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I Saw The Light: Todd Rundgren still a force half a century later

Rob Steen

At a guess, 99 per cent of music zealots couldn’t possibly cite their favourite album, if only because the choice is usually so vast and ever-expanding that definitive statements last as long as the title takes to flee your lips. Movies and books? Infinitely easier to single out because we don’t revisit them remotely so often, but albums?

Moreover, as tastes evolve and life’s ups and downs stimulate different needs and desires, keeping one 33-and-a-thirder atop one’s personal chart for decades almost invariably requires a Phd in stubbornness characterised by a refusal to listen to potential contenders with open ears or mind. Not in my case. Or Axl Rose’s.

For me – and, I suspect, the Guns N’ Roses frontman – Todd Rundgren’s audacious 1972 double album Something/Anything? has stayed at the summit for a very specific and inarguable reason: recorded mostly in 1971, released Stateside the following February, it spans what was, at the moment of birth, the past, present and future of popular music. Paying homage to Gilbert and Sullivan, pre-Motown Berry Gordy, Laura Nyro, The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa and Wolfman Jack while dabbling in prog and heavy metal, this astonishingly varied one-stop shop also tilled the soil for synthesised R&B, new age, techno and electro. And that wasn’t the half of it.

Not content with singing all bar one of the 23 songs on his third solo LP (there’s also a spritely synth instrumental and a whimsical spot of spoken word), the first three sides found him playing every note. In emulating the first solo album by another clever clogs, Paul McCartney, he pre-empted Roy Wood and Mike Oldfield not to mention Goddheads such as Prince and Kevin ‘Tame Impala’ Parker. ‘I’d never played drums or bass before,’ Todd reflected when we discussed the album in 2001, ‘though I would hector those that did.’

Modesty rarely became the lanky whizzkid Patti Smith dubbed ‘Runt’ and acolytes crowned ‘Godd’. Emboldened both by production and engineering stints for The Band and Jessie Winchester (he was hired to produce Janis Joplin’s Pearl but the pair never saw eye to eye) and teenybop success as chief composer and guitarist for The Nazz, he had every excuse to be the arrogant sod XTC’s own in-house dictator, Andy Partridge, would cross swords with a decade later when he produced the Swindon band’s magnificent Skylarking.

It was love at first earful when I first encountered Something/Anything? via its opening track and single, I Saw The Light, in October 1972. Not until 1973 did I first encounter Todd in a record rack: the album’s other big US 45, Hello It’s Me, a superior reworking of a Nazz hit that would enchant creative sparks as diverse as The Isley Brothers and Sofia Coppola. That I didn’t hear the album in its entirety until 1976 can be blamed on conservative English radio programming and the resistance of the country’s record shops to insufferably cocky Yanks. Especially an insufferably cocky Yank whose ad campaign boiled down to four words: Go Ahead. Ignore Me.

For those besotted with hummable tunes and soulful sentiments, I Saw The Light was unignorable. It couldn’t have been further away from Alice A Bailey’s A Treatise On Cosmic Fire, the theophysical source of the 36-minute synthesised symphony that consumed the second side of 1975’s Initiation, the first Rundgren album I purchased at the time of release. Simplicity personified, it was the words that hooked this willingly incurable romantic. His warm salute to a teen affair took all of 15 minutes to conceive, or so Todd told me, but then he does play by different rules to most musicians.

‘The tune was a no-brainer – it was so simple. If you have a formula, you can come up with five of those an hour.’ Fair enough, but why stop writing ballads when they come so easily and enchant so many? ‘If I’d carried on it would have devalued them. Things that come too easily have a commensurate value. This pisses people off at times, but... Six months later I’m thinking, “I can’t do this again, I want to try something new”. Also, psychedelic drugs were causing my musical head to evolve.

‘Do you do things because you analyse your motives? I came to realise that lyrics, subject matter, if personal, had run out of resonance. Why write a love song if it’s not on your mind? I was thinking about other things than where’s my next lay. I was getting over my romantic fixations at the time. So right, I thought, I’m not going to use the word love in a romantic context – I felt it was insincere.

‘The songs [on Something/Anything?] are inspired by old relationships. I came to the realisation that quality of life is very important. I don’t want to defer my satisfaction out of some sort of Catholic guilt. Torturing yourself over old relationships – what you’re looking for is pity, sympathy. You’re whining. I’ve never seen so much moony Juney lyricism in one place.’

Not that that stops him acceding when fans implore him to revisit I Saw The Light, as they ritually do at every gig. Out of respect for Godd’s blushes, I’ll confine myself to reproducing snatches of the lyric:

It was late last night

I was feeling something wasn’t right

There was not another soul in sight

Only you, only you...

Though we had our fling

I just never would suspect a thing

’Til that little bell began to ring

In my head, in my head...

But my feelings for you

Were just something I never knew

’Til I saw the light

In your eyes

In your eyes...

And I ran out before

But I won’t do it anymore

Can’t you see the light

In my eyes

In my eyes...

Once stashed in the hard drive, the melody defies deletion; the arrangement, too, has irresistible force and immediacy. More Nyro-esque than Kingly – though many mistook Todd for Carole – the jaunty fusion of piano, electric guitar and drums makes the heart skip merrily along from bar one; though more or less echoing the principal melody, the guitar solo is equally contagious. Meanwhile, that so-called ‘cathedral ceiling’ of a voice, exquisitely multi-tracked on those ‘In my eyes’, ensures Todd hits the exultant high notes with the supple ease of a Roger Federer backhand. Only a deep-frozen spine could fail to feel goosebumps.

Dozens of covers have flowed from far-flung quarters: Teenage Fan Club, Jools Holland, Terry Hall and – testifying to the song’s gender flexibility – The New Seekers, Reggae Disco Rockers, Lori Carson and Yo La Tengo. The most radical departure remains the author’s own bossa nova take on 1997’s With A Twist, a typically iconoclastic ‘best of’ whose samba-drenched grooves Sergio Mendes would have been chuffed to call his own. Most joyous of all is the song’s appearance in Kingpin, a rare splash of gentle humanity in a movie starring Bill Murray at his most cