169. Something/Anything?-Todd Rundgren (1972): Upper Darby, Pennsylvania product Todd Rundgren had been intent on becoming a for a living since his teens when the British Invasion inspired millions to pick up a guitar and write cool tunes to impress the chicitas. Rundgren became an accomplished axeman but also could handle drums, keyboards and other instruments here and there. He made it to a high profile gig when he was in (the) Nazz, a sort of garage-meets-psychedelic rock outfit that managed a couple classics with the yearning Motown-ish ballad "Hello it's Me" and the trippy, Zen-rocking "Open My Eyes." During 1969, Rundgren dropped out of the group, unsupportive of their direction because management tried pushing them as a teenybopper act a la the Monkees. Rundgren had arrived in the big time as part of the Nazz just a youthful, carefree musician but came out as a burgeoning studio whiz. Learning about engineering and studio fidelity, Rundgren soon branched into engineering and producing other's records. His first big job was landed as engineer on the Band's 1970 album Stage Fright. To no shock, the Band and him didn't meet eye to eye on a lot of issues but his work at the controls definitely brought a superior sound quality and a sonic fidelity to a previously dryly recorded group- check out how he makes them sound on tracks like "The Shape I'm in" and "Strawberry Wine." Later he would produce works by the New York Dolls, Badfinger, Grand Funk Railroad, Meat Loaf, the Psychedelic Furs and Cheap Trick among many others. When he left Nazz, Rundgren formed a trio called Runt (a play on his first name's first syllable) in order to play some softer music than Nazz let him try as well as harder rocking. Runt consisted of himself on guitars, piano and other instruments while brothers Hunt (drums) and Tony (bass) Sales rounded out the trio- both being the son of legendary comedian Soupy Sales.
Rundgren got to more explicitly show his love of the Beach Boys, Beatles and British rock of the 60s in general not to mention his love of softer R&B (like Motown or Curtis Mayfield) and singer-songwriters contemporary to the time like Carole King and Laura Nyro, both of whom his piano chord patterns echoed very closely. He particularly was heavily influenced by Nyro, whose finger-popping "brave white girl sings Motown soul" act was a new, startling thing on the late 60s scene. He took to writing ballads a lot like hers. On 1970's Runt, later just credited to Todd alone, he explored guitar workouts at the same time- not unlike Hendrix gone demo with tracks like "Broke Down and Busted" and "Birthday Carol" (which had an eerily similar chord vamp to Van Morrison's "Moondance," also from 1970 and pledged gratitude to the work of Laura Nyro, serenading her by first name). Todd's blankety ballad style produced the unforgettable "We Gotta Get You a Woman," a top 40 hit late in the year. His 1971 followup Runt: The Ballad of Todd Rundgren was even better, this time featuring N.D. Smart on drums for all but one cut. Still, Todd wrote the songs and laid down all the other necessary parts. The album cover displayed what would be pervasive throughout his dizzying career- a macabre, mischievous, self-deprecating sense of humour (he named an early 80s album of his The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect for example)- as we get a snapshot of Todd from behind, sitting at the piano on his stool, revealing him to have a noose tied around his neck, part of a rope hanging from the ceiling above. Incorrigible as he was, it was vintage gallows humour. It was actually designed by Ron Mael of Sparks, a band Rundgren produced in their pre-Sparks form, a group called Halfnelson.
