It was around the time when “Hello, It’s Me”, hit the Billboard Top Ten when Todd Rundgren realized he may have screwed up.
The song – his first ever as a budding teenage songwriter and re-done in a full-band context for Something/Anything? – would peak at the #5 slot by the middle of 1972. It cemented him as a singer-songwriter on an echelon with Carole King, whose Tapestry had essentially launched the genre as a marketable phenomenon. The problem was that Rundgren bristled at the description, which he found reductive. “With all due respect to Carole,” he professed in Paul Myers’ A Wizard, A True Star: Todd Rundgren in the Studio, “I took no comfort in merely being labeled a ‘singer-songwriter’. It wasn’t what I was hoping to create as a musical legacy for myself.”
Regardless of how Rundgren is remembered upon his eventual passing, he’s correct that such a legacy would be unfairly limiting. Even in the infancy of his career, Rundgren strived not just to impress as a performer but as a sculptor, recording and producing with the confidence and wherewithal of an auteur. He spent much of that period consciously building a mythos around the holistic potential of his musical talents, going so far as to take out a two-page ad for Something/Anything? with the caption, “Go ahead. Ignore me.”
The problem is that he had achieved such an ideal version of that balance so early on that he would spend the next two decades chasing every possible path besides the one of least resistance. His surprise success as a pop sculptor had opened an endless amount of doors, but at that point, he had already gotten bored of entering just about any of them.
There’s dignity in resisting the well-worn road, but Rundgren’s reputation as a mercurial soul would result in an inordinate amount of projects and varying degrees of memorability. That applies not only to his lengthy solo discography but to a CV stuffed with projects both notable (including the debut LP of pioneering punk band New York Dolls and the late Meatloaf’s commercial powerhouse Bat Out of Hell) and inconsequential (err, Love Bomb). But consistency is not the point with Rundgren. It’s easy to achieve such prolificacy through dedication, but it’s another thing to achieve it by following every creative impulse. Regardless of its reception, almost every Todd Rundgren project exists because of his interest in its direction and less of its adjacency to the fickle trends of the day.
It’s that specific quality, more than any commercial or critical success, that makes Something/Anything? Rundgren’s defining project. It might not be his most adventurous work (that would be its mescaline-coated follow-up), but it’s the album that showcases his myriad strengths all at once. It houses his best pop songs, as well as arguably his best rock track, and under those tentpoles, lie an aural buffet of contemporary (for its time) song stylings peppered with peculiarities. For a double LP’s worth of tracks, the overwhelming majority of them range good to great.
The connecting thread between them is Rundgren’s innate understanding of how songs are put together. At this point in his career, he crafted songs autonomously, like breathing. (“By the time I had gotten to Something/Anything? my songwriting process had become almost too second nature,” he later admitted.) Years of practice certainly helped, but so did cannabis, a drug that – according to the artist – helped level out his creative instincts on his previous record. Additionally, his recent discovery of the stimulant Ritalin pushed his productivity, already far beyond the average working songwriter, into superhuman levels.
Rundgren arranged and recorded the first three sides of Something/Anything? over long nights at his home studio in Nichols Canyon, performing nearly every instrument himself. It’s now common legend that he laid down the base parts for “I Saw the Light”, in about 20 minutes, a ridiculous feat even by today’s home recording standards. Besides Rundgren’s competence as a multi-instrumentalist, his ability to fabricate a song entirely in his mind allowed him to lay down drums in the vacuum of a new tape. Listening closely, you can tell the track is the work of one person: the parts don’t line up perfectly, and there’s a stiltedness in the rhythm that’s unmistakably the product of a piecemeal process. But the fact that that stiltedness is nearly imperceptible is arguably even more impressive.
“I Saw the Light” is but one of Something/Anything?‘s numerous pop-forward melodies, most of which Rundgren smartly allocated to the record’s A-side. Before its release, most knew Rundgren as either a rock artist or a producer, and the strength of these pop songs helped change public perception of his talents. They hold up even today, although part of that might have to do with the way that their reliance on seventh chords, and the sumptuous sounds that comprise them, encase these songs in temporal amber. It’s in the lilting flutes on “Cold Morning Light”, the musty organ on “Saving Grace”, the gentle bongos on “It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference”, and even the short attack on the vibraphone behind “Marlene”. Like the combination of maroon and magenta on the record’s cover, the aesthetic details of these songs evoke the plaintive faded beauty of early 1970s pop, which still bore some crossover from the hippie movement.
Rundgren doesn’t hide his rock chops here either, although those moments are indeed outnumbered by poppier numbers. Side C largely holds the record’s harder material, most notably the bluesy swagger of “Black Maria” and the campy theatricality of “Little Red Lights”. Towering above either of these moments is “Couldn’t I Just Tell You”, a song borrows from Badfinger’s early power-pop stylings (no coincidence, given Rundgren’s days producing Straight Up). It’s perhaps the best-produced song on the record – or at least the most compressed – in how every instrument fills the stereo space and emphasizes the “power” part of that nascent genre. Its doubled guitars chime with an apropos passion and the final pre-chorus with its delayed down-strums hits like a shot of adrenaline.
