By: Sam Sadomsky
The wildly ambitious albums that cemented Rundgren’s legend as a studio genius in the early 1970s return in illuminating new editions.
One of the first things they warn you about with hallucinogenic drugs is that some people never recover. Many years ago, a teacher might caution, my friend Frank dropped acid. Long story short, now Frank can’t drive his car because he sees frogs in it. An equally evocative tactic might be to introduce students to Todd Rundgren’s discography. In the thirteen months between his two finest records—1972’s Something/Anything? and 1973’s A Wizard, a True Star—Rundgren got deep into mescaline. “Well, I know I wasn’t high on Jesus,” he later reflected on the era. “Every once in a while I took a trip and never came back.”
The effect those trips had on his creative output cannot be overstated. In a transformation akin to the ones pulled off by Scott Walker on Scott 4 and Radiohead on OK Computer, the playful soft-rocker morphed into a three-eared, insomniac prankster who treated the recording studio like a surreal public-access channel he broadcast to the world. The albums he made in this period were high points, in more ways than one, and they have now been reissued on SACD via Analog Spark, offering illuminating, immersive editions of two of the 1970s’ most fascinating works.
There’s more to Rundgren’s evolution, of course, than drugs. In interviews, he has attributed the radical shift in his mid-20s less to his own changing perspective than to other people’s perspective on him—he got tired of being seen as merely another piano-playing, lovesick troubadour. While he still stands by the folk-pop simplicity of his earliest solo records, Rundgren is quick to note their lack of depth, citing their obvious reference points (thematically, a high-school break-up; musically, the work of Laura Nyro). After achieving commercial success on his 1970 debut with the slick single “We Gotta Get You a Woman” and critical success a year later with his moodier sophomore album, Rundgren sought to expand his range. And he wanted to do it by himself.
Before Rundgren turned to psychedelics on A Wizard, a True Star, he turned to Ritalin to make Something/Anything?, an obsessive, feature-length masterpiece in both a creative and technical sense. Rundgren performed the double LP almost entirely on his own, at a time when self-recording meant turning the tape on, running to another room to play each instrument, and then running back to press stop (hence the Ritalin). The album remains the definitive showcase of his gifts. Among its tracks is the very first song he wrote (the immortal “Hello It’s Me,” resurrected from his early band Nazz and later slowed-down and re-popularized by the Isley Brothers). It’s also home to his greatest song (the irresistible power-pop anthem “Couldn’t I Just Tell You”) and one of his biggest (“I Saw the Light”). It’s the perfect introduction for newcomers, and the new reissue makes it sound as overwhelming and virtuosic as Rundgren intended.
Something/Anything?, while being home to Rundgren’s most recognizable music, is a more challenging record than its classic rock reputation suggests. Anyone who grew up on FM radio is used to hearing “Hello It’s Me” sandwiched between, say, America and Elton John. But on Something/Anything?, it sits proudly between the absurd, confrontational tracks “Piss Aaron” and “Some Folks Is Even Whiter Than Me.” Elsewhere, there is plenty of extended jamming, studio banter, and, in one of the LP’s most jarring moments, a full minute-plus track of Rundgren breaking the fourth wall to teach listeners about poor production. (“If you have a pair of headphones,” he says, “you better get ‘em out and get ‘em cranked up, because they’re really gonna help you on this one.”)
The “Sounds of the Studio” bit, in which Rundgren instructs us on how to avoid auditory flaws by deliberately invoking them, might now play like an indulgent dad joke: arguably the geekiest of music geeks pandering to his devoted fanbase of fellow music geeks. But for Rundgren at the time, it was a declaration of freedom. A preview of the rebellious streak to come, it shows the teacher’s pet breaking the rules when no one was there to stop him. Throughout the decade, Rundgren was one of the first prominent artist-slash-producers, as competent behind the scenes as he was in front of the microphone, earning him the admiration of a young Prince and, later, Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker. As he discovered his own identity on record, Rundgren was hellbent on learning what happens when those two roles converge. When everything about a record is fully under the artist’s control, he suspected, the product can become something singular.
With the money he made from the hit singles on Something/Anything?, Rundgren built his own studio in New York, called it Secret Sound, and began recording a follow-up there. He learned as he went along, fine-tuning his equipment and writing new songs in one continuous, sleepless process. It was around this time that psychedelic drugs entered the picture. In Paul Myers’ excellent 2010 book about his studio sessions, also called A Wizard a True Star, Rundgren reflects on the influence of the substances he was taking. “I became more aware,” he says, “Of what music and sound were like in my internal environment, and how different that was from the music I had been making.” You get the sense that he exhausted himself on Something/Anything? so that he’d have no choice but to start over.
While the drugs can explain away its album cover, the music on A Wizard, a True Star itself is too beautiful, too intentional to merely play like one man’s acid diary. The flow of the album, however, does more or less follow that path. It turns nonsensical, nostalgic, hysterical, and horny at a pace that defies logic, let alone cohesion. There are tracks that deny any of Rundgren’s strengths—a dismal blues pastiche, 60 seconds of dogs barking—and more familiar ones that seem to mock themselves. There’s a swirling, paranoid breakdown in the exquisite “Sometimes I Don’t Know What to Feel,” and a dizzying rush of confidence expressed through a ten-minute medley of soul covers. Overall, it’s exhausting and electrifying and unlike anything in Rundgren’s discography: his Pet Sounds, Astral Weeks, and Berlin Trilogy, all tie-dyed into one. Its fingerprints are evident on bedroom auteurs to this day, from Ariel Pink to Frank Ocean, who sampled its synths on 2016’s Blonde.
After Wizard, Rundgren’s work remained fascinating if inconsistent. He matured in his own strange way, but he never again reached such moments of enlightenment. On 1978’s Hermit of Mink Hollow—the only other record in his catalog that approaches these two—Rundgren returned to his early works’ stripped-back sound and their themes of lost love. But now it was clear that he wasn’t talking about a high-school relationship. The ballads were heavier, and the moments of levity felt more compulsive, like a man punching himself in the head to get out of a funk. (It’s not surprising that his next solo hit would be a grating anthem about secluding oneself from society to make a deathly, violent racket unto the void.) Rundgren understood all along that things would never be the same. There’s a reason why he sang “I Saw the Light” in the past tense: his life’s work depended on knowing you can never get that first high again.