Monday 3rd October 2011
… And ‘Hey Presto!’ There you have the secret of the Rubik’s Cube in under 20 seconds. Easy isn’t it when you know how? Now then.
I went to see Todd Rundgren. last week. Not everybody’s cup of tea I know, but for me, his complete understanding of the dynamics of a three minute pop song (‘Hello it’s Me’, ‘I saw the light’), plus his skill as a musician and producer (his production credits read like a ‘Who’s Who’ of the last 30 years of popular music, albeit a copy with a few pages missing here and there but pretty impressive nevertheless: Patti Smith, Cheap Trick, Psychedelic Furs, XTC, Grand Funk Railroad, New York Dolls, Hall & Oates to name a few.) mean he’s safely up there in my Top Five. In fact, probably Top Three. Yep. When Todd’s firing on all cylinders he is a sight to be seen/ sound to be heard. And as if that weren’t sufficient, he seems to possess a God-given ability ‘get a lot out of a little’; as in the case (if I may I be so bold) of Meatloaf.
Ah yes – it’s all coming back to you now isn’t it? 1977. ‘Bat Out Of Hell’ the surprise multi-million seller sung by a rotund half-wit and written by a ‘never-gonna-git-me-a-girl-dork’. None of the majors would touch it with a bargepole. In fact, nobody would touch it with anything. Until Todd says: ‘I get it. Yeah, I’ll do it’ He steps up to the plate, and the rest is history. ‘The hardest thing was getting Meat to sing in tune’, he remembers (sort of ) fondly. However, tonight, the Steinman phenomenon and the Fat One are put to bed early. ‘Ya want Meatloaf, ya gotta pay to get out!‘ Todd good-naturedly warns the crowd.
Indeed Rundgren’s longevity coupled with a consistency of interesting and credible output, even now, as he nears his mid sixties, suggest he’s doing something right.
In fact, Rundgren is more resolute and singular now than ever in satisfying his eclectic interests: playing and recording exactly what he wants, confounding critics and fans alike as he first jumps this way, and then that. For example, in the last six or so years, he has recorded and toured ‘Liars’ a well-crafted thematic collection of songs, written on a laptop using a ‘softstudio’, played a number of acoustic dates (51 or thereabouts) sharing the billing with Joe Jackson and Ethel, string quartet, done a fairly extensive stint on the road with The (‘Who’s going to drive you home’) Cars, recorded a ‘Rock’ album ‘Arena’ on which he allowed himself to focus on his guitar playing (which he had come under fire for from some quarters of his audience for neglecting – not that for a minute I am suggesting that is why he did it) He also took the opportunity to use the tunes to give ‘a nod’ in the direction of a number of innovative, creative players whose work has happened to strike a chord with him over the years. (Ho, ho.)
The last year, he revived, and toured in its entirety his ground-breaking 1973 oddity “A Wizard A True Star.” It is an eclectic (that word again) and ideosyncratic stream of consciousness, sequenced as a continuous medley and featuring a ‘varied range’ of songs set in dazzling arrangements with innovative production; Rundgren experimenting with and exploiting virtually every studio effect and technique then available. Although it featured predominantly original material, it also included a version of “Never Never Land”, and a medley of soul classics* sadly packaged in one of the worst covers ever.
‘AWATS’ Awful, awful cover!
At the time, Todd was making his money producing, and was thus able to make the record he wanted to make rather than the one the record company wanted.
‘My attitude was substantially different than what it is for most artists, because I was making a fine living as a producer and therefore didn’t feel that I was constrained to be especially commercial in my own music.’ – So the ‘hits’ were kind of accidental then? ‘I continued to make records on my own but that was only because I had musical ideas I wanted to express and get out of my brain. I accidentally had hit records, and more or less got drawn back into being an artist.’ … So yes, they were.
On tour here in the UK in 2008, his promoter mentioned that the album had been cited by a number of new bands such as Daft Punk and Hot Chip and the like, as an influence, and suggested a one off performance.
