“We Did The Whole ‘Beatlemania’ Thing.”
“I thought it was the biggest mistake we could have ever made”
Two Utopia band members with polar opposite reactions to the most polarizing Utopia album ever released!
A 36-Year Celebration Of Utopia’s Classic – And Controversial – “Deface The Music!”
Time to look at one of the most inventive pop albums ever released – and the album that many feel derailed Utopia’s drive to the top of the music charts!
“We Did The Whole ‘Beatlemania’ Thing.”
That’s how Todd Rundgren described “Deface The Music”, one of Utopia’s most polarizing albums – and an album that deserves a re-discovery by music lovers!
Todd has always been a Beatles fan – and included covers of “Rain” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” on his solo album “Faithful.”
Here is a live version of “Strawberry Fields” – Todd performs with the Bella Electric Strings at his Rock n Roll Fantasy Camp in November 2013:
Special thanks to John Meanor for posting this on YouTube….
Todd’s love of the Fab Four manifested itself in 1980 with an entire Utopia album of “Beatle-infused” songs that actually created a lot of tension within the band.
The “Road” To Utopia!
The story of “Deface The Music” is ultimately about a lot more than just music. The album marks a pivotal time in Utopia’s history, a time of great success and ongoing frustration.
Most fans of Todd know about the two biographies that are available that offer an in-depth look at all aspects of Todd’s life.
“A Dream Goes On Forever” by Billy James, with research by Tony Rogers, does a great job telling the story of Todd’s solo music, while his “Vol. 2” focuses on the Utopia years.
Fans of the group know that Todd’s record label was never supportive of the group’s musical efforts, and the books document that in some detail.
That’s what intrigued me about the band, and their relationship as musicians. I was taken with the adversity the band endured – some self-inflicted, but much caused by a record label that didn’t support their music.
We can all recite a laundry list of Utopia songs that should have been hits, beginning with “The Wheel” and “Love Is The Answer”, and leading to some of the last songs released by the group such as “Cry Baby”, “Mated”, “Secret Society” and “If I Didn’t Try.”
“Vol. 2” of the Billy James biographies delve into the struggles the band had in getting record label support from the very beginning, and one album stands out as the most divisive in group’s career.
Todd “Defaces” The Music!
36 years ago, Todd Rundgren and Utopia released “Deface The Music”, an upbeat and energetic celebration of The Beatles. It certainly had a sense of humor, as evidenced by the “Outstanding In Their Field” photo on the back cover!
However, it was the timing of the album’s release that has divided Utopia fans since 1980.
The Billy James book gives an inside look at the making of the album as well as the dissension that the album caused within the band. The book is surprisingly honest and raw, as Utopia band members Willie Wilcox, Roger Powell and Kasim Sulton discuss what it was like to be in Todd’s shadow, especially when it came to the “Deface” project.
“I thought it was the biggest mistake we could have ever made” is how Kasim Sultan described the album years later.
Willie Wilcox was even more vocal. “It was a really stupid thing to do,” he said flatly.
More “Adventures In Utopia!”
These Utopia band members discuss how happy they were with the success of “Adventures In Utopia” – their biggest selling album ever. The album was a huge critical and commercial success for the group, making it all the way to #32 on the Billboard charts!
Here is the band performing their hit single “Set Me Free”:
For Utopia fans, the hit single “Set Me Free” and the collection of great songs suggested that more great Utopia music was on the way.
It was at that time, however, that Todd decided to use Utopia to make a Beatles tribute album next…and the resulting album, “Deface The Music” brought the band’s momentum to a crashing halt.
Alice Cooper’s “Music” Inspiration!
Here’s how the project got started.
“‘Deface The Music'” was something we did as a reaction to a response that one of our songs got”, Todd revealed years after the album was released.
Todd was referring to a song he wrote for the Alice Cooper / Meatloaf film “Roadie”. That song was “I Just Want To Touch You”, which ultimately opens the “Deface The Music” album. Todd wrote it as a fun, catchy single for the movie, but the film’s Producers decided not to put in the movie!
The reason seems shocking today, but they feared The Beatles would sue them because of the similarities to the Beatles hit “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”.
Todd was inspired by the song’s sound and decided to pay homage to The Beatles – writing songs that evoked the Fab Four’s tunes throughout various stages of their career.
The “Vol. 2” book spends a fair amount of time discussing how Todd’s decision wasn’t popular with the other band members, and how the poor reception for “Deface The Music” was a “career killer” for the group. And while there was a lot of great Utopia music still to come, as a band they never regained their “Adventures” momentum – and the book captures the resentment that caused among the band.
The biography also has interviews with record execs who freely admit they never wanted Utopia’s music, and tried to convince Todd to just release more Todd solo albums! Clearly, the odds were stacked against the band.
Critical Acclaim And Commercial Failure…
There is also another terrific book about Todd and his music. “A Wizard A True Star: Todd Rundgren In The Studio” by Paul Myers is an in-depth look at Rundgren’s work in the studio, both on his own music as well as the work of other artists such as Meatloaf, Patti Smith and more. This outstanding work also digs into the recording of the “Deface The Music” album.
As Myers writes, the band was “shocked” when Todd revealed his idea for the album.
The rest of the band wanted to record more songs in the style of “Adventures In Utopia” to capitalize on that album’s success, but Todd wanted to try something different, and the band reluctantly went along.
