Thursday, January 20, 2011

Article: Why Todd Rundgren is not more Famous

Why Todd Rundgren is not more Famous
Jan 20, 2011 John Marsh

Todd Rundgren possesses a solid status as a songwriter and a producer but in spite of his great talent commercial success and fame have eluded him.

An ability to write and produce great pop songs is not enough to confer fame on a recording artist. Over a career spanning forty years or more Rundgren has consistently demonstrated that he possesses talent as well as application but a combination of circumstances have prevented him from becoming a household name. This is not to say that Rundgren is not famous. He can still sell out concerts and he is held in great respect by the musical cognoscenti but he remains one of those artists for whom musical integrity has not translated into album sales.

The Young Tyro on the Brink of Fame

Born in Philadelphia in 1948 the young Todd Rundgren was a great fan of the British pop invasion of the 1960s and idolised bands such as the Yardbirds and the Who. He joined his first band, Money, in 1965, and enjoyed some measure of fame as a member of the band called Nazz who produced three albums between 1967 and 1969. Band rivalries emerged as it became apparent that Rundgren's creativity could not be confined within a team format and he left to produce his first solo album Runt in 1970. A companion album Runt: The Ballad of Todd Rundgren appeared the following year (1971). It was these albums that established Rundgren's growing reputation as the 'pop wunderkind`. He possessed a McCartneyesque ability to handle all the production and arrangements as well as playing most of the instruments and multi-tracking his voice. Songs from this period such as 'Believe in Me` and 'Wailing Wall` are beautifully crafted pieces of pop magic that merited the wider audience of an Elton John but lacking good management and a reluctance to promote himself Rundgren threw himself further into his work.

Commercial fame was proving elusive but Rundgren enjoyed considerable critical acclaim and respect from his musical peers and he was one of the first artists signed up to a new record company, Bearsville, whose proprietor, Albert Grossman, was such a fan that he indulged Rundgren in the studio. The result of this indulgence were the two classic albums of 1972 and 1973 Something/Anything and A Wizard, a True Star . It is these two albums containing chart-friendly classics such as 'I Saw the Light` and 'Hello it's Me` as well as the anthemic 'Just One Victory that should have propelled Rundgren to fame and fortune but these albums reveal the other side of his creativity. Alongside the pop classics there were for the average punter bewildering departures into broadway musicals, heavy rock guitar solos and songs that seemed half-finished. This apparent perversity made it difficult to market Rundgren. He was more of an artist to admire rather than a seller of products. On Todd (1974) these traits were amplified still further including nods toward Gilbert and Sullivan on 'The Lord High Executioner's Song` so that even his erstwhile fans began to have doubts. Rundgren's increasingly bizarre appearance and his alleged drug intake suggested that he might be heading for commercial suicide. Although Todd did boast one bona fide Rundgren ballad classic in the form of 'A Dream goes on Forever` there was a feeling that he was losing his talent for songwriting. However rather like Prince in more recent years Rundgren's mastery of the recording studio and his early adoption of computer technology had made put him in demand as a record producer and it is this parallel career that has helped to secure Rundgren a degree of fame in rock's annals.

Credibility and Status without the Fame

Rundgren's technical expertise was brought to the notice of The Band then enjoying considerable success and the twenty-two year old was drafted in to produce their third studio album 'Stagefright` (1970). His success with this project led to regular studio work with a variety of high profile acts including, The New York Dolls, Badfinger, Hall and Oates, Patti Smith, XTC, Cheap Trick and the Psychedelic Furs. Probably his most famous engineering role was for the mega-selling 'Bat Out of Hell` for Meatloaf. The scale and scope of this album suited the excessive Rundgren style.

Whilst enhancing his credibility and status as a studio engineer Todd Rundgren's recording career was beginning to lose focus. All his energy was directed towards his band 'Utopia` who, in an age when punk rock, in the UK at least, was carrying all before it, dedicated themselves to prog-rock. Impressive and elaborate stage sets guaranteed a spectacle for their audiences but record sales began to slow. Albums such as 'Initiation`(1975) proved too difficult for some although 'Oops Wrong Planet`(1977) did contain another exquisite Rundgren anthem 'Love is the Answer`. 'The Hermit of Mink Hollow`(1978) represented an attempt to return to the more commercial sound of the 'Runt` era and 'Can We Still Be Friends?` from the album was a minor hit. A series of albums in the early 80s failed to set the musical world alight and it was only Rundgren's least favourite album 'The Ever Tortured Artist Effect` (1982) with its novelty hit single 'Bang the Drum All Day` that kept his profile alive. His band 'Utopia` retained their cult following largely as a result of their stage shows and for Rundgren the lack of fame did not seem to matter a jot.

The Famous Elder Statesman

From the mid-80s to the present time Rundgren has largely eschewed traditional recording formats. Always innovative he was an early adopter of video technology and one of the first artists to offer music direct to subscribers via a website. He continues to perform live and much interest was generated in 2009/10 when he toured with a performance of 'A Wizard, a True Star` album in its entirety. The making of the album itself forms the subject of a recent book by Paul Myers. For those new to Rundgren's music a good place to start would be the 1999 compilation for Essential Records entitled characteristically 'Go Ahead, Ignore Me`. This double CD confirms Rundgren's musical brilliance.

Rundgren has been described as 'a musical scientist in the studio` and he combines this with perceptive and witty lyrics. This pioneer of multi-media productions and interactive music certainly deserves to be more famous but this icon of innovation has always possed the capacity to sow the seeds of his own destruction as the Billy James book confirms. His very diversity makes him frustrating for the marketing men. The singles from the albums fail to offer an accurate of what the remainder of the album sounds like thus severely curtailing his mass appeal. Reluctant to explain himself to his audiences he maintains his creative flow by never repeating himself and whenever fame has started to threaten his instinct is to run away. If you have ever loved the music of Brian Wilson or 10CC you would love the multiple harmonies of Todd Rundgren's work. Hell the guy is even good at Philly soul but don't expect easy listening.

Read more at Suite101: Why Todd Rundgren is not more Famous

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Correction to whoever wrote this article: it is NOT the Lord High Executioner's Song (that one is from the Mikado, sung by the character KoKo) that Todd performs but the "Lord Chancellor's Nightmare Song", a great patter song from the lesser-known --but for musicians and singers, the more melodic--"Iolanthe"). Iolanthe is most often the one performed in high schools as between the fairies and the Parliament there are plenty of parts for everyone.