Graham Reid | | 14 min read
Todd Rundgren laughs as he predicts
the end the current model of on-line music sales which will disappear
like the Sony Walkman and vinyl singles: “Because some songs are
priceless, some songs are worthless . . . and some songs are worth
exactly 99 cents”.
He should know. In a 40-plus year
career he's made songs, and whole albums, in each category.
However although he has appeared on
over 40 albums under his own name or that of his bands (the Nazz in
the 60s, Utopia from the mid 70s), been producer for everyone from
the New York Dolls and Patti Smith to Meat Loaf (Bat
Out of Hell), Shaun Cassidy
and the Psychedelic Furs, Rundgren allows himself another dry laugh
as he describes his position in the marketplace of music.
“I'm a fringe artist.”
Given his long career – which
admittedly has only troubled the American top 20 singles charts with
I Saw the Light
and Hello It's Me
in the early 70s – you'd think this innovative musician who was
also in the vanguard of video and
internet technology would
be a household name.
But if he's known for anything
today it's as the man who acted as father for actress Liv Tyler –
daughter of Aerosmith's Steve Tyler – when she was a child.
An amusing and almost detached
observer of his own career, he notes a rare experience when he
fronted the New Cars in 06 – the old Cars with him in for lead
singer Ric Ocasek – and discovered a very different audience
response from what he was use to. He admits people come to his shows
expecting and wanting Hello
It's Me “and I mostly
don't play it because it's too out of context of what I'm doing at
wayward career has taken him from soul-pop through expansive
prog-rock, from guitar hero to abandoning the guitar entirely. Yet he
is currently out playing a programme of blues by the legendary Robert
Johnson (1911-38) delivered in the style of the late 60s power-rock
bands like Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience. His new album is
Todd Rundgren's Johnson
– a title more risque to an American audience.
And he picks up a local rhythm section players when he comes to Australia and New Zealand later this year – and his visit is a surprise, even to him.
Just like the traveling bluesmen of old, just being a troubadour?
has certainly been no up-tick in my record sales that would cause me to be
popular Down Under, but my association with Hal Wilner brought me to
Australia in January to do a Sydney summer festival and this was a
fairly significant event, so I got a lot of direct exposure and
coverage by the press. That was the necessary foot in the door to try
and pursue some sort of tour.
record only requires a quartet and a lot of people are familiar with
the material, so it is plausible to pick up a rhythm section: my
principal guitarist will rehearse the rhythm section before I get
versions of Robert Johnson at this time?
through an era where I almost eschewed electric guitar, my focus went
elsewhere and I wanted to become a better singer and performer. So
for a number of years I would front a large band and never play the
guitar, never play any instrument, just dance around and sing.
back into the guitar some years ago and in a big way. I wanted to do
an arena rock-style record – the record was Arena – but like so
many artists of my generation – and maybe everyone these days –
you get your material distributed independently. No one I know has
any major company, five-record deal.
came time to do distribution for Arena and the company that made the
deal also happened to administer the Robert Johnson music publishing.
They made as a requirement to distributing Arena that I record an
album of Robert Johnson tunes as well. They claimed to me that they
were getting many requests for Johnson songs to be used in films and
tv shows, essentially the mechanical license.
they had the publishing they had no recorded versions so they
required I make a record. I agreed to do it mostly because I wanted
to get my record out and thought I would figure out how to deal with
my heroes [Clapton] has already done it so anything I did would pale
by comparison if nothing else. And the whole process will be creepy
for me, constantly trying to outdo Eric Clapton.
a year and I came to the conclusion I was not directly influenced by
Johnson, Eric Clapton was – and I was influenced by Clapton.
