In 1971, there were very few human beings who were cooler than Todd Rundgren. In the space of three years, he had written the most thrilling riposte to the British Invasion with “Open My Eyes” for his band, Nazz. After two great albums of Who/Cream influenced hard rock with them, he jumped ship to produce and engineer a bunch of LPs (which almost included Janis Joplin’s Pearl). Incredibly, he still found time to record his debut solo collection, 1970’s Runt. He was the Boy Wonder with a hit single (“We Got to Get You a Woman”) and an engineering credit on a top-five record (the Band’s Stage Fright) under his surprisingly slender belt. So, what was the next step to be?
The answer was 1971’s Runt. The Ballad of Todd Rundgren, a forgotten gem from one of rock’s finest years. While discerning record buyers gobbled up albums by Carole King, Cat Stevens, Graham Nash, Joni Mitchell, Paul and Linda McCartney, John Lennon, Harry Nilsson, Elton John, and Carly Simon, Rundgren’s low key masterpiece limped to #214 in the Billboard Charts. And that’s despite a glowing Rolling Stone review, helpfully written by his then-girlfriend, Patti Smith. Maybe people avoided it because they didn’t know what to expect. With a 1971 record by Mitchell, John, or Ms. King, you knew exactly what you were getting; with Rundgren, all bets were off. Would you get Nazz’s anglophile hard rock, some winsome pop, or something more esoteric? Only a handful of people were expecting a solid collection of top-drawer balladry.
With a bit of detective work, the clues become obvious. After Rundgren had got his testosterone-fueled, teenage nervous energy out of the way with the first Nazz record—released in 1968—his songwriting broadened exponentially. Much to his bandmates’ dismay, Rundgren turned away from hard rock and focused his attention on piano-based ballads that owed a huge debt to Laura Nyro. In a 2005 Guardian interview, Rundgren states: “[She] had such an effect on my songwriting it actually killed the band I was in. I don’t think they disliked her, beyond the fact that I stopped writing songs like the Who and started writing songs like Laura Nyro”.
After Nazz folded in on itself, Rundgren set about working on a solo record, amongst many other projects. His debut album, Runt, arrived in September 1970 and was a sampler platter of what he could do: polished pop, charming ballads, hard rock, blue-eyed soul, and even some social commentary. Throw in its closing track, the multi-part song cycle “Birthday Carol”, and you’ve very successfully confused your audience. Well, not all of them; if you were intrigued enough to stick with Rundgren, you would be gifted with a follow-up record that ended up being one of the most focussed and direct in his huge body of work.
Rundgren’s second solo sequence was released without fanfare on 24 June 1971. First, let’s talk about that album cover. “Striking” is not the word, as the Milton Glaser-designed sleeve for Runt. The Ballad of Todd Rundgren has our hero seated at the piano with a noose around his neck. Compare that with the artwork for Tapestry (from the same year), which features Carole King in some lovely knitwear while hanging out with her cat. Which album are you going to spend your singer-songwriter designated dollars on? The nice lady barefoot on the window seat, or the weird guy with his back to us (who has mere seconds to live)?
You don’t need a degree in marketing to work out where the money went. It was almost as if Rundgren was testing his potential fan base. If you got past that cover, you were in—welcome to fifty years of often incredible, if sometimes baffling, music. Fun fact: the inner sleeve photographs were taken by Ron Mael, keyboard player with Halfnelson whose debut record Rundgren had just produced. (Of course, Halfnelson soon became Sparks, and this year—fifty years on—the Maels and Rundgren reunited to record “Your Fandango”, a track from Rundgren’s forthcoming album, Space Force.)
Putting the packaging aside, what are we left with? The twelve songs on Runt. The Ballad of Todd Rundgren, each of which is a little masterclass in whichever genre it lives. Opening with the clanging clavinet that was an early Rundgren trademark, we get “Long Flowing Robe”, a beautiful piece of ’70s pop that can’t wait to get to the chorus. Love at first sight is hardly a new topic in the pantheon of pop, but rarely—if ever—has it been addressed in such a thrillingly simple and melodic way. An effortless vocal line and a lightness of touch by the band combine to make a smash hit that never was. Track two, however, is a different story: it’s the first of those ballads. To avoid any confusion, it’s called “The Ballad (Denny and Jean)”. There’s no ambiguity there; it’s the tune in which Rundgren hops from rockin’ Carole King to limpid Laura Nyro. We really should have been expecting it, but playing the ballad card so early on an album can wrong-foot even the hippest listener. It’s simultaneously lush, understated, and beautiful. How can that happen?
“Bleeding” is the first of three rockers on the record. Feeding his guitar through a Leslie speaker (the guitar production trick du jour), Rundgren urges a friend to “man up” after a recent trauma. His advice matches the aggressive tone of the track: “Nobody cries / When they know nobody died”. We’re back to heartbreak territory with track four, “Wailing Wall”, a standout piece on a standout album. The lyrics are almost comically maudlin: “Kneeling down for sadness sake / Crying just as though their hearts would break”. Yet, with Rundgren’s Philadelphia soul vocal delivery, a sparse piano arrangement, and his multitracked backing vocals, it’s incredibly moving. It’s simple and direct, and Rundgren never overplays his hand. A quiet classic.
The country-tinged “The Range War” was part of Rundgren’s live repertoire for many years, and it subsequently appears on his 1978 double live album, Back to the Bars. This is mostly due to its crowd-pleasing qualities, as it pales slightly in such esteemed company on the 1971 album. It’s a good song diminished by its proximity to excellent songs.
The remaining two “rock” songs—“Chain Letter” and “Parole”—are neat and fat-free. The latter boogies along in fine early seventies style, while the former gradually uncurls from a simply strummed acoustic guitar introduction into a pocket-sized epic. The lyric is funny and self-deprecating—two qualities that tended to be absent from an overly earnest period of popular music history. A mass choir of multitracked Rundgrens provides a lovely backdrop for him to whip out one of the records few guitar solos over until everything just stops. Why cover bands all over the world aren’t hammering this to death every night, is a mystery to me.
“Be Nice to Me” is another should-have-been-a-hit composition. A piano-led plea for a little affection, it once again manages to avoid being mawkish (by mere inches). Rundgren seems to be in a bad way and craves tenderness, no matter how insincere: “Would it be so wrong / If you played along /And please just be / Nice to me”. In 2012, Rumer recorded a reverential cover of it for her Boys Don’t Cry LP, earning some much-delayed kudos for one of Rundgren’s finest pop compositions.
Less than a year after the commercial misstep of Runt. The Ballad of Todd Rundgren, 1972’s Something/Anything (a sprawling double album that features Rundgren playing every instrument on three of its four sides) redressed the balance. Buoyed by the US top twenty hits “I Saw the Light” and “Hello it’s Me” (originally recorded by The Nazz), Rundgren was now a Big Deal. Experimentation with psychedelics inspired A Wizard, A True Star, his 1973 masterpiece, which crammed an hours’ worth of music onto a single disc and blew, expanded, or befuddled the minds of everyone who has ever heard it. From then on, we’ve had prog-rock, experimental music, an album of note-for-note cover versions, and a brief return to the 1971 model with 1978’s Hermit of Mink Hollow. He was even in The Cars for a while. Oh yeah, and who could forget the fact that he was the only man brave enough to tackle Meat Loaf’s 1977 debut, Bat Out of Hell? That turned out OK for him in the end, didn’t it?
Rundgren has made a lot of music since 1971, but there’s something about the openness and purity of Runt. The Ballad of Todd Rundgren that sets it apart from the rest of his canon. It’s a diamond in a string of pearls.