On Runt: The Ballad of Todd Rundgren, Todd improved the sound quality while showing ability to make overdubs but keep his compositions seamless and concise as if a four of five piece band was laying it down live. Todd's studio wizardry was already evident but working on his own showed him to be gifted with multitracking superiority, earning comparisons to Paul McCartney who was giving us homespun, one-man band efforts (one, McCartney, being incredibly primitive and mostly dull and the other, Ram, being a more concerted effort to leap between styles with panache and a chameleon's touch). Toned down of Runt's harder rocking, tongue-in-cheek tendencies- though "Bleeding," "Chain Letter" and "Parole" fall in line with the hard rock of the time they are more tuneful than what came on the predecessor LP- there were even more radiant ballads like "Be Nice to Me" (a dead ringer for Carole King), "Long Time and a Long Way to Go," "Boat on the Charles," "Wailing Wall," "Hope I'm Around" and "Remember Me" (featuring stunningly good multi-tracked vocal harmonies from Todd). Meanwhile, he infused his soul leanings into harmony-driven diamonds like "Long Flowing Robe." Never again has he loaded an album of his with such tender, carefully thought out ballads. Todd also proved he was a very good vocalist too, able to tackle the Philly soul leanings of his music in a way most white singers couldn't hope to achieve.
Critics enthused about him, but commercial success was a little harder to come by. Not that Todd wanted it because with Something/Anything?, he achieved that and then spent the next few years indulging in prog-rock, cosmic/Eastern influences and studio gadgetry that rendered him a popular cult artist and in the 80s he added multimedia entrepreneur to his resume. In 1972 Todd had the strong stockpile of songs and the confidence to go it alone, so he took to his favourite haunts- the recording studio- to churn out a sensational four sides of work, three of which featuring him on every single part. Something/Anything? earned him many accolades from those looking for a man who could bring back the finely crafted pop that made 60s radio so timeless. Elton John was rejected by purists and his comparisons to the Beatles came both in positive and negatives forms (one being that he was the successor to the Beatles, the other saying that he was nowhere near as important or revolutionary no matter how self-important or grandeur Bernie Taupin tried to manufacture). Meanwhile many glam rockers topping the headlines- Bowie, T. Rex, Slade, etc.- were considered too rudimentary and appealing to a low common denominator. Appropriately enough, Todd in 1972-73 would get caught up in the spirit, adopting very glam rock fashion by dressing effeminately in space age suits, sparkles, makeup and face paint. Meanwhile, Todd took the torch left over by the Beatles on this double LP but unlike The White Album, his filler doesn't hold up as well and who can blame him since he was writing every track himself? That's pretty much why this album doesn't muster what it takes to be top 100.
But for every throwaway for the scrap heap, there are two worthwhile listens. And to put it bluntly, some immaculately crafted pop. Throughout the album and its liner notes, the still teenage-geared Todd, only 23 years of age at the time by the way, exudes self-deprecating wit and audacious high school humour. The real novel idea was to make side four completely live with Todd leading a rehearsed, large ensemble and so we get in-between song banter, jokes as well as mistakes, false starts and a few bum notes. Before he went straight out into left field for the incredibly bizarre and erratic A Wizard, A True Star (1973) this was the last of the softer-edged Todd people would hear for a while. His production values skyrocketed on A Wizard... until it was as if Todd had concocted a wall of sound to marinate his music in and flex his production muscles to the world. On Something/Anything? the production is great for a one-man effort but it doesn't really have to be because the quality is so above expectations. Side 1, which Todd in the liner notes anoints as "a bouquet of ear-catching melodies," has bountiful pop hooks and arrangements starting immediately with one of his great tracks, "I Saw the Light." Unlike the identically titled Hank Williams song, Todd's is a hopeful, emboldened scenario about realizing the spark through the eyes of a lover. Also in the liner notes, Todd claims to be lifting the Motown aesthetic of front loading the album with the potential hits and boy he isn't kidding. "I Saw the Light" recalls Carole King and Laura Nyro to a tee, only better and more R&B.