Something/Anything? may have established Rundgren as a potential mainstream force, but its weirdness is also impossible to shake. In a certain sense, its initial accessibility works as a Trojan horse for its idiosyncrasies to land easier. Side B starts with an intro that sees Rundgren and his engineer pushing his studio to the limits, removing pop filters on his mics, and intentionally raising the gain to capture hiss. Its novelty remains charming, but it also brilliantly reminds the listener of the effort behind the music. It’s a joke, a conceit and a flex wrapped in one, and the following “Breathless”, with its parts almost entirely electronic-based, furthers these notions.
Tiny eccentric decisions abound across the runtime. Sometimes they rest in the production, like how “I Went to the Mirror” plays on its concept with instruments that switch positions in the space as the narration progresses. Sometimes they show up as easter eggs, like how Rundgren introduces a typical ballad like “Saving Grace” with pitched-down raving and a distant drumroll. Other times they’re simply the songs themselves, as in “Song of the Viking’s” bizarre fantasy and changing tempos. Rundgren would lean into his most outré impulses later in the year, but Something/Anything? would first mix those impulses with undeniable accessibility.
It’s easy to miss now because, on most streaming platforms, some of Rundgren’s song intros are removed from the record’s biggest singles. Still, it’s interesting to come across those inclusions and consider their incongruity in the context of self-recorded music. If you have total control over the recording process and enough time to get the tracks perfect, leaving in “take twos” and “outtakes” isn’t anything but a calculated aesthetic decision. Even on Side D, the only section not just featuring but dedicated to the force of a live band, finds Rundgren adding a few “false” false starts (or at least starts that feel contrived, like the initial mess-up on “You Left Me Sore”). That, plus the fourth-wall break of “Intro,” implies an ulterior motive behind Something/Anything?‘s simple pleasures. Rundgren didn’t just set himself up as a one-person music machine for convenience’s sake. He intended for the listener to be aware of the auteur behind the music, to appreciate not only the deft hand behind the melodies but the architect behind the way they sound.
This is why Rundgren’s decision to ditch the solo schtick and fly to New York to recruit live players also reads strangely in the same context. He relegates these sessions to the record’s final side, its strongest by virtue of its camaraderie. There are moments here when Rundgren and company screw up, and it doesn’t feel preordained, like how Rundgren almost forgets the words on the last verse of “Hello, It’s Me”, or how the backup singers struggle to recover when his voice cracks on “You Left Me Sore”. Just hearing these people goof off, especially after almost an hour of one man’s antics, heightens the power of the record’s conclusion – one that inspires awe, confusion, humor, and cringe in kind.
A rendition of Moogy Klingman’s “Dust in the Wind” and “You Left Me Sore” are both charming, occasionally poignant ditties bolstered by the power of a full band. “Piss Aaron” is a gross-out novelty that’s so quaint now it feels like a Paul McCartney song, and the subject matters of “Some Folks Is Even Whiter Than Me” and “Slut” have aged poorly even if they’re both entertainingly raucous.
Yet in between those songs lies Rundgren’s most famous one, outstripping its humble origins with trumpet, organ, and backup singers. The ease with which “Hello, It’s Me”, was apparently produced is evident, as is its blossoming coda with its improved vocals and free-soloing horn players. From its slow build-up to its gorgeous key change to the careful mixture of naïveté and worldliness embedded in its lyrics, the track is functionally perfect. So much so, that it would be iconized again by the Isley Brothers, whose rendition is arguably more relevant through covers by Frank Ocean and Erykah Badu.
The live sessions may form the record’s climax, but its focus lies on Rundgren’s ability to create magic from his fingertips. In an environment that would quickly shift to conceptually-linked albums and AOR – an environment Rundgren would contribute to as a producer – there’s nothing linking these songs together except the diaphanous curtain shrouding his process from our view. Yet if Something/Anything? is substance first and foremost, a latent subtext does hide behind its overt string of successes. It concerns Rundgren and his musical gifts in that he wants us to be fully aware of his power as a composer, a performer, a producer, and a conceptual artist all at once. Yet it’s also about the recording space and the ways its arbitrary limits could be broken. Those, after all, are the only two characters featured on the record’s inner sleeve. There are the cluttered walls of the home studio, tools splayed as if tossed from a cyclone, and there’s Rundgren himself – arms outstretched, caught in an epiphany.
A Wizard, a True Star: Todd Rundgren in the Studio, pp. 65-71. Myers, Paul. Jawbone Press, 2010. ISBN 978-1-906002-33-6.