Born June 22, 1948, in Upper Darby, PA; children: three. Addresses: Record company-- Forward/Rhino Records Inc., 10635 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90025.
Evolving in his musical exploits from British-influenced "mod" rock in the 1960s to high-tech musical databases in the 1990s, Todd Rundgren has been one of the true innovators in pop music. He has experimented relentlessly with different musical styles and the latest studio technology, serving listeners with everything from classic pop rockers to concept albums with operatic overtones. Rundgren's work has been compared to that of artists from all over the musical map. He was also among the first to produce music videos.
After getting his first electric guitar at age 17, Rundgren formed a short-lived band called Woody's Truck Stop. Next he founded the Philadelphia-based The Nazz, with Robert "Stewkey" Antoni on keyboards and vocals, Carson van Osten on bass, and Thom Mooney on drums. The Nazz was heavily influenced in both their music and attire by the "British invasion" groups popular at the time. Three albums generated little response from the public, though the band had a minor hit in 1969 with "Hello It's Me." The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock ventured that the group did not click because it was "probably too advanced for their period." In 1970 Rundgren decided to pursue a solo path, and his desire for creative control also led him into producing. Among his early production clients were The Band, Jesse Winchester, and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.
On his solo albums, Rundgren often sang all the vocals and played all the instruments, putting everything together by overdubbing, or laying one recorded track atop another. He scored a nominal hit with "We Gotta Get You a Woman," from his 1970 release Runt, which featured comedian Soupy Sales's sons--Tony on bass and Hunt on drums (the two later going on to record with David Bowie in Tin Machine). According to High Fidelity, this album and its follow-up, Ballad of Todd Rundgren, "fuse Beatlesesque pop with Todd Rundgren's Philly soul."
It was the 1972 double album Something/Anything that was Rundgren's creative breakthrough. Displaying a diversity of musical styles and three sides that were entirely his work--as writer, singer, musician, and producer--the album earned Rundgren a loyal following. High Fidelity called it "simply one of the most brilliant albums ever recorded." Rundgren's chameleon-like ability in the studio was acknowledged by The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock, which reported, "He had seemingly mastered every angle from soul to Beach Boys to the raw daring of a Hendrix." Rundgren also made the Top Ten with a million-selling single remake of "Hello It's Me"--the song for which he is still best known to many music fans--in 1973.
Everything seemed fair musical game to Rundgren, from soul to ballads to musical parody. Making it easier for the artist to nurture his talent during these years was Albert Grossman, head of the Bearsville recording label. Grossman was a big fan of Rundgren and allowed him to pursue his creative development with little interference. And willingness to work was never an issue for Rundgren, who recorded 18 albums with Bearsville from 1971 through 1983.
The constantly evolving Rundgren became a musical scientist in the studio, always looking for new ways to mix the elements of his trade. He also forged a reputation as a perceptive and witty lyricist. In 1974, Rundgren began alternating his efforts between solo output and his newly formed band Utopia, the longest-running lineup of which featured Rundgren on guitar, Roger Powell on keyboards, Kasim Sulton on bass, and Willie Wilcox on drums.
Although Utopia's early albums irritated some Rundgren fans with their long songs and psychedelic, mystical lyrics, they nonetheless helped him attract a larger rock audience. The group produced high-voltage rock that drew on a variety of pop influences, offering listeners a mixed bag of radically unusual rock ( Ra, 1977), Beatles imitations ( Deface the Music, 1980), high-tech synthesizing ( Healing, 1981), and political consciousness ( Swing to the Right, 1982). A high point for the band was Adventures in Utopia, recorded in 1980, which High Fidelity deemed "the best of the streamlined group's efforts."
Despite his steady flow of albums, Rundgren was better known as a producer than a songwriter-performer during most of the 1970s. He captained records by Hall & Oates, the Tom Robinson Band, The Tubes, Patti Smith, and Meat Loaf, among others. Meat Loaf's Bat Out of Hell, to which Rundgren also contributed guitar solos, eventually generated worldwide sales of eight million copies, making it one of the most commercially successful albums of all time. A shift away from production came in the early 1980s when Rundgren began focusing on music videos. He set up his own production studio, where he made short videos based on his music, as well of that of other performers, including Japanese synthesizer player Tomita.
