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

Todd (1974)

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.’”


29 Responses to “Wizard Wednesdays: A Look At Todd Rundgren’s Todd album (1974)”

  1. Cool article! Something that I’ve always wondered since I got the record back in 1974 or so was the ‘lead guitar sound’ on Sparkle of Life, it sounds like a kazoo?? Was that the case?

    • I cut down the story for this blog, but some of the fuzzy guitar tones were the result of running his SG through the filters on EMS synth, his new toy at the time. I cover that more in the book. Cheers.

      • Thanks, that’s kind of interesting that you could get this kind of fuzzy sound just with VCF filters. I need to experiment with this myself in the studio. Unfortunately the EMS Synth is a VST plug-in only, Windows, so I need to hunt around for some other analog-style filters to see if that could be re-created.

      • Keep in mind, this was a real patch bay synth, not a plug-in, this was way before pro-tools. In case that wasn’t clear. Not insulting you if you did…

      • Nice info, pulmyears! But I think the ‘lead guitar sound’ on Sparkle of Life K Sandvik is refering to is indeed the sound of Todd’s voice. Maybe through a kazoo kind of thing or the VCS3 filter or who knows…

      • Ha! I ordered your book a couple of weeks ago, hadn’t realised uit was you.

  2. Yes, I know, I used to build HW synths in the early eighties. Actually it looks like the XILS 3 SW emulation plug-in has an analog model distortion algorithm that might cut it. Kind of gave up on purchasing old HW synths, they just break down and its getting harder and harder to find spare parts. Also easier to put the plug-ins on my 13″ MacBookPro when on vacation in Kauai…

  3. thanks, paul. i assume you’ve already posted to doug and the rest of the fb TR crowd, but i’m happy to repost on my page…. i think i may be winning a couple of hearts and minds to this amazing music, one tune at a time.

    don’t ever change, bubby, i love what you’re doing!

  4. My first TR album, purchased in a department store, summer of 1974. Not long after, I picked up AWaTS, and that remains my favorite to this day, but this record will always be a close second…

    Interesting post, hope I get to read your book someday.

  5. This has the potential to be the most interesting book I will ever read. My current favorite is Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time.

    • I’d love that as a blurb “This book has the potential to be the most interesting book I will ever read!” Cheers. Lots to live up to.

  6. I only wish concerning Todd the album was that A Dream Goes On Forever should have been extended, it’s one of the most pretty ballads Todd ever wrote. He used to play it solo on a piano at some concerts before this album was released, if I remember correctly.

  7. Love it, can’t wait for this to come out.

    Do you by any chance know what synthesizers Todd would utilized in the recording of the Todd LP? I talked to Todd himself about this when I met him last week, but naturally he didn’t have the time to elaborate. And what about effects pedals? I’m a musician and to this day the Todd LP sounds like nothing I’ve ever heard, I’d like to know how to replicate some of those sounds.

    • We talk about that a bit in the book. His earliest synths, on everything from Something Anything, Wizard and Todd, were his EMS VCS3, aka The Putney. He got that in the UK I believe, it’s British. He would often run his strat or SG through a synth filter, which is why he got those brittle direct sounds. When Roger Powell joined, he brought a lot of ARPsto the mix, Roger worked for ARP and had also worked with Bob Moog. I think there’s a bit more in my book, but I have to go look it up. (Whole book not memorized yet! Ha).

      • Thanks! Do you know what he’d be using for the sequncing, the appregiated synth parts on Todd? I know the Synthi AKS, as used by M. Frog had such capabilities, but the VCS3 didn’t.

        I suppose he would have been using a pitch-to-voltage converter to process his guitar through the Putney?

  8. Roger Powell also used a Moog modular system for the Initiation B-side, was kind of an auditioning thing showing what could be done. Roger did all kinds of electronica sounds and Todd collected it into those musical pieces.

    Alas that modular rig disappear (stolen I think.)