A bit of George Harrison is detected in the slide guitar work and a melodically inventive solo sees Todd harmonize with his slide and non-slide playing. Todd creates perhaps his most heart-wrenching song for track #2, the Philly soul-styled "It Wouldn't Have Made a Difference," which incorporates synthesizers onto his piano based arrangement as well as gorgeous multi-tracked harmonies. It's as powerful a song about a sad, failed relationship as anything else 1972 provided (that I can think of) and Todd conjures up real blue lines like the chorus's "It wouldn't really make any difference/If you really loved me/You just did not love me." He ends his verses with the regretful remark, "But those days are through." He emulates Motown again, as well as Memphis soul, on the tribute to the namesake of the song's title, "Wolfman Jack." It would have made a great Martha & the Vandellas tune, even slightly resembling the Four Tops' "Baby I Need Your Loving" in the opening "Ooos." "Cold Morning Light" harkens back to his winning balladry on Runt: The Ballad... but there's more bittersweetness and easy listening sheen thanks to beautiful flourishes of acoustic guitar and flute. The loping, keyboard-heavy "It Takes Two to Tango (This is for the Girls)" has many untypical chord changes though it's not one of side 1's stronger inclusions. "Sweeter Memories" has the lazy autumn day feel of a Van Morrison song, only with less exerted jazz and soul influences. Side 2, "The Cerebral Side," begins with something that could easily be considered a flippant waste of time were it not for Todd's educational goofiness. It's an "Intro" where Todd guides the listener through sounds of the studio such as hiss, hum, editing and phasing.
Then, Rundgren challenges the listener to see if he/she can pick out these effects on a gadgety little, 100% synth-based instrumental called "Breathless," which sounds like a lost track from a science fiction soundtrack or an early sneak peek at what video game music would sound like 15-20 years later. Also, as it turned out, "Breathless" was as a sign of the extraterrestrial rocket launches Todd's music would take, namely in his progressive and futuristic band Utopia- an acquired taste for those more appreciative of Todd's solo work. If you think "Breathless" is weird, skip ahead to albums like Initiation (1976) which is in the midst of a period where a lot of Todd's heavy, serious music aficionados get all dewey-eyed and swell with pride in prophetic terms about the amazing exploits of Mr. Todd Rundgren- radically announcing "Todd is Godd" as if on top of Kilimanjaro. You know. Those kinds of fanboys (or fangirls seeing as how Todd had a sort of effeminate, rascally sex appeal in his 70s heyday). It's also around the point I begin to lose interest in the guy but one can't stay on the odyssey of a wildly engaging pop music svengali I suppose (Hey, why not!? Why'd you have to be so ambitious and full of experimental gall there Todd?). "The Night the Carousel Burned Down" sticks closely to its carnival theme musically but is still indeed a cerebral ballad affair. Todd gives his first true great track since "Cold Morning Light," via the glistening "Saving Grace." Its drum beat kicks in later on as do the guitars, making it a lot like "I Saw the Light" only with more rhythmic variance and tempo switches. "Saving Grace" would have made a hit single for Todd if he'd bothered to get his label (Bearsville) to do so, but alas he's the kind of artist who can make album tracks sound like billboard chart toppers.
Less dense is the exalted, doo-wop meets jazz of "Marlene," another prime example of Todd's superior gifts as a composer not to mention as an arranger since he drags out vibraphone, marimba and glockenspiel alongside his piano. "Song of the Viking" has a sing-songy melody where Todd jumps between his normal range and falsetto. The vocal arrangement is tricky, wordy and a real neat characteristic that saves this song from the "filler" categorization. It sounds like a chestnut taken right out of the Brian Wilson songbook and that's a pretty special compliment. "I Went to the Mirror" alternates between blues-jazz piano groaner- not unlike Randy Newman gone cynical and stripped away of his New Orleans and orchestral Hollywood soundtrack structures- and dopey German oompah beer hall number. That half-cocked bridge doesn't stand out negatively and the song a reminder of why Rundgren was often favourably compared to Paul McCartney. Rundgren downplays his considerable vocal talents to sort of mutter along in a lower register for "I Went to the Mirror" which officially closes disc 1, side 2 (I'm sticking to the originally intended running order of the vinyl days because CD has robbed us of our ability to compartmentalize music by its distinctly flavoured side and disc separations. The CD age has only been beneficial for albums that were intended to be heard as one continuous whole). Nonetheless, side 2's downcast mood is livened up by side 3, a tour de force of soaring, blazing rock- a side he titles "The Kid Gets Heavy." This all kicks off with the most authentic Hendrix recreation Todd had ever put together to that point, the sexy and psychedelic "Black Maria" (pronounced mar-eye-ah though) which became a live favourite for its riff-happy, toweringly heavy sound. Yet, the recorded version is pure Todd.
