Todd Rundgren

by Carl Wiser

"I Saw The Light" came a little too easy for Todd Rundgren. The song took him maybe 20 minutes to write, just going up and down the piano keyboard and stringing together "ite" words:

It was late last night
I was feeling something wasn't right
There was not another soul in sight

The song was part of his 1972 landmark album Something/Anything?, released when Rundgren was just 25 years old but already a seasoned veteran, having captained the group Nazz and produced various artists in Albert Grossman's stable.

With a hit pop song so easily accomplished, Rundgren looked for more meaningful challenges. His next album, A Wizard, A True Star, was a headlong dive into some of the first electronic, synthesizer-based music ever heard. What was then cutting-edge is now mainstream, and these days Rundgren finds himself pushing the boundaries of Electronic Dance Music. His 2015 album Global brings a humanity to the beats, with songs that tie the communal ethos of EDM to a call for action and enlightenment.

Todd took some time to speak with us about the album and discuss a smattering of his past accomplishments, including the Meat Loaf Bat Out Of Hell album, the song "We Gotta Get You a Woman," and a marimba-based classic from the Psychedelic Furs.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): On your Global album, what did you do that you have never done before?

Todd Rundgren: Maybe the amount of falsetto singing. On a couple songs, I get into that range and make it the principal voice, and that's something that I haven't done too often.

Songfacts: You have a song on there called "Holyland" where you talk about how really, the Earth is your holy land. Is that something you've always felt?

Rundgren: Well I haven't always focused on the planetary consciousness thing in the way that I have on this record. But if you're talking about my personal relationship, yeah, I try to see the world as being a whole thing, not a bunch of countries all glued together in the way that I believe most people are brought up to see the world. Most people are brought up to see the world as a hierarchy of divided spaces starting with your bedroom, and then your house, and then your neighborhood, and then your state, country, and continent, etcetera. And I think, at this particular point, that's a mote in the collective eye that needs to be removed.

Human beings and materialism cannot be separated from each other, but we have to remind ourselves that our existence didn't just happen. This is a unique place, and everything in it is in some sort of relationship and equipoise with everything else. We're never going to get to the root of our issues and our problems if we don't, at a certain point, come to accept the fact that without this particularly unique combination of circumstances, we don't exist. And we can't pretend that we have made ourselves.

Songfacts: Tell me about coming up with the song "Global Nation."

Rundgren: I was working on a project with a couple of Norwegian DJs that's been going on for years, that will be coming out in May. It's a very avant-garde and mostly non-vocal album. It's a lot of instrumentalization and sometimes just sounds and occasional injections of vocals.

The Norwegian DJs Todd speaks of are Emil Nikolaisen and Lindstrøm. They got together in 2012 when Rundgren was in Norway; at first it was just improvisations and experimentation, but eventually they pieced together a 39-minute track that they broke down into 12 sections. The project was released as an album called Runddans.
There's a formula to that, and at one point I sort of rebelled against it, and I wrote a song that I thought could be essentially deconstructed and used in parts, on that project. And indeed, my suspicions were correct: It didn't really fit into the project in any significant way. But then I had this whole song.

And then Cherry Red, the label that put out my last record, State, asked me if I'd like to do another record for them. I wasn't thinking about making a record, so therefore I didn't really have a concept for one, but I thought, You don't turn down an offer to make a record nowadays. So I essentially used "Global Nation" as a springboard for that, and it contained all the things that I wanted the record to represent.

I wanted, first of all, the record to be sort of like a cheerleading statement. I wanted to get people to think in collective terms, and to think of the work that we have to do as something that's actually a joyous form of labor. And at the same time, get people to focus on this planetary worldview. Let's start with the assumption that the planet is a single, undivided whole, and let's see what little damage we can do to that. So the combination of those two things informed the rest of the songwriting.

Songfacts: Yeah. It's very communal. And you get the sense that the whole DJ culture is a part of it too, especially when you listen to songs like "Evrybody" And "Flesh and Blood." Can you talk about that?

