Songwriter Interviews

Todd Rundgren: Bending The Rules Of Form

by Carl Wiser

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On the earmarks of his songwriting, producing Grand Funk, and the song that had the biggest influence on him.

photo: Lynn Goldsmith
Todd Rundgren is an individualist indeed. In 1979, he sunk the earnings from producing Meat Loaf's Bat Out Of Hell album into Utopia Video Studios, a computer-heavy music video operation. When MTV launched two years later, Rundgren's "Time Heals" was the eighth video played, and the first with computerized special effects.

This is just one of the countless technical and artistic innovations in Rundgren's remarkable career, which include forays into just about every emerging technology. He's the guy who throws "Toddstock" for his superfans (more on that below); who put marimbas on "Love My Way"; whose first single, "Hello It's Me," still triggers a deep emotional response from anyone ever involved in a complicated relationship.

So it's no surprise that his first autobiography, The Individualist, doesn't follow a traditional linear format. Each page is a chapter with three sections:

1) The event
2) His reaction, or "emotional response"
3) The takeaway, or "intellectual conclusion"

It covers the first 50 of his 70 years, stopping at his 50th birthday when he married his wife, Michele. In April 2019, he'll set out on what he's calling a "hybrid concert/book tour," another first.

We spoke with Rundgren two days after the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame fan vote was announced. He came in third, behind Def Leppard and Stevie Nicks but ahead of The Cure, Janet Jackson, Radiohead, The Zombies and Roxy Music, all of whom got in. Rundgren didn't, but he'll be just fine. Impressing Rock Hall voters was never a concern.

In our 2015 interview with Rundgren, he told us about "We Gotta Get You a Woman" and Bat Out Of Hell. Here, he talks about some of his deeper cuts and explains what song by another artist made the biggest impression on him (surprise - it's not by The Beatles).
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): Which of your songs played the biggest role in your first 50 years?

Todd Rundgren: Well, it's kind of a toss up between "Hello It's Me" - because people pester me constantly to play it, even though it was the first song I ever wrote - but, ironically enough, the one that probably had the most direct impact was "Bang The Drum All Day" because I made so much money off of it.

Songfacts: But what about a song that had the most emotional impact for you?

Rundgren: Oh, I don't dwell on the material of the past. I still write, I still have ideas of stuff that I'd like to do that I haven't done yet. A lot of people figure once you've hit a certain threshold, everything is a "Greatest Hits" from then on. For me, it's always been, What's the next song I'm going to write? What's that going to be about?

The other issue I have is that I don't like to answer in absolutes because as soon as I do, I think, No, wait a minute, that's not the one, it's this one. It's one of those questions that throws me into mental conundrums that I can't get out of because I can't whittle it down to one. I don't have all of those songs in my mind at the time.

Songfacts: Do any songs get their own chapters in The Individualist?

Rundgren: Does a song get a chapter? Not a single chapter, no. I sort of reflect on relationships that I've had. There's a chapter called "Marlene" and there's a song called "Marlene" and that was the last time I ever wrote a song with a girl's name in it. So, maybe that's some sort of milestone.

Yeah, I wouldn't be able to narrow it down that way. No particular episode was either about a song or conversely was a song about that particular episode. A lot of what I write is not directly reflective of my own personal experience. It's me putting myself into a character, almost a role, as if you were an actor trying to fill out what that character would be feeling and singing about.

Songfacts: Which sounds like what you do when you're producing.

Rundgren: Well, when I'm producing it's whatever criteria the band demands. Sometimes a band is looking to change what they do in a certain way, and I have to help them do that. Sometimes they do it alright already and I'm just supposed to make sure that nothing gets screwed up in the process. So, production, much as people think it's one sort of approach to every project, it really depends on what it is that the act's goals are and what their shortcomings are.

Songfacts: What is one of the productions where a band wanted to do something differently and brought you in for that purpose?

Rundgren: Well, I guess Grand Funk Railroad was the first big example of that. They were already successful and they were already selling some records, but they weren't very successful on Top 40 radio and they were not very successful with the critics. So they needed to do something that was, on one hand, more accessible to what they had been doing, and on the other hand, something that would break this cycle of critical disdain.

A lot of it just had to do with the fact that they weren't writing the right kind of songs. They started out as a jam band, so they would come up with a little fragment of the song and then stretch it out really long. That kind of disqualifies you from Top 40, in a way, because the songs are too long.

