Favorite Songs By Favorite Artists (Series Two) #57: The Gods (And Related Bands)

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 They Were: This article probably sits alongside my Human Sexual Response and Tragic Mulatto entries in the “Favorite Songs By Favorite Artists” series as a document of the most obscure artists included in my final published roster. Which is quite weird, on some plane, given the somewhat jaw-dropping membership of The Gods and their ancillary ancestors and descendants during their short-ish run in the ’60s and early ’70s. So let’s start here: imagine that I posited to you a story about a hypothetical band whose members included Mick Taylor (The Rolling Stones), Greg Lake (King Crimson and ELP), Ken Hensley, Paul Newton and Lee Kerslake (all Uriah Heep), John Glascock (Carmen and Jethro Tull), Brian Glascock (The Motels),  Cliff Bennett (The Rebel Rousers), and Alan Kendall (The Bee Gees), among several others of less notoriety. You’d likely roll your eyes about such a music-nerd fantasia, pat me on the back patronizingly, and try to shuffle on to have a more lucid conversation with someone laboring under fewer weird rock-flavored delusions. But in that hypothetical scenario, and in real life, I’d actually be speaking the truth, about a real band of incredibly influential players, whose successes mostly came after their youthful times making music together in the bands discussed here today. The earliest trunk of The Gods’ family tree featured a band called The Juniors, founded in 1962 and featuring Mick Taylor and the Glascock Brothers. By 1965, Ken Hensley had joined, and the group had rebranded itself as The Gods; they played a legendary opening set for Cream at Wembley’s Starlite Ballroom, and later replaced The Rolling Stones as the featured house band at The Marquee Club in London. After releasing several singles and a pair of albums as The Gods, the ever-morphing group re-tooled with former Rebel Rouser Cliff Bennett as their vocalist, re-branding themselves as Toe Fat, and releasing two more albums under that name. They also released a notoriously raunchy one-off disc called Orgasm in 1970, using various personal aliases, and operating under the band name Head Machine.  By 1971, the evolving lineage finally fractured, with its current and former members going on to their various better-known successors. The lost hero over the evolution of all of these groups and all of these albums was unquestionably guitarist Joe Konas, who appears on, sang on, and wrote numerous key songs for the various groups throughout their runs, but without achieving the same level of latter-day fame and success that his band-mates did. But he was a brilliant player, and crucial to the various groups’ stories, so I must note his essential contributions here for the record, even if you’ve not likely heard of him before, nor are very likely to hear of him again.

When I First Heard Them: As discussed in my Uriah Heep entry in this series, I first heard of The Gods and Toe Fat after scoring The Heep’s 1975 Best Of collection, which included a great “Rock Family Trees”-style graphic on its back cover showing the various group members’ activities before and after their service times with The Heep. But it was not until I was well into the Internet-era of the mid-1990s before I was actually able to score and hear any albums or singles from The Gods-to-Toe Fat lineage, given their relative obscurity, especially here on American shores. I wrote an article in 2001 describing my adventures in and love for the musical genre I’ve described as Heavy Organ Music, and The Gods, Toe Fat, and their related bands are cornerstones in the evolution of and history of that particularly awesome style of rock music-making. I know that I’d found and heard and loved all of the core albums released within the primordial pre-Uriah Heep Family Tree by the time I wrote that article, now 20+ years ago, and I can happily report that those rare records continue to spin regularly hereabouts, living their digital afterlives to the fullest extent possible, at least as far as my own listening experiences are concerned.

Why I Love Them: I’m not sure that I can improve upon what I wrote 20 years ago when I first discussed these groups on this website, and explained why I loved them, so I quote from the original “Heavy Organ Music” article below, in answer to the question of why I love The Gods, Toe Fat, and their extended kith and kin:

I’m a total sucker for a special certain kind of music that was fairly widespread and even (occasionally) popular in the late ’60s and early ’70s, but that doesn’t really seem to have any direct modern analogues. I call this genre Heavy Organ Music, though I don’t think anybody else does. You can generally describe it as mid-tempo, choogly rock (complete with appropriately widdly guitar and ram-a-lam drum solos), fortified with strong, typically baritone male vocals and cemented together with swirly, gurgly organ parts, usually played on classic Hammond B-3 or Vox Continental organs. Or other combo organs of the era, Farfisas and the like. You know the sound. Organy.

