Dissecting Something/Anything? with Todd Rundgren

SOMETHING/ANYTHING? – Thirty Years On


I rang Todd in his Maui studio in December 2001, while he was remixing Something/Anything for 5.1 Surroundsound. “I’d hoped to get it out for Xmas,” he said, the frustration writ not terribly large, “and hopefully it’ll be OK for spring - but I haven’t been able to find the masters. I Saw The Light and It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference could be in England…”


 He’d just had a call from a journalist seeking comments about George Harrison in the wake of the Beatle’s death. Their paths had crossed, fleetingly, while Todd was being sized up to produce those tragic Apple scruffs, Badfinger: “We didn’t communicate at all…that [Badfinger discussion] was the only time we were in the same room.” 


 In the ensuing two-hour discussion, he often gave the impression of a man distancing himself from his wild years. Slowly but inexorably, the pride kicked in, the child in the man reeling in the years and reminding himself that this, this pop-driven thing, was what made all his subsequent adventures possible. OK, that and Bat Out Of Hell. “I moved along quickly after that [S/A], did all my declaiming then.”


AXL ROSE once attested that Something/Anything was his favourite album. Sofia Coppola, on the evidence of her stunning directorial debut, The Virgin Suicides, as well as various interviews, is another disciple: she wheeled out Hello It’s Me (albeit wrongly cued up at the start of a side, whereas it actually crops up in the middle of one) for the movie’s most bittersweet and touching scene.  It’s been atop my all-time-fave chart for more than a quarter of a century. The three of us, I should add, have nothing in common otherwise (bar a fondness for Sofia’s dad). The author, however, is wont to dismiss it. 


 Whatever else it may or may not have been, it proved to be Todd’s calling card, the first true indication of what some would call genius. Its enduring popularity, though – it was the only one of his albums to make the Rolling Stone Top 500 late in 2003 – testifies to one simple, indisputable fact. As a pop primer, a potted history of what the form had achieved since Elvis and Bill began a’rockin’, and what it was capable of achieving through technology, nothing can match it. The initial impression of this (mostly) one-man show may elicit distaste for all that “Look Ma, no hands!” flashiness, but hell, he wasn’t even 25.  


"There was a transition between record companies and they weren't really together,” Todd told Zigzag in 1975. “But eventually I did that album. That was the last album I did in L.A.. I was living there at the time and I did some of it in the studio and some of it in my house, and then I recorded one 'live' side in New York which I did in a succession of days.”


 The year was 1972. Bebe Buell was entering his life, ditto Ritalin. Love, though, was the drug-in-chief. He never quite kicked the habit, for all the subsequent politicizing. That idealism, the Utopian vision that would fuel so much of his subsequent work, whether musical or techno-whizzery, was bedded in an unapologetically romantic heart. Never again would he sound so sweet and innocent. So young. 


“I BEGAN VERY LATE to compose and sing my own stuff,” reflected His Toddness shortly before Christmas 2001. “I’d never fronted a band…only began singing at 20-21. So there was me ripening in plain view. Runt was fairly eclectic and experimental; on the second album it started to become cohesive. On S/A, two tendencies, a more disciplined approach and more eclecticism, came to a head.


 “I almost wrote automatically, I was almost possessed. Most people struggle their entire careers for that state. By the time I got to the end of S/A I’d listen to it and hear the sameness. It was a snapshot of where I was at the time. That plus the evolution of my drug habit led to Wizard, where I challenged the concept of songwriting.


 “I felt I’d accomplished something [on S/A]. I’d never played drums or bass before, though I would hector those that did. Arrangements were built from the rhythm section. I knew exactly what the instruments sound like. 


 “I’d kill time waiting for the bus at school by tinkling around on the piano, which gave me enough of an operational command. I didn’t have access to my first piano until well after the Nazz. We were a guitar-led band, although Nazz 2 had songs written on the piano, which was one of the reasons we broke up. I can’t play an arpeggio; I play with paws!”


At what point did you decide that, if you wanted the job done properly, you’d better do it yourself?


It may have had something to do with my own evaluation, not patent dissatisfaction with the rhythm section. I was fascinated by drums. It was a question of having the confidence to do the things I always asked others to do. If I’d have had any confidence I’d have played with a click track [a la Hermit…]. I had to freewheel it. The turnarounds were rushed. That was part of the charm – it makes it sound like a band.


Rick Vito and I have a long history. He was in my high school band (though not at the same time) along with Rick Valenti. There weren’t many 16-year-olds in our area who could play guitar harmonies.


Rick says you were listening to Stevie Wonder quite a bit then. In many ways you stole Stevie’s thunder, not to mention Mike Oldfield’s, let alone Prince’s – your one-man-band effort predates theirs. That said, did Where I’m Coming From give you any ideas?


