An interview for Elsewhere.com
Todd Rundgren laughs as he predicts the end the current model of on-line music sales which will disappear like the Sony Walkman and vinyl singles: “Because some songs are priceless, some songs are worthless . . . and some songs are worth exactly 99 cents”.
He should know. In a 40-plus year career he's made songs, and whole albums, in each category.
However although he has appeared on over 40 albums under his own name or that of his bands (the Nazz in the 60s, Utopia from the mid 70s), been producer for everyone from the New York Dolls and Patti Smith to Meat Loaf (Bat Out of Hell), Shaun Cassidy and the Psychedelic Furs, Rundgren allows himself another dry laugh as he describes his position in the marketplace of music.
“I'm a fringe artist.”
Given his long career – which admittedly has only troubled the American top 20 singles charts with I Saw the Light and Hello It's Me in the early 70s – you'd think this innovative musician who was also in the vanguard of video and internet technology would be a household name.
But if he's known for anything today it's as the man who acted as father for actress Liv Tyler – daughter of Aerosmith's Steve Tyler – when she was a child.
An amusing and almost detached observer of his own career, he notes a rare experience when he fronted the New Cars in 06 – the old Cars with him in for lead singer Ric Ocasek – and discovered a very different audience response from what he was use to. He admits people come to his shows expecting and wanting Hello It's Me “and I mostly don't play it because it's too out of context of what I'm doing at the time”.
Rundgren's wayward career has taken him from soul-pop through expansive prog-rock, from guitar hero to abandoning the guitar entirely. Yet he is currently out playing a programme of blues by the legendary Robert Johnson (1911-38) delivered in the style of the late 60s power-rock bands like Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience. His new album is Todd Rundgren's Johnson – a title more risque to an American audience.
And he picks up a local rhythm section players when he comes to Australia and New Zealand later this year – and his visit is a surprise, even to him.
Just like the traveling bluesmen of old, just being a troubadour?
(Laughs) There has certainly been no up-tick in my record sales that would cause me to be popular Down Under, but my association with Hal Wilner brought me to Australia in January to do a Sydney summer festival and this was a fairly significant event, so I got a lot of direct exposure and coverage by the press. That was the necessary foot in the door to try and pursue some sort of tour.
The record only requires a quartet and a lot of people are familiar with the material, so it is plausible to pick up a rhythm section: my principal guitarist will rehearse the rhythm section before I get there.
And why versions of Robert Johnson at this time?
I went through an era where I almost eschewed electric guitar, my focus went elsewhere and I wanted to become a better singer and performer. So for a number of years I would front a large band and never play the guitar, never play any instrument, just dance around and sing.
I got back into the guitar some years ago and in a big way. I wanted to do an arena rock-style record – the record was Arena – but like so many artists of my generation – and maybe everyone these days – you get your material distributed independently. No one I know has any major company, five-record deal.
So it came time to do distribution for Arena and the company that made the deal also happened to administer the Robert Johnson music publishing. They made as a requirement to distributing Arena that I record an album of Robert Johnson tunes as well. They claimed to me that they were getting many requests for Johnson songs to be used in films and tv shows, essentially the mechanical license.
While they had the publishing they had no recorded versions so they required I make a record. I agreed to do it mostly because I wanted to get my record out and thought I would figure out how to deal with this later.
To my chagrin when I got around to doing it, it turns out Eric Clapton had been making a second career out of tributing Robert Johnson. After U2 did a song I was crestfallen, what was I going to do?
One of my heroes [Clapton] has already done it so anything I did would pale by comparison if nothing else. And the whole process will be creepy for me, constantly trying to outdo Eric Clapton.
It took a year and I came to the conclusion I was not directly influenced by Johnson, Eric Clapton was – and I was influenced by Clapton.
So I am not attempting to compete in my authenticity.
Another fortuitous coincidence was that my first gig as a professional was in a blues band so I understand the idiom. It wasn't a ridiculous leap to deconstruct and reconstruct this material into a way I was comfortable with.