A great example of Heavy Organ Music is Ball by Iron Butterfly, which puts its better known predecessor, In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, to shame in terms of quality songwriting and performance. The Butterfly’s Doug Ingle delivers perfect bari-vox and organ textures throughout Ball‘s run, atop the muscular Lee Dorman-Ron Bushy rhythm section, as Erik Brann slings some serious riffs and chops on his six string axe, while also providing sensitive lead vocals on set closer, “Belda-Beast.” Ball was released in early 1969, which puts it right smack in the middle of the Heavy Organ Era, a great time in musical history when long-haired, hard-working rockers hauled giant keyboards around the world in order to deliver the groove to their hungry, happy audiences. Think Steppenwolf’s big hits (“Born To Be Wild,” “Magic Carpet Ride,” “Rock Me,” etc.) for another quintessential benchmark of that audio era. Oh, to get back to the Garden!

I went on from that introduction to specifically discuss the various and sundry bands further addressed in this article, even if I did not explicitly cover them in its introductory paragraphs. And I do the same below. In terms of making decisions on what to include here, and what not to include here, I’ve essentially decided to focus on the main-line Gods’ Family Tree, but to excluded any of the “famous” bands with whom they played in their later years, e.g. Jethro Tull, ELP and Uriah Heep. So, for example, I would not include anything played by the late and lamented John Glascock during his stellar time with Carmen and Jethro Tull, but I do include an obscure track by the less-well-known Chicken Shack (most remembered these days, if at all, for birthing Christine Perfect McVie’s career), where his bass work played a huge role in that fabulous group’s macro-level creative successes. I also didn’t include any “second-order” bands in the lineage, e.g. John’s brother, Brian Glascock, played in the outstanding Octopus (see item number two, here), whose other members then went on to perform with the well-known Split Enz; there are no Enz tracks in the Top Ten list below, as I have covered them elsewhere. (For the record, John Glascock was one of my very favorite musicians in the 1970s, and his untimely death touched me deeply. Don’t steal my idea, but I’ve long believed that there’s a great book to be written about the “behind-the-scenes” careers of the Glascock Brothers, and the ways in which they influenced and played with so many killer bands and artists, so that may become one of my background writing projects at some point in the years ahead of us). Since there are so many permutations of players represented in this article, I’ve been more explicit than usual in terms of accreditation where necessary. They’re all obscure, but they still  deserve proper respect and acknowledgement!

#10. “Daughter of the Hillside,” from Imagination Lady (1972), credited to Chicken Shack (feat. John Glascock)

#9. “Candles Getting Shorter,” from Genesis (1968), credited to The Gods

#8. “That’s My Love for You,” from Toe Fat (1970), credited to Toe Fat

#7. “Towards the Skies,” from Genesis (1968), credited to The Gods

#6. “Bad Side of the Moon,” from Toe Fat (1970), credited to Toe Fat

#5. “Misleading Colours,” from Genesis (1968), credited to The Gods

#4. “But I’m Wrong,” from Toe Fat (1970), credited to Toe Fat

#3. “Sticking Wings On Flies,” from To Samuel A Son (1970), credited to The Gods

#2. “The Wherefores and the Whys,” from Toe Fat (1970), credited to Toe Fat

#1. “Lovely Anita,” from To Samuel A Son (1970), credited to The Gods

Favorite Songs By Favorite Artists (Series Two) #56: Jed Davis (And Related Bands)

