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City In His Head: Todd Rundgren’s Utopia Reissues Continue From Edsel

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Todd Rundgren’s tenure at Albert Grossman’s Bearsville Records label took him from his days as a singer/songwriter/self-described Runt in 1970 through his cutting-edge avant garde experiments, both solo and with his band Utopia, culminating in 1985’s A Cappella, rejected by the label and eventually released on Warner Bros. instead.  The U.K.’s Edsel label has recently completed its catalogue overhaul for Rundgren, including the entirety of his tenures at Bearsville and Warner.  The most recent batch of titles has just recently hit stores, consisting of nine albums on four CD sets: Rundgren’s The Hermit of Mink Hollow/Healing/The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect and Back to the Bars and Utopia’s Todd Rundgren’s Utopia/Another Live and Adventures in Utopia/Deface the Music/Swing to the Right.  Taken individually or a set, these albums represent some of the most restlessly creative, dynamic and just plain odd pop and rock created during the latter half of the 1970s and first half of the 1980s.

The earliest albums in this batch are Todd Rundgren’s Utopia (1974) and Another Live (1975), both recorded with the six-person “Utopia Mark II” line-up and combined as one 2-CD set.  (“Mark I” referred to a short-lived touring unit.)  Though Rundgren consented that he put his own name above the band’s for “obvious commercial reasons,” the music within its grooves was anything but commercial.  With Kevin Ellman (drums), Moogy Klingman (keyboards), Jean-Yves “M. Frog” Labat (synthesizers), Ralph Schuckett (keyboards) and John Siegler (bass/cello), Rundgren indulged his wildest sonic fantasies on Todd Rundgren’s Utopia.  With shifting tempi and a sound influenced as much by fusion jazz as by prog rock, TRU might be the place where the Mahavishnu Orchestra meets The Mothers of Invention.  Though its four individual tracks are lengthy (from 15 minutes to 30 minutes; only the four-minute “Freedom Fighters” is an exception), Rundgren explains in Paul Myers’ liner notes that there was very little jamming in the studio; these pieces were actually intricately structured, and created in the studio from individual segments.

“Freedom Fighters,” the album’s lone concession to song-oriented rock is a tough, metallic anthem, but the pop-ish backing vocals augur for Utopia’s future.  The likes of “Love is the Answer” would have to wait, though.  The album’s centerpiece is undoubtedly “The Ikon,” which took up the entirety of the original LP’s second side, clocking in at over one half-hour.  A prog mini-musical, the suite offers songs in miniature, with some catchy melodies featured over the prog workout as it builds to an intoxicating, swirling finale.  On the way, “The Ikon” is alternately childlike and futuristic, with even a bit of a country feel in one segment!  Clearly Rundgren wasn’t about to be boxed into one style, even with Utopia still more or less a “side project” to his solo career.  Another Live would show another dimension of the band.

Like TRU, Another Live featured collaborative songs written by band members in various combinations alongside Rundgren solo compositions.  Largely recorded in New York’s Central Park in August 1975, the album introduced a modified (but still not final) Utopia line-up, with Roger Powell replacing M. Frog, and Willie Wilcox replacing Kevin Ellman.  Soon, the band would transform into a tight four-piece unit, but for this concert, the six-man fusion group was augmented by trio of backing vocalists for an eclectic sequence of songs.  The first side of the original LP wouldn’t have shocked fans of the first album, with three long pieces.  “Another Life,” “The Wheel” and “The Seven Rays” weren’t exactly standard song forms, but nor were they 15-30 minute suites, either.  Rundgren anticipates a famed later song with the lyric “Sometimes you just don’t know what to feel” in the quiet, acoustic “The Wheel” while flourishes of trumpet and glockenspiel add a wholly new dimension to the Utopia sound.  This laconic track was extended with an audience sing-along.  “The Seven Rays” was on the rock/soul border, less structured than “The Wheel” with more room for instrumental improvisation.

A couple of well-chosen covers illustrate Rundgren’s restless muse.  “Something’s Coming,” the Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim song from West Side Story, gets a true rock makeover, perhaps even something of which the forward-thinking Mr. Bernstein (who had dabbled in rock sounds himself in his concert piece Mass) would have approved.  Jeff Lynne is channeled on an energetic version of The Move (and later ELO)’s “Do Ya,” while Rundgren reprises the clattering “Heavy Metal Kids” and appropriately triumphant “Just One Victory.”