He flashes his underrated guitar skills while crafting a deceptively menacing song simultaneously rife with mistrust and fatal attraction. The folky "One More Day (No Word)" is a lot like the instrumental setting of "Cold Morning Light" only with more keyboard layering. It's another impressive album cut that gives way to the scintillating power pop of "Couldn't I Just Tell You," a song with a kinship to Big Star, a group doing similar stuff to what Todd was up to, only with guitars dominating and a disgraceful lack of national promotion that abused their deserving talents (more on them later). It's an angrier plea than what Rundgren usually did, coming off as a personal confession of a man who's sick of secrets, lies, unfaithfulness, etc. It was a very minor hit single compared to "I Saw the Light" (#16 peak) and "Hello it's Me" (#5 peak), only scraping into the Hot 100 and fizzling out a #93. It should've been a top 20 hit in its own right but hey, life ain't fair right? The song maybe doesn't have the professional touch, seemingly left in a form most would consider to be demo. That's part of its bash-and-pop charm though, featuring a boyish but insistent Rundgren singing his ass off with demands like "Why can't I talk with you?/And make it loud and clear?" "Torch Song" is a bit steep into the Laura Nyro territory but in a rather boring way as the song sounds like a third-drawer piano ballad. Hey, it's still better than 90% of what that Billy Joel churned out, and "Torch Song" is remarkably similar to what kind of singer-songwriter crud Joel was trying in his early years before realizing he needed to tap his inner Irving Berlin and Neil Diamond to move units.
The most gobbledygook, mindless piece of enjoyment on the album is his Zeppelin-esque "Little Red Lights," chocked with a tough backbeat, fuzzy and freaky riffs and silly vocals. It borders on filler but Todd's manic delivery scores some brownie points. Side four is the brainchild of Todd's adventurous musical spirit, deciding to record live-in-the-studio songs with a variety of session musicians. He dubs the side "Baby Needs a New Pair of Snakeskin Boots (A Pop Operetta)." The first cut is a medley- "Overture: My Roots- Money That's What I Want/Messin' with the Kid" where we hear a lo-fi, tape recorded version of Motown's genesis hit "Money, That's What I Want" done in high school in Upper Darby, PA by a band Todd was in and done not so hot either might I add. Then comes a muffled recording of a acidic blues rocker from when he was in a band called Woody's Truck Stop, a cover of a Junior Wells number, "Messin' with the Kid." These are just Todd's own mementos of his formative musical experiences but the side four journey begins on the Leon Russell's Mad Dogs and Englishmen ringer, "Dust in the Wind." Here we find Todd at his piano backed by female singers, horns, drums, bass, guitar and an organ played by co-writer of the song Mark Klingman. Out comes Todd's wonderfully moronic "Piss Aaron," a sort of countrified comedy about someone recollecting the "Gross out king" schoolmate of theirs who seemed to have a real problem with- nay, who seemed to get a real kick out of- unloading his bladder anywhere he pleased.