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: I’m deep in “year-end list” mode at this point, but I do pause on that annual endeavor to return to this ongoing series of “Favorite Songs By Favorite Artists,” to celebrate a particular favorite. Jed Davis is a Long Island-bred singer-songwriter-keyboardist with a stunningly deep and broad history as both as a live performer and studio wizard, working since the early 1990s as a solo artist and as the primary creative talent behind a variety of stellar bands, including Skyscape, The Hanslick Rebellion, Jeebus, Sevendys, and others. In both his band and solo endeavors, the list of players who have been excited to work with him is somewhat mind-boggling, with the likes of Chuck Rainey, Reeves Gabrels, Anton Fig, Jerry Marotta, Sheridan Riley, Ralph Carney, John Sebastian, Brian Dewan, Tony Levin and many others appearing on his records, of which there are a lot, over the years. (Long-time collaborators Mike Keaney and Alex Dubovoy may not have the same public cache as those previously-mentioned players, but I’d be remiss to not include and celebrate their contributions to Jed’s catalog over the years). Without a shred of hyperbole, I would easily and readily declare Jed to be one of the greatest American songwriters of the past half-century, and unlike a lot of his music-scribbling peers, he’s also capable of standing on stages and earning equal respect as one of the most talented and bracing live performers of that period as well. Jed lived and worked for quite some time with The Ramones’ behind-the-scenes genius Arturo Vega (RIP, alas), working on their Rise and Shine musical for many years. (I visited Jed at “The Ramones Loft” a few times when he was living there, and Artie and Jed gave me a mini-tour once, e.g.: “Here is where Dee Dee burned a hole in the floor while cooking smack.”) Jed also had the most exquisitely rare experience of knowing what it felt like to front The Ramones, when he had the opportunity to sing his song, “The Bowery Electric,” at CBGB, with most of the then-surviving members of The Ramones and their close production associates behind him, celebrating the life of fallen-to-cancer singer Joey Ramone. (Jed had written the song while walking around the Lower East Side in the rain after missing a train on the day that Joey had died). If his musical accomplishments weren’t enough to commend him, Jed is a stellar visual artist as well, who works in design and lay-out for a major national publication during his day-time hours, while also creating equally amazingly artistic presentations for his own work, in the hours between the hours.

When I First Heard Him: There are “I know” and “I think” aspects to answering this question with regard to Jed’s career and how it entered my consciousness. I know that I saw him deliver one of his epic solo piano performances at Mother Earth Cafe in Albany around 1995, when he was a student at the University of Albany. And I think that I saw his then-band, Skyscape, play an early opening set at Albany’s legendarily grotty live music venue, Bogie’s, around that same time, but as a local college band, they weren’t properly introduced, so I can’t swear that it was them, except that my memory of the sounds and visuals of what they did aligns with what I later learned about Jed’s musical career and history. I know that the first record of his that I enthusiastically reviewed in print was We’re All Going To Jail! (1997). And the first times we actively communicated were when I was booking shows for the Time Warner Cable music television show, Sounding Board, which featured a live Collider performance, and when I was doing a feature piece for Metroland right at the turn of the millennium, and I interviewed Jed for his thoughts on keyboard technology at the time. (That article earned a “Best of My Archives” nod a couple of years ago, here). Jed and I have orbited each other in various capacities in the years since then, and I’ve remained a staunch supporter of his work all along the way; a search for “Jed Davis” on my website reveals just how many times I’ve written about him over the years, and he remains one of my most favorite creative types, doing just absolutely brilliant work, year after year after year. I’ve already featured him twice here over the past twelve months, applauding the series of career-spanning digital EPs he has recently released, and placing the compilation version of those same EPs in the Top Ten of my Best Albums of 2021 report.

Why I Love Him: On a top line basis, this is an easy one to answer: because Jed Davis is an objectively and absolutely genius creator, as a songwriter, as a singer, as a player, and as a visual artist. When you encounter someone with the degrees of talent which Jed possesses, you’d be a fool not to love the resultant work emerging from that talent’s wellsprings, and a knave not to try to share its brilliance with others. When I focus on Jed’s musical efforts (given the point and intent of this series) and think about what moves me most, the things that pop to mind are that he’s got an incredible gift for crafting resonant songs and melodies, that he’s got the technical chops to do justice to his vision with his own playing, and that he understands the value of collaboration deeply enough to surround himself with the absolute best talent available to him to bring his songs to life. As a lyricist, Jed is a keen and astute observer of the world around him and of his own human condition, and he’s also funny as hell when he wants to be. Some of his very best songs find that rare and perfect sweet spot where the bitter and the sweet cross paths, leaving us listeners to make strange faces and feel confusing emotions that may be happy, or may be sad, or may be something inexplicable and special between those points, all of our buttons pushed, just so, by the genius of his songs and story-telling. At bottom line, I love Jed Davis as a writer, as an artist, as a singer, as a player, and as a dear friend. My life is richer for knowing him and his works, and I am thankful and grateful for that, always.