As I pointed out before, both Sultan and Wilcox thought the album was a big mistake for the band,
Willie Wilcox, however, also noted how good the album was, as he is quoted in the book as admitting:
“From a business or a fan base perspective, going to a Beatle album was very confusing. I have to say, though, from a musicians perspective you only care that the band’s making good music and there are some great songs on “Deface The Music.”
Time To “Deface The Songs!”
Todd’s entire career has been one of experimentation, with little regard for the commercial realities of the music business.
Fans have always accepted this part of his career, and fans of Utopia also saw that side of Todd. But what ultimately matters is the music, and that is where the band shines.
The thirteen songs on “Deface” are some of the best power pop the band ever produced.
“I Just Want To Touch You” – beginning with a screaming harmonica, Utopia announces their love of “Beatlemania” with the song Todd wrote originally for “Roadie.”
Here is the single, infused with every ounce of “Beatlemania” they had!
It’s got the energy and enthusiasm of “Beatlemania” at its peak, but it’s presented through Todd’s unique creative filter, and it’s a terrific way to begin the album.
“Crystal Ball” – the raucous, “shake your head” vibe of this song fits perfectly in The Beatles early career, almost an “Eight Days A Week” style that also evokes Todd’s “Wolfman Jack” song from “Something/Anything?”
“Where Does The World Go To Hide” – this song actually feels like a Beatles B-side, the kind of catchy tune that the band wrote with ease. In this case, it feels like another great Todd song that he wrote with ease as well.
Here is a live version I found on YouTube – just audio with images to cover:
As you can hear, the band is having fun performing these songs!
“Silly Boy” – This sounds a lot like early Ringo, one of the songs that McCartney and Lennon would routinely write for the drummer.
“Alone” – here is one of the album’s “single that should have been” – it’s a gorgeous, up tempo ballad with a hint of “a twist” – this feels like an outtake from “Rubber Soul”
“That’s Not Right” – Another “Eight Days A Week” vibe, after The Beatles were confident songwriters, knocking out catchy hit singles with seemingly no effort.
“Take It Home” – In the 80’s, Utopia mastered the musical genre of pure power pop. Perhaps if this song had been released on a different album, it would have charted as well, as it’s a slice of pop nirvana.
The song has a clear “Day Tripper” vibe running through it , like a song you love immediately because it feels like you’ve already heard it.
“Hoi Poloi” – this is Utopia’s fun parody of the 60’s “sound”….and could easily have fit on “Sgt. Peppers”…and you can see that the songs pay homage to the sound of The Beatles, but also have a distinct sound on their own as well.
There was only one video from the album, but here is the audio of the next song, “Life Goes On”:
“Life Goes On” – this could also be off of “Sgt. Pepper”, with the strings evoking “Eleanor Rigby” , with a story being told in evocative lyrics
“She was the pride of her dad
But she harbored a secret in her bureau drawer
And when the news was too bad
She would get into trouble with the boy next door
Life goes on whether or not there’s a reason
Life goes on, enter another season
Life goes on, the world keeps turning and life goes on
Life goes on, the world keeps turning and life goes on”
“Feels Too Good” – One of the most upbeat songs on “Sgt. Pepper” was “Getting Better” – and here is that vibe channeled clearly through the Todd filter:
“Feel too good to go to work today
I need a little more time so I can stay this way.
Let’s go for a ride on the Circle Line?
Couldn’t you use a day in the sunshine…
Feel too good
Can’t let the little things bother me
Because I feel too good…”
“All Smiles” – here’s a straightforward pop song that is short and sweet, and could have been written for “Magical Mystery Tour”
“Always Late” – this song feels like Paul McCartney’s sequel to “Fool On The Hill”, driven simply by a piano
The album ends on the most intricate song, Todd’s clear homage to the song he covered on “Faithful”:
“Everybody Else I Wrong” – here is “Strawberry Fields Forever” through Todd’s creative filter, the minor chords of John Lennon’s songwriting put through Todd’s imagination:
“At the edge of the world
The sun pouring down
We must be heading home
I completely agree
I’ve just been waiting for the right words to come along
Everybody else is wrong
Doesn’t everyone concur, oh no
Thank you for the vote of confidence
I feel so much surer now that
Everybody else is wrong”
Re-evaluating “Deface The Music!”
The thirteen tracks on the album were full of great hooks, gorgeous melodies and Utopia’s tight musicianship. Ultimately, no one can say whether Utopia would have achieved more fame had the band done an obvious sequel to “Adventures In Utopia”, but 35 years later, the album is still one of Utopia’s best!
Even with the controversy within the band, and some confusion on the part of fans, the reviews were good for “Deface The Music”:
Cream magazine called the album “the band’s best album ever – it’s one of the best pop albums of the year, something few critics bothered to mention while pulling Beatle quotes out of it like silly school kids.”
“Allmusic.com” called it “a swift, brutally funny and insanely catchy send-up of the Fab Four’s entire career… it feels more like a burst of cynical joy that is damn near impossible to resist.”
And Wilson&Alroy’s Record Reviews called it “a weird footnote in a great band’s career.”
Give it another spin and re-live a quirky yet important album on the “road to Utopia!”
Todd Rundgren and Utopia also created some of the catchiest power pop songs of the 80’s, and you can see them here:
I told you about the Todd bio books, which are fascinating and in-depth…
You can read all about them here:
Finally, I may have annoyed true Utopia fans once when I suggested that a brilliant album of Todd songs were embedded throughout Utopia’s catalogue:
Here is an album full of classic Todd songs that were released on Utopia albums:
Leave a message and let me know what you think of “Deface The Music!”