Rundgren: Well, I've been collaborating with a younger generation of musicians. A lot of them have asked me to do remixes for them, and they cite one of my albums called A Wizard, a True Star as a sort of seminal inspiration for them. And I realized, at the time, that I didn't know as much about them as they knew about me, so I set myself to studying what was happening in the realm of music. And you can't help but see how the role of the DJ has become preeminent in some spheres. Not necessarily wiping out all of music, but especially in places like Europe, where you have polyglot audiences. This highly instrumental-based, highly tribal-oriented, lyrically sparse kind of music is a way to unify all of these people who come from essentially different European, or world cultures.

It's a kind of singular organism, and that's a necessary thing in order to accomplish some of the things that we need to do. There's certainly things that everyone can do individually, but we have to have consensus about some things. Like, we have to have consensus that we're going to build railroads, instead of more airports. Or we're going to not build any more oil pipelines, or are we? At least we have to have consensus about these things. So the idea was to emphasize the communal aspects of it and to try and get everyone to recognize how much we all depend, not only on the planet, but our collective response to the issues that we face.

Songfacts: You've said that some of your songs mean a lot to listeners but have a very different meaning for you. Can you tell me an example of one of those?

Rundgren: Well, I think most people tend to, when they hear a ballad for instance – let's say "Soothe" on the new record. They'll immediately think it's written about a person. And they'll usually immediately think that one of the persons is a man – me - and the other person is a woman. So the tendency is always to think in romantic terms because that's what so much material is written about.

But often, I'm coming from a much more abstract place than that. I'm coming from a standpoint that allows it to be a parent to a child, or a friend to another friend, or even – in some sort of greater, maybe some other way of thinking about it – one culture to another. Or even one group of people to another group of people. So I'm always trying to keep the options wide open when I'm writing the material.

But people can't help but make assumptions about how it makes sense to them, how it conveys its meaning to them. And I'm not going to argue with them. It was never intended to be exactly what I thought it was, it was always intended to be wide open.

Songfacts: Did you have somebody specific in mind with your song "Can We Still Be Friends"?

Rundgren: No. Some people have always said, "Oh that's a song about this particular person." I got news for you: I'm still not friends with that person, all right – and for good reason. It's really a song about the best possible way to end a relationship. It isn't necessarily about a specific person. It's about, perhaps, a specific situation, but I don't have to have experienced something to be able to write a song that other people think represents their experience.

Rundgren performed with Ringo Starr & his All-Starr Band in February and March, 2015 before heading out on his Global tour. Also on this tour: Steve Lukather from Toto and Richard Page from Mr. Mister, who like Todd had to lead the way on three of their own hits at every show. Rundgren's three Ringo-mandated hits were "I Saw The Light," "Bang The Drum All Day" and "Love Is The Answer," a song originally released by his band Utopia in 1977 that gained hit status in 1979 when a cover by England Dan & John Ford Coley went to #10 in the US.
Songfacts: One of your older tracks from Utopia, "Love Is The Answer," seems to reflect some of the same themes that I hear on Global. Can you talk about that song and what it meant to you?

Rundgren: Well it's funny. We were doing an album at the time, and usually we try and be collaborative when we write the songs, because we had made an agreement that we would share the publishing on all of our songs so that specific writers don't get the credit. But that was a song that I came up with. We put it on a bummer album like Oops! Wrong Planet thinking maybe we need to put something a little hopeful on it.

The song still has meaning to me - I perform it every night with Ringo. Ringo has his "three hit rule," And I'm taking advantage of a technicality in that "Love Is The Answer" was a hit, but it wasn't a hit for me or Utopia, it was a hit for England Dan & John Ford Coley.

