It seems like the dawn of each decade brings out the pied piper in Todd Rundgren.
At the sunup of the Seventies, when Rundgren was beginning to make a name for himself as a recording studio whiz kid and veritable one-man band, the Philadelphia-born rocker often ballyhooed the joys of do-it-yourself record making. And a lot of Seventies solo artists followed him to his Hamelin.
It's widely accepted that Rundgren's 1972 double-album, ear-candy feast Something/Anything ushered in the era of the multitracked, gleefully self-indulgent solo album.
Around the cockcrow of the Eighties, when Rundgren was busy putting the finishing touches on his own music-video production studio, the rock renaissance man similarly trumpeted video as the next avenue for creative expression in pop music. It was Rundgren, after all, who predicted the emergence of "a new generation of video artists" and a counterculture cable TV channel to serve them--a full eighteen months before the debut of MTV.
But this is the boot-up of the Nineties, and today Rundgren is both wearied by studio wizardry and disenchanted with MTV's cheapening of his lofty rock-video visions. What he's all fired up about now, just eight days into the last decade of the twentieth century, is a method of recording music so unheard of, he doubts most of today's rock stars have even tried it.
Todd Rundgren's suggesting that his peers experiment with recording their albums by--hang on to your hats--playing the songs live. With a full band in the studio. Into a bunch of microphones. The way Elvis recorded "Heartbreak Hotel." The way Chuck Berry recorded "Maybelline." But more to the point, the way Rundgren and some twenty-odd back-up musicians and singers recorded all nine songs on his latest album, the aptly titled Nearly Human.
"There's nothing new about it, but there's a lot of artists who've never made an album that way," says Rundgren over the phone from a hotel room in Tokyo, where he and his new eleven-piece touring band have chosen to tighten up before conquering America. "And actually, a lot of people who participated in this album had never done it that way before. They probably started making records sometime within the past ten, fifteen years, and that's when the new methodology came about in which people tend to overdub parts one at a time and never see the other musicians. And it's a real experience having everyone play at once and communicating with each other at the same time, and realizing what you're doing is substantially what the listener is going to hear."
Of course, ousting the overdub leaves the players little room for error--or their elbows--especially when you're talking two-dozen people in one studio. But Rundgren thrives on such chaos.
"That's what makes it rewarding--the possibility of failure, and what that brings out of you," he says. "You know, if you don't have the possibility of failing, then you never attempt those kinds of risky maneuvers, and you never actually explore what your true potential might be. And the unfortunate thing is that to some degree the studio atmosphere has affected the live performance, and eviscerated it in some ways. It's taken the excitement out of listening to a recorded performance, because there's nothing risky in it."
IT'S EASY TO SPOT the irony in Rundgren's new self-appointed role as champion of the look-ma-no-overdubs approach. After all, Rundgren's been more frequently photographed with recording consoles than with other musicians. His cult of followers is more apt to remember the manufacturer of his favorite digital delay unit than his latest love interest.
"I still have nothing against the do-it-yourself album," Rundgren maintains--as long as the self isn't lost in the machinery. To his ears, the synthesized rhythm tracks on most of today's hits sound too robotic. "It's gotten so you could almost program it all into a computer at this point and have it executed without being touched by human hands," he says of the Top 40. "And I think the degree to which that's become acceptable has a lot to do with people's attitudes towards music in general nowadays. But from my standpoint, that kind of music doesn't speak to me much."
Neither, for that matter, do music videos, a medium Rundgren once felt was worth investing $1.3 million of his own to put him at the forefront of this new revolution. One of the great mysteries for Rundgren's fans is why their hero, obviously a giant leap ahead of most rock stars at the dawn of MTV, barely made an appearance on the channel throughout the whole vid-happy Eighties.
"Yeah, well, it's like I took a left and they took a right," he explains. "I was enthusiastic for a while, and then the reality of what MTV was sort of set in, which is that it's really just another marketing vehicle for the record establishment. Principally, it's just become a form of free advertising for records. Although it's not free--I mean, God knows what goes on to get your video on there. But the actual form of videos is equivalent to the commercial. It gets down to a very standard set of moves and poses and editing styles. And all of it's designed simply to get people to buy records, not necessarily to express anything in the visual medium.
"I more or less envisioned it to being the equivalent to music, in that people would use it as a medium of expression, not just a medium of exploitation. And there are still some good things being done, but MTV isn't the form for it."
RUNDGREN'S DISTASTE for MTV may be flavored partly by sour grapes. For all his vision into how important the rock video would become in the Eighties, the studio virtuoso was never able to prove himself quite as masterful with the visual medium.
A better mystery may be why Rundgren, a songwriter so handy with the infectious pop hooks ("I Saw the Light" and "Hello It's Me"), and a producer so attuned to what makes a record a hit single (Grand Funk's "American Band" and Meatloaf's "Two Out of Three Ain't Bad"), has only cracked the Top Ten once in twenty years.
Certainly the new Rhino Records 27-song compilation, Anthology (1968-1985) (reviewed in Rolling Stone as "not so much a greatest hits collection as a best-of-the-should-have-beens"), is proof that Rundgren has produced enough radio-ready naturals to warrant a couple dozen platinum singles on his wall. Why hasn't his name become a permanent fixture on Casey Kasem's lips?
Rundgren credits a lack of promotional push from his old record label, Bearsville (distributed by Warner Bros., but responsible for half the promotional funds). "Hopefully, things will evolve into a different relationship now that I'm directly signed to Warner Bros.," he says.
Nevertheless, there have been many times on record when Rundgren seemed to deliberately subvert his own potential hits. Surely "Izzat Love," from his fifth album, Todd, would've been catchy enough to scale the singles charts--if it hadn't ended with its creator kicking the tape into fast-forward and then screeching the thing to an irreverent halt. Even "Hello It's Me" and "We Gotta Get You a Woman" were marred by deliberate end-of-song screw-ups that radio had to fade out early to make presentable.
As frustrating as this stubbornly nonconformist aesthetic is to fans waiting for that big commercial breakthrough album, it's undeniably a big part of Rundgren's cult appeal. He's the pop music equivalent of the most gifted kid in art class who doodles his assignments just to spite the teacher.
"I don't record singles," Rundgren proclaims smugly. "I've always been an album artist. It's up to the people in the record company to pick out the songs that they wanna use to promote the album, and it's not up to me to make their job easier by recording so many songs per album that adhere to a form that resembles the so-called single. Even though I will, on occasion, do that."
Indeed, Rundgren seems to delight in giving people exactly what they don't expect from him. Recently commissioned by Broadway producer Joseph Papp to score the stage musical Up Against It--originally intended as the screenplay for the Beatles' follow-up to Help!--Rundgren seemed a perfect choice to supply the Beatlesque music the Fab Four never got around to making themselves. This was, after all, the man who once recorded letter-perfect renditions of "Rain" and "Strawberry Fields Forever" for his 1976 Faithful album and penned an entire album (1980's Deface the Music) of dead-on Beatles parodies for his on-again, off-again band, Utopia. What Rundgren delivered instead was a decidedly un-Beatlesque score surprisingly faithful to traditional Broadway style.
For his next project, Rundgren says, he plans to follow up Nearly Human's aggressively man-over-machines stance with--what else?--a foray into computer software design.
"It's really hard to say what points me in new directions," he admits. "I have a constant need to absorb new influences and to explore and express myself in different ways. To do otherwise would be like giving up to old age. I do it because, uh . . . "
Suddenly the ever-insightful Rundgren breaks up over the crotchety conclusion his soliloquy is inadvertently veering toward. "It makes me feel young, okay?" he laughs. "It just keeps me happy."