Thursday, September 11, 2008


Arena gig for a one-man band

Published Date: 06 September 2008
TRUST TODD Rundgren to make a hard rock album full of grinding riffs and squealing guitars just as a new generation of electronic musicians have begun to sing his praises.
Klaxons and Simian Mobile Disco have both recently featured the original DIY synthkid's songs on mix CDs or in DJ sets, Daft Punk used his track International Feel to open their film Electroma, and Hot Chip sampled his voice – some laconic studio spiADVERTISEMENTel from his 1972 double-LP masterpiece, Something/Anything? – on their latest album.

Rundgren's records of eclectic electro-pop, fizzing with noises and buzzing with ideas, marked him out as a US counterpart to David Bowie or a 1970s Prince, restlessly experimental, changing with every album; his 1973 LP, A Wizard, a True Star, to name but one – recorded under the influence of hallucinogenics and described by Rundgren as "rock's first stream-of-consciousness album" – still sounds amazing.

Why, then, does his 21st solo album, Arena, have more in common with AC/DC and ZZ Top? "It's songs with big, singalong choruses and melodic guitar solos; the kind of music that works well in an arena," he says from his home in Hawaii. "I called it Arena because I figure it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy: if I make a successful arena rock record, I'll wind up playing arenas!"

Rundgren, who just turned 60, began his career over 40 years ago as guitarist and songwriter with Philadelphia's mod-Anglophile four-piece the Nazz, setting the template for his solo career with their lush piano ballads and guitar anthems – including psych-pop perennial Open My Eyes, which later appeared on seminal punk/garage compilation Nuggets. He also spent several years as leader of Utopia, responsible for everything from lengthy, technically-accomplished cosmic-prog work-outs to new wave-inflected, four-minute rock tunes. But he's best known for his solo forays to the outer limits of the recording studio. Although Arena sounds like the result of a band jamming and riffing, it's all just Rundgren, alone, in the studio, doing what he does best: playing every instrument, doing all the vocals, and handling the production.

"It's just me," he confirms, "but it sounds like a band. I was following through on the touring that I've been doing lately. When the New Cars (Todd recently fronted a new version of the late-1970s new wave rockers] stopped touring, I took a guitar quartet out on the road. The audience were exuberant, so I thought I should continue in that vein and write some new guitar-oriented music. It's something between prog rock and pop music. Arena rock used to be a big thing. In fact, Utopia were an arena act, but we played progressive rock. This stuff is much more hooky."

Rundgren's last album, 2004's Liars, was a mainly-keyboards affair full of exquisite melodies that sugared the sideswipes at the Bush administration, his ex-girlfriend (notorious super-groupie Bebe Buell, mother of Liv Tyler) and liars in general. Fired up about the Iraq war, he disguised his ire with layers of beautiful synthesised sounds and multitracked blue-eyed soul vocals. This time he sounds angry, the screeching, crunching guitars enhancing the sense of a man raging against the machine. "I discovered, now that I'm embarking on my seventh decade, that I'm actually pretty fed up," he says. "I'm not thinking at all about retirement. I'm thinking about kicking ass."

He explains that Arena is "about conflict", which he sees as a guy thing. "In a certain sense, it's a guy's album," he says. "It's about men and the ways that men resolve things. The last album I did had a lot to think about on it. But the time for talk is over. This one is more about action."

He may be the ultimate cult artist, out there on the margins, fiddling with his bank of synthesisers while Rome burns, but Rundgren is no techno-hippie refusing to engage with the real world. And though he's only had a few American hits – Hello It's Me, I Saw the Light, Can We Still be Friends – and just one gold disc, for Something/Anything?, he's a major figure in the history of rock.

Like Zelig, he's always been there or thereabouts, watching from the wings, waiting to see what happens so he can plan his next move – usually in the opposite direction to everyone else. Runt, the follow-up Runt: The Ballad of Todd Rundgren (1971) and third album Something/Anything? saw him prove his mastery of every pop style. By A Wizard, a True Star he was poised on the brink of mega success but he chose to turn his back with a series of brilliant but baffling records that were nevertheless as revolutionary and influential on the development of electronic pop as Stevie Wonder's.

He could have been a glam star – certainly he looked the androgynous part with his rainbow-coloured hair and weird makeup – or an Elton/Joel balladeer but instead he made albums like Todd (1974), Todd Rundgren's Utopia (also 1974) and Initiation (1975) that posited a new era of peace and love and explored mystical themes over increasingly complex proto-electronica. Having produced the first New York Dolls album, Todd spent punk paying homage to his childhood heroes like The Beatles and Hendrix (Faithful, 1976), making concept albums about Egyptian gods (Ra, 1977) and manning the controls for Meat Loaf's Bat Out of Hell. Always the object of feverish worship, Todd, months after recording an album of Beatles pastiches with Utopia called Deface the Music, was knocked for six by Mark Chapman's murder of John Lennon – mainly because it transpired that Chapman, ever since a spat in 1974 between Lennon and Rundgren in the pages of Melody Maker, was infatuated with him and allegedly killed the ex-Beatle only because he couldn't find Todd, then living in upstate New York. Earlier that year, Rundgren's home had been broken into: four armed, masked robbers bound and gag him and, while they ransacked the place, whistled the tune to I Saw the Light.

Traumatised by both incidents, he decided to move away from the city, and the mainstream. Hermit of Mink Hollow (1978) had been his last commercial proposition. Subsequent albums like the all-vocal A Cappella (1985), which predated Bjork's Medulla by two decades, were released without fanfare, so Rundgren became a pioneer at the forefront of the video, multimedia and digital revolutions.

"It was a little freaky," he says of the whole Chapman-Lennon saga. "I didn't feel the horror that everyone else did because, to me, The Beatles were a thing of the past. But I wasn't unaffected, I'd already made a decision to take myself out of the limelight and give up my days as a scenemaker. The object was to regain some solitude and develop some other disciplines. I started getting seriously into video, and it was almost as if, when I heard about it (Lennon's murder], it was like an echo from another age, a time when there were a lot of deaths in the music business – usually from their own hand or through sheer clumsiness, but still out of that phenomenon of excess. In this case, of course, it was not through the excess of the artist, but the excess of one of his fans."

These days, Rundgren keeps his distance, on the island of Kauai. But he's always had a special relationship with his fiercely loyal fans, and for his 60th birthday, many of them stayed at the house adjacent to his, at his invitation, for a small fee. How weird is that? Then again, Todd's always done things his way. "I make polemical music that sometimes aggravates," he says, "but it's not designed to make you forget. It's designed to make you remember."

• Arena is released on 29 September. Rundgren will tour the UK in November.

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