Pop: Out on his Todd again
Todd Rundgren is a pioneer. His eclectic albums were the benchmark for a decade, his innovative studio techniques one step ahead of the music industry. So now he's bypassing it altogether.
Friday 19 February 1999
Songwriter, video pioneer, producer, recording artist, computer software developer, interactive artist, company director: in many ways, it's been difficult to ignore this multimedia wizard. Born and raised in Philadelphia, Rundgren is best known for a string of albums on the Bearsville label made between 1970 and 1982, now getting the digitally remastered treatment. And they're wonderful. Beach Boy harmonies collide with soulful ballads and fifties revival; progressive knob-twiddling fuses with bubblegum simplicity. Even Gilbert & Sullivan find their way in. These records bump and grind together like the plate tectonics of Seventies pop. To find out more, I catch up with Rundgren during rehearsals for a US tour with Ringo Starr.
C'mon Todd, Gilbert & Sullivan: what was all that about? "I played that stuff because my dad hated it and when I was young he wouldn't allow it in the house," he chuckles. "Anyway, if you were a Beatles fan you had to think eclectically." Sure enough, the first album, Runt, became a paradigm for the musically disparate decade to come. Name-checked by Patti Smith as "a sort of rock'n' roll Ravel", great things were expected.
By 1972, though, and unhappy with the marketing commitments expected of him and the infidelities of an avaricious music industry, he began to close ranks. Holing himself up in the studio, on his todd, as it were, he wrote, played, arranged and produced The Ballad of Todd Rundgren and the brilliant Something/ Anything, hailed by Rolling Stone magazine as the "best album Paul McCartney never made". An array of guitars, keyboards, drums, fiddles and bells were plucked, struck and double-tracked by the versatile Rundgren. "I learned the guitar when I was six and pretty quickly could pick out the songs by ear faster than the teacher could show me them. Every time there was an instrument around, I learned to play something on it."
An innovative engineer, he was also one of the first to realise the potential of the studio itself as an instrument. This was fine-tuned on the pop- glam sprawl A Wizard, A True Star, and its follow-up, Todd.
Both records now sound modern and sparkle in their remastered form, but it was different in the mid-Seventies. Rundgren remembers A Wizard as an effort to "take the stream of consciousness that was going through my head at the time and imprint it on to the medium". It's no secret that psychedelic drugs also played a part. "I realised you could look at the surface of a record as an unbroken canvas and paint anything you wanted on it," he explains. "So I gave up the idea of songs that had beginnings and endings and looked at sound and music as one continuous mishmash of stuff."
For many, Rundgren had hit the self-destruct button. But then he has always been more interested in making music than marketable records. This is evident from his website tr-i (that's Todd Rundgren Interactive), where new TR material can be downloaded on a pay-to-hear basis. By cutting out several middle-men, Rundgren has all but disenfranchised himself from the industry and recording costs are mostly underwritten by his online subscribers. "I'm always making music," he enthuses, as well as completing his autobiography for publication next year. But a principal interest remains the opportunities in interactive technology. "Within 10 years, a significant portion of the audience is going to cease buying CDs," he declares. "It takes too long and costs too much. But the industry is in a devolutionary spin and terrified of methods that threaten to undercut their profit."
Are devices like the MP3 which enable listeners to download music from the Net going to change the face of music consumption? "Sure, but that isn't what's causing the crisis. The industry consistently took the market for granted. Now audience demands are changing, but record companies are clueless." If Todd is right, we can look forward to many more artists, as he puts it, "electronically recontextualising" their output on the Internet - as well as, one presumes, mass unemployment in the record industry.
"Music is destined to become a service. The listening experience is what matters." For those of us stuck with old-fashioned listening experiences, the Bearsville reissues and an excellent Best Of, Go Ahead, Ignore Me, are a reminder that the Seventies were more than Gary Glitter and your dad's Gilbert & Sullivan records.
`Runt', `The Ballad of Todd Rundgren', `Something/ Anything', `A Wizard, A True Star' and `Todd' are re-released on Castle on Monday. Rundgren's website is at: www.tr- i.com/
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