit single in several years in "Can We Still Be Friends?" (a minor hit for Robert Palmer a year later). Rundgren also produced Meat Loaf's monstrously successful Bat Out of Hell. In 1979 alone he produced Tom Robinson's TRB Two, the Tubes' Remote Control, and Patti Smith's Wave; in 1980 he produced Shaun Cassidy's Wasp.
By that time Rundgren had taken a strong interest in the emerging field of rock video. By 1981 he had built his own computer-video studio in Woodstock, New York, and was making technically advanced surrealistic videotapes. In 1982 Rundgren embarked on a one-man tour, playing sets that were solo-acoustic as well as those in which he was backed by taped band arrangements, with his computer-graphic videos being shown also. He still concentrated on production (with the Psychedelic Furs, among others) and video art.
Utopia took an indefinite sabbatical in 1985. Sulton, in addition to recording on his own, has played with Joan Jett, Hall and Oates, Patty Smyth, and Cheap Trick. Powell, designer of a shoulder-strap keyboard called the Powell Probe, now engineers software for a computer-graphics firm, while Wilcox writes and produces. In 1992 the four reunited for a tour of Japan, captured on Utopia Redux '92.
The following year Rundgren went back out on the road as a high-tech one-man band to perform his unique new album No World Order. The world's first interactive music-only CD (available on Philips), it allowed listeners to reshape the 10 songs into an infinite number of versions. To hear the same version of a song twice, Rundgren claimed, users would have to play the disc 24 hours a day, seven days a week "well into the next millennium." Continuing in a similar vein, he then released The Individualist, an enhanced CD which paired each song with its lyrics, graphics, and video. At about that time he came up with the monicker TR-i (Todd Rundgren–interactive), to be used for his multimedia work. In typical fashion, though, his next move was to rerecord several of his old songs in bossa-nova arrangements on 1997's With a Twist...(which also featured Utopia bassist Sulton). That same year he was one of the few Westerners invited to play the Shanghai Festival.
Consistently fascinated with new technological developments, Rundgren created PatroNet, a Web-based service in which subscribers could purchase new songs after paying a yearly fee, in 1998. The 2000 release One Long Year collected some of the songs sold through PatroNet. That year he embarked on a tour in which he performed material from his entire catalogue in a power-trio formation that also included Sulton and drummer Trey Sabatelli. Rundgren toured solo and with Ringo Starr's All-Starr Band in the late-90s as well as produced Bad Religion's The New America and Splender's Halfway Down the Sky in 2000. An ongoing compilation, Todd Archive Series, included 11 different sets: The King Biscuit Flower Hour Presents in Concert, numerous full concerts, demos, and outtakes while Rundgren was alone, with Nazz, and Utopia, and a collection of Japanese-only rarities. In 2001 Rundgren played in the Beatles tribute tour, A Walk Down Abbey Road. In 2004, Rundgren released the political Liars on Sanctuary, making it his first rock album in thirteen years. In 2006, he assumed Rick Ocasek's duties in the Cars, henceforth named the New Cars. In September of 2008 Rundgren released Arena, which, with a surfeit of guitar-based rock and bombast, was something of a return to form.
Portions of this biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).
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