#10. “The Bowery Electric,” from I Am Jed Davis (2009), credited to Jed Davis

#9. “Happy Black Steamroller,” from Song Foundry 3-Pack #004 EP (2021), credited to Jed Davis

#8. “Big Hot Monday,” from The Rebellion Is Here (2007), credited to The Hanslick Rebellion

#7. “Mock Cheer,” from WCYF (2003), credited to Collider

#6. “Yuppie Exodus From Dumbo,” from “Yuppie Exodus From Dumbo” single (2010), credited to Jed Davis

#5. “City Of My Dreams,” from Song Foundry 3-Pack #002 (2021), credited to Jed Davis

#4. “1991,” from WCYF (2003), credited to Collider

#3. “O Death,” from Song Foundry 3-Pack #004 EP (2021), credited to Jed Davis

#2. “Across A Thunderstorm,” from Song Foundry 3-Pack #002 (2021), credited to Jed Davis

#1. “Who’ll Apologize for This Disaster of a Life,” from “Who’ll Apologize for This Disaster of a Life” single (2017), credited to The Hanslick Rebellion

Favorite Songs By Favorite Artists (Series Two) #55: Tragic Mulatto

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 They Were: A deeply and truly transgressive band from California’s Bay Area, and probably the most obscure entry in this ongoing series, with the possible exception of Human Sexual Response. Taking their name from an archetypal literary trope describing a mixed-race person “who is assumed to be depressed, or even suicidal, because they fail to completely fit in the ‘white world’ or the ‘black world,'” (definition per Wikipedia), Tragic Mulatto were a going concern from 1980 to 1990, with the group being built around singer-saxophonist-tubaist Gail Coulson (a.k.a. Flatula Lee Roth) and bassist-singer Alistair Shanks (a.k.a. Lance Boyle and/or Reverend Elvister Shanksley). The earliest incarnation of the band found the core duo in an ostensibly supportive role, alongside Daved Marsh on vocals, Patrick Marsh on drums, and Karl Konnerth on trumpet, that quintet offering fractured jazz-based scuzz, the vibe of which was perhaps best encapsulated by Coulson’s entirely, amazingly, brilliantly sacrilegious cover art for their 1984 EP Judo for the Blind.  After Konnerth and the Marsh brothers departed, the group issued one album, 1987’s Locos Por El Sexo with Tim Carroll (a.k.a. Richard Skidmark, a core member of  Gary Floyd’s San Francisco incarnation of his legendary band, The Dicks) on guitar and Jay “Jazzbo” Smith on drums. Re-tooling once again, the last incarnation of Tragic Mulatto featured Coulson and Shanks accompanied by dual drummers Marianne Riddle (a.k.a. Bambi Nonymous, also a member of Frightwig) and Marc Galipeau (a.k.a. Humpty Doody), along with guitarist Jehu Goder (a.k.a. Jack-Buh).

When I First Heard Them: As noted elsewhere, most recently in my Hüsker Dü article in this series, I spent much of the ’80s finding my favorite bands by acquiring everything put into the public domain by a select group of independent record labels, prominently including Alternative Tentacles, under which banner Tragic Mulatto recorded and released all of their records. The first Tragic Mulatto record I heard was Judo for the Blind, and I liked it well enough, but it was not until their first full-length compilation CD release, 1987’s Italians Fall Down and Look Up Your Dress, (primarily featuring the Coulson-Shanks-Carroll-Smith line-up) that I truly fell in love with the group. None of the record stores in my neighborhood at the time stocked their catalog, so I am pretty sure that I mail-ordered everything I ever heard by them, back in the day, directly from Alternative Tentacles. (They remain woefully under-available on CD and download/streaming services to this day). The group quietly dissolved, alas, after 1990’s brilliant Chartreuse Toulouse, the members scattering into a variety of interesting post-Tragic careers including (among others) music educator, visual artist, yoga master, and polka bassist.

