IN A couple of months, Todd Rundgren will be making his Official State Visit to the UK. OK, so he is simply punning on the title of his new album, State, but to connoisseurs of cult, disciples of eccentricity and admirers of innovation, Rundgren is musical royalty.
According to the songwriter and producer Jim Steinman, with whom he worked on Meat Loaf’s Bat Out Of Hell album: “Todd Rundgren is a genius and I don’t use that word a lot.”
The Philadelphia-born, Hawaii-based Rundgren has certainly enjoyed a chequered career as one of popular music’s most colourful auteurs, starting out in the late 1960s with Anglophile garage rockers The Nazz, before launching a successful solo career at the turn of the 70s with cult classic albums Something/Anything? and A Wizard, A True Star – the latter of which was recently cited by Danny Baker on his Great Album Showdown series – and developing a parallel career as a producer, working with the likes of Badfinger, The Band, Sparks, Patti Smith, New York Dolls, XTC and, most famously, on Bat Out Of Hell.
Far from following royal protocol, Rundgren has a habit of rebelling against his own style. He achieved early success with the archetypal singer/songwriter piano ballad Hello It’s Me and wrote another of his most enduring songs, the Carole King-inspired I Saw The Light, in 20 minutes. Mind you, he was on Ritalin at the time.
He could have chosen to continue in this vein, but that would have made life far too easy and music too boring. In an effort to free himself up from a traditional approach to songwriting, he began experimenting with synthesisers and playing with the studio as a compositional tool in its own right. A Wizard, A True Star comprised an eclectic suite of songs which moved in a more progressive direction – and cut dead any commercial momentum he had built with those hit singles.
Next, he formed an all-out progressive rock band, Utopia, known for their outlandish theatrical outings, which borrowed heavily on space age imagery. Everyone was wearing silver shoulder pads in the 70s, right? After that, all bets were off. Rundgren’s subsequent work could, and did, comprise anything from straightforward power pop to odd cover versions from musicals (West Side Story, Iolanthe) to anatomically correct replicas of The Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations to producing one of the biggest-selling albums of all time.
To this day, Rundgren’s career runs its course along an unpredictable chicane. One minute he’s making albums composed entirely of vocal samples, the next re-interpreting his back catalogue in bossa nova style. But the one constant has been his love affair with technology. Although Rundgren has collaborated with many artists over the years, he prefers to work on his music alone and in a cultural vacuum, allowing his inventor’s mind to run free with possibilities.
“It’s been a while since I would sit at the piano and come up with a bunch of songs and book a studio to record them in,” he says. “I’ve got the technology to record any time I feel like it so I go directly to that part of the process. I like the writing to be somewhat automatic. Since I’m doing it all myself and I don’t have to explain it for anyone else then it becomes a weird sort of musical self-examination and I’m never exactly sure what I’ve done until weeks after I’ve finished it.”
Often, this MO has involved running a little ahead of the available technology at the time. In the late 1970s, Rundgren attempted a tour using quadraphonic sound, but was ultimately beaten by the two-day set-up required for his homemade sound system. He ran into the same issues when he toured in the early 1990s. “The show I did back then was like pulling teeth every night,” he recalls. “I had to invent the entire system on which everything ran. Back then, we didn’t have spares, everything was dependent on dumb luck that it would work properly. Nowadays we can get a lot of the stuff that we want off the rack.”
Although State came about following an approach from a record company, Rundgren has operated as a free agent outside of label control for the past 20 years, giving him an objective perspective and the creative latitude to indulge his not-so-wacky innovations. In the early 1990s, he released albums with interactive content, both audio and visual. At the same time, he was quick to spot and exploit the potential of the nascent World Wide Web, setting up an online subscription service, Patronet, which delivered unreleased material and works in progress straight to fans for a fee. Almost 20 years later, the music industry is still playing catch-up.
“That wasn’t difficult to predict,” says Rundgren. “I realised the labels were out of touch and therefore their model was going to be perishable. By the time you get to the mid-90s, people are starting to equate music with the computer, and that whole idea of music moving over wires or the airwaves not only made it ephemeral but broke down the prior model which was albums.
“But not everything that I imagine comes true,” he laughs. “I thought that music video back in the day was going to be a much more interesting thing as opposed to commercials for live acts. But at least now you can find more variety and more creativity because the cost of making videos has come down, just like the cost of making music, and also because you’ve got YouTube, an easy way to distribute what you’ve done.”
In recent years, Rundgren has looked back as much as forward, reforming Utopia, theming tours around his old albums, fronting a new incarnation of The Cars – handily called The New Cars – as well as touring from time to time as a member of Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band. The Beatles have remained a touchstone, almost an obsession running through Rundgren’s career, but he has also paid tribute to Robert Johnson and some of the artists he has produced with two separate covers albums released in 2011.
He has also found an unlikely role in academia, teaching a course called The Ballad of Todd Rundgren and lecturing on Music, Technology & Risk-taking at Indiana universities. Does he consider himself to be a risk-taker? “I don’t think it’s important that I take a risk every time I make a record,” he says, “but I do find that I’m more engaged in the process if there’s some challenge or element of risk in it. It’s harder for me to do something that seems right within my wheelhouse because I’m not exactly sure where that is. I get bored with what I’m doing so I naturally want to do something else and if there’s the challenge of trying to understand some new musical idiom or some other way of expressing your ideas, that’s what keeps me interested in doing it and not playing the same songs over and over again.”
State is released tomorrow by Esoteric Recordings. Todd Rundgren makes his Official State Visit to ABC, Glasgow on 6 June. www.tr-i.com