Hit the jump for more, including full track listings, discography and order links!

The story of Utopia continues on Edsel’s reissue of two 1977 albums, Ra and Oops, Wrong Planet! .  But we pick up with the 3-album/2-CD set of Adventures in Utopia (1980), Deface the Music (1980) and Swing to the Right (1982), the band’s fifth, sixth and seventh Bearsville albums.  Adventures, the fifth Utopia album and only the third with the Rundgren/ Powell/Wilcox/Kasim Sulton line-up, was the band’s first overt attempt to court the Top 40 with glossy pop, New Wave, and blue-eyed soul.  Wilcox recalled to Paul Myers in the thick 30-page booklet that accompanies the reissue, “I was…always saying ‘pop music, pop music…commercial, commercial.’”  Ironically, that was perhaps the only thing Rundgren originally set to avoid when he formed Utopia!  Still, “Road to Utopia” and “Caravan” both feature a few vestiges of the keyboard-laden prog style.   No, the latter is not the jazz standard but rather an original musical journey with hard rock guitars through a spiritual and physical desert: “It’s been so long without water/Vultures are filling the air/Where is that bloody oasis/Must be around here somewhere…Time to make peace with your maker/Everything has been prearranged.”

Rundgren shared co-production credit with Utopia, with all songs credited to the band.  Kasim Sulton was writing pop songs in the vein of their leader’s own, and made major contributions with the album’s lone hit single, “Set Me Free,” “Shot in the Dark” and “Love Alone,” but Todd himself still makes the most dominant impression throughout.  He sings sweetly on the simple “Second Nature,” and you might even hear a little of a modernized “I Saw the Light” in the intro!  “The Very Last Time” was Rundgren’s rewrite of Boston’s “More Than a Feeling” with his typical flair for pastiche, and “Love Alone” is a big, theatrical ballad with spare synths and a choral arrangement.

Edsel’s reissue adds three bonus tracks from a Syracuse, NY concert with the same line-up in 1979 (previously released on the Japanese compilation Somewhere/Anywhere) as well as “Umbrella Man,” a non-LP single and the B-side of “Set Me Free.”  It’s a simple, rather tongue-in-cheek pop number (“When the sun just refuses to shine on through, and it’s cats and doggies all over you/You need some protection, so what do you do/See the umbrella man!”) but is a welcome addition.

Utopia followed Adventures with the album that’s, without a doubt, one of the strangest projects of Rundgren’s always individualistic career.  Deface the Music was Todd Rundgren’s full-blown tribute (?) to the Fab Four, with each song recalling memories of John, Paul, George and Ringo at one stage or another.  Rundgren penned “I Just Want to Touch You” for a film soundtrack but the song instead proved the catalyst (“I just wanna touch you/Do you wanna touch me too?”) for the album project.  Of course, Rundgren and Utopia provided irresistible melodies worthy of their inspirations, matched by offbeat lyrics that the band recalls were primarily written by Rundgren.  These are truly pop songs at their most compact; only two songs crack the 3-minute mark, and one of those only by four seconds!  The songs aren’t as blatant as The Rutles as to their inspirations, but the basic feel and era of each track is obvious; you’ll hear echoes of “From Me to You,” hints of “Eight Days a Week,” shades of “Day Tripper.”  Sulton sings the McCartney-esque “Alone” and Rundgren channels George Harrison for the smoking riff of “Take It Home.”  When the band sings of the “Hoi Polloi,” it’s tempting to wonder whether they reside near Penny Lane, while “All Smiles” brings to mind a certain girl named Michelle.

On “Life Goes On,” synthesized strings fill in for the “Eleanor Rigby” quartet but otherwise the song hews close to the source, telling its own sad story (“He was a company man/He put his faith in the union and his take-home pay/A good republican man/But they closed down the factory his retirement day”) of one family’s drab existence.  The Rundgren/Powell/Wilcox “Feel Too Good” has a modern (circa 1980) feel to it despite the Beatlesque vocals and riff.  The album loosely follows a chronological pattern of Beatle styles, concluding with the psychedelic rock of “Everybody Else is Wrong.”

