There are some cult acts whose failure to attain stardom can be attributed to bad luck or bad timing. Todd Rundgren is not one of these. In hindsight, his peculiar brilliance was made for the devotion of music obsessives like me. But there’s plenty in his wildly varied catalogue, which mixes up sweet, heartfelt pop-rock with bold experimentalism, to thrill the wider world, too.
Picture how obscure The Beatles might be had they begun their career in 1966 (the year they quit touring) as what they had become by then: a studio band dedicated to avant-garde pop. Rundgren too was a creature of the studio, the prototype of today’s bedroom necromancer, liberated by computer technology – brain stuffed with knowledge, head exploding with ideas, fingers dancing with expertise, creating complete worlds in small, darkened rooms. It’s a type we’re now familiar with. Paul McCartney may have done it first, Stevie Wonder contemporaneously, and Prince most famously, but Rundgren is the ne plus ultra of the form. The more solitary and obsessive he became, the better he got. A wonderful image on the inner gatefold of his album “Something/Anything” (1972) sums him up: all alone and semi-silhouetted, arms outstretched from his guitar in a victory salute, surrounded by the shabby studio chaos from which he spun a heady kind of sonic order as if it were straw from gold.
One of pop’s biggest (in every sense) albums owes him its existence. Meat Loaf’s “Bat Out Of Hell” (1977) – 43 million copies sold and counting – was given its epic, operatic dimensions by its producer, Rundgren, who recorded much of it at the tiny Bearsville studio in upstate New York. Jim Steinman, who wrote the songs, described Rundgren as “the only genuine genius I’ve ever worked with.” Three decades later, Rundgren would still be sought out by such contemporary acts as Hot Chip, who called on his magician’s touch for their single “Shake a Fist”.
Rundgren’s solo work at Bearsville between 1970 and 1983, collected on a new box set, is at its best a joy. His range, and his zeal for both his medium and his art, shine through it. Many great artists are associated with particular drugs; he, surely, is the only one famous for taking ritalin. An apt chemical of choice for a modern Amadeus; one who resembled an ADHD-afflicted prodigy, educating himself musically by whizzing like a supercharged firefly through the history of pop.
The self-taught Rundgren was scarcely into his twenties when he became Bearsville’s house producer. He was a master at turning limited time and meagre resources into remarkable results (doubtless the ritalin helped.) Seldom more so than on “Something/Anything”, a double LP whose first three sides he assembled on his own; and its successor (and my own favourite of his), “A Wizard, A True Star” (1973) – a 19-track single album that should have been a double, giving its lavish, lunatic eclecticism room to sprawl.
“Something/Anything”, expanding on the ballads and measured, mid-tempo singer-songwriter style that had been Rundgren’s stock in trade, sounds like the product of an inspired maniac attempting to masquerade as sane, and brought him his two biggest hits, “Hello It’s Me” and “I Saw The Light”.
“Wizard” feels like the same man giving up the pretence and rocketing off wherever his imagination takes him, pinballing between melody and noise, rock and soul, orchestral and choral, pastiche and furious invention, often within the same song.
Next came “Todd” (1974), another double set, even more daffily adventurous. Within two years, Rundgren had released three-and-a-half hours of music, extraordinary in its energy and diversity. Dazzling and berserk, these records represent a peak among the crazy-quilt albums inspired by The Beatles’ “Abbey Road” (1969), before the format buckled under the weight of Queen’s “A Night At The Opera” (1975).
Rundgren then veered off into ever odder avenues, including baffling mystically inclined synth-prog experiments that tested the listener’s patience. Yet when “Bat Out Of Hell” came out, Rundgren was working on its near opposite, his most compact, cohesive and intimate album, “The Hermit of Mink Hollow” (1978). A mere 35 minutes long, it is something of a throwback to the earliest, poppiest work he initially released under the name “Runt”. Its beautifully crafted songs are tempered with a quicksilver melancholy. It stands as an oblique record of his separation from partner Bebe Buell, who the previous year had given birth to Aerosmith singer Steven Tyler’s daughter, Liv.
This collection is the work of a fanatic, certainly, but that’s its great strength: only a fanatic so gifted, audacious and ingenious could have put together a catalogue like it.
The Complete Bearsville Album Collection is out now on Rhino