But it is no way “a tribute”, you won't see those words anywhere there.
The entirety of Johnson is 40 - 45 minutes and that's an opening act. My shows are usually two to two and half hours, so of necessity I'm going to have to fill it out. The blues guy I know best is myself. My big initial influence was electric blues – and English people who did their own version of that. So all throughout my career are examples of my modernised or twisted take on the blues idiom.
My first band the Nazz, whose career was done by 69, and on the second record we rip off John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers featuring Eric Clapton.
In concert we may play a few songs people are actually familiar with.
In many ways the diversity of your career allows you to do pretty much what you like these days.
I don't believe I have much in the way of radio success, that is a great advantage to me because people send me notes saying, 'This show will be total shit unless you play this song'. This is helpful.
You've been quite good about revisiting your earlier work and playing albums in their entirety: you're soon doing The Healing and Todd albums.
I have a devoted audience because through this process of not playing what people expect me to play I have weeded out all the dilettantes. So now the audience I have is particularly devoted and will come to see anything I have to present. And if it is in package form will purchase anything I have to present. But a lot of it depends on a certain recognition that they need to get every once in a while and deeply desire.
They come about through Rundgrenradio . . . the guy who runs it plays the music and does interviews with anyone even tangentially related to my career, and it has a substantial hardcore following and go to for information. They decided they wanted to dabble in promotion and polled their audience and they [The Healing and Todd] were the records they wanted to hear.
No one was expecting the level of production that went into the first one, it is more a theatrical representation of the record . . . so now the expectation is high.
I'm interested in the fact that you also do what we might call re-creations of music – for example the Beatles on Deface the Music, the covers on Faithful and your own music in With A Twist . . . why??
The Nazz's first song was Open My Eyes – which was the Who and Beach Boys mashed together – and on the B-side was Hello It's Me, it was a dirgy version where I played vibes, and for some reason the record got flipped and it became a minor hit.
Years later when I wasn't a radio staple I was doing the Something/Anything album and the album consisted of me playing most of the instruments. It turned into a double album and by the last side there was enough of me playing by myself and wanted to do live-in-the-studio performances with no overdubs.
So I did half a dozen songs and one was a reworking of Hello It's Me with a more modern groove, background chorusses and a horn section. I did it because I thought it was a different way to do it, I was in a singer-songwriter phase.
I never thought about radio play but the biggest single became Hello It's Me and other bands covered it, like the Isley Brothers.
That's the song that if I don't play we have people walking out – and I mostly don't play it because it is too out of context of what it is I'm doing. If there was a context then I'd play it.
So I just thought I heard it in a more personal way and that's why I redid.
The moral of the story is I not only improved it in how the song could be interpreted, but it turned out to be a gigantic financial boon.
The New Cars must have been a different experience again?
Yeah, the thing that hit me the first time we played in front of an audience, we were eight songs in and people were still singing along. Which is completely different from my shows. If there are people at my shows who haven't fully kept up they are going to be stumped at several points in the show trying to remember where, if ever, they have heard this song. Plus I have this nasty habit lately of whatever my newest record is, I play the whole thing. And then give them the crumbs of older material.
That [New Cars] was an experience I haven't had on stage, that power of familiarity. You are not trying to sell anything, when they hear the first note they are fully committed and the song is sold.
It's part of your performers tool kit, you want to get the audience going and you are going to over indulge yourself and play some old jam . . . but you know at the end you have to play something they are familiar with, and it doesn't matter if it is Louie Louie.
You have had a long and diverse career in production. What attracts you to a project?
It's the material – which I think goes along with the priorities of most listeners. The thing they care most about is a decent song. They don't want to hear the most incredible version of the world's crappiest song. They would rather hear a half-assed version of the world's best song.
You are always striving to hear what it is in the material that might be attractive to a listener, and that's the most time-consuming aspect for me of the process.
Early in my production career I didn't vet the material too much, I figured we'd get in the studio and the combined talents would work out the problems. And for a lot of things that did work.
