Todd Rundgren “The internet works!! Yes, it’s having an effect!!”

There are prog rockers, there are producers. And then there’s Todd Rundgren. In any given year of his 40 year career, few artists would have been as active both in front of the microphone and behind the mixing desk as Runt. I could keeping waxing lyrical all night long and still not cover all he’s done, or the impact he’s had. Little wonder then, that British fans are foaming at the mouth at the prospect of seeing Todd perform A Wizard, A True Star in its entirety.

A theatrical show replete with costume changes and props, the extravaganza was initially conceived on tour in England in support of the 2008 Arena record. “Last year’s English promoter came up with the idea,” Todd explains to me over the phone from Hawaii. “Younger acts and electronic artists had been name checking it in interviews and citing it as an influence, and we thought this was a better vehicle to attract a better audience. Word eventually got back to the US and some fans didn’t want to wait until 2010 to see it live, so they got together and did the promotion themselves! We didn’t go to a promoter, it was someone who runs an online station that only plays my music.”

What started with one show in Ohio quickly ballooned into several as crowds took to the idea in the way only a dedicated fan-base can. It is an overused cliché in the music industry to describe an artist’s fans as ‘the most hardcore’ or ‘rabid’, but Todd Rundgren fans are the rare set to whom such definitions can actually be applied. But, even amongst them, there was some unease over the choice of the record to perform.

To understand the significance of A Wizard, A True Star (AWATS), you have to place it in the context of Rundgren’s previous work, the popular Something/Anything? The album remains his best-selling work and got him one of his biggest hits – Hello, It’s Me, which went to No.5 on the Billboard charts. Which is why fans were forgiven for being completely flummoxed by his follow-up, AWATS. It was a complete change of sound and parked very firmly in progressive rock territory. The recording sounded muddled and cacophonic at first, because there was so much going on. Yet, the faithful persevered – slowly picking it apart, layer by layer, to uncover what was arguably the defining prog rock record of the decade.

“A lot of people gave up after Something/Anything? because AWATS was so different from anything I had been doing up till then, and other records at the time,” reflects Todd, then laughs as he says, “The rest of my fans have been with me the whole time and survived the change, and lots of other bizarre excursions and hip-hop experimentations!!”

In fact, the complexity of AWATS became a bit of a stumbling block for Todd himself: “I went back to deconstruct the original master tapes because people couldn’t figure out what to play! I had to do remixes of just certain parts like guitars or bass so we could accurately reproduce the music part of it.”

Todd Rundgren portrait photo by Jean LannenDid that also force his hand slightly when choosing which musicians would back him up? “Yes,” is the straightforward reply. “It would be tempting to call up people I know who had no direct connection with the project, but I didn’t know if I was on solid ground myself, so I wanted familiar faces. For e.g. I had to fill in the keyboard slots so I first asked Greg Hawkes if he would join, and he was important because he has a lot of the original keyboards that were on the record. He actually has them and remembers how to play the stuff!!” says Todd, laughing heartily like he often does.

“Then I got Roger Powell because he had played some parts before. Unfortunately he is gainfully employed!!! He has a real job he has to go back to, so I went back further and got in touch with Ralph Schukett, so he’ll be pianist in London and Amsterdam.”

Of course, what makes this tour so special is the fact that there is a theatrical element added to the music, giving fans a visual element to the emotive music. This, in itself, presented some unique problems. Not all venues can accommodate this show, so immediately the touring scope was a limited one. And, as Todd points out, people already have a ‘mental movie’ that goes with the record, so he had to create something that, while fresh and interesting, didn’t completely clash with what fans had visualised. Imagine taking the best book in the world and making it into a movie. Then chuck out the script, and replace readers with ridiculously dedicated fans, and you being to get a glimpse of the effort that went into creating this tour.

“We concentrated on reproducing the fashion sense, based it on weird costumes back in the 70s and then that expanded to 12 costume changes. Which means there are music passages where I’m back stage going through a frantic costume change! We have modern day production gimmicks but …a lot of the essence of the song comes from the costume.”

What makes the European shows a fascinating prospect is what the opening act of this opus will be. In the US there were Utopia songs played, amongst others, but Todd remains tight-lipped on what European audiences will get to see. “There will be an opening act but I’m not going to elaborate,” is all he’s willing to divulge.

He’s a lot more forthcoming when confronted with a trickier subject. Cynics would see this entire idea as a way for an old musician to make a quick buck. Certainly, if this was true, Todd wouldn’t be the first musician to try doing it. Is this whole tour just a ruse then, Mr. Rundgren?

