Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Never a dull Rundgren moment

THE rock veteran is on the road with his Robert Johnson blues tribute show.

TODD Rundgren has made a career out of being unpredictable. Pop star, producer, technology geek and songwriter are some of the areas in which he has excelled during the past 45 years, flitting between them and a host of musical genres. He doesn't like to get bored.

So it was typical of the American rock veteran to make his Australian entrance only this year and to do it in unexpected fashion, singing a pirate song on the forecourt of the Sydney Opera House.

That performance, as part of Hal Willner's Rogues Gallery show at the Sydney Festival in January, had one positive outcome for some of his Australian fans.

"That planted the seed for me to come over and play some of my own music," he says. He will be doing that in Sydney, Melbourne and at the Great Southern Blues Festival in Batemans Bay, NSW, in the next few weeks.

Todd Rundgren's Johnson, as the show is called, will draw heavily, although not entirely, on the 62-year-old singer's recent album of that name, a tribute to blues legend Robert Johnson.

"It wasn't a record I had planned to make," he says. "It was part of a deal with my American label [which] had the publishing rights to Johnson's catalogue. They needed someone to cover these songs, and it turned out to be me."

Thus another unlikely chapter in the extraordinary career of the highly respected Rundgren was written. Fittingly, it was with the blues that the young Rundgren first emerged as a musician in his home city, Philadelphia, in the 1960s. He was the guitar player in a heavily blues-influenced outfit called Woody's Truck Stop.

"So when the deal to do this came about I wasn't apprehensive about it," he says. "My approach to blues is you find an old blues song and figure out a way to play a lot of guitar on it."

As with many of Rundgren's musical exploits through the decades, his early flirtation with the blues didn't last long. Since then he has been a musical explorer, dabbling in pop, prog-rock, electronica and many other genres. He also has earned respect as a producer, most notably on one of the biggest selling albums in history, Meat Loaf's Bat Out of Hell. Add his pioneering work in music video and as a composer for film and television and you have a picture of someone who can't keep still, creatively at least.

"I get easily bored with what I'm doing," he admits, "or bored with working in the same musical territory, and if that happens I'll get involved in something that is more exploratory."

In the late 1960s and early 70s Rundgren forged a career as a solo artist and with bands such as Nazz and Runt, with songs that echoed the Beatles, the Beach Boys, soul music and more. On his 1972 double album Something/Anything? Rundgren wrote, sang, played all of the instruments, engineered and produced most of the material. Two of the songs from that album, I Saw the Light and Hello It's Me (the latter a reworking of an earlier Nazz track) became his two biggest hits.

From then on, the recording studio became another instrument at Rundgren's disposal. "When I first got into record production it was a reaction to being in a band," he says.

"I'd pretty much seen everything in the course of an 18-month period with my first group I put together. We experienced everything, good and bad, that the music industry had to offer and I didn't want to be in a band any more. I was ambivalent about performing at all."

His obsession with the studio hit a peak in 1973 with his album A Wizard, A True Star, a weird hybrid of prog-rock and bubblegum pop, which he says "was when things got really crazy in the studio".

"That's when I merged all my aspirations as a musician and as a producer into one thing. I took a different approach to the way records were made and to what the records would be about."

As the 70s progressed his solo output and recordings with his band Utopia got more experimental, augmented live by a collection of outlandish costumes worn by the main man.

"To this day the song most people remember is Hello It's Me, particularly in the US, because of the very weird get-up that I wore on late-night television with feathers and my hair all different colours.

"It's something from the glam-rock era, which was a phase everyone went through. It was kinda fun. I wore some weird stuff but nothing weirder than what David Bowie would wear. It was a way to entertain without having to learn to dance. The costume became the entertainment."

If dressing up became part of his artistic expression, it paled against his craftsmanship in the studio.

His work with artists as varied as XTC, the New York Dolls and Hall and Oates added to his credibility, but none compared with Bat Out of Hell, a masterpiece that has sold more than 43 million copies since its 1977 release.

"There were a couple of things that made that an attractive project for me," he says.

"My father, when I was growing up, was not a fan of rock 'n' roll music and would not have it played on his hi-fi.

"When I was in the house I was exposed to mainly contemporary classical music and show tunes, Broadway musicals. So that kind of theatrical music had been part of my upbringing and from that standpoint I could understand what they were trying to accomplish with Bat Out of Hell.

"The other reason why I did it was that when I was watching them audition for me, they did it live just with [writer] Jim Steinman on the piano and two background singers and Meat Loaf in a rehearsal studio. They did all of the theatrics that everyone is so familiar with from the videos.

"It was going through my head that this was a spoof of Bruce Springsteen. He was the biggest thing happening at the time. I thought, this is the funny Bruce Springsteen, with everything all weirded out, exaggerated and hyperbolic with a big fat singer and not the handsome hunk that Springsteen is and lots of bad puns in the lyrics, but they're still about motorcycles and switchblades."

As well as producing the album, Rundgren funded most of the recording since no record company was interested. "When it was done it took about eight months to find someone to release it and even when it was released it wasn't until the third single that things reached critical mass and people started to buy the album."

Production, he says, "has been a way to broaden my musical horizons, working with an artist who is doing something different to what I normally do. Sometimes the attraction is a lack of familiarity with a particular style, just so I can get to understand it better."

Rundgren toured and recorded under a variety of guises in the 80s and 90s, all the while experimenting in new areas of the music industry such as video and internet technology.

In the past year he has toured in the US and Europe performing A Wizard, A True Star as well as with his Todd Rundgren's Johnson project.

His 2004 album Liars, his first in 10 years, rekindled interest in him across the world, for which he is grateful. "It proved that after all this time I was still able to excite my fans and impress people who are listening to all the other music in the world," he says.

Todd Rundgren plays the Basement, Sydney, on October 2; Great Southern Blues Festival, Batemans Bay, NSW, on October 3; and the Corner, Melbourne, on October 6.

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