Wizard Wednesdays: A Look At Todd Rundgren’s Todd album (1974)
Happy Wizard Wednesday.
In case you’re just tuning in, last week, I started what I proposed as a series of Wednesday blog entries featuring selected content from my upcoming history of the productions of Todd Rundgren, A Wizard A True Star: Todd Rundgren In The Studio, published next month by Jawbone Press. Order now!
Now, do keep in mind, my book is about ALL of Todd Rundgren’s productions, not just his own music, and features exclusive first-hand tales from the studio from Todd and most of the principles from the albums, including: Meat Loaf: Bat Out Of Hell, Sparks: (Halfnelson), Hall & Oates: War Babies, XTC: Skylarking, New York Dolls (debut and Cause I Sez So), Patti Smith Group: Wave, The Band: Stage Fright, Cheap Trick: Next Position Please, The Tubes: Remote Control + Love Bomb, Bourgeois Tagg: YoYo, The Pursuit Of Happiness: Love Junk + One Sided Story, Steve Hillage: L, Psychedelic Furs: Forever Now and Grand Funk: We’re An American Band + Shinin’ On. And yes, I discuss Badfinger too.
On Wizard Wednesdays, I will be leaking, editing and remixing material from both the book and my unused notes. Maybe next week I’ll do one of the other bands. Last week, in honour of Rundgren’s Healing/Todd shows in Akron, Ohio, I gave you a little bit of the story behind Healing. So, logically, to close that up, I have decided to follow up with a little about the double album known as Todd…
Having aborted the ill-fated Utopia Mark I at the beginning of May 1973, Todd Rundgren had reverted to his increasingly lucrative alternative career as a record producer. By July, he was back in New York City, continuing his research with psychedelics and imagining his next solo album. Working well into August, Rundgren padded around Secret Sound, laying down the initial tracks that would become the Todd album. While his earlier psychedelic explorations had taken him all over the map on A Wizard, A True Star (1973), he had by now developed something approaching a personal cosmology. For Rundgren, hallucinogenics were not about mere escapism; he needed his trips to be taking him somewhere.
“Sure, it’s great just to see the pretty colors and stuff like that,” says Rundgren, “but the reason why these explorations have a kind of sacramental significance in all these cultures is because you’re supposed to frickin’ learn something from it, you know? When these South-American tribes use these exotic roots…they don’t think of these as party drugs; they’re religious sacraments and are supposed to make a contribution to your spiritual life.”
Rundgren had never been especially religious, nor was he much of a reader, yet for the first time in his life he was devouring every spiritual or religious text he could find in the bookstores of Lower Manhattan. “I started accumulating all of these books, from Madame Blavatsky to Rudolf Steiner, from Krishnamurti to everything else. It became a sort of hobby; when I would go out on the road there would be a little occult bookstore in every town, and I would go in and find these old one-of-a-kind dusty volumes. Of course each of these books is fervent that you should believe absolutely everything it says, regardless of the fact that it may contradict whatever you find in the next book.”
Working alone, with more synthesizers than ever as well as his usual guitar, pianos, and whatever else he had at hand (including spoons), Rundgren began making short and personal instrumental pieces, like ‘The Spark of Life,’ ‘Drunken Blue Rooster,’ ‘Sidewalk Café,’ ‘In And Out The Chakras We Go (Formerly Shaft Goes To Outer Space)’ and ‘How About A Little Fanfare?’ As he had done with Wizard, Rundgren used these electronically enhanced pieces to form musical transitions between his more traditional songs.
‘Fanfare,’ for instance, segued neatly into ‘I Think You Know,’ the first vocal song on the record.
“Todd,” offers Rundgren, “is naturally more orderly, but it also dealt with alternative concepts such as empathy to the point of telepathy. So, on ‘I Think You Know,’ it’s also saying, ‘I think at the same moment that you know,’ which is the formula for telepathy.”
Rundgren’s Gilbert & Sullivan roots were showing in ‘Elpee’s Worth of Tunes,’ a comic slice of musical theatre with lyrics that bemoan the futility of trying to make a living and “change the world” in the petty-crime scene that is the music business. Increasingly, Rundgren was finding that light comedy was a handy way to couch serious themes. “In a sense it’s all sort of funny to me and, as a result, it comes out as a serious record with a few comedy moments. I give you a little breather, and then it’s back to the heavy stuff again. The ultimate punchline would be, you know, to stand in front of your Creator, at the end, and ask, ‘What was this, just a fucking joke?’ and he says, ‘Yes.’”