Why I Love Them: I tend to have a low bullshit threshold when it comes to groups who pursue shock for shock’s sake, recognizing that most of them are just playing roles and parts designed to turn transgression into commercial attainment by pushing provocative buttons for the benefit of those seeking cheap and easy thrills. That said, as stunningly confrontational and disturbing as Tragic Mulatto could be in their heyday, I never perceived them as “poseurs” pretending to be something that they were not, as their music, their lyrics, their on-stage performances, and their artwork were legitimately, frighteningly “real” on every front that an audience member could expect to experience. I also tend to have a low bullshit threshold when it comes to groups of marginal technical talent who use such provocative presentations to mask their own musical shortcomings, but that was also never the case with Tragic Mulatto, as the group’s players and songwriters were deeply talented, coming at their post-jazz skuzz-rock from a position of deep authority, spinning out tunes of lyrical madness and musical brilliance in equal measure. The group are probably most often critically compared to Austin’s Butthole Surfers, both acts featuring twin drummers and over-the-top paired vocalists. That comparison is apt on some planes, but limiting on others, as Tragic Mulatto were blessed with Coulson’s amazing vocal work, often compared to Grace Slick and other ferocious female belters, along with her distinctive sax and tuba skills, which truly put Tragic Mulatto in their own unique musical cohort. (Coulson’s vocal take on Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” puts the Zep, especially Robert “Percy” Plant, to shame on many fronts, and I’d argue that Coulson’s shriek at the end of the “orgasm” section of the song is one of the greatest screams in rock music history; it’s at 31:45 in this video, if you need to hear it, which I think you do). The group’s lyrics were definitely scatological and sexual in equal measures, but they weren’t just tossed out for the cheap thrills, offering instead an impressively incisive level of cultural, social, and political acuity between the more obvious filthy front elements. At bottom line, Tragic Mulatto made extremely powerful music with extremely offensive (yet very, very smart) lyrics, fulfilling the counter-cultural promise of the punk and post-punk eras in ways that most similarly-inclined bands could only dream about.

#10. “No Juice,” from “Tragic Mulatto” single (1983)

#9. “OK Baby OK,” from Italians Fall Down And Look Up Your Skirt (1987)

#8. “Freddy,” from Locos Por El Sexo (1987)

#7. “She’s A Ho (Live),” from Hot Man Pussy (1989)

#6. “I Don’t Mind,” from Chartreuse Toulouse (1990)

#5. “My Name Is Not O’Neill,” from Hot Man Pussy (1989)

#4. “Mr. Cheese,” from Hot Man Pussy (1989)

#3. “Untitled (Safeway)” from Locos Por El Sexo (1987)

#2. “Sexy Money,” from Locos Por El Sexo (1987)

#1. “Rise Up, Get Down,” from Chartreuse Toulouse (1990)

Favorite Songs By Favorite Artists (Series Two) #54: Hüsker Dü (And Related Artists)

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 They Were: Singer-songwriter-guitarist Bob Mould, singer-songwriter-drummer Grant Hart, and bassist Greg Norton were the power trio to end all power trios in the heyday of ’80s independent rock, emerging from Minnesota’s Twin Cities with a ferociously over-amped take on post-punk tropes, styles and sounds. Formed in 1979 after Mould left his Upstate New York home to attend Macalester College in St. Paul, and named after a Scandinavian board game that felt ubiquitous through television commercials in the late 1970s, Hüsker Dü released their first single, “Statues”/”Amusement,” in 1981, and were highly prolific over their short run, finally imploding and dissolving after their 1987 double-album Warehouse: Songs and Stories. After launching their career on a variety of independent record labels (more on that below), Hüsker Dü were one of the first American post-punk bands to sign with a major label (Warner Bros.) in the mid-’80s, after the music industry realized that there was money to be made in creating an “alternative” or “college rock” idiom to add critical cache to their corporate offerings. Mould and Hart were both prolific songwriters, and the group’s demise was tied to conflicts between the pair about creative control of the group, compounded by Hart’s worsening issues with drug addiction. After their break-up, Norton went into the restaurant business, and Hart and Mould continued on as solo artists, with Mould also serving in the Hüsker Dü-reminiscent band Sugar (which featured drummer Malcolm Travis of Human Sexual Response) and Hart also fronting Nova Mob, having shifted from drums to guitar as his primary instrument in his post-Hüsker days. Sadly, Grant Hart died of cancer in 2017, ending any of the long-running speculation (and hopeful thinking) associated with a possible group reunion.

