By Timothy Dwenger
Though known for hit singles like 1972’s AM Gold flavored “Hello It’s Me,” and 1983’s quirky “Bang the Drum All Day,” Todd Rundgren has broken the mold and defied expectations by taking the road less travelled for more than 50 years. From humble beginnings in West Philadelphia to the production chair of some of the ’70s most revered albums, to the top of the charts, to the very edge of musical exploration, Rundgren has done it all and is still going strong.
Rundgren started playing and performing as a teenager in the mid-sixties, but he really got his foothold in the business in his early twenties when he was tapped by the legendary music manager Albert Grossman as a producer. His time with Grossman led to projects with Janis Joplin, Paul Butterfield, New York Dolls, Hall & Oates, Jesse Winchester, and even The Band. “Grossman had a lot of folk artists in his stable who hadn’t made the transition past the folk era, so my job was to go into the studio with anyone they paired me up with and help them to modernize their approach to making records,” Rundgren told The Marquee from a hotel room in Virginia. “I did that for a while but I continued to write songs and eventually I went to management and said ‘I’ve been working pretty hard for you, could you maybe give me a budget to do a recording of my own?’ They said ‘O.K.,’ and that continued for years. My living was secured by producing records for other people and that characterized the way I made my own records, which is to say I never thought about whether they would sell or not. Every record I made was some kind of experiment in songwriting. I didn’t have to worry about whether I was going to survive as a musician on the success of my own records. As long as I was producing successful records for other people, I could do whatever I wanted.”
This model worked for many years and, though he had some commercial success, Rundgren gained a reputation as an experimental, avant-garde artist. These days, due to changes in the way the music industry is structured and operates, Rundgren isn’t producing anywhere near as much for other artists but he is still producing and recording his own music with five albums in the last five years including two that he dropped in April and May of 2015.
Global (April 2015) and Runddans (May 2015) are stylistically very different pieces of work with the former being much more song oriented as opposed to Runddans 39-minute, twelve-track, sonic exploration with Norwegian producers Emil Nikolaisen, and Hans-Peter Lindstrom. “This project came about as an experiment in remote collaboration,” said Rundgren. “Lindstrom contacted me to do a remix for him of a song called ‘A Quiet Place To Live’ and after I had done that I was invited to go to Oslo to speak at a music convention. While I was there, Nikolaisen and Lindstrom were in the studio working on this project and they thought it would be interesting if I dropped in and did a couple of things. After I did, they came to the realization that neither one of them is really a singer and what the project needed was some vocalizations to make it hang together. So at that point we began to think of it as a three-way collaboration rather than the two-way collaboration they had been working under up until that point.”
Billed as a “spiritual, magnum opus that stands alongside Rundgren’s most worshipped trippy albums of the 70s,” Runddans leans toward lush soundscapes, futuristic psychedelia and space-disco flavors while Global’s dominant sound harkens back to New Wave’s late ’70s and early ’80s flirtations with synthesizers. While both recent albums are heavy on experimentation, fans looking to hear “the hits” may be in for a treat if they attend a stop on his current tour. “This show is sort of a reward for people who have been suffering through some of my more recent experiments in record making and stagecraft,” Rundgren said laughing. “Hopefully it will buy me more freedom.”
When all is said and done, there is no doubt that Todd Rundgren will go down in music history as a truly innovative spirit who shied away from the mainstream success he was clearly capable of achieving in favor of satisfying his own creative needs. While he had a track in the top ten alongside names like Elton John, Chicago and Barry White, and produced one of the best-selling albums of all time when he helmed Meat Loaf’s 1977 classic Bat Out of Hell, Rundgren has also fearlessly explored the experimental and avant-garde edges of the musical world without regard for critical success. He’s truly a musical chameleon who, more than 50 years into a legendary career, is still pushing boundaries.
Go If You Dig:
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