For human bio-mechanical units born after the advent of third-wave prog rock in the middle of the ’80s, Rundgren and his oeuvre may indeed seem obscure, but surely one recalls the Todd tune, “Bang the Drum All Day” as a featured—if symbolic—inducement for fun time on adverts for Carnival Cruises and in films like The Prince of Egypt and Shrek.
If you’re a Generation X model you might have significantly sentimental memories associated with the song “Hello It’s Me,” as it piped out your parents car stereo system in the middle of the ’70s as you all dashed toward the California coast in a rented Winnebago. Or you might have been one of those brave freaks who abandoned the normative prog of Yes for the self-referential, and brilliantly brittle work of Utopia, Rundgren’s long-running progressive rock project.
And of course those boomers will cry when music critics mention any old song from Rundgren’s 1972 breakthrough record, Something/Anything?.
If you look deeper though, you’ll find that Rundgren’s influence and affinity for innovation are scattered like bright yet heavy stones all over the rock and roll landscape. Accept the fact that Rundgren is rocanrol’s wizard: difficult to find but impossible to ignore. Serio. And we got to talk to him ahead of his gig at the National Hispanic Cultural Center on Monday, Nov. 12. Damn good.
[Sound of phone ringing.]
Hello. Todd Rundgren here.
Weekly Alibi: Hello, Todd Rundgren! What kind of special planetary alignment there must be, now to have you on the line! You’ve advanced the entire medium of rocanrol through innovation and intense musical departures. Are you even thinking about something that heavy as you prepare to go back out on tour?
Heh. Well not every tour can be a caravan, as it were, of lights and sound and noise. Every once in a while, I like to do something that is a palate cleanser, I guess, in venues that are a bit more intimate where we can have a gathering that is informal, unlike the theatrical and bombastic things I do with Utopia. Essentially, this is a chance for everyone to kick back and relax before we get back to the serious business of making Utopia.
It’s called the Unpredictable Tour and I’d like to know more about it please!
There’s a certain amount of service involved, I like to tell the audience. We do some one hit wonders, songs from bands that don’t exist anymore. If you saw the name Strawberry Alarm Clock on the marquee, you’d probably want to go. But they aren’t going to be on the marquee; but we’ll be there to bring you their best. In that sense it’s unpredictable. Ideally it’s unpredictable in a pleasing way and people in the audience will think, “Gee, I’ve never heard that song before; maybe once on the radio 40 years ago.”
If the tour has a service component designed to please audiences that are either familiar with your work or vaguely familiar with pop music from the mid- to late 20th century, what do you have to offer those who are new to the whole Todd Rundgren experience?
I wouldn’t say this is the show where you find out about my interest in music. These concerts are more a demonstration of my peculiar taste, than it is into my oeuvre itself. Half the set might be my material. Half the set is unpredictable. Given that I’ve written over 300 songs that span dozens of genres, it’s hard, in any particular evening, to get a snapshot of everything I am and do. So we don’t try in this instance. Strictly speaking this is an evening of entertainment.
Besides your insights into American pop-psychedelia, what other tunes might listeners hear this time around?
Well, since the whole thing is unpredictable, I can’t guarantee what songs we’re going to play. But we’ll go anywhere from Arthur Brown’s “Fire” to Melanie’s “Brand New Key” to songs that have never been heard before because they were never released. We source the material from many different places and try to thread it together in a way that is sensitive to my mood and to the perceived mood of the audience. The audience, by its very nature, is unpredictable. Things can vary depending on what night of the week it is. There are many factors that go into determining and characterizing the nature of each of these shows.
Besides having a huge influence on musical culture, you’ve also been clear in your political discourse, from albums like the anti-Reagan Swing to the Right to recent recordings done with Donald Fagen. How do you feel about things on the cusp of the midterm elections?
We all realize it’s crazy. I try not to belabor it during the shows. The song “Tin Foil Hat” was something of a political statement, but it also represented a catharsis for me and Donald. The thing that I’m most concerned about, as we get down to the wire, is that people are not complacent. That’s what got us into this position in the first place. I don’t like to spout political philosophies but … “Tin Foil Hat” has done a service for me. It actually drove all the damn Satan worshippers out of my audience. I have no fear now.