I was actually listening to Signed, Sealed, Delivered back then – the way he sang, the way the voice was recorded, you almost hear every breath. It was early in the history of multi-track music – a real education. Made me realise how important compression is to a voice. I don’t think the objective was to play all the instruments, mind.


I very much liked David Bowie. First heard him in England, Hunky Dory – charming, individualistic music. As time went on I saw music as he saw it – as a function of becoming a celebrity. I thought, ‘this is fun, this showbiz stuff’. One of the reasons I like the Who so much was the fashion element – big Union Jacks, blazers, Townshend in brocades.


Gilbert and Sullivan?

There was no pop music in our house when I was growing up. Dad built his own hi-fi and played a lot of 20th century orchestral composers – Ravel, Debussy, Richard Rogers, showtunes. Bob Newhart too, even Roger Whittaker. Mum listened to the radio. A friend and I memorised an entire G&S libretto, as a way to prove how smart I am. I refused to do well at school – ‘you’re not teaching me anything interesting’. G&S’s writing style was very 19th century – it changed the way we hear music. The French impressionists came after that – less traditional, less strictly representational. Ravel represents to me the apotheosis of it all, along with Debussy and Satie. The Bolero was the first popular tune with drums all the way through. There were riots in the theatre when it was played. 


It’s possible that one of the things I appreciated about the Beatles was their eclecticism. They took influences from outside pop – Chet Atkins, Motown – things they weren’t embarrassed to represent.


I wanted my albums not to be the same kind of song style, more of an adventure. By the time S/A came out there was already an album market and I was thinking of the overall experience, the long-playing record.


Why re-record Hello It’s Me? To get a hit?


I didn’t do it for that reason. An artist doing a second version of his own song was very rare, not considered an astute move. I think it was only because I had musicians in the studio at the time. My whole concept of what was hip had changed. The new version was a radical change from the dirge-y original. 


Hearing horns on a record of yours was unusual…


It’s not as if I know a lot of trumpeters, which is probably why I didn’t really use horns until Nearly Human. I’m much happier with instruments I can play myself. I learned the clarinet but not brass; I didn’t feel comfortable orchestrating for it. Early on I’d write trumpet parts out of its range.


I didn’t have much a concept other than that one side should be live. It was originally meant to be a single LP but I continued to write after recording and added things on. Then I thought, ‘I don’t know if I can stretch this one-man band thing into four sides’, so I did the live side.


Sometimes I’d record all day, come home at night and carry on, do goofy experiments like I Went to the Mirror. In some senses, most of my early recordings reflected the evolution in drug culture. A psychedelic friend gave me a bottle of Ritalin and said ‘why don’t you give it a try?’ It got my brain into another gear – eight hours in the studio then work on the eight-track at home all night – doing double-duty – then went back to New York.


I Saw The Light took 15 minutes. The tune was a no-brainer – it was so simple. If you have a formula you can come up with five of those an hour. If I’d carried on it would have devalued them. Things that come too easily have a commensurate value. This pisses people off at times, but…Six months later I’m thinking, ‘I can’t do this again, I want to try something new’. Also, psychedelic drugs were causing my musical head to evolve. 


[Admits he was probably working with “scraps from years gone by”]



Why did you give up doing ballads?


Do you do things because you analyse your motives? I came to realise that lyrics, subject matter, if personal, had run out of resonance. Why write a love song if it’s not on your mind? I was thinking about other things than where’s my next lay. I was getting over my romantic fixations at the time. So right, I thought, I’m not going to use the word love in a romantic context – I felt it was insincere.


The songs are inspired by old relationships. I came to the realisation that quality of life is very important. I don’t want to defer my satisfaction out of some sort of Catholic guilt. Torturing yourself over old relationships – what you’re looking for is pity, sympathy. You’re whining. I’ve never seen so much moony Juney lyricism in one place.


Was Torch Song about anyone in particular?


I don’t think so. I was crossing into more archetypal subjects. The lyrics don’t state any romantic or sexual relationship with a person, so it could be about anything – a commitment to sanctify. 


That Levon steal mentioned in the liner notes?


It was a prototypical Levon beat – Cripple Creek, slow funk, New Orleans thing – it sounds like three different songs.


It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference – not sure how the lyric could be misconstrued from the tone in which it was sung, as suggested on the sleeve…


It’s saying, all of these things would have been trivial if what you felt was love, but a lot of people took it the other way. 


What’s the ManTran version like?


I haven’t yet collected all the cover versions of my songs but there do seem to be some disturbing trends like contemporary Christian artists. Someone wanted to change Love is the Answer to God is the Answer. Absolutely not… The Isley Bros version of HIM was very amusing when I first heard it – hysterical, so far removed, more like the Nazz version.


Not sure I understand why Saving Grace is “the theme song of a generation”


We were long-haired hippy draft dodgers – the tune in, turn on generation. 


Were you still dating “Marlene” when you recorded the song?