“I’m not making any money!!” Todd manages to splutter out after laughing. “I was lucky to break even at the end of the American leg because we have a larger band, crew and production. We’re coming over to Europe and only doing 2 dates with so many people. There is no big payday, at least not yet. As for my age I don’t feel any shame because I’m in my 60s and still have an audience. People did better than me (in the 70s) yet I’m the one who’s still around. My heroes are BB King and Tony Bennett, people who play till they collapse. That’s what a musician is. I could start lying about my age and getting cosmetic surgery but the whole pop-star thing doesn’t last long.”

In fact, Todd has been able to experience the joy that is reserved for very few musicians – seeing fans grow up and bring their children to his shows, thus exposing a whole new generation to his music. “Most tours have been a cross section of age groups. Part of it is the natural evolution of fans becoming parents and forcing their kids along, and some kids come on their own!”

He even credits some of this to the ubiquity of music on the internet, a topic that can and has generated miles of column inches. For Todd though, it’s quite simple: “The internet works!! Yes, it’s having an effect!! It is the domain of a young audience and they’re using it do discover stuff radio isn’t giving them. I’m meeting fans that have discovered me last year and they’re 25. When fans are young they don’t have compartmentalised attitudes towards music. They’re open to different styles and music. With so much stuff I’ve recorded over the years, they’re bound to find something they like!”

All this talk of new generations of fans and 70s prog rock does beg the question – how long can Todd Rundgren go on touring? It is a lifestyle that can take its toll on the youngest of bodies, let alone one that has been slaving out on the road for 3 decades, winning fans the old fashioned way – through the sheer brilliance of a live performance, night after night. Todd himself is realistic about his physical condition and where that leaves him.

Todd Rundgren - Credit Mark Mawston“My back is weak. About 2 years ago, I did a tour of Japan and there you play smaller venues where they charge a lot for tickets; these are really tough gigs. In between 2 shows, I wrenched my back really bad, and had to complete the tour on painkillers. I would do the show but the rest of the day was complete fucking misery. Sometimes, the day began by crawling from my bed to the bathroom. Literally crawling. Then I’d somehow get my shoes on and walk around until everything loosened up for me to move, for the 2 hours I’m on stage.

“At 20 you don’t think about it. As you get older and your performance becomes more refined, your day revolves around those 2 hours on stage and the rest is a regime getting ready for that. That’s how it will be for me, the only question is will I crawl or walk!! It’s more and more a mental game; there’s nothing you can do about the atrophy attacking your body but hey, this is way better than a coal mine.”

All through this conversation the one thing strikes me is how amazingly light hearted Todd manages to be at all times. Even a graphic description of the aforementioned day of ‘complete fucking misery’ is said with a chuckle, and I can just imagine him grinning away as he patiently answers my questions over the phone. And that’s what makes Todd Rundgren such a great musician. There are lots of creative geniuses in the music industry. Many have attempted grandiose live shows, some have even succeeded. But it is rare to find a talented, critically lauded musician, who is also popular with the fans, but still manages to keep his sense of humour through the darkest of times. I didn’t ask him if the title was auto-biographical, but I realise I never needed to. Here’s to Todd Rundgren – A wizard, a true star.

Todd Rundgren performs the British Premiere of “A Wizard, A True Star” at the HMV London Hammersmith Apollo on Saturday 6th February 2010. Box Office: 08700 603 777. Book Online: www.seetickets.com

     

About Abhijeet Ahluwalia

Abhijeet Ahluwalia – I’m a freelance journalist who goes back and forth between London and Bombay. A huge metalhead, but I have an eclectic taste, from reggae to punk. Oh, and Manchester United are the greatest team in the world. Follow me on Twitter or drop me a line via Email.

3 Responses to “Todd Rundgren “The internet works!! Yes, it’s having an effect!!””

  1. And that’s why those of use who stayed say “Todd is Godd.”

  2. Cherry Rayden 27/01/2010 at 9:08 pm

    So Important to Support Todd Is Godd the Wizard.. In His Own Words.. This Under-rated Genius losing $ and has Health Ailments. Todd Rundgren does NOT deserve to go Backwards.

    Support His Shows… AWATS UK Coming up Feb.6, 2010. Also support His Music by going to Todd’s myspacemusic website.Click on all his songs periodically. Myspace.. the 5th largest Country in the World Population Wise. Help Him Rise to This Occasion !

    Put him in the R & R Hall of Fame. Recognition means $$$ so he can continue writing and giving US the Unique Music that HE has delivered. UK & Amsterdam enjoy AWATS in February .. A Super Super Show !! You’ll Love it !

    Rock Love,

    Cherry Rayden
    XOXO

  3. Yes Todd is a true genius & such a special LOVED person.We fans do appreciate him so much & will always be here for him! If he ever has to crawl, I will still be glad to pay to see him!
    Great article!!