In February 1972, Todd Rundgren released what is widely known as his most popular record, Something, Anything. The double album contained hits like “Hello, It’s Me,” “I Saw the Light” and “Couldn’t I Just Tell You.” Fans responded positively to the record’s four sides of pop gold.
So, following that record Rundgren knew exactly what his next step had to be: Make the weirdest fucking records possible.
“A lot of artists are searching for a sound — some kind of signature thing that can then be driven into the public consciousness and have expectations built up around it. The kind of sound that you become locked into, and you couldn’t change it even if you wanted to without everyone accusing you of treason,” Rundgren tells City Paper by phone. “For me, being a musician was what I did in public. I actually made my living producing records for other artists [The Band, Patti Smith]. So, I didn’t feel the economic pressure that other artists would feel to be successful, to find a formula and stick with it.”
After the string of hit singles off Something, Anything, Rundgren did a “complete about-face and started making these weird records that didn’t even have singles on them,” he says. “I realized I couldn’t justify my existence if I was just going to imitate the things that other people were doing. I could only justify it by doing something nobody else would do. That became my calling card.”
Rundgren has been playing his music, his way for more than 40 years. His new record, White Knights, is a series of collaborations with artists including Trent Reznor, Daryl Hall and Joe Walsh. He’ll be at Greensburg’s Palace Theatre on Aug. 16, opening for prog-rock outfit Yes, which was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame earlier this year (see story page 21).
Critics have called the new album Rundgren’s most accessible in years. It’s the kind of endorsement that is either complimentary of the new record, or an indictment of all the experimental music Rundgren has been churning out since 1973.
“I’ve often gotten the sense when someone is assigned to write a review of one of my records, and they’re overtaken with that feeling of, ‘Oh, crap, now I have to listen to the whole thing and I know I’m not going to understand it,’” he says with a laugh. “It doesn’t bother me when someone writes that they don’t like my record today. It doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with it. It may just be out of time, the same way that A Wizard, A True Star was out of time when it was released [in 1973]. But in the long run, it turned out to be the album that most influenced other artists.”
Rundgren says understanding pop songs, like the ones on Something, Anything, is easy. The tunes contain messages and themes that relate to a lot of folks. But putting out music that is “different in form and content,” he says, “gives other musicians ideas about things that they can dare to do.” And while Rundgren’s music has often been left out of the mainstream for its uniqueness, the idea of doing something different shouldn’t seem that radical.
“People seem to forget about the long evolution that The Beatles went through. When they started out, most of their records were cover songs,” Rundgren says. “Then they started writing more and more of their own music, and then they began experimenting in other genres. George [Harrison] started playing the sitar, John [Lennon] started taking psychedelic drugs, and they started playing songs backwards and things like that.
“They would essentially move through other genres and then discard them. I think that’s what you’re supposed to do as a musician. You’re not supposed to just rest on your laurels and play the same things all the time.”
After finishing Something, Anything, Rundgren went back and listened to the songs and realized that most of them took him about 20 minutes each to write. A lot of contemporary artists today brag about how briskly they’re able to write songs. But Rundgren saw it as a problem. “I stepped back and said to myself, ‘That’s not right. I’m not thinking about this hard enough,’” he says.
From there, Rundgren started pulling from all of his musical influences, from electronic music to classical music to Gilbert and Sullivan. He even changed his songwriting process; he built his own studio, which removed the pressure of needing to create fast to avoid paying exorbitant amounts of money for studio time. Rundgren says he likes to write the musical composition first, record it as it develops and then tweak it as needed. Once the track is done, he says, the lyrics come out very fast because he had spent weeks or even months thinking about them, “tamping them back down and letting my subconscious do the work.”
That kind of deep dive into an artist’s mind is missing from a lot of today’s music. Rundgren says that comes from artists writing solely to make hits that appeal to as many fans as possible. Not that all contemporary acts are like that. Earlier this year, Rundgren made a surprise appearance at Coachella and played his “Couldn’t I Just Tell You” with New York band, The Lemon Twigs. But still, he says, a lot of today’s music lacks depth and a willingness to step out on a limb creatively.
“Lyrics today have a lot of people going, ‘whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa; yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah; and la, la, la, la, la.’ Lyrics, today, have gotten inane,” he says. “The songs don’t have any depth because the people don’t have any depth. They’ve spent their whole lives singing about stuff and acting out the life of a pop star. They don’t actually go out and have real experiences like regular people do.”