After the fun diversion of Deface the Music, however, Utopia felt it was time to take things seriously.  The title of Swing to the Right was a commentary on the direction Todd Rundgren and Utopia found America heading under the presidency of Ronald Reagan, and its cover photo ironically depicted a group of Americans burning the very same album.  The songs aren’t all heavy-handed, but the lyrics are, indeed, more politically pointed than Rundgren had every attempted before.  Make no mistake, the man was angry, even if he chose largely up-tempo pop songs as the manner in which to express himself.  “Lysistrata” boasts an anti-war lyric that could have been potently sung ten years earlier, although the crisp melodies and slick production are very much of 1982.   Rundgren tackles a topic that, sadly, never gets old when he attacks the hypocrisy of politicians on “Shinola,” and he doesn’t mince his words: “And these are your neighbors who have swung to the right/But you don’t have to worry just as long as you’re white/And my generation is just waiting to die/We’ll swallow anything if it would just get us high!”  The impassioned “Fahrenheit 451” ties in with the album’s cover concept.

“For the Love of Money” is an update of the Gamble and Huff-penned O’Jays hit, while the theme continues with the pained “Last Dollar on Earth.”  Still, Utopia ended Swing to the Right on an optimistic note with the anthemic “One World,” holding out some hope that perhaps the people will once again make their voices heard: “Politicians and dictators, and the guys with the dough/They think they run the world but they just don’t know/’Cause down here on the street we got it under control/From Berlin to San Francisco, from New York to Tokyo!”  The prescient lyric sounds as if it could have been written for the Occupy movement of the present day, no?

Both Utopia releases are in stores now, and track listings with order links follow.

In Part 2, coming tomorrow morning: we review the four Todd Rundgren solo albums in this set!

Utopia, Todd Rundgren’s Utopia/Another Live (Edsel EDSD 2127, 2012)

CD 1: Todd Rundgren’s Utopia (Bearsville BR 6954, 1974)

  1. Utopia
  2. Freak Parade
  3. Freedom Fighters
  4. The Ikon

CD 2: Another Live (Bearsville BR 6961, 1975)

  1. Another Life
  2. The Wheel
  3. The Seven Rays
  4. Intro/Mister Triscuits
  5. Something’s Coming
  6. Heavy Metal Kids
  7. Do Ya
  8. Just One Victory

Utopia, Adventures in Utopia/Deface the Music/Swing to the Right (Edsel EDSD 2129, 2012)

CD 1: Adventures in Utopia (Bearsville BR 6991, 1980) plus Bonus Tracks

  1. The Road to Utopia
  2. You Make Me Crazy
  3. Second Nature
  4. Set Me Free
  5. Caravan
  6. Last of the New Wave Riders
  7. Shot in the Dark
  8. The Very Last Time
  9. Love Alone
  10. Rock Love
  11. Umbrella Man (B-side of “Set Me Free”)
  12. Anyway Anyhow Anywhere (Live in Syracuse, November 16, 1979) (First issued on Somewhere/Anywhere, Victor Entertainment, 1998)
  13. 96 Tears (Live in Syracuse, November 16, 1979) (First issued on Somewhere/Anywhere, Victor Entertainment, 1998)
  14. Just One Victory (Live in Syracuse, November 16, 1979) (First issued on Somewhere/Anywhere, Victor Entertainment, 1998)

CD 2: Deface the Music (Tracks 1-13, Bearsville BR 3487, 1980)/Swing to the Right (Bearsville BR 3666, 1982)

  1. I Just Want to Touch You
  2. Crystal Ball
  3. Where Does the World Go to Hide
  4. Silly Boy
  5. Alone
  6. That’s Not Right
  7. Take It Home
  8. Hoi Polloi
  9. Life Goes On
  10. Feel Too Good
  11. Always Late
  12. All Smiles
  13. Everybody Else is Wrong
  14. Swing to the Right
  15. Lysistrata
  16. The Up
  17. Junk Rock (Million Monkeys)
  18. Shinola
  19. For the Love of Money
  20. Last Dollar on Earth
  21. Fahrenheit 451
  22. Only Human
  23. One World

Written by Joe Marchese

March 12, 2012 at 11:00

2 Responses

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  1. It’s a shame they missed out on another non-LP B-side to add to Swing To The Right. “Special Interest” was the flip to “One World” (if memory serves). There are also a couple of outtakes that could have been added in lieu of the late ’79 live tracks: “Mad Men In Metal Machines” from the Adventures sessions, and “God And Me” from the Swing sessions.

    Brian Curtis

    March 12, 2012 at 13:28

  2. are these remastered from Rhino or same old stuff ??? Utopia fans wanna know !


    March 13, 2012 at 02:16

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