So I am
not attempting to compete in my authenticity.
fortuitous coincidence was that my first gig as a professional was in
a blues band so I understand the idiom. It wasn't a ridiculous leap
to deconstruct and reconstruct this material into a way I was
is no way “a tribute”, you won't see those words anywhere there.
entirety of Johnson is 40 - 45 minutes and that's an opening act. My
shows are usually two to two and half hours, so of necessity I'm
going to have to fill it out. The blues guy I know best is myself. My
big initial influence was electric blues – and English people who
did their own version of that. So all throughout my career are
examples of my modernised or twisted take on the blues idiom.
band the Nazz, whose career was done by 69, and on the second record
we rip off John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers featuring Eric Clapton.
concert we may play a few songs people are actually familiar with.
ways the diversity of your career allows you to do pretty much what
you like these days.
believe I have much in the way of radio success, that is a great
advantage to me because people send me notes saying, 'This show will
be total shit unless you play this song'. This is helpful.
been quite good about revisiting your earlier work and playing albums
in their entirety: you're soon doing The Healing and Todd albums.
I have a
devoted audience because through this process of not playing what
people expect me to play I have weeded out all the dilettantes. So
now the audience I have is particularly devoted and will come to see
anything I have to present. And if it is in package form will
purchase anything I have to present. But a lot of it depends on a
certain recognition that they need to get every once in a while and
come about through Rundgrenradio.com . . . the guy who runs it plays the
music and does interviews with anyone even tangentially related to my
career, and it has a substantial hardcore following and go to for
information. They decided they wanted to dabble in promotion and
polled their audience and they [The Healing and Todd] were the
records they wanted to hear.
was expecting the level of production that went into the first one,
it is more a theatrical representation of the record . . . so now
the expectation is high.
interest in the fact that you also do what we might call re-creations
of music – for example the Beatles on Deface the Music, the covers
on Faithful and your own music in With A Twist . . . why??
Nazz's first song was Open My Eyes – which was the Who and Beach
Boys mashed together – and on the B-side was Hello It's Me, it was
a dirgy version where I played vibes, and for some reason the record
got flipped and it became a minor hit.
later when I wasn't a radio staple I was doing the Something/Anything
album and the album consisted of me playing most of the instruments.
It turned into a double album and by the last side there was enough
of me playing by myself and wanted to do live-in-the-studio
performances with no overdubs.
So I did
half a dozen songs and one was a reworking of Hello It's Me with a
more modern groove, background chorusses and a horn section. I did it
because I thought it was a different way to do it, I was in a
thought about radio play but the biggest single became Hello It's Me
and other bands covered it, like the Isley Brothers.
the song that if I don't play we have people walking out – and I
mostly don't play it because it is too out of context of what it is
I'm doing. If there was a context then I'd play it.
just thought I heard it in a more personal way and that's why I
moral of the story is I not only improved it in how the song could be
interpreted, but it turned out to be a gigantic financial boon.
Cars must have been a different experience again?
the thing that hit me the first time we played in front of an
audience, we were eight songs in and people were still singing along.
Which is completely different from my shows. If there are people at
my shows who haven't fully kept up they are going to be stumped at
several points in the show trying to remember where, if ever, they
have heard this song. Plus I have this nasty habit lately of whatever
my newest record is, I play the whole thing. And then give them the
crumbs of older material.
[New Cars] was an experience I haven't had on stage, that power of
familiarity. You are not trying to sell anything, when they hear the
first note they are fully committed and the song is sold.
part of your performers tool kit, you want to get the audience going
and you are going to over indulge yourself and play some old jam . .