Originally, Ringo wanted me to do "Hello It's Me," and I just felt that the song, in the context of what the rest of the band was playing, didn't represent the message I wanted to convey. Because "Hello It's Me" is a kind of a selfish song. It's me, me, me – it's all about me. I'm in charge, and all this other stuff. I thought a better song, especially for Mr. Peace And Love – Ringo, himself – would be "Love Is The Answer." And people would know the song, because it was a hit. And they maybe even would just gloss over the fact that it wasn't a hit for me and think, Oh Yeah! Now I remember him singing this song. So for me it's a high point of the evening, and hopefully the audience is getting the message.

Songfacts: Did you ever perform "We Gotta Get You a Woman" live?

Rundgren: In one circumstance With the Metropole Orchestra in Holland. I usually don't perform the song because I personally don't identify with it anymore. It's from so early in my career that I have a hard time relating to it. As much as I realize that people enjoy hearing the song, people get more pissed off if I don't sing, "Hello It's Me" with some regularity, or "I Saw The Light," or "Can We Still Be Friends" with some regularity.

There's probably still a lot of people in my audience who only came on board somewhere around Something/Anything? or even after that, so they're not as familiar with the song as the really hardcore audiences. I tell my audiences, I don't take requests anyway, so there's no point in yelling out things. But people are more likely to yell out "Hello It's Me" or even some other odd tune than they are to yell that one out.

Songfacts: Why did you name the character in that song Leroy?

Rundgren: Well, I just couldn't figure out how to make a clever rhyme with the word Paul. He was the guy that I wrote the song about. "Hey, y'all Paul" – maybe I could've done that. But it was just a name I picked out of the air.

Songfacts: Which of your productions was your greatest learning experience?

Rundgren: Ooh! It may be, probably, the very first record I produced of a band that I had signed [a Philadelphia act called The American Dream]. Because I didn't realize, up until that point, the importance of also being a politician and a psychiatrist. I always thought it was just about the music, and everybody knows what's supposed to happen with the music. I'm the boss, so through my first production I probably created more rancor than was necessary by not recognizing that sometimes you have to schmooze people, stroke their ego and deal with inter-band conflicts in a graceful way so that nobody feels like they've won or lost.

It's a lot harder than it sounds. Maybe it sounds hard, but it's really hard to develop those skills so that your sessions don't constantly turn into fistfights or crying matches.

Songfacts: I think it's especially hard in your 20s. You don't necessarily have that forbearance.

Rundgren: Yeah. Especially when you're young and cocky and think you know everything. Its hard to acknowledge that you lack the people skills necessary. But I thought as long as you made the record sound cool, you could get away with anything.

Rundgren produced the 1977 Meat Loaf album Bat Out of Hell, which has one of the more twisted tales in rock history. The songs were written by Jim Steinman, whose grandiose, theatrical compositions were perfect for Loaf, a seasoned stage performer with a memorable scene in the 1975 movie The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Originally funded by RCA, Rundgren ended up floating the project through his Bearsville label until it was picked up by a subsidiary of Epic, which also commissioned videos for three of the tracks. The album began an 82-week run on the US chart in October 1977, but never went higher than #14. In the '80s, it remained a consistent seller thanks to catalog sales, steady airplay on rock radio, and spins of "Paradise by the Dashboard Light" on MTV. An international sensation, the album also did very well in the UK, Canada and Australia. Global sales figures are notoriously murky, but it's probably one of the top five sellers worldwide. With the windfall, Rundgren started Utopia Video Studios in 1979, which specialized in computer-generated effects for music videos. His CG-heavy clip for "Time Heals" was the eighth video MTV played when they launched in 1981.
Songfacts: I get the impression that Bat Out of Hell was like herding cats, with all the elements that came around that. What was that like for you?

Rundgren: Well it's sort of funny. I had to resolve the ideas that Steinman and Meat Loaf had for what essentially was Steinman's very first album. Meat Loaf had done some recording before, but Steinman had an image that is represented fully on the record. I thought the record represented that image as well, but he heard it in a different way than I heard it. I always heard the Bat Out of Hell record as being like a spoof – as being nearly a comedy record. A spoof on Bruce Springsteen and the whole overblown, kind of retro switchblades and motorcycles thing: A Rebel Without a Cause in the freaking mid-'70s.