  9. Also, many of Todd’s really strange guitar sounds were based on ring modulation effects, suspect he used Putty for that, too.

  10. […] from both the book and my unused notes. In the first two weeks, I covered Todd’s own Healing and Todd albums, and the week after that I leaked some stuff from the discussion of Todd’s production of  […]

  11. Hi Paul,

    I ran across this vid the other day and it is a pretty awful recording but it’s Utopia from 1974 and I wondered if you had seen it. Fun little article too!


    I am enjoying your articles and have ordered your book,

  12. I was at Wolman Rink for the recording of “Sons of 1984” You can see the top of my head on the back cover of the album. It was a free concert on a Sunday afternoon. Then we found out why it was free.

    Todd taught us the chorus (in harmony, of course) and we obliged. He also told us that 1984 was the first election that he would be old enough to run for president.

    It was great to be part of the history of Todd but at the time, I think I was disappointed that he didn’t give us a real show. He played one or two songs but the majority of the afternoon was about getting take after take of “1984” on tape.

  13. Does your book cover the writing and recording of the songs Todd did with Nazz?

    • My book is mainly about his work as the credited producer, so really his work with Nazz is discussed but not overly dwelled on. There is stuff in there though, especially as it furthers the story of Todd as emerging producer, engineer and off the cuff string arranger. The entire early section of the book is concerned with “How does this influence his later career as a producer”. Obviously, when we get to Runt, where he’s producing himself as the artist, the book dwells deeper. Not to short shrift the fabulous Nazz, but given the immense body of work discuss (all Todd and Utopia albums, AND all the most important productions from The Band through XTC and Patti Smith et al – and I do make passing references to Rubinoos and Shaun Cassidy even) it seemed best to use Nazz as the learning ground when TR was just getting his first exposure to the studio.

  14. Martin Brady Says:

    Makes sense. Yet i have long wanted to interview Todd specifically on his Nazz writing, in particular the ballads and the other catchy pop tunes that were the forerunners to his solo hits. Songs like “Take the Hand,” It’s Not That Easy,” and “Only One Winner” are simply amazing harmonic and melodic pieces, especially for someone so young, and they stand up even to this day as rare little compositional gems. Of course their release history, on the infamous “Nazz III,” also amplifies their forgotten importance. Funny thing is, I work in Nashville as an entertainment journalist–even met Todd briefly here in 2003–but have never pursued going about doing this. Let me know if you have any ideas how I might do that. Thanks.

  15. Barbara Ann Van Etten Says:

    Trying to find video of central park sons of 1984 recording.Todd had us all given lyrics sheets and we all did quite a few takes.Thdre was a mike suspended on a cable near where I was sitting about 7 rows in.It was a hot beautiful day.You can bearly make out I’m on the back cover of lp swiping my brow (it was warm!) It was great to be a part of Todd history T the tender age of 16…Never th ed same, I’m in a rock band now.♡♡

  16. Jay Martin Says:

    I too was at Wollman Rink for the recording of Sons of 1984. It was the summer after I graduated from high school and I was a Todd fanatic. I had a ticket to see him open for Dave Mason in Saratoga the previous summer, but he had to cancel when his equipment truck was in an accident on the NYS Thruway. I called in sick to work and took the bus from Albany to NYC with my buddy for the show. You can see our heads in the crowd on the back cover. They passed out red lyric sheets with musical notes and the Bearsville logo on them (I still have mine. I had Todd autograph it at a Utopia show in Poughkeepsie in, appropriately, 1984). I too recall Todd mentioning that he could run for pres in 1984. I remember the whole thing being pretty informal. Todd wore a t shirt, baggy pants and Puma sneakers. They did a lot of takes and he did throw a few other tunes out at the end (I don’t recall what they were). The only other thing I remember is an out of it and barefoot African-American woman continuously climbing up on the stage to be near Todd (you can see her on the back cover). She had huge breasts that threatened to escape from her sweater!

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