Well if you need any reason to listen to in between the songs, Todd often gives you some with his amusing off-the-cuff dialogue, such as a rant about needing a Coca Cola to stay attentive plus a line of "I'll play anything you want, just throw money! That's gonna be the title of the album, 'Throw Money.'" There's also a few false starts before "Hello it's Me" and crack-ups that get "You Left Me Sore" off to a rocky start, including one where a backup female quips "I think I'm in love with the singer." (It's not all slapdash- On "You Left Me Sore" we do get one hilarious instance where Todd takes an a capella for a singing of "you" that he extends into a self-deprecating, off-key howling moan that garners many a laugh. Just listen to the extended suite yourself for a real taste.). Speaking of "Hello it's Me," it follows "Piss Aaron" as the album's surprise smash hit, a tune that's still identified with Todd and that few know is a re-recording of a ballad he did with the Nazz. This version is sped up- a smart decision- and coated with a lot of ambience that replicates the Philly Soul of the period, a popular sound Todd was eager to catch the crest of. "Hello it's Me" is anchored by a great melody and chord structure that ties the verses, chorus and bridge in so expertly that you'd think it had been written by the Beatles. A key change near the end only furthers the pop splendor and climaxes a surefire classic and indeed it is well-remembered today, chiefly for being Todd's highest charting single (and only top 5 hit). For just a moment in 1972, Todd seemed a pop pioneer in a way Elton John could only hope to lay a finger on in all his mechanized hooks and world-worn cliches glory.
Todd just had an unstoppable zeal on Something/Anything? that permits him try his hand at, well, anything. Rundgren lets his inner funk space child take a walk on the wild side with the tasty "Some Folks is Even Whiter Than Me" (reminscent of the long solo section the Stones did on "Can't You Hear Me Knockin'?" just a year prior). It's an amusing send-up of how white guys imitate soul singers. But never fear him trying to show off that ability, as Todd boasts "I got myself stuck right in the middle and that's just where I wanna be." Todd once again strikes you with an aura of mischievous amusement at what he observes. Amidst cascading piano and wailing sax, Todd gets away from the keys to play a little gee-tar on "Some Folks" and when that happens you can bet that's when his rock n' roller persona emerges (see "Black Maria" for confirmation of that theory). "You Left Me Sore" is a spritely sort of neo doo-wop via the singer-songwriter forum. It's another tune not to be taken too seriously as Todd acts the hurt and wounded man done wrong by his lady. Still, there's not too much of a sad tinge, more of a loverlorn, jilted fool act being put on and it tickles one's funny bone to hear it expressed in Todd's tongue-in-cheek, wink-wink sort of manner. More maliciously funny is the finale, a kooky bluesy soul raver called "Slut," where Todd lists all the unattractive features of this slutty girl, but puts that all aside to focus on the wonderful virtues that make him love her ("She's got saggy thighs/And baggy eyes/But she loves me in a way I can still recognize").
Beefy sax once again blows through a track on this "operetta." Ultimately, we hear Todd concede "S! L! Uuu. T!/She may be a slut but she looks good to me." On that whacky, ribald note, Something/Anything? comes to an end. Though it carries plenty of minor, unimpressive tracks, it's also a bounty full of pop treasure, with Rundgren spreading his wings and coming through on the budding potential his first two albums entailed, only dropping the "Runt" angle to go by his own name. Rundgren has bedazzled ever since, though erratically with his own records and moreso for his interactive breakthroughs, riding at the front wave of many music visual functions (ie. video, CD-rom, internet). Rundgren's mentality of "the more, the better"- his proverbial lack of an internal filter or lack of the key gumption to edit his own work- gave all his warts a display on this double LP, but was the enemy of A Wizard, a True Star- a mammoth hour long record on just one LP- and the leaden 1974 double album Todd. Critics became lost and flustered with him by the mid-70s though Todd won a multitude of hardcore fans as possessive and applauding of their resident genius as anybody else's fanbase. Still, Rundgren has greeted us with a few good albums and many great tunes the rest of the way. Yet it's 1972's Something/Anything? that represents his pinnacle as well as a period where he nurtured and sustained a reputation as an unparalleled tunesmith. The pop acceptability Todd so readily encountered gave him a sort of credibility and fame that was so burdensome for him that he consciously retreated into cult worship and boldly experimental phases of artistic development. The moment his career became top 10 fare, he bolted for alternative, though not exactly greener, pastures.