Wizard Wednesdays: Couldn’t I Just Tell You What It Is. And What It Isn’t…
Happy Wizard Wednesday, It’s Alive! Edition.
In case you’re just tuning in, in the past few weeks, I began devoting a series of Wednesday blog entries featuring selected content from my upcoming anecdotal history of the studio productions of Todd Rundgren, entitled A Wizard A True Star: Todd Rundgren In The Studio (Jawbone Press). If your local independent (or chain) bookstore isn’t stocking it, tell them about it and have them order it! (Please!).
And every week, at this juncture, I typically remind everyone that my book is about the making of a whole bunch of records. It’s not just about Todd Rundgren’s records (although most of ’em are in here), but more of an anecdotal history the entire range of Rundgren’s classic studio productions, with exclusive first-hand tales of the studio from Todd and most of the principle clients. Why, there’s Meat Loaf: Bat Out Of Hell, Sparks: (Halfnelson), Hall & Oates: War Babies, XTC: Skylarking, New York Dolls: New York Dolls + 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 even talked with all key Utopia members (all lineups), and get Todd’s take on the making of Badfinger’s Straight Up and his fascinating interactions with George Harrison.
On Wizard Wednesdays, I have been leaking and remixing / reworking unedited material 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 New York Dolls (1973). Next. I shared some of Todd fan Dave Gregory’s thoughts on the sessions for XTC’s Skylarking (1986). The following week, I took you to Lenny Kaye’s house to talk about Patti Smith Group’s Wave album, and the week after that, I had a snippet from Howard “Flo & Eddie” Kaylan discussing his work with Todd on the Psychedelic Furs album, Forever Now (1982).
This week, as the first copies arrive on the doorsteps of people who pre-ordered, and as store book stores begin to receive the first shipments, I want to share an actual excerpt from the book. This is an EDITED EXCERPT from my brief introduction to what my book is and isn’t, and I wrote it to put the reader into the proper mindset, expectations wise, about how to approach it. One note, I also noticed that the art director’s flipped a photo of Todd which appears on the spine (and inside) so it appears that he is a lefty. I didn’t do this, so take it up with the art directors and their layout decisions!! Last thing, I’m really proud of this work and freakin’ excited that it’s finally out!
Introduction: Couldn’t I Just Tell You (radio edit) © by Paul Myers
(Full version appears in: A Wizard A True Star: Todd Rundgren In The Studio published by Jawbone Press)
Throughout his storied career, Todd Rundgren has ping-ponged between the worlds of producer and recording artist with varying degrees of critical and commercial success or financial reward. For many, myself included, their first sense of Rundgren’s studio wizardry came after hearing the spoken word ‘Intro,’ from his 1972 tour de force, Something/Anything?, where the wizard allowed us a peek behind his sonic curtain as he playfully demonstrated a litany of audio gaffes one might have encountered on the albums of the day. He couched all of this in the sarcastic premise of a “game” and invited the listener to play along with him on their home stereo system.
“Before we go any further,” Rundgren announced as side two began, “I’d like to show you all a game I made up. This game is called ‘Sounds Of The Studio,’ and it can be played with any record, including this one… You can even play it with your favorite record; you may be surprised. Now, if you have a pair of headphones, you better get ’em out and get ’em cranked up, ’cause they’re really gonna help you on this one.”
Rundgren’s guided tour of things like ‘P’ popping, bad editing, and other common recording flaws told me more about him as both producer and artist than anything I’ve read about him since. Rundgren’s recordings could be seriously masterful, whimsically sarcastic, poppy and progressive, sweet and hard, often at the same time.
[Here’s the only YouTube clip I could find for this, the “Intro” actually begins at 3:40)]
As a producer and engineer, Todd Rundgren is the product of both Les Paul’s recording innovations and the studio experimentations of 60s trailblazers like The Beatles and The Beach Boys. As such, he was born at the perfect time to flourish as a rock producer in the 70s and 80s, the golden age of the studio, when his reputation was largely cemented by a span of work stretching over 20 years. While he continued, and continues, to make recordings, Rundgren’s attentions were frequently diverted over the 90s into new fields of technology. Ironically, some of his innovations would come to liberate the recording artist in such a way as to lessen the perceived value, or need, for a record producer at all. His evolution into a significant digital artist of the 21st century milieu is covered rather broadly in this volume, and I have intentionally dwelled upon the first 20 years, when Todd Rundgren made his name as a studio producer, working in big rooms and, predominantly, on analog tape.
