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Paul Lester

"I did Bat Out Of Hell thinking it was a comedy record. I did it as a spoof of Springsteen": What a career in music has taught Todd Rundgren


A multi-instrumentalist, singer, songwriter, performer, producer, engineer and all-round studio technologist, Todd Rundgren is a music polymath if ever there was one. Over the past 50 years he been wholly or partly responsible for an eclectic range of albums that together have sold millions. 

From early beginnings with The Nazz to solo records, Utopia and production/engineering work including the New York Dolls, Grand Funk Railroad, XTC and Meat Loaf’s monumental Bat Out Of Hell, Rundgren has established himself as a true rock great. 

This is what he's learnt.

Music is worth less than merchandise

You always made more money when you played live, and you made additional money selling merchandise. Now music has gotten so ephemeral, a lot of artists have come to realise it’s better to give the music away and for people to come and see you live where you really make your money. I got the idea for Buy My T [from 2017's White Knight] from the guy who does my merch. His son has got in the music business and he never releases records, just merch. They’re not selling vinyl, but cotton.

Lying is an alt.fact of life

I was talking about post-truth on my album Liars [2004]. We used to care what the facts were. Now we have the internet, we have so many facts available there is no empirical truth.

Collaborating can end in joy… or violence

The idea of collaboration is to give the other person the freedom to do things the way they’d naturally do it. If you have to go in and pull teeth, it could be the artist doesn’t have confidence in what they’re doing, or the material isn’t good enough. That’s when you get problems.

When I produced XTC [1986’s Skylarking album], Andy Partridge said he wanted to cleave my head in half with an axe. There were times when we got on fairly well and were making good music, but if I ever crossed him on something, that’s when he would turn into Andy Black.

Once, when I was producing The Band, [organist] Garth Hudson chased me out of the studio with a hatchet for calling him “an old man”. I was really young and couldn’t grow a beard, and everybody in The Band had facial hair, so I looked at them all as older men. But I mistook Garth’s narcolepsy – and he would at any moment just drop off. I was making a joke about it, not realising it was something he couldn’t help. And they got a little sore at me about that.

Guitar hero? That could have been me

I’m not as much of a shredder as I used to be. When I was first making records, my influences, like Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck, were attainable. Then I got into fusion and John McLaughlin, and that’s when you really see what you’re capable of. But I realised that’s a game you can’t win. There’s always going to be somebody with a new technique and way of playing, and you’re eventually going to look prosaic, so I focused on songwriting instead.

Take the right drugs at the wrong time

I took psychedelics in the early seventies, after it was fashionable. It’s easy to get into certain habits, and if I ever notice I’m doing that, I have to get myself out of that rut. Often that’s by discovering some new experience, whether it’s psychedelic or going to arcane and mystical places. That’s kind of like this record [White Knight]. The reason it’s collaborative is I came to the realisation that I’d gotten into the habit of doing these little records in my room with my laptop, and the process was becoming too automatic. So this was about shaking me up and setting myself new challenges.

If you see a large man brandishing a schlock opera, embrace him

I did Bat Out Of Hell thinking it was a comedy record. I did it as a spoof of Springsteen, with no expectation that it would be as successful as it was. I thought I would be lucky if I simply recouped the money I advanced to make it. But right now I’m sitting on the property [in Kauai] that was paid for with my Meat Loaf royalties. So I guess no matter what the motivation is, if you do it sincerely and try to make it successful on its own terms, you may get lucky.

Feeling beats technique

With Beyoncé, I get the feeling someone’s trying to sell me something. I couldn’t name a single Beyoncé song. Every time I hear her I get the sense she’s trying to hump my head. It seems to belie no confidence in what you do. That’s why I’d much rather listen to Aretha [Franklin]. She used to sing in the church. I dunno, maybe Beyoncé did too, but at some point she decided stardom was the thing and artistry was secondary.

Don’t assume all your fans are like Lennon murderer Mark Chapman

Almost everyone does meet-and-greets. It’s become a parallel source of income, but also a way that you interact with your most devoted fans and hopefully they then spread the word about what a mensch you are.

I don’t worry about what might happen at my ToddStock events. There are always overzealous fans, like [notorious Todd-o-phile] Mark David Chapman. Remember, though: John Lennon never met Chapman, except the once. Those people are always out there. You’ve just got to hope they don’t get something into their head or the opportunity to do anything about it. But you’ve got to be aware of the possibility.

Don’t argue with ex-Beatles

It wasn’t really an argument between us [in 1974, Rundgren and John Lennon had a spat in the pages of Melody Maker], it was an opportunity for the English music press – who had the mentality of snipey high-school kids – to cause trouble. That whole feud was essentially fabricated and fomented, until John and I got on the phone with each other and buried the hatchet, as it were, realising we were being mutually used to sell papers.

Either I’m the American Bowie or he’s the British me

In 1973, according to [ex-squeeze] Bebe Buell, I met David Bowie and one of us ended up crying – and it wasn’t me. Since this was related to me by her, I’m not sure of the veracity of it. She’s the great fabricator; a Donald Trump, in her own way.

I met David several times after that. He, of course, went through his phases. Some of our phases, like glam, coincided. That’s because our images were in the hands of other creators. I had a guy [Nicky Nichols] who did costume and make-up for me and I just let him do whatever he wanted. And I think he felt more in competition with Bowie – or Bowie’s look – than I did.

When I went on Midnight Special to sing Hello It’s Me [in 1973] with all the feathers and stuff, it was such an arresting image that it really raised an awareness of me, especially in Japan where they loved kabuki make-up.

If you’re going to steal, don’t get caught

I never listened to Prince’s Purple Rain and thought it sounded like my song The Last Ride, but then you have a different perspective listening to yourself than you do someone else. Nobody is completely self-made. If they were, you wouldn’t have heard of them because they wouldn’t have any cultural connection. But music is the most plagiarised art form there is, because we have such a small palette to work with. That’s why people are always accidentally copying each other’s songs.

Timing is everything. hence the giant pyramid stage set at the height of punk

If record companies were willing to put up hundreds of thousands of dollars, I was always there to think up the wildest and craziest things I could do with it. That’s how those big productions like Utopia’s Ra tour [1977] happened. On an earlier tour we had a geodesic dome with the synthesiser player inside and the drums on top. That was fraught with Spinal Tap-isms. Anything that could go wrong did go wrong.

I’m not a genius, I’m just a hard-working guy

I’m a natural-born musician. Sure, I gave a few label bosses headaches. After [1972’s] Something/Anything? they wanted me to continue in that vein. When I came out with A Wizard, A True Star and all the feather make-up, that freaked them out cos they thought I was being perverse. But it was musical wanderlust. I’ve just been in the right place at the right time. If I hadn’t been in the Holiday Inn talking to Roger Daltrey at the moment a certain guy [John Kurland] was looking for a band to manage, that opportunity [for The Nazz] may never have come.

I was probably a little prick when I started. I thought I was a smarty-pants who knew better than anybody about anything. But I don’t think it’s necessarily genius, I think it’s a willingness to adapt, a continued devotion to the possibilities that music holds out, and luck. Man’s got to know his limitations. That’s one of the things that enables you to have a fifty-year career like I have. My heroes are people like Tony Bennett – people who will do it till they drop. If I’m retiring it’s because I’ve gone deaf and senile.

Todd Rundgren plays Australia in February - tickets are on sale now. The original version of this feature appeared in Classic Rock 238, published in Summer 2017.  

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