But also, I think music critics just got tired of listening to the jamming. While they were a jam band they were not of the quality of, let's say, Cream or even Led Zeppelin, in that sense.

Rundgren produced the 1973 Grand Funk Railroad album We're An American Band and its 1974 follow-up, Shinin' On. Rundgren also engineered those albums, as he later did on Bat Out Of Hell, but he was far from a control freak. "Working with Todd was very relaxed," Grand Funk drummer Don Brewer told us. "His real thing was the sound. He had a way of turning knobs that would make everything sound huge, even in the headphones."

This sonic blast is evident on their cover of "The Loco-Motion," where Rundgren created a party vibe, borrowing production techniques from Brian Wilson's playbook (hand claps, harmonies, reverb...). Like the title track to We're An American Band, it was a #1 hit in America. Even some critics liked it.
Songfacts: You've said that your fans will pester you to play "Hello It's Me," which is understandable. What is the number two song they're always asking you about, that they tell you that they have a personal connection with?

Rundgren: Personal connection? Well, it's often an impersonal connection. Everybody likes to hear that "Bang The Drum" song, but everyone's connection to that is that one line in the song where it talks about abusing your boss. I can identify with that, but I don't really enjoy playing the song that much because it's just a lot of screaming and flailing around.

It's funny, just the variety of songs that people cite, but I guess, a song like "Can We Still Be Friends" gets mentioned a lot because I think it helps people to put into words the feelings that they have about a situation they've gone through but they can't really articulate in the right way.

Songfacts: What's one of the deep cuts you're considering for this tour?

Rundgren: I'm trying to avoid getting too deep. I have a list here – let me see if I can find it. I'm trying not to get too deep because it's been advertised as a fan-favorites thing and I actually have a list so long that a bunch of these songs are going to be folded into medleys, probably.

So, let me see now. What would be a deep one? Maybe something like "Tiny Demons." It's a song I've done before but I don't do often. I can't find anything that's too deep here because I purposely left the deep stuff out.

Songfacts: Can you talk about "Tiny Demons" and why you would like to play that one?

Rundgren: Well, it's a very gothic, insular song and it's reflective of the kind of period when I was recording Something/Anything? And essentially, that was the first time I played everything on the record, so it really was a solitary exercise. I did have an engineer in the studio during the daytime when I would record drums and stuff, but I would also do some songs at home that were pretty much just piano or smaller instrumentations.

So I was boring deeper and deeper into my own consciousness, and that song was done in one very late-night session, just as almost a thought experiment, re-objectivizing what you see when you look in the mirror. Usually what you see is what you expect to see, and I was trying to re-cast it in a way that it was as if you were looking in the mirror for the very first time and you were seeing yourself for the very first time.

Glossary of Rundgren's bands and side projects:

The Nazz (1967-1969) - Formed in Rundgren's native Philadelphia and named after the Yardbirds song "The Nazz Are Blue," the group released three albums, with "Hello It's Me" first appearing on their 1968 debut with vocals by lead singer Stewkey Antoni. Rundgren updated the song for his third album, Something/Anything?, in 1972.

Utopia (1973-) - From 1974-1985, Utopia released nine albums, most with the lineup of Rundgren, Roger Powell, Kasim Sulton and Willie Wilcox. The group comes together every now and then, most recently in 2018 for a spring tour. "When I'm with Utopia I think a certain way and do a certain thing, and when I'm by myself I think another way and do other things," says Rundgren.

Tr-i (1992-1996) - Short for "Todd Rundgren Interactive," Tr-i is Rundgren's alter ego, reflecting his interest in emerging technology that allowed for a more immersive experience. Rundgren's memoir The Individualist is named after his 1995 album, which was released under the Tr-i moniker. It was the first full-length album available in the "Enhanced CD" format: Put the CD in your computer, and what are now called "lyric videos" would play to each song. Rundgren knew the Internet would be a big deal - in 1992 he made songs available for download on the CompuServe network, a precursor to AOL.

The New Cars (2005-2007) - Rundgren, Kasim Sulton and drummer Prairie Prince joined original Cars members Greg Hawkes and Elliot Easton to form this group, which performed songs from both Rundgren's and The Cars' catalogs. In 2006, they toured with Blondie on the Road Rage tour.
Songfacts: One of the songs you play a lot is "Love Of The Common Man." Can you talk about that song?

