Favorite Songs By Favorite Artists (Series Two) #52: Todd Rundgren

Note: For an index of all articles in this second “Favorite Songs” series, click here. For a summary of all artists covered in the original series, click here.

Who He Is: Arguably one of the most important figures in the history of American rock music over the past half-century. If he’d never done anything but play his electric guitar, then Todd Rundgren would have been considered one of the modern masters of his instrument. And if he’d never done anything but sing the various songs under his own name or with his band, Utopia, that have become pop and AOR hits over the years, then Todd would have been considered one of his generation’s most acclaimed vocal geniuses. And if he’d never done anything but write the likes of “We’ve Got To Get You A Woman” and “Hello It’s Me” and “I Saw The Light” and “Bang The Drum All Day,” then he would have been considered one of the classic rock era’s great songwriters. And if Todd had only produced epic, career-defining albums by the likes of (among many others) Sparks, Grand Funk Railroad, Hall and Oates, The Tubes, Badfinger, XTC, The New York Dolls, Patti Smith, Fanny, Rick Derringer, The Tom Robinson Band, and The Psychedelic Furs, he could easily have laid claim to being one of the rock era’s finest knob-twiddlers. But Todd did all of those things, in addition to blazing pioneering paths in music video, interactive media, and self-released digital production, making him a wizard, and a true star (I presume you saw what I did there) for the ages, no arguments entertained.

When I First Heard Him: Early 1970s, when “Hello It’s Me” became a pop radio hit in its second version release under Todd’s name; the song had originally been recorded by his breakthrough band, Nazz. Around 1975, I had a beginner’s guitar chord book that included a lot of popular songs of the era, boiled down into simple arrangements for players of limited chops. Most of the songs in the book featured basic C, G7, E, A, D type chord structures, but I distinctly remember the entry for “Hello It’s Me,” which included such exotic (to young me) chords like Gm7 and Fmaj7 and C7sus4 and D#m7. That one song opened my eyes, ears, and mind to guitar sounds that veered into previously unknown directions, but as weird as those chords seemed to me at the time, the sounds produced by playing them were addictively mellifluous and sweet and melodic in complex ways, making them seem better and more important than the simple major chord and white key tunes that shaped so many of the other songs in that book. I acquired a couple of Todd’s early albums in the ensuing years, and a couple of albums by his band Utopia (who had scored their own rock radio hits with “Set Me Free” and “Love Is The Answer”), but it wasn’t until 1981 when he really moved into the forefront of my musical consciousness when I heard his song “Shine” playing on a record store stereo at Jacksonville Mall in North Carolina, near where I lived during my senior year in high school. I scored the album, Healing, from which that amazing song was culled, and it was and remains one of my all-time favorite records, holding a special place as the key always-on-the-stereo platter in the weeks before I left home to attend the Naval Academy.

Why I Love Him: As noted above, Todd Rundgren was and remains an incredibly accomplished and proficient artist as a guitar player, songwriter, singer and producer. And while that should be more than enough to raise him to special stature in anybody’s musical pantheon, he also blew my mind back in my teen years when I realized that many of the songs on his self-attributed ’70s albums were recorded as true solo works, with Rundgren playing all of the instruments, and singing all of the harmony lines. I marveled regularly at the skills he demonstrated on so many instruments over so many records, and also at his ability to conceive of something grand, and then arrange and build it, layer by layer, in the studio. That DIY approach was a cornerstone tenet of my own personal creative ethos way back in the days when I made music myself, though with but a fraction of the skill which Todd Rundgren demonstrates effortlessly and casually, over and over and over again. I also loved the fact that he created what was originally a backing band, Utopia, and then allowed it grow into a creative collaboration that allowed each of the group’s members to shine and take leads in their own capacities, without undermining the heft, value, and quality of their group work as a whole. At the high points of his most prolific career arc, in the late ’70s and early ’80s, it was great to be able to grab a Todd Rundgren album and love it, and then a few months later, be able to grab a Utopia album and love it, with equal fervor, though for different reasons. When I originally considered writing this entry about Todd, I intended it to be a “Todd Rundgren (And Related Artists)” post, including both my favorites from his solo catalog and the Utopia canon, but I’ve since decided to give Utopia their own separate and well-deserved entry at some point after I post this one. Watch this space.

#10. “Real Man,” from Initiation (1975)

#9. “Drive,” from The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect (1982)

#8. “Couldn’t I Just Tell You,” from Something/Anything? (1972)

#7. “Everybody’s Going To Heaven/King Kong Reggae,” from Todd (1974)

#6. “The Want Of A Nail (With Bobby Womack),” from Nearly Human (1989)

#5. “Tiny Demons,” from Healing (1981)

#4. “Love In Disguise,” from Second Wind (1992)

#3. “Just One Victory,” from A Wizard, A True Star (1973)

#2. “Heavy Metal Kids,” from Todd (1974)

#1. “Shine,” from Healing (1981)

7 thoughts on “Favorite Songs By Favorite Artists (Series Two) #52: Todd Rundgren

  1. Nice writeup.

    Every dorm room in the 1970s had a copy of Something/Anything and A Wizard, A True Star. (despite having my vote for the ugliest album cover ever). Great concert, too – curtain opened and he was on top of a huge fluorescent green pipe-framed pyramid with his guitar; the audience gasped as he did a head dive. He never hit the stage as he was on a tether and floated over the crowd still playing. Great effect for the stoners (and me).

    He resurrected the careers of some great talents. I “discovered” James Cotton (aka Mr. Super Harp) whose song The Creeper was co-opted riff-for-riff and recorded as Whammer Jamme‘ by the J. Geils Band.

    Bad Manners’ cover of Bang The Drum is fun. I didn’t find out it was a Rundgren song until years later..

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’d agree with you about the ugliness of those classic Todd album covers! I’ve seen him half-a-dozen times over the years, and he was always great, no matter what he was doing live, or who he was doing it with. The last time I saw him was about three years ago on the Utopia reunion tour, which was fantastic . . . they played one set of the early proggy stuff, and one set of the later poppy stuff, and both were superb!! I was flabbergasted at how well his voice has endured . . . they ended the show with “Just One Victory” as an encore, and he was able to effortlessly hit all those high notes. Sweet!

      Liked by 1 person

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