After learning his craft as a songwriter and arranger for Nazz, and then gaining major attention for his engineering skills with The Band, Rundgren began to demonstrate a latent genius for pulling off hit productions with acts like Badfinger, The New York Dolls, and Grand Funk Railroad. All the while he was pushing the boundaries with his solo albums and those made with the various versions of his performance-based group, Utopia. We’ll look at some of his more underappreciated albums for Sparks, Hall & Oates, The Tubes, and Cheap Trick as well as some iconic releases by Meat Loaf, Patti Smith, The Psychedelic Furs, and XTC. Along the way, we’ll touch on some of Rundgren’s other work for artists like Steve Hillage, Shaun Cassidy, Jules Shear, Alice Cooper, Tom Robinson, and Bourgeois Tagg.
In describing Rundgren, the word that most frequently came to the lips of his clients and associates, the majority of whom talked to me for this book, was “genius.” The second most frequent, however, was “sarcastic,” with “aloof” running close behind. But while most artists only worked with Rundgren once – with notable exceptions being Grand Funk, The New York Dolls, The Tubes, The Hello People, and The Pursuit of Happiness – rarely do any of his single-time clients bemoan the final results.
At one point during our two-hour conversation for this book, Jim Steinman, the composer of Rundgren’s most commercially successful production, Bat Out Of Hell, began laughing as he described Rundgren’s constant browbeating and sarcastic taunts. Then, in the same moment, Steinman insisted that Rundgren, who put himself on the line financially to get Bat Out Of Hell made, was “the only true genius” he’d ever met in his life.
The most legendarily combative sessions of Rundgren’s production career were undoubtedly those for the XTC album Skylarking. Yet, in each of their interviews for this book, the three members of XTC express, in hindsight, their admiration for the final results.
XTC’s Dave Gregory, admittedly a fan, credited Rundgren for doing exactly what he’d been hired to do. “Against all the odds,” said Gregory, “he got the band a hit in America with ‘Dear God.’ Todd Rundgren saved XTC’s career.”
As you will see, over the course of the first-hand remarks, post-mortems, and personal opinions expressed by the many players in Rundgren’s professional world, he is not always the hero in his own story; but he is frequently the most compelling character. Contrary to the myth, Todd is not God; in fact he’s nearly human. Good social skills may make for a more pleasant life, but they are not a prerequisite for good art. Having said that, Rundgren nonetheless has legions of friends and admirers and enjoys a uniquely close relationship with his fans, many of whom he invited to camp out in his backyard in Kauai, Hawaii, for his 60th birthday festivities.
What has become clear to me, over my year and a half researching this project, is that Todd Rundgren is a true pioneer who has rarely received the acclaim he deserves. That he has yet to be inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, for example, beggars belief. Not that he himself seems to care.
But before we go any further, I feel it is appropriate to tell you a bit about what this book is and isn’t. When asked, I have described it as “an anecdotal history of the recording world of Todd Rundgren, centered on the golden age of studio recording, when real people made records by hand in the big rooms.” What this means is that, while there will be relevant background about the personal life of Todd Harry Rundgren, we are more concerned with what happened in the studio during the early years, when Rundgren earned his reputation as a studio whiz.
In light of this studio-only mandate, most live albums, personal family scandals, and tragedies are only touched on obliquely in the text. Likewise, tales of protracted litigations, bankruptcies, and all manner of bad business decisions – and there have been a few – are only referred to when they are deemed germane to the purview of this book, which is the making of studio recordings.
Also potentially controversial will be my choice to cover Rundgren’s own work, as a solo artist and with Utopia, rather broadly. There are not specific chapters dedicated to each and every Rundgren album, and certain albums have received more attention than others. I make no claim to having written the definitive study; this is merely my journey through Todd Rundgren’s formative years.
Hopefully what emerges from these anecdotes, thoughts, and memories will be a widescreen picture of a true iconoclast who has made his own way in the world of recording and, in the process, amassed a vast trove of impressive audio documents.
“Wait another year,” Rundgren once sang, “Utopia is here.” And true enough, just when you think you know the real Todd Rundgren, another year has passed and he’s changed again. In all likelihood, by the time you read this he will have morphed again into some new form or format. I have not pretended that I can pin him down like a bug in amber, but hopefully these stories will illuminate the road to Rundgren’s future milestones, whether as an artist, producer, or some future job description not yet invented by the man himself.
May his dream go on forever.
Paul Myers, Berkeley, California