Rundgren: That song just came to me. I was doing a record called Faithful and half of the record was cover songs of music that would have been on the radio around 1966/1967, so Faithful was done 10 years later. I'd been doing a lot of prog rock and concept records with Utopia, and even my own records weren't very singles-oriented. And since I was doing a record that essentially attributed songs that would have been on the radio, i.e. songs that were singles, I wanted to write a series of songs that were more or less single form or that could have been on the radio. My first real attempt at that was "Love Of The Common Man." Trying to do something that was not too complicated but still had all the earmarks of my style of songwriting.

Songfacts: What are some of those earmarks of your style of songwriting?

Rundgren: Well, I usually don't play exactly to form. Even "Hello It's Me" is a song that doesn't actually have a chorus, it's just got verses and a bridge. "Love Of The Common Man" has an unusual form in that the verses are not the usual number of bars. It's broken up by this refrain that sounds like it's the chorus, but it doesn't actually become the chorus until somewhere later in the song.

So, I'm trying to write in a way that isn't as strictly formal as most Top 40 songwriting would be, but at the same time, use the changes that I like and the odd bar numbers, often bending the rules of form.

Songfacts: Is "Sons Of 1984" a reference to the book?

Rundgren: Well, that was a good reference point, yeah. The idea behind the song was things could go one way and things could go another way. And the whole idea behind 1984 was abrogation of your will to authority. So, the song essentially was about whether the coming generation would have the strength or the will to continue to resist that authority and maintain their own autonomy.

Toddstock

The first Toddstock took place 10 years ago on Rundgren's 60th birthday when a few hundred dedicated fans joined him at his place in Hawaii for workshops, concerts, hiking and drum circles (you can guess what song they played). It went over so well, they did it again five years later, and this year expanded it to four locations: Virginia, Scotland ("ToddScot"), California and Australia.
Songfacts: So many of your songs seem to have increased in relevance over the years. One of them, in particular, is "Temporary Sanity." Can you talk about that?

Rundgren: That was written in response to the war in the Balkans and how when you start assassinating children, when whatever it is that you're arguing about reaches that level, then your argument, whatever it is, no longer has any relevance - you're just a murderer at that point. I was somehow in my own mind trying to make sense of this situation where, essentially, what started out as a civil war turned into mutual acts of terrorism where they were killing each other's children. It just made no sense to me.

Songfacts: Why does the song "Hawking" have that title?

Rundgren: Because it was inspired by Stephen Hawking. That was about the idea of how most of us are able to divert ourselves. We have our full faculties and we can go for a walk, we can play volleyball, we can pick up a book and read it, we can do all these things that for someone like Stephen Hawking are either impossible or extremely difficult to do. And so, what do you do? You go inside yourself and you think the thoughts that only you can think. And, in the case of Stephen Hawking, they're thoughts that essentially opened up universes for other people. He's stuck in a chair and can't go anywhere but he brings the universe into people's heads.

Songfacts: What song by another artist was the most influential to you?

Rundgren: A single song? It's hard for me to think of a single song but I guess you could whittle it down. It would have been something probably from the Dionne Warwick album that Burt Bacharach produced and wrote all the songs. It might have been a song like "Walk On By" or – oh gosh, there were so many good songs on that record – "Don't Make Me Over."

There were all these great songs, but I hadn't thought much about the songwriter's role previous to listening to that record and realizing how different it was, how it had all the qualities of music that I admired, and yet it also was a song. That was the first time I really started to, in my own head, deconstruct what a songwriter was doing. That song had a lot of influence in "Hello It's Me," the first song that I ever wrote, and the way that those changes unfolded in that.

December 20, 2018
The Individualist - Digressions, Dreams & Dissertations is available at Amazon.
You might also like this interview with Daryl Hall, where he calls the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony "an overlong evening of a lot of windbaggery."

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Comments: 1

  • Rich from Los AngelesVery happy to see this interview! I have tremendous admiration for Todd Rundgren. Beyond his enormous and multifaceted musical talent, he stands apart in his respect for his audience. He honors his gift and his listeners' intelligence, both in his work and in his concert performances. A genuine artist, he's taken big creative chances for decades. I saw him perform in LA in spring 2018, and it was clear, every moment, that he was working hard to put on the most powerful show he possibly could. He seemed to put his all into every song -- here and there, he even worked in some lyric-appropriate staging, including dance routines and costume changes! And, notable for an artist with his tenure, he continues to write terrific songs, with original musical ideas and thought-provoking lyrics. Rundgren remains one of the most uniquely creative talents of anyone across the musical spectrum.
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