It was just around the same time. There would have been a lot of miserable material about her had I not got out of that state of mind. 


Eric Carmen says the Raspberries were recording the last two tracks for their first album, I Can Remember and I Saw the Light, the day you popped by the Record Plant, then smiled when he saw that the latter (“lyrically it had some very similar things going on”) was the title of the opening track on S/A, which preceded their release. Whereupon he ripped off Couldn’t I Just Tell You… Anything to add?


I’ve heard the story before, and Eric may remember it that way, but I never remember being at a Raspberries session. In 1970, when they were doing their first album, I was living in California; I wouldn’t have gone to the Record Plant until after I Saw The Light was recorded.


There seems to be quite a Zappa influence, especially on I Went To The Mirror?


I was always aware of him but I wasn’t trying to be Zappaesque on I Went to the Mirror. I adlibbed part of it. Laid down on the floor at home with my head between two speakers holding a hand mirror in front of my face. I wrote the lyrics looking at my reflection. I was trying to put myself and the listener in a creepy mental state.


Where did you record Overture – sleeve doesn’t make it clear…sounds like a garage for Money…


It may have been a frat party or a gig from high school. I suspect it’s from a pier somewhere in Philadelphia or New Jersey.


Little Red Lights – a tribute to Hendrix?


Yes, though it was also about that drunken power when you get behind the wheel. There was no political element but it was a possible precursor to Crosstown Traffic. I learned a lot in a very fast time. Previously I’d led a bit of a sheltered existence – no drugs or liquor until I was 21. I didn’t learn to drive until I had no one else to drive me around. Never had any lessons. I probably borrowed something from Tony Sales then rented cars for a while.


Sorry for bringing this up, but I must: what did you make of Mark Chapman’s affection for you (it was S/A that he was carrying the night he shot John, wasn’t it?) 


I heard it may have been Wizard or S/A. I’m no authority on it. Found this out much later. Did it creep me out? I suppose, but I’ve had a more intimate, open relationship with my fans since I started and that hasn’t made me think twice. It was just someone at an unfortunate time in his life. I’ve had my stalkers, threats of assassination. Should I feel responsible? Not unless Stevie Wonder or Bowie want to take personal responsibility for me. If I’d written a song as vicious as “How Do You Sleep”, maybe…


Do you resent the fact that it remains your biggest-selling album?


No. Why should I speculate on what my legacy might have been if collective consciousness had been different [laughs]? It gave me a platform to do other things. If I’d been more conscious of the commercial impact, maybe, but I was never making records to have smash hits, to work out what was wanted.


Bearsville got me to meet the guy who invented the Arbitron ratings system – he was a big fan. So I chose to get tanked up with opium with a mate. I was so torn – he was obligated to listen but he’d hoped I’d eviscerate my music to dominate the charts. I learnt very early on that the recriminations if the record is not done for the market are such that nobody, not even yourself, is going to be satisfied if I compromise. But if I don’t like it, how can I expect others to?


Do your kids like what you do?


I think Liv likes music in general, but of her own generation – hairband rock. The younger kids may overhear what I do but they’re MTV generation – gangsta rap. Modern RnB is like, you took a sledgehammer to a car engine and knocked half of it out. 


Western culture was amenable to productivity from 1965-73 – things were different. Radio stations weren’t syndicated: the Arbitron rating system had a lot to do with the evisceration of music. Blame it on the amount of money that came into the business once things had exploded with the Beatles – there was so much to be made. There was a lot of eclecticism at first because anyone could be signed and get on radio. Then the corporations got involved – Gulf & Western buying Atlantic etc – and that was the norm by the early 80s. The Sex Pistols’ greatest contribution was not God Save The Queen but the fact that they ripped off the record label, punishing them for greed. 


Any of the songs on S/A warrant inclusion on a personally-selected Best-Of-Todd?


If I’m looking for songs that reflect what I’ve always tried to accomplish, they come after that. But HIM qualifies because it was the first song I’d ever finished and because of the Nazz connections. By the time I came to the end of the album I wasn’t thinking about my music the same way. AWATS was a snapshot of those changing thought processes. So S/A is a watershed, phase 1 of my career. The album that got me on the road. And things changed because I became a working singer, found my range.


Unlike some we could mention, your voice still sounds much as it was back then…


I haven’t struggled to sound like Bill Medley or tried to sound like a 13-year-old. My favourite singer is Marvin Gaye. If there’s anyone I’m struggling to understand it is him. Stevie has more chops per se, but there are things you begin to appreciate as his horizons broadened. Knowing yourself, how to express things. S/A was contemporary with What’s Going On. Prior to that it was just pop things; then he discovered a whole new kind of music. It was about refining the mood in a way radio didn’t always give you space to do. Something undeniable in his personality came out, a soulfulness. 




This was published by rocksbackpages.com in 2008 and can be found at the site under Articles by Rob Steen







 





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