‘A Dream Goes On Forever,’ a holdover from the songs written for Wizard, was a wistful ballad with a flanged clavinet, beat-box rhythm and synthesizer flourishes. While many Rundgren fans welcomed it as a return to the sweeter sounds of Something/Anything?, the man himself is less fond of the “sappy little song,” saying it was the sort he could write, in those days, in his sleep. “I recognized that people like those sorts of tunes, and I have a facility for writing them. People relate to them, but, as with other songs on Todd, like ‘Useless Begging’ and ‘Izzat Love,’ I usually have to break it to them that, while the songs are sincere in that the emotion in them may be inspired by real events, they’re not about a specific thing or person.”
Two full-band tracks, ‘The Last Ride’ and ‘Don’t You Ever Learn,’ showcase Rundgren’s dexterity, mixing Philadelphia soul with progressive rock, washed in a reverb-heavy mix suggestive of late-period Marvin Gaye. Rundgren recalls consciously exploring “cavernous spaces,” courtesy of a new toy, a brand new reverb unit. “By then, I was getting more comfortable with my studio,” he admits. “I seem to recall we had a new console and we were getting other bits of equipment in there all the time. I was, both unconsciously and deliberately, messing around with tape delays a little bit more, using all these new tools to create a sense of locality in the sound. Something that would sound cool on headphones – although it wasn’t done with that kind of ‘stereo demo record’ sensibility!”
In addition to having Klingman on piano and Ralph Schuckett on organ, Rundgren was joined on ‘The Last Ride’ by bassist ‘Buffalo’ Bill Gelber, who had previously played on Wizard’s ‘Just One Victory,’ and drummer Wells Kelly, from the group Orleans. Over the course of the two-month recording window, drummer Kevin Ellman would impress Rundgren with his drum chops on subsequent sessions for ‘Everybody’s Going To Heaven / King Kong Reggae,’ and ‘Heavy Metal Kids.’ While session bassist John Miller was also remarkable on these sessions, Rundgren says he noticed a special chemistry between Ellman and bass player John Siegler when they had tracked ‘Number 1 Lowest Common Denominator.’
“These guys were bringing an almost ‘fusion jazz’ sensibility that was not entirely familiar to me,” says Rundgren. “Now everyone wanted to play aggressive combinations of rhythm & blues, rock, funk, and jazz, all mushed together. John Siegler was on this cutting-edge Larry Graham kind of jazz funk thing, and he contributed some very curious bass lines and stuff that I wouldn’t have thought to do. He played well with Kevin, and it takes a rhythm section that pretty much knows where they’re at, so that everyone else, regardless how far off the map they stray, can take some assurance that somebody knows what they’re doing.”
The culmination of this was in a live recording session at an afternoon concert held on August 25 1973 at Wollman Rink in New York’s Central Park. For the special 1pm matinee, Rundgren set out to capture a few songs on tape, particularly the anthemic ‘Sons Of 1984′ To capture a sing-along section in ‘Sons of 1984,’ Rundgren and his crew had strung up some microphones in the Central Park trees. “The plan,” says Rundgren, “was to overdub other audiences in different cities, singing the same section.”
“He overdubbed another crowd from a show in San Francisco,” John Siegler recalls. “Todd was always thinking conceptually, you know? He just said, ‘We’ll just put two cities together and split it down the middle [of the stereo spectrum].’”
“You are the chosen ones,” sang Rundgren on ‘Sons Of 1984,’ and he had finally chosen Schuckett, Klingman, Siegler, and Ellman to be the core of the new Utopia. Meanwhile, his now-completed Todd album had swollen to a double-album’s worth of tunes. Artistically, this was nothing new – Something/Anything? had been a commercially viable double set – but in late 1973, a global oil crisis had caused the record industry to think twice about how much (oil-based) vinyl it was using.
Bearsville and its parent company Warner Bros eventually consented to a two-disc package, albeit with two platters stuffed tightly into one cardboard sleeve, but pushed the release date to late February 1974. In January of 1974, as he awaited a March tour with Utopia, Rundgren got a call from Grand Funk. He had produced their million-selling We’re An American Band the previous year, and they were now eager to have Rundgren once again guide them to chart gold. He did, with a cover of Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s “The Loco-Motion”:
As Grand Funk’s album, Shinin’ On, hit the racks in March, Rundgren and the new Utopia were already on tour supporting Todd.
Former XTC guitarist Dave Gregory recalls listening in awe in 1974 as the BBC’s Bob Harris played ‘The Last Ride’ on his Sounds Of The Seventies radio program. Shortly afterwards, Gregory discovered the Todd album in full and became a fan. “I loved the maverick spirit of the guy,” says Gregory. “He was talented enough to stick a finger up to the industry and say ‘This is my record – take it or leave it.’”