Who They Were: Having done my Todd Rundgren post in this series earlier this week, it seems fitting to return to discuss Utopia, the band he spent most of the ’70s and ’80s serving as guitarist-vocalist. When I originally conceived this series, I intended to include Todd’s solo work and Utopia as a single entry, but when forced to evaluate their respective catalogs, I decided that there were significant enough differences to merit separate group and solo entries. As an analog, I’d cite entries for The Beatles and Wings, both of which included Paul McCartney as a cornerstone member, but both of which were fairly distinct and different one from the other. That comparison seems especially apt here, as I’d count both Rundgren and McCartney among the greatest musical geniuses in the rock idiom of the past half-century, capable of doing technically and emotionally brilliant work in a variety of solo and group formats, and confident enough in their own abilities to allow the other members of their groups to shine in their own special ways. So with that as preamble, who were Utopia? They did indeed begin essentially as Rundgren’s backing band, releasing their first album, titled Todd Rundgren’s Utopia, in 1974. That disc, and its follow-up, Another Live (1975), featured extremely epic prog-rock styled, long-form jams and joints, with a keyboard-intensive sonic attack. But the group’s membership evolved quickly after those “supporting band” discs, and 1977’s Ra marked the debut of Utopia’s classic line-up, with Rundgren joined by Kasim Sulton (bass), Roger Powell (keys), and John “Willie” Wilcox (drums); all four members wrote, and all four member sang. That quartet incarnation quickly moved away from long-form prog manifestos into short-form pop-rock formats, and they were better for that transition, issuing eight high-quality albums before going their own ways in 1985. I caught one of their reunion shows in Chicago (with Gil Assayas replacing Powell on keys) on my birthday in 2018, and it was utterly brilliant, with one set of music from their prog days, and one set of music from their pop days. Here’s what it looked like:
When I First Heard Them: I can’t quite exactly pinpoint this one. I was familiar with Rundgren’s solo work well before the classic Utopia era, and I was familiar with the Utopia song “Love Is The Answer” before it became a cover hit through the version performed by England Dan and John Ford Coley, so I’d heard some of those late ’70s albums, though I didn’t own them upon their initial releases. I am pretty sure that the first Utopia album I actually purchased was 1982’s Swing to the Right, followed soon and enthusiastically in my collection by their self-titled “three-sided” disc later that year. Those two albums easily and clearly remain my favorites in their catalog, though I eventually acquired all of the Utopia albums that came before and after that pair of releases, and there are gems to be found on every one of those discs.
Why I Love Them: Everything I said about Todd Rundgren in the prior article in this series applies here, of course, but as his role in prime era Utopia was to be the guitar player and one of four lead vocalists, it’s equally important to consider the contributions of the other four members of the group. As noted above, all four of them wrote, and all four of them sang, and they were all aces on their instruments, making for a most impressive whole composed of those four particular parts. Post-Utopia, Sulton went on to be Meat Loaf’s musical director, and was also a member of Joan Jett’s Blackhearts. Powell was a protege of synthesizer pioneer Robert Moog, has long served as a trailblazing computer programmer, and also played with one of David Bowie’s very best live bands, of the Stage era. Wilcox has played as a session contributor on a variety of project outside of Utopia, and also has had a long career as an audio engineer in a variety of interesting capacities, including slot machine sound design and digital game scores. Together, the four members created a tremendous catalog of smart pop-rock songs, all played with technical panache and sung with emotive passion. The quartet’s songwriting prowess resulted in a long list of epic ear-worm tunes, and they were also early pioneers in using music videos to show viewers something other than the usual stock lip synch fare that defined the early MTV era. Having seen them live again a few years ago, I was delighted to hear how good they all remain at what they do, and equally pleased to hear how well their classic era songs have aged over the past few decades.
#10. “Play This Game,” from POV (1985)
#9. “Hoi Poloi,” from Deface The Music (1980)
#8. “Hiroshima,” from Ra (1977)
#7. “Bring Me My Longbow,” from Oblivion (1984)
#6. “Swing to the Right,” from Swing to the Right (1982)
#5. “Hammer In My Heart,” from Utopia (1982)
#4. “Too Much Water,” from Oblivion (1984)
#3. “Junk Rock (Million Monkeys),” from Swing to the Right (1982)
#2. “Princess of the Universe,” from Utopia (1982)
#1. “Shinola,” from Swing to the Right (1982)