There are only a handful of quirky geniuses in rock ‘n’ roll, and there are even fewer quirky geniuses who write legitimate pop hits. And then there’s Todd Rundgren.
Rundgren is a madman of sorts; a guitarist, singer, and songwriter, to be sure. But he’s also a whiz-bang producer and multi-instrumentalist and—here’s where things get more distinct—a computer pioneer, software innovator, video producer, and soundtrack composer. He wrote big hits for his ‘60s band Nazz (“Open My Eyes”, “Hello, It’s Me”), then he wrote even bigger hits as a solo act (“I Saw the Light”, “It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference”)—then he went on to produce and play for artists as diverse as Patti Smith and Meatloaf. His brilliant live act (usually with his bands Utopia or The Liars) was a combination of Funkadelic and Zappa, but with legitimate hit songs!
This release, titled Best of Todd Rundgren Live features concert recordings of most of Rundgren’s best-loved songs from various concerts spanning the last 25 years. Though they are cobbled together to seem like a single concert (a bit of studio trickery for which Rundgren apologizes in his detailed liner notes), they represent the considerable breadth of his musical vision. Though Rundgren is seemingly incapable of writing a dull or tuneless song, his output takes in most of what has been good ‘n’ smart in rock since the British invasion. He has absorbed the Beatles, sure, and Brian Wilson, too. But he’s conversant in doo-wop flavored soul, flights of complex progressive rock from the ‘70s, power-pop tune-smithing to rival Elvis Costello, and even extended instrumental soloing. As a result, this “Best of” collection can seem schizy but is also rich; a primer in Todd-mania, a pu-pu platter of the Rundgren oeuvre that should hook folks with a taste for sophisticated rock music.
The demands of Rundgren’s music—detailed harmony singing, layered rock instrumentation, and occasionally orchestral rock conceits—make most of this music sound like the kind of pre-punk rock that isn’t much favored these days. Though his songs are both less sardonic and more direct than those of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, Rundgren is perhaps most accurately compared to Steely Dan. Renowned for making intricate, expert rock, The Dan came to be seen as the kind of fussy, too-tailored pop music that was supposed to have been swept away by punk and the lo-fi DIY indie revolution. Rundgren’s music is similarly grand. And funny. This is music high on craft and melody, giddy with the music itself, and not at all concerned with issues of “authenticity” or “credibility” or “edge”.
“Something to Fall Back On”, “Rock Love”, “Hello, It’s Me” and “Love of the Common Man”, drawn here from a 1991 performance by what Rundgren calls “the Big Band in its heyday”, are overripe examples of true show-band music: organs flying, brass surging, background vocals bulging with overtone, the whole band pulsing over the top. “The object was to exhilarate to the point of exhaustion,” Rundgren writes. These tracks do just that—but they’re likely to put off music fans who would count “stripped down” and “rootsy” as high compliments. “I Saw the Light” and “Love Is the Answer” come from the 1985 “A Cappella Tour” and find him at the center of a group of 11 singers, intoning great vocal songs in considerable harmonic glory—but again the richness of the sound may confuse the matter of Rundgren’s redoubtable musical quirk.
The band sounds leaner and more rock ‘n’ roll on the ‘90’s Nearly Human Tour (particularly on “Love in Action”), but even here the sounds are rich with suspended-4 chords and expertly assayed counter melodies. “Can’t Stop Running” marries ‘80s pop to gospel-shout glory, and “Real Man” kicks with horns and Zappa-esque growls under a Steely sheen, right down to its final fancy chord.
Finally, two tracks are from ‘04’s The Liars: a down-and-funky “Soul Brother” and remarkably faithful version of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, both sung and played by Rundgren. And while it’s certainly fun to hear him pay tribute to an undoubted influence, the real kick of this collection is the “Best of” quality; the accumulation of a career’s-worth of terrific tunes, laid out with pride.
My favorite memory of Rundgren is seeing him perform Gilbert & Sullivan on TV’s briefly brilliant Night Music. Wearing a strange hat and bearing a high-wire grin, he sang with his wife and Taj Mahal, accompanied by saxophonist Dave Sanborn and turntablist Christian Marclay. It was one of the weirdest things ever broadcast on network television, and it bore the mark of a rock star with nothing more to prove but every reason to have fun. By then, Rundgren had written more legitimate hits—genuinely terrific songs—than any other five rock stars combined. You’ll find most of those hits here, played live, but not enough of the Rundgren weirdness. Which is too bad, but doesn’t detract from the good clean fun within Best of Todd… Live.