On last year’s visit to London, Todd combined ‘AWATS’ (as it is known by those in the know) with a ‘support’ live set of songs from his most recent project, the album ‘T. R’s Johnson’; the reworking of some of the songs of influential Delta Bluesman Robert Johnson (1911-1938). Johnson’s legacy, one of the most powerful bodies of music to emerge from a blues figure resounds down to us through the years of the second half of the twentieth century through that of artists such as Muddy Waters, Elmore James, Junior Parker, John Hammond Jr, the Stones, John Mayall, Cream, Clapton, Johnny Winter, Paul Butterfield, Bonnie Raitt, Fleetwood Mac, ZZ Top, Led Zeppelin, Cassandra Wilson and many more. So what was Todd’s take?
Apparently, just as he completed ‘Arena’, and was looking for distribution, the people he agreed a deal with had an additional project they wanted him to take on. They had recently acquired the catalogue for Robert Johnson, but they had no recorded masters even though the songs had been covered by many artists. They wanted to have versions to offer for sync licensing, master licensing, that sort of thing. So Todd agreed to do it.
‘Towards the end of my high school years I became fascinated with the blues. My first paying gig as a guitar player was in a blues band, so it was not that unusual a challenge, I suppose. That’s why I considered taking it on … I knew that I wasn’t going to do literal versions of Robert Johnson songs like, for example, Eric Clapton did. I decided instead to tribute the bands that influenced me when I was first becoming a guitar player. And many of those bands were playing Robert Johnson songs, for instance Cream’s version of “Crossroads” and things like that. That became part of the standard guitarist lexicon at that point. So I decided I would make a record in the style of a 60′s Blues Breakers or Yardbirds, English-style, white blues record’. Sounds reasonable enough for me; and to be honest, I thought those bleating about wanting the ‘hits’ during his ‘Support Set’ at the Appolo, (and apparently too on the last night of the current tour at Ronnie Scotts) instead of ‘this stuff we don’t know’ were being downright rude. I could tell you exactly what Johnson tunes they played at Hammersmith, as I have in my possession – somewhere – Rundgren’s personal set list, annotated with little instructions: particularly copious I seem to recall over one tricky introduction, which in the event they screwed up any way. Personally I’d pay good potatoes to go and listen to him sing the phone book. But then I am, a little sad to say, a fan.
Rundgren is a musician who has been a particular favourite of mine since the late ’70s. He is an enigma. For instance, has written and recorded some sublime music (‘Verb to Love’) but also has some shockers in the closet. At times, he appears to be one of the few musicians around who has a clear vision of how popular music and the buying/selling of it and the relationship between artist and listener will be shaped and subtly shift balance in the future; yet on other occasions prone (embarrassingly often on record) to talking what can only be described as bollocks. AND he is guilty of a whole string of serious crimes against Taste during his unfortunate ‘prog rock’ era. But then again, it is quite common for him not only to produce his own recordings, but Todd cocks up the two part guitar harmony in the solo ‘I saw the light’ (Again) play all the instruments as well. Russ, my ‘Minder’ asked about Todd and drugs. Initially, like Zappa, he disapproved, but in the ’70’s began to experiment with marijuana, LSD and the little-known stimulant, Ritalin, now of course known as the ADHD ‘wonder drug’. Which explains a lot!
Funnily enough it was Alan (“Alright Pop Pickers?!”) ‘Fluff’ Freeman who proved to be the link. To digress a little; before Punk, like thousands of other ‘lost souls’ I used to listen to the mainly turgid shite that he played on his Saturday afternoon Radio One ‘Prog Rock’ show, bless him.
‘Fluff’ On The Needle
I say ‘lost souls’ because, at the younger end of his audience, I think many, like me, listened almost out of duty. There wasn’t anything else. We were just waiting … That’s why when Punk came along, we were off! Barclay James Harvest, Tangerine Dream and Yes? Nah! I wanted to listen to The Damned, The Buzzcocks, Slaughter and the Dogs and the Pistols. Neverleless, Freeman’s show along with (it almost goes without saying) John Peel was a pivotal factor in engaging with non-chart music of the era.
