TIME TO EXPLORE ANOTHER FACET OF TODD RUNDGREN!
I’ve posted many stories about Todd Rundgren before, focusing mostly on his music – classic pop singles like “Hello It’s Me” and “Can We Still Be Friends”, as well as more experimental albums like “A Wizard A True Star” and “No World Order”…in a career that has spanned forty years, he has proven to be a true artist and musical visionary…here is a live performance of “No World Order” from 1994:
“No World Order” is one of Todd’s most neglected works, but it is amazingly creative – Todd continually stretching himself as an Artist. Now I want to focus on another aspect of his career: as music Producer. Let’s begin with an incredible book that documents it all!
A Wizard, A True Star: Todd Rundgren In The Studio – by Paul Myers and Todd Rundgren – published in 2010.
Bravo to Author Paul Myers, who gives us an unprecedented look at Todd’s producing career!
Of course, Todd has produced all of his own music, including hits such as “Hello, It’s Me”, “Can We Still Be Friends”, “I Saw The Light”, “We Gotta Get You A Woman” and his now iconic ode to slacking off, “Bang On The Drum All Day!”
A lot of people don’t even realize that Todd wrote and performed “Bang On The Drum”…and don’t realize some of the other amazing Artists that he produced as well – and this book is a terrific inside look at this part of Todd’s career.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Rundgren produced many great albums for other acts, including the classic “Straight Up” by Badfinger, as well as engineering “Stage Fright” by the legendary music group The Band!
Todd is a full participant in this book, and he is brutally honest about the artists he produced, especially if they didn’t get along…stories about Cheap Trick, for example, are hilarious!
Researched and written with the cooperation of Rundgren himself, “A Wizard A True Star” is a fascinating and authoritative account of Todd’s four decades making magic in the recording studio.
Time For A Todd Countdown!
The book is packed with great anecdotes, producing insights from Todd, and lots of interviews with the Artists he produced – even the ones who fought with him in the studio!
He had a slew of great producing efforts, and continues to produce his own music as well – and with that in mind, here are my choices as the top five albums that Todd produced for other Artists!
#5 – Patti Smith
Let’s begin with one of the gray ones: The Patti Smith Group was one of the most acclaimed groups of the 80’s – led of course by the visionary Artist Patti Smith – and Todd produced one of her most acclaimed efforts, the album “Wave”, which includes the classic song “Dancing Barefoot”.
Here are some fun facts about the album, thanks to wikipedia. The title track was a tribute to Pope John Paul I, whose brief papacy coincided with the recording sessions. The first single off the album was “Frederick”, a love song for her husband-to-be Fred “Sonic” Smith. The second single was the classic song with a great Todd sound, “Dancing Barefoot”.
Here is a great live version from 1979:
This was a very positive musical collaboration, and a very under-rated album. If you are interested in hearing all of it, the 1996 remastered release includes Smith’s original version of “Fire of Unknown Origin.”
Now, onto one of Todd’s more “contentious” producing efforts:
#4 – Skylarking
“Skylarking” was the ninth studio album by the English band XTC, released in 1986.
XTC was very popular in England, but their record label told them to get a US Producer to broaden their sound for the US market. They could not have chosen better!
The title of the album was inspired by Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “To A Skylark” – but the recording of this album was anything but poetic!
The recording sessions took place at Todd’s upstate New York recording studio. The sessions were fraught with tension, due to creative differences between Rundgren and band leader Andy Partridge.
In the book “XTC: Song Stories” by Neville Farmer, Partridge says:
“(Rundgren) was so bloody sarcastic, which is rare with Americans. He’s got it down to an extremely cruel art. He’d ask how you were going to do the vocals and you would stand in front of the mic and do one run through to clear your throat and he’d say, ‘That was crap. I’ll come down and I’ll record me singing it and you can have me in your headphones to sing along to.’ I just thought it was so insulting.”
In the same interview, Partridge did acknowledge the artistic impact that Rundgren had on the album:
“He did do great things musically. The arrangements were brilliant and I don’t know how he came up with them… The bloke is ludicrously smart when it comes to certain things.”
So as you can see, Todd could ruffle feathers in pursuit of greatness – and even Partridge was willing to admit it. Here is the great XTC song “Grass” from the album:
There were other tense working relationships for Todd as well, but nothing that was more contentious AND lucrative than his work with Jim Steinman – and the epic-ness of MEATLOAF!!
#3 – Bat Out Of Hell
Of course you all knew this – Todd produced one of the best-selling albums of all time – Meat Loaf’s legendary “Bat Out Of Hell”!
According to wikipedia, songwriter Jim Steinman and singer Meat Loaf had a lot of difficulty finding a record company willing to sign them. According to Meat Loaf’s autobiography, the band spent most of 1975 writing and recording material, and two and a half years auditioning the record and being rejected.
Todd To The Sonic Rescue!
Todd Rundgren, however, found the album hilarious, thinking that it was a parody of Bruce Springsteen. Meatloaf quotes Todd as saying:
“I’ve got to do this album. It’s just so out there.”
In one 1989 interview with Classic Rock magazine, Steinman labeled Todd:
“the only genuine genius I’ve ever worked with.”