I had overconfidence in my own songwriting and if people didn't produce the goods I would just take over.
But if you develop some recognisable style, if you apply that to production you put your paw prints on everything you do, instead of letting the act put on their display, warts and all if necessary.
If their songwriting is weak and some label has decided to put the record out anyway then they are just going to have to live with the weak songwriting.
In the Seventies a review in Rolling Stone could make or break you, but you can't second-guess the taste of a critic let alone the buying audience, you have to have another vision of what you are trying to accomplish. I consider more timeless aspects of music . . . it's the phenomenon that gets Sinatra's Capitol recordings of Fifties rediscovered.
Some records don't get recognition but grow in stature.
You have to think like a musician – which can be hard if you are working with people who got paid a whole lot of money before they did anything which became the model. 'Here's the seven-figure advance, now make a record'.
But what did musicians do before we had a record industry, which is only about 100 years old? How did they live?
First, they were probably better musicians than today – but you got you paid for your performance so you had to hone that and be sharp -- today we are getting back to that – and the material had to stick in people's head somehow.
If they could just forget about you, you'd have no follow-up business.
The problem happened when the music industry discovered that music could be commoditised and success was no longer measured in the size of the audience you paid for or even, go forbid, how the local critics responded.
It became about figuring out what the buying patterns were, and it was all the Arbitron rating system, people in a room with a dial and an aggregate score.
If a number went below a certain point the record would never get released.
But most people are so unsophisticated they don't now what a chorus is (Laughs)
So basically you still listen for a good song?
The material doesn't have to be super-confident, it just has to be done with brio or some perceptible emotion. It also doesn't have to be technically perfect.
The thing people care the least about – which is the thing some artists, to my mystification are most obsessed with – is the actual sound quality.
Most people don't have studio-referenced sound quality. Since people started listening with earbuds, how can anybody figure out how to mix? There is no uniformity to how people listen.
Most sound systems come with distortion, like superbass, which most musicians try to keep out of their records. If there is any muddiness in the bottom end of the mix you've made you will rattle the walls and will sound horrible.
Is music still important? It seems like just another entertainment thing in the marketplace today.
As it became portable it became just a lifestyle accessory. It always has been in some aspects, there are always bands or acts meant for the musically naïve, like Taylor Swift. As people get older their experience grows, and seeing it performed live they realise that human beings do this, it's not all machines.
Like when you listen Sinatra's Capitol albums, they were mostly all one take, no overdubs, a 50 piece orchestra and the singer all locked in – and it is the performance they will strive to perform live from there on.
The Sony Walkman changed everything: random access, skipping over songs, that ate away at the album being principle form.
This is why the Internet model for selling music will eventually fail . . . people will realise that some songs are priceless, some songs are worthless and some songs are worth exactly 99 cents.
There is another new model out of Disneyworld: the new Mickey Mouse club singers who grow up with their audience. For some artists that is a close link with their audience for an album, and a guaranteed sales figure.
I used to do two solo albums, Utopia and three production jobs every year. Then variety and eclecticism was a selling point, now it seems there are too many artists are trying to cram into the same space, all of the Linkin Parks . . .
Some of what you have done is very amusing – I'm thinking of Meat Loaf's Bat Out of Hell – but humour and wit seems to be missing in music these days.
Yeah, it is pretty humourless, although it is there in some aspects of hip-hop – Flavour Flav is a pretty funny guy. But I'd like make a record like Absolutely Free, just a pastiche of guys musically goofing in the studio.
Of course Zappa asked 'Does humour belong in music?' Like Led Zeppelin said, 'Does anybody remember laughter?'
They do, the audience is prepared for it, comedians are filling sports arena now. If you have a choice of going into comedy or music these days I'd say your odds are 50:50.
Of course, if you are in a band you have to develop a sense of humour as a survival mechanism.It's pretty deadly if you wind up in a situation with someone who has no sense of humour. It can make for some long and uncomfortable bus rides.
You've got to have a sense of humor in this day and age, it's too easy to fail.