Wizard Wednesdays: Robbie Robertson and the “Polaroid Sound” of Todd Rundgren
In case you’re just tuning in, in the past few weeks, I have been devoting a series of Wednesday Pulmyears Music 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). I also posted two separate podcasts of interviews where I discuss the book, you can find those here.
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This week, by request, I’m gonna share a little of my bulk interview notes with Robbie Robertson, discussing how he brought Todd Rundgren with him to Toronto to record Jesse Winchester‘s debut album, and how that lead to Rundgren being invited to work on Stage Fright, with The Band. This isn’t the full interview, but I am not doing much editing here on my blog, unlike in the book itself where it’s folded into a back and forth with Todd.
Robbie Robertson: What happened was, I’d found this draft dodger up in Canada named Jesse Winchester. I kind of felt bad for the guy, you know? He was just hiding out up there and hoping to not go to prison. But he was really good and had great songs. I wanted to help Jesse make a record, so I talked to Albert [Grossman] about it and told him that I’d have to go up to Canada to do it but I really don’t know who to work with up there. At the time it was very important who engineered, it still is but back then it was even more magnified. It was so critical who the engineer was, and if they could do what you had in mind. A lot of these guys were just staff people and did just, you know, ‘the usual.’
Robbie: When you were trying to do something with some character, or that had a real vibe to it or something, it would be hard to get that message across. So I talked to Albert about this and he said, ‘Well we use this young kind of studio whiz guy by the name of Todd.’ I guess they were doing something, I don’t remember exactly what that was, but Albert and Todd had something going on. So I said, ‘Hey, sounds good to me!’
Paul: So you met up with Todd, describe your first meeting.
Robbie: I told him about this curious situation. I played him a couple of Jesse’s tunes just from a little tape recorder so he got an idea of what it was. Then I figured I’d track down some musicians up there, in Toronto, and we went up and made the whole record in a few days. The thing with Todd was, when you could describe something that you were imagining with the song in abstract, or poetic kinds of terms – colourful but what the hell does that mean? – he could really translate that sort of idea because he was a musician first before he was an engineer. So we’d gone up there and knocked this baby out, had a great time doing it, came back and did a little bit more stuff in the studio with it in New York and mixed it. It was a great experience.
Paul: Then, after Jesse’s album, you brought Todd over to the Woodstock Playhouse to engineer the Stage Fright sessions. Was it that simple?
Robbie: Not too long after I’d gotten back, I had to start thinking about doing the next album with The Band. I had this idea. After the Woodstock festival, the people in Woodstock just looked at us funny. After that, it was kind of like, ‘You guys brought all this down on us!’… Woodstock had become the most famous little town in the whole world, with people in Volkswagen buses coming in for as far as the eye could see! …we felt bad about it, you know, because when we, the guys in The Band and me, first went to Woodstock it was just a charming little art community… It was just a lovely enclave of artists and painters. That charm really got dealt a whole new hand after the Woodstock festival. So I was thinking that maybe there was a gesture we could make to the town so that they might just feel better about the whole situation. We really liked those people. So I came up with this idea, I said ‘For this next album why don’t we rehearse all of it first, then we’ll just play it live for just the townsfolk of Woodstock. Just a very private thing. …we took it to the town council … they came back said, ‘Well, we don’t really like this idea at all. They said that they knew that we meant well by it but the people that are gonna come in to see that show are all the same kinds of people they’d been trying to keep out of the town of Woodstock, every day!
Paul: So you called off the concert but kept the stage premise?
Robbie: Yeah, we ended up making this album at the Woodstock Playhouse for nobody, with nobody in the audience. We recorded on the stage, but it turned out to be sort of an interesting acoustical thing because you could perform with the curtain closed and it would give you this dry sound and if you opened the curtain you got the sound of the house in there. So there was a certain thing to work with there. The control room was just off stage, and Todd worked a lot with earphones.
Paul: From previously written accounts, there was a lot of tension at the Playhouse, is that a fair assessment?
Robbie: The vibe was much different than the vibe we’d had with Jesse Winchester. It wasn’t really a great time for the guys in The Band, right then. There was just a lot of, you know, distraction and a lot of drug experimenting, a lot of things going on. The other guys in the band didn’t exactly like Todd. They just … One thing was we’d all go in there and you’d be kind of waiting until the mood struck you. Until someone might say, ‘Okay let’s go in and cut something.’ [I’m sure] Todd thought, ‘What are we doing? How come we don’t we just show up and start recording?’ He was impatient, he didn’t know what we were waiting for. I didn’t even know what we were waiting for either! (laughs). But you could just tell, when it was getting harder just to round everybody up and get them all sitting down in front of their instruments, learning the songs, and doing all those things. There was a bit of intensity too, because this was the third record that we were making. The first two records, we had worked with John Simon and [now] John thought that Todd was taking over his position. But Todd just came aboard as an engineer, you know. He wasn’t looking for anything else. But the whole process and the timing thing got weird. Poor Todd! I mean, John Simon didn’t like Todd either!
Paul: But even though Levon famously took a run at Todd, or I’m hoping he’ll clarify that [Levon declined to comment], you seem to have been rooting for him. Was that more or less true?
Robbie: Todd didn’t play by the rulebook of sound engineers, because I don’t think he knew the rule book. So he would just be more experimental and push things further soundwise. But with the situation of not being in an recording studio and just setting up on the stage of these old playhouse, it was a bit tricky to contend with. We’d be doing stuff, trying different things, and the guys were cracking comments, like ‘Well that kinda sounds like shit!’ So he was trying to figure out how to make it work in there, I mean we all were, but the jabs back and forth, I don’t know, the tension just kind of grew out of the ground that way.
Paul: Even though you ended up using a lot of the Glyn Johns final mixes, was the basic Stage Fright sound there on tape while you were tracking over at the Playhouse?
Robbie: The sound on the song ‘Stage Fright’ is really good. I mean, Todd did a great job on that. And on ‘The Shape I’m In.’ Then later on, towards the end of the record, we did ‘Daniel and The Sacred Harp,’ and ‘W.S. Walcott’s Medicine Show’ and they all turned out to be real highlights. Even when we recorded ‘Strawberry Wine’, Levon and Richard were in pretty bad shape, you know, when we doing those things and even that’s on the tape. The situation behind the scenes is in the the sound as well. I love the fact that that actually got captured in this thing; there’s no disguises on this record. So all of that just adds up to me. I think that Todd’s contribution was that he managed to get a Polaroid sound.