Remaining on the cutting edge of the music industry, Rundgren became a pioneer in multimedia productions and interactive music. In a 1978 televised concert in Columbus, Ohio, he allowed members of the audience to vote on what songs should be played. Rundgren is also notable for having produced the first national cablecast of a live rock concert and the first live radio concert broadcast in stereo.
He ultimately took the interactive format to the borders of high technology by exploring how computers could create musical databases for serious composers and discriminating listeners. This exploration reached its fruition in 1993, when Rundgren released No World Order, the first interactive musical recording. Requiring special playback hardware called a CD-I player, this three-hour compilation of musical "puzzle pieces" could be played in different combinations and sequences to create a virtually unlimited number of song variations. Listeners could input their preferences as to musical style or mood--and let the CD-I player do the rest. Many in the record industry viewed Rundgren's move as a herald of things to come.
In fact, No World Order was just the next step in a continuum; Rundgren has never stopped looking for ways to combine or transform musical styles and production techniques in order to create something new. As he said in Request, "I have to come up with something that is completely unconnected to all the standard operating procedures. Otherwise, I'm not doing anything unique." Perhaps Musician summed up Rundgren's career most aptly, concluding, "From his rock-god period as front man for The Nazz and Utopia through a solo career as a one-man band, songwriter, producer, [and] software development and video pioneer, Rundgren has remained an icon of innovation."
by Ed Decker
Todd Rundgren's Career
Formed band The Nazz, 1967; signed with Screen-Gems/Columbia and released The Nazz, 1968; became solo recording artist, 1969; signed with Bearsville and released Runt, 1969; became producer, 1969; produced albums for Hall & Oates, the Tom Robinson Band, Patti Smith, and Meat Loaf, among others; formed Utopia, 1973; session player for artists including Flint, Johnny Winter, and Hall & Oates; mounted first interactive concert, 1978; wrote software for first color computer-graphics tablet, 1980; began producing music videos, early 1980s; composed scores for television programs, including Crime Story and Pee-wee's Playhouse; created screen-saving computer graphics program, 1989; released interactive CD No World Order, Forward/Philips, 1993.
- Selective Works
- With The Nazz Nazz Screen-Gems/Columbia, 1968.
- Nazz Nazz Screen-Gems/Columbia, 1969.
- Nazz III Screen-Gems/Columbia, 1970.
- With Utopia Todd Rundgren's Utopia Bearsville, 1974.
- Adventures in Utopia Bearsville, 1980.
- Deface the Music Bearsville, 1980.
- Swing to the Right Bearsville, 1982.
- Utopia Bearsville, 1982.
- Solo albums Runt (includes "We Gotta Get You a Woman"), Bearsville, 1970.
- Something/Anything Bearsville, 1972.
- Initiation Bearsville, 1975.
- Faithful Bearsville, 1976.
- Hermit of Mink Hollow Bearsville/Island, 1978.
- Healing Bearsville, 1981.
- No World Order Forward/Philips, 1993.
- As producer The Band, Stage Fright Capitol, 1970.
- Hall & Oats, War Babies Atlantic, 1974.
- Meat Loaf, Bat Out of Hell Epic, 1978.
- XTC, Skylarking Virgin, 1986.
- The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Volume II, edited by Colin Larkin, Guinness, 1992.
- The Harmony Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock, Harmony, 1988.
- The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock, Harmony, 1977.
- The New Grove Dictionary of American Music, Volume IV, edited by H. Wiley Hitchcock and Stanley Sadie, Macmillan, 1986.
- Periodicals Billboard, November 27, 1993.
- Down Beat, October 1990.
- High Fidelity, April 1988.
- Guitar Player, November 1993.
- Musician, September 1993.
- Pulse!, September 1993.
- Request, October 1993.
- Spin, February 1993.
- Stereo Review, May 1991.
- Time, January 17, 1994.
- Additional information for this profile was provided by Forward, a division of Rhino Records Inc., 1993.