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Todd Rundgren - A Wizard, A True Star

May 25, 2015

Todd Rundgren - A Wizard, A True Star

Without writing a very large book it would be impossible to do full justice to the polymath and restless creative genius-cum-polymath that is Mr. Todd Rundgren.

No one in the history of popular music has achieved quite so much in so many styles and areas of the music business. A brilliant producer, a visionary when it comes to technology and on top of all that a musician who can turn his hand to any style from a cappella to heavy metal via progressive jazz fusion and blue-eyed soul. Hey Todd man, that's just showing off.

So where to start? This is only intended as a Todd taster to inspire anyone interested into ploughing deeper into his work who may have heard 'I Saw The Light' his only UK top 40 hit, and so I'll go with what I love and know best about his output over these last 40 years.

Something/Anything which was released in 1973 was effectively his third solo album. Rarely if ever has a double album crossed so many genres so successfully. He plays all the instruments on three sides and produces too of course, none of this getting in a producer malarkey for Todd, he would just do it all himself.

Like a classic Motown album, he opens with the big hit single, I Saw The Light, and follows it up with classic soul ballad, It Wouldn't Have Made Any Difference. There's electronic noodling and studio chatter and even some comedy but for me, the opener of side three is where I really got on board with his music.

Black Maria is a slow burning rock ballad with a superb atmospheric sliding riff and a killer solo.

Something/Anything is a great record and a little trippy. If you get a vinyl copy and one record is blue and the other red then you've got one of the first 5,000 issued. However, if it's the really trippy Todd you want then look no further than its awesome follow up - A Wizard, A True Star.

Many have tried to capture the aural qualities and experiences of psychedelics, but this is surely one of the most successful and downright outrageously crafted records ever to revolve at 33 and a third rpm.

The first side is one long rush; a blend of sound and melody with snippets of songs, riffs, lyrics and rhythms washing through your brain. One minute it's soaring high, the next it's giving you a minute of a Broadway standard .

It feels like you're really peaking when it all slides into the classic number Zen Archer, an indescribably delicate, tender and yet very wonky song completed with a classic, wrenching guitar solo that, like much of his lead work, is drenched in emotion and a sense of dynamics and theatre.

By side two you're ready to come down and he delivers a side of a sweet, soul music, including a faultless medley of classics. The whole 55 minute experience - which was long long long for an album in 1973, ends with Just One Victory, a song of hope and positivity to leave you feeling damn good with another solo to take us home.

The sleeve is a work of art in itself, initially coming in a die-cut shape and containing a Patti Smith poem printed on a Band Aid. Of course. The original sound quality was muddy - and you lose some of his guitar power on the last track because of the sheer length of the album, but that's been fixed on the CD remixes.

A Wizard, A True Star remains if not a lost classic, then a much over-looked one, especially in the UK where it didn't chart. It only got to 86 in America. It remains a jaw-dropping achievement.

But the lad wasn't done there. Dude was just getting going.

1974's double album Todd featured more great rock ballads with soaring guitar such as The Last Ride, delicate piano tunes ' The Dream Goes On Forever' and some adventurous aural noisescapes 'In And Out Of The Chakras We Go'. It almost scraped into the top 50.

Later that year he released the first Utopia album. After a while the line between where Todd solo stopped and the Utopia band started was blurred but this first effort was very distinct. Probably his most progressive rock style album, naturally it had one long 30 minute track on side two.

We had almost got used to the multi-coloured palette that Todd painted with when he introduced another universe of sound on Initiation, the 1975 release.

This was his longest album yet at nearly 70 minutes -a record of the time. Fully embracing synths and throwing in prog rock and a splash of disco, it was an album of burning originality. The whole second side is A Treatise On Cosmic Fire as Todd explored Eastern religions and philosophy. On songs like the title track the playing is incendiary and frenetic, bursting with ideas and inspiration. Far out but in the best way, it is a dense, clever, thought provoking and occasionally humorous excursion into a universe that only Todd seemed to have access to.

It might not be everyone's cup of meat, but it is highly original music and rarely less than utterly thrilling. It charted at 86 and Real Man, a single lifted from it made it to 83. Todd was still a niche performer but those who loved him were now complete devotees.

Before 1975 was out, so was another Utopia album. Another Live was a live album, one side of originals, one of older stuff. More conventional rock - by Todd's standards anyway - its stand out track was Seven Ways, which was built around a nifty riff and lots of effects-drenched guitar.

1976 was a quiet year in which Todd released only one album, Faithful. But he returned in 1977 with two awesome Utopia albums Ra and Ooops Wrong Planet. Ra still has proggy elements on Communion With The Sun - a brilliantly dramatic utterly Toddian riff-a-rama - while the Rundgren insanity is still present with Sing Ring And The Glass Guitar. That's electrified fairytale no less, and naturally it also features some epic guitar and reality-splitting keyboards from Roger Powell.

No one could ever accuse Todd of lacking vision. No one else would have tried to put the sound an atomic explosion on record, now would they, but that's what he did on Hiroshima, the track before the electrified fairy tale. A seven minute piece of rock theatre that builds and builds until the bomb is dropped - the resulting screaming synths and guitars are utterly compelling and gut-wrenchingly emotional. Again, the dynamics of rock drama are totally embraced by this sonic architect.

Ra was to mark the end of his long epic numbers and its follow up Oops...Wrong Planet. was a return to shorter three and four minute rock songs. It was one of his most commercially successful releases and his first charting album in UK. Different it may be but top notch rock n roll it most certainly is. Crisp, melodic and very powerful, it still sounds like a fresh rock album today.

Now enjoying commercial success, 1978's Hermit Of Mink Hollow was also hugely popular, featuring his lovely soulful singing on hits like Can We Still Be Friends. He'd gone back to the do-it-all-yourself- approach and produced easily his most radio-friendly album.

Now I have only just scratched the surface of Todd's music here. His 1980s were really interesting featuring accapella work, more new wave power pop, some sweet soul and some techno-influenced work. By the 90s he was ahead of the curve on the interactive, supply-it-direct via websites gig and in 2004 produced Liars a classic mish-mash of varied music.

He also pioneered video work in the late 70s and early 80s and seems to have developed and embraced every major technological change at least three or four years before the rest of us knew what was even going on.

Oh, and he produced dozens of brilliant records like Bat Out Of Hell - which is, in effect, a Utopia album with Meatloaf singing instead of Todd. Check out the Classic Albums programme on that album for Meatloaf's description of how Todd produced the motorbike guitar noise off the top of his head. It's rarely commented on that the soaring music on that record is all led by Todd's epic guitar wail.

Others he produced included Badfinger, New York Dolls, Grand Funk, The Tubes, The Band and even Steve Hillage's first solo album, which is a once removed Utopia album in reality, and an absolute corker, too.

Those with good reason to know, such as Jim Steinman, have called him a genius but we need no telling. It is simply self evident from his catalogue of stellar music. He appeals to men and women equally, and as always been a dedicated live performer - I saw him play Knebworth supporting Zeppelin. If you know little of his work or haven't played it for a while, go and get it, play it. You won't be disappointed. It's as good as you remember and better than you can still believe.





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