I thought, This is really out of time, but if we play along with it, and we do it right, maybe it'll sell a few copies. None of us really understood, or envisioned, that it would turn into what it did turn into. But we did it in a fairly orderly manner. We rehearsed all the songs for about a week or two before we went into the studio, so all the performances were substantially live, so there wasn't a lot of that heartbreak that goes with constantly punching in one player, note after note after note. That's where a lot of the vitality in the record comes from: the fact that we did do it all live in the studio.

And so, that, in a sense, was just looking for the right take. There was no real chaos there. And all of the players were pretty experienced. We had people from the E Street Band – from Bruce's own band - so they had done some recording before. People from Utopia. So we were all comfortable in the studio. Getting Meat Loaf's performances was something of a challenge, but nothing compared to what it turned into later, after he had screwed his voice up. It got completed in a fairly compact amount of time, even though we had to do things like orchestra overdubs and stuff like that. We got it all done fairly quickly.

The problem was, it was done without a label. We started the project with a label, and Meat Loaf said, "Ah! My label doesn't understand me. I want to get off them." So he essentially fired his label and they were happy not to have the responsibility. So I had to essentially underwrite the album until they did find a label. And so my whole idea of making a spoof became a lot more serious after I realized I'd be stuck holding the bag if nobody took the record. Fortunately they did find a distributer, and fortunately, he believed enough in the record to release three singles, because it didn't hit right away. It took endless touring by Meat Loaf, three singles and ultimately a video on MTV to cause it to break open.

Songfacts: Todd, "Love My Way." Whose idea was the marimbas?

Rundgren: They had a demo of the song, and I don't remember what the instrument was that they were using. It might've been just a guitar. But I happened to have the marimbas in the studio. I happened to have owned a set of marimbas. So I thought, Well, let's see what it sounds like with the marimbas. And it turned out that the little musical theme just sounded perfect with the marimbas and became a signature element of the song. So it just was a question of availability. It's not like I had to go rent some marimbas. I happened to have them.

Songfacts: Did the music ever stop coming to you?

Rundgren: Well, there are periods when I make it stop, when I don't want to listen to music, and I don't want to think about having to write music. But that hasn't happened in a while. If it does happen, it's usually because I need a short break, a refresher, and then I get back to work. I have so many projects going on with so many different directions to them, that I don't have too many opportunities to get stuck in a rut.

Yes, there are those moments where I'd prefer silence. For instance, whenever I'm in the car, I usually prefer silence to the radio. Sometimes I enjoy listening to the radio, but I'm not a radio addict, and I don't necessarily enjoy what's hot. So the silence is just as good as anything else at that point.

April 2, 2015
Top image credit: Photo by Danny O'Connor, illustration by Todd Rundgren.
Thanks to Roger at The Todd Rundgren Connection for help with research.

More Songwriter Interviews

Comments: 5

  • Jorge Molina from Mexico CityI really enjoyed the Live from Daryl´s Home program with Todd. Really: two great musicians together.
  • Phil from Lakewood, CaWas this done in their home in Kauai??
  • Bill from UsThere are obviously many sides to Todd Rundgren's music, one of the coolest though was Adventures in Utopia 1979, really a smashing sound that led the way to the 80's music, good or bad!
    Thanks for the interview.
  • Ron Di from DarbyHey Todd, you don't remember me, but we played in opposite bands at upper Darby high. Those battle of the bands were always interesting, especially when you would come out with little mirrors pasted all over your guitar. I knew you were innovative, and then when you played every weekend at the electric factory, I knew you were on your way. Good to see some one from your home town still doing it!
  • Michael Watt from Long Island NyOne of the more enlightening Todd interviews I have ever read...and I've been reading them for 40+ years.
see more comments

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