. but you know at the end you have to play something they are
familiar with, and it doesn't matter if it is Louie Louie.
had a long and diverse career in production. What attracts you to a
material – which I think goes along with the priorities of most
listeners. The thing they care most about is a decent song. They
don't want to hear the most incredible version of the world's
crappiest song. They would rather hear a half-assed version of the
world's best song.
always striving to hear what it is in the material that might be
attractive to a listener, and that's the most time-consuming aspect
for me of the process.
my production career I didn't vet the material too much, I figured
we'd get in the studio and the combined talents would work out the
problems. And for a lot of things that did work.
overconfidence in my own songwriting and if people didn't produce the
goods I would just take over.
you develop some recognisable style, if you apply that to production
you put your paw prints on everything you do, instead of letting the
act put on their display, warts and all if necessary.
songwriting is weak and some label has decided to put the record out
anyway then they are just going to have to live with the weak
Seventies a review in Rolling Stone could make or break you, but you
can't second-guess the taste of a critic let alone the buying
audience, you have to have another vision of what you are trying to
accomplish. I consider more timeless aspects of music . . . it's the
phenomenon that gets Sinatra's Capitol recordings of Fifties
records don't get recognition but grow in stature.
to think like a musician – which can be hard if you are working
with people who got paid a whole lot of money before they did
anything which became the model. 'Here's the seven-figure advance,
now make a record'.
did musicians do before we had a record industry, which is only about
100 years old? How did they live?
they were probably better musicians than today – but you got you
paid for your performance so you had to hone that and be sharp --
today we are getting back to that – and the material had to stick
in people's head somehow.
could just forget about you, you'd have no follow-up business.
problem happened when the music industry discovered that music could
be commoditised and success was no longer measured in the size of the
audience you paid for or even, go forbid, how the local critics
became about figuring out what the buying patterns were, and it was
all the Arbitron rating system, people in a room with a dial and an
number went below a certain point the record would never get
people are so unsophisticated they don't now what a chorus is (Laughs)
basically you still listen for a good song?
material doesn't have to be super-confident, it just has to be done
with brio or some perceptible emotion. It also doesn't have to be
thing people care the least about – which is the thing some
artists, to my mystification are most obsessed with – is the actual
people don't have studio-referenced sound quality. Since people
started listening with earbuds, how can anybody figure out how to
mix? There is no uniformity to how people listen.
sound systems come with distortion, like superbass, which most
musicians try to keep out of their records. If there is any muddiness
in the bottom end of the mix you've made you will rattle the walls
and will sound horrible.
still important? It seems like just another entertainment thing in
the marketplace today.
became portable it became just a lifestyle accessory. It always has
been in some aspects, there are always bands or acts meant for the
musically naïve, like Taylor Swift. As people get older their
experience grows, and seeing it performed live they realise that
human beings do this, it's not all machines.
when you listen Sinatra's Capitol albums, they were mostly all one
take, no overdubs, a 50 piece orchestra and the singer all locked in
– and it is the performance they will strive to perform live from
Walkman changed everything: random access, skipping over songs, that
ate away at the album being principle form.
why the Internet model for selling music will eventually fail . . .
people will realise that some songs are priceless, some songs are
worthless and some songs are worth exactly 99 cents.
another new model out of Disneyworld: the new Mickey Mouse club
singers who grow up with their audience. For some artists that is a
close link with their audience for an album, and a guaranteed sales
to do two solo albums, Utopia and three production jobs every year.
Then variety and eclecticism was a selling point, now it seems there
are too many artists are trying to cram into the same space, all of
the Linkin Parks . . .
what you have done is very amusing – I'm thinking of Meat Loaf's
Bat Out of Hell – but humour and wit seems to be missing in music
is pretty humourless, although it is there in some aspects of hip-hop
– Flavour Flav is a pretty funny guy. But I'd like make a record
like Absolutely Free, just a pastiche of guys musically goofing in
course Zappa asked 'Does humour belong in music?' Like Led Zeppelin
said, 'Does anybody remember laughter?'
the audience is prepared for it, comedians are filling sports arena
now. If you have a choice of going into comedy or music these days
I'd say your odds are 50:50.
course, if you are in a band you have to develop a sense of humour as
a survival mechanism.
pretty deadly if you wind up in a situation with someone who has no
sense of humour. It can make for some long and uncomfortable bus
You've got to have a sense of humour in this day and age, it's too easy to fail.