It’s wonderful broadcasting isn’t it, Looking back? I met ‘Fluff’ once. Charming bloke. Wasn’t sure about his handbag though…Where was I? Well, anyway ‘Fluff’ had a jingle he used to play which I couldn’t get out of my head. Of course, Sod’s Law the excerpt above does not include the one I am referring to and I have not been able to find it elsewhere. It was a snippet of a song. It was clearly live: you could tell by the ambience, and which featured what sounded like the chorus to a song sung acapella, the audience joining in whilst clapping a slow heavy rhythm along to it. It fascinated me. As well as sounding ‘live’ it sounded ‘alive’ like real people at a real gig.
It took me a while. None of my mates were into Rundgren, so none of them recognised it, but eventually I did track it down. It appeared to be “One More Victory” on a live album, “Another Live”. So on the strength of ‘Fluff’s few snatched seconds, I bought it, second hand mail order from Cob Records in Wales, and that was it. I still have it. If you are able to stomach the bizarre band photos which seem to depict a group of cross-dressing Mafiosi and Rundgren’s occasional self-indulgences, is a great record. One which for me, sits comfortably alongside other favourites from the same period: “The Modern Dance” Pere Ubu, “Natty Dread”, The Wailers, “Never Mind The Bollocks”, The Pistols and “The Mormon Tabernacle Choir Sings Songs of Christmas”
Todd. He’s our flawed genius. I say ‘our’, because shortly after arrival at the Jazz Cafe (with wheelchair, stick, medication and faithful ‘minder’ Russ, all 6′ 2″ of him) at about the same spot we saw Bobby Womack from a few weeks ago, we are immediately engaged by the couple next to us, in conversation about ‘Our Hero’: When did we first see him? Best gig? Favourite Song? Favourite Album? (Russ: Never, none, none, none. Should have been wearing white really …) I have found this typical, people want to talk about him, and do so with a familiarity that gives the impression he is a Mate or member of the family. His successes are joyously acclaimed, his indulgences soon forgiven.
And so, to Monday night, when Todd hits the stage, he is as relaxed as I have ever seen him. He performs a set of songs, unofficially billed as a ‘Greatest Hits’ tour with material collated from virtually areas all of his career from ‘Something Anything’ to ‘TR’s Johnson’. A collection that Rundgren felt, were the band to accept requests (“which we don’t”) his audience would have selected. And he seemed to be thoroughly enjoying himself. The band ( Prairie Prince: Drums, Kasim Sulton: Bass, Jesse Gress: guitar and -it sounded like John Forensic to me! – Keyboards) long time associates of Rundgren were relaxed too, but not so much that they lacked punch. Set list went something like this:
Love of the Common Man
Can We Still be Friends
Espresso (All Jacked Up)
Love is the Answer
I’m So Proud/Ooh, Baby Baby/La La Means I Love You/I Want You
I Saw the Light
Couldn’t I Just Tell You
Hello It’s Me
A Dream Goes On Forever
(Give or take)
I think my highlight of the night had to be the version of ‘Hawking’ for which I had wormed and weedled my way (to the immense irritation of many of my fellow concert-goers, especially those holding pints) to the front. ‘Fuck it’ I thought, ‘If I can survive an hour and a half in at the old Rainbow in a Clash or Bad Manners moshpit, disabled or not, I think I’ll be able to look after myself here should the need arise, thankyouverymuch, Mr. Grumpy who keeps giving me dirty looks.
It was well worth it. Electrifying, it got the hairs up on the back of my neck. I stayed for ‘I saw the light’ to see Todd cock up the solo for the second time live. Then went back to rejoin Base Camp.
What can I say? Had I been asked what would make a perfect evening with Todd Rundgren, this would have been it: performer in good – even high spirits, voice intact, intimate venue, great band, a fine collection of songs. The only things missing, which would have put the ‘Gold Seal’ on it for me: a rendition of ‘The Verb To Love’ and the stamina to wait around long enough after close of play to meet the main man.
Next time …
© Andy Daly 2011
Video credits: Steven Budd /Pic Credits: Thierry Allaouchiche
*The album was also notable for its extended running time—over 55 minutes in length, compared to around 40–45 minutes for a typical pop-rock LP of the period. (I didn’t know this. Did you know this?) This reflected Rundgren’s skills as a mastering engineer, since this extended running time took the album close to the practical maximum for an LP—Due to the inherent physical limitations of the vinyl LP medium on records with running times over 45 minutes there is an unfavorable trade-off between duration and the audio quality and volume.