After producing Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell, fronting The Cars, redefining prog-rock and releasing the world’s first interactive CD, TODD RUNDGREN finally finds time to tour Australia. ANDY HAZEL manages to keep it together.
If someone, a reporter from BBC no less, stated that one man was ‘a visionary without whom there would be no Prince, MTV or access to internet music…a master of every style from classic soul to bizarre electronica’ and Mojo Magazine called him ‘a one-man Beatles’ you would think this man would be a household name. “The funny thing is,” says the recipient of this acclaim, tentatively, “when I’m involved in one of those things that gets praise, it often happens at a time when that opinion is yet to meet a critical mass. If I do something good, it always seems to get discovered afterwards or in another place, but at the time, it’s seen as something inadvisable or inappropriate. My attitude is ‘what have you done for me lately?’ I could have used the help five years ago - why don’t you praise this thing I’m working on now?” he says, laughing.
Graduating from 60s garage rockers Nazz via the double-album heavy prog rock years with Utopia to latter-day projects such as fronting a reformed Cars, Todd Rundgren has moved with ease between genres, private obsessions and social fashions all the while working on melding technology with a strong base in musical adventurousness. Despite this impressive canon, he’s best known for his production work with Meat Loaf, Cheap Trick, XTC, New York Dolls and countless other acts. What brings him to Melbourne next month though, is his recent revisiting of some of his 20 plus solo albums in what seems to be a ubiquitous trend of playing an album live track by track, though the Australian shows he says “will be two-plus hours of all sorts of stuff.”
“Essentially, it’s down to the pressure of the listeners and fans that I’m doing these concerts,” he explains. “RundgrenRadio is a radio station that a fan set up a few years ago and he plays my music, he interviews all the artists I‘ve ever worked with and stuff like that. He got it into his head to poll the listeners of the radio station to find out which record they’d most like to see live and definitively the answer was A Wizard A True Star. Coinciding with this he decided he would get into the event production world and he lined up promoters and hired venues. We did that and it was fun, and the next two records they wanted to hear live are Todd and Healing; well that’s a big chunk to bite off. We did a short run of six shows at bigger venues and with equally big production values. This show is equally theatrical in its way but I’m not going through a dozen costume changes again,” he says of the acclaimed enactment of A Wizard A True Star. “By the time we got it down, there was a magical element about it, it was like a play where the actor plays six different parts and it all happens with split second timing; he walks off stage as a guy and comes back as a woman on the opposite side of the stage,” Rundgren says chuckling. “Some costumes were a bear to get into and out of like the fat suit, some nights we might have issues like it just not inflating, oh man it was hard work! Todd/Healing is a whole different kind of thing, it will involve the band a little bit more but I’m not going into any more detail; we kept it completely secret last time and I like having an element of surprise for the audience.” Audiences were certainly surprised to see the next project Rundgren announced he was doing; a cover album of songs by blues grandfather Robert Johnson.
“Yeah, I guess it does seem strange,” he happily intones. “I was never that drawn to Robert Johnson in high school. I was very much into blues artists though, like The Yardbirds and Paul Butterfield. The first gig I had was as a blues guitar player, before I’d ever written a song or fronted a band. When I signed with [current record label] Arena, part of the deal was that they wanted me to do a cover album of Robert Johnson songs, because they owned the back catalogue but they didn’t own the masters of his recordings. They were looking for an artist to cover the material so they’d have masters to licences for movies and TV and stuff. I procrastinated for a year, because I soon realised Eric Clapton had made a career of doing exactly this. This is Eric Clapton circa-1965 though, and I decided that this record is more a tribute to the bands in the mid 60s who were influenced by Robert Johnson and other blues artists, because basically every song is a frame for a guitar solo,” he says with refreshing candour.
One thing Rundgren can never be accused of is laziness, and his breadth of material is a perfect example of how an identity can be spread across decades, genres and in and out of projects without losing any integrity – spandex bodysuits or not. “I don’t think other musicians are lazy by comparison,” he says breezily, “a songwriter like Elvis Costello is amazingly prolific. Nowadays it’s much harder for me to write songs as it seems to me the more you’ve written the more your stuff starts to sound like something else you’ve already written, and the subject matter and style become similar.” Maybe that’s why projects such as playing albums live and covering Robert Johnson has come along? “Perhaps.”
“What constantly comes to mind to me is the anecdote about Something/Anything. By the time I’d got to the end of making that record – and it was only meant to be a single album but I just kept writing and writing - songwriting had become a formula. Every song was about the same high school relationship that went bad and I finally sat back, and listened, when the record was doing well and the label were waiting for the next album. I was reading press and someone had said ‘he’s the male Carole King’ and that’s the one thing I don’t want to be; someone who writes formulaic music that it’s really easy to categorise. At that point I realised I had to do something to distinguish myself and that was going to involve being weird.” A maxim he’s, thankfully, never stopped following. As cyclical productivity has been replaced by one-off projects and a fresh embrace of touring, finally bringing him here, it’s reassuring to know that this age that Rundgren has had such an uncelebrated hand in developing still finds a place for him.