When I First Heard Them: In pre-Internet days, one of the best ways to keep abreast of emergent music that I liked was by forging attractions to specific record labels that offered high-quality releases by bands that I admired and/or adored, presuming that the new and unknown groups on those labels might be as good as the heroes I already worshipped. Two of my favorite labels in those days were SST (home of Black Flag and The Minutemen) and Alternative Tentacles (Dead Kennedys, Tragic Mulatto, etc.), and as it happens, Hüsker Dü released records with both of those labels in their pre-Warner Bros. days. I am pretty sure that the first thing I heard by Hüsker Dü was the song “Real World” on a 1983 SST sampler disc called The Blasting Concept. I liked them enough to explore further, acquiring other early singles, EPs, and albums, but it was their ambitious Summer 1984 double-album release on SST, Zen Arcade, that really pushed me into being a serious fanboy of the group. It remains one of my all-time favorite records.

Why I Love Them: I’m going to reprise lightly-edited text that I wrote after Hart’s death to explain why the Hüskers moved me so much, once upon a time. Here ’tis: When I think of monumental moments in my musical listening career, side one of Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade (1984) was among the most surprising and transformative. I was a hardcore kid and devoted SST Records follower/buyer, and there were certain rules and sound and structures that you expected from bands signed to that label, including the Hüskers. The first two songs on Zen Arcade (“Something I Learned Today” and “Broken Home, Broken Heart,” both composed by co-leader Bob Mould) complied with these expectations as fine examples of the razor thin, trebly, high speed, screaming, all electric onslaught that SST generally delivered to its listeners, platter after platter. But then came Hart’s “Never Talking To You Again,” at which point, everything changed. Acoustic guitars? Melodic vocals? Wistful sentiments? From America’s erstwhile fastest hardcore band? Can they do that?!?! Can I like it?!?!? By the end of that record’s first side, Hart, Mould and Norton also delivered percussion heavy ragas, backtracked guitar meltdowns, chanting, Bo Diddly beats and more . . . and there were three more sides to go after that, including piano interludes, Hart’s balls-to-the-wall rocker “Turn On The News,” and a 14-minute long instrumental freakout to end the experience. Zen Arcade was a critical success, and it could have been a commercial success, except that SST did not have the production capacity to meet the demand for it, which directly contributed to the group’s jump to the big leagues a couple of years later. I wasn’t wild about the over-long Warehouse as the final studio document of the Hüskers’ short, bright career, and as much as I wanted to like Hart’s and Mould’s later solo releases, they frankly didn’t move me as much as their Hüsker Dü work did, with one extremely notable exception: Mould’s 2008 District Line album, which I consider to be a stylistically-brilliant and highly-unique techno-guitar masterpiece. I include a couple of tracks from it in my “Favorite Songs” list below, hence the “And Related Artists” tag in this post’s title.

#10. “Shelter Me,” from District Line (2008), credited to Bob Mould

#9. “Don’t Want to Know If You Are Lonely,” from Candy Apple Grey (1986)

#8. “Somewhere,” from Zen Arcade (1984)

#7. “Diane,” from Metal Circus (1983)

#6. “Makes No Sense At All,” from Flip Your Wig (1985)

#5. “Sorry Somehow,” from Candy Apple Grey (1986)

#4. “Newest Industry,” from Zen Arcade (1984)

#3. “Again and Again,” from District Line (2008), credited to Bob Mould

#2. “Never Talking to You Again,” from Zen Arcade (1984)

#1. “Celebrated Summer,” from New Day Rising (1985)

Favorite Songs By Favorite Artists (Series Two) #53: Utopia

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 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:

Prog Utopia Set

Pop Utopia Set

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)

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)