Behold The Genius Of “Bat Out Of Hell!”
We all know how bombastic, epic and operatic the album is – I mean, here is just one reason: the music video for the title track:
“Bat Out Of Hell” slowly built up a fan base when it was released, and thanks to Todd’s producing effort, Jim Steinman’s songs and Meat Loaf’s bombastic vocals, the album just kept growing, and growing and growing…helped by the smash hits “Paradise By The Dashboard Light”, “Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad” and “You Took The Words Right Out Of My Mouth”…
It ended up as one of the best-selling albums ever released! The massive worldwide success of this album made Meat Loaf a star, and credit goes to Jim Steinman, who wrote some amazing songs, but the key to this album’s success is the producing done by Todd in the studio – turning these songs into operatic masterpieces, produced to their full epic-ness!
And speaking of Todd taking a band, forming a sound for them, and producing their greatest success: it’s time for some Grand Funk Railroad!
#2 – We’re An American Band!
Grand Funk Railroad was a midwest bar band who built up a fan base by constant touring with a series of moderate hits like “Closer To Home”, “Footstompin’ Music” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll Soul”.
By the mid-70’s, Grand Funk Railroad toured to packed arenas worldwide. David Fricke of Rolling Stone Magazine said at the time:
“You cannot talk about rock in the 1970’s without talking about Grand Funk Railroad!”
But it took Todd to give them their first #1 album and single, which is one of the greatest rock anthems of all time….here is the majesty of “We’re An American Band”:
Keep It “Shinin’ On!”
“We’re An American Band” was a huge success, and made Grand Funk one of the biggest bands in the world. Todd also produced the follow-up album “Shinin’ On”, which was released with a 3D album cover!
Thanks to Todd, “We’re an American Band” was Grand Funk’s first No. 1 hit, followed by Brewer’s top twenty hit “Walk Like A Man”. And drummer Don Brewer sang both of them! 1974’s “The Loco-Motion” was Grand Funk’s second #1 single, followed by Brewer’s hit “Shinin’ On”.
Todd took this funky bar band and turned them into a tight, polished and aggressive rock band…you can hear it on the title tracks of both albums: Todd’s producing literally propels the songs off the vinyl – with an energy the band had never shown before. Of course, even with this massive success, they changed Producers after “Shinin’ On” and never had the same level of success!
Not sure whose idea it was to have the band pose nude on the inside cover of “American Band”, but the group NEVER should have left Todd! Now, here’s a look at one of music’s biggest duos of all time – and the commercially disastrous but creatively brilliant:
#1 – War Babies!
Yes, Todd produced the least popular Hall & Oates album of all time – and when you listen to it you will probably understand why…the timing for this music could NOT have been worse!
“War Babies” was the third album by Hall & Oates, released in 1974. The album was produced by Todd, and featured Utopia performing on the record as well. Here is the only single from the album, the gorgeous pop ballad “Too Much Too Soon”:
You can hear the classic Hall & Oates sound, and clearly Todd’s pop antenna was finely tuned as well…so what happened?
Well, the timing for one. The album was a musical departure from their previous two albums, especially when “She’s Gone” was just such a big hit for them – and the folky pop of “Abandoned Luncheonette” led fans to expect the exact same sort of pop sound going forward.
The songs that Daryl Hall wrote for “War Babies” had a harder edge to them, although they still have great hooks…listen to the title track, which is produced in a big, epic way by Todd:
I love that song, and “Better Watch Your Back” was a calypso-flavored gem as well, but some of the songs were a colder look at the alienation of the 70’s, and that just
alienated fans! “War Babies” was a huge flop, and led to Hall & Oates leaving Atlantic records…
But You Can’t Stop The Music!
The album has gained stature over the years, and Daryl Hall nearly explodes on camera when discussing it on his hit series “Live From Daryl’s House.” He resents the implication that Todd forced the duo to make the album “his way” – not true at all!
The musical vision of this album was all Daryl, and his collaboration with Todd was great! Here are Todd and Daryl performing one of the songs from “War Babies”, “Bennie G. And The Rose Tattoo” from Hall’s great series “Live From Daryl’s House”:
In 2012, Magnet magazine highlighted “War Babies” as an overlooked gem! Here is the link to the article…
Of course, Hall & Oates released their classic “silver” album next, with the mega hit “Sara Smile” – and became the biggest selling duo of the 80s…and they still make music today…
Of course, Todd and Daryl Hall have remained close friends, and here is a look at their musical collaboration!
Of course, Todd produced a number of other great albums, and it was hard to pick his top five, especially when you know the story of Todd’s music friendship with this brilliant artist:
Todd’s Honorable Mention: Laura Nyro!
Yes, Todd produced one of Laura’s later albums, the upbeat and playful “Mother’s Spiritual”…
Nyro is, of course, the writer of such classic hits as “Eli’s Coming”, “Stoned Soul Picnic”, “And When I Die” and “Stony End”…and Todd actually wrote a song about her on one of his earlier solo albums! You can read all about it – and see a clip of Todd discussing his producing effort with Laura – just by clicking on my story:
And be sure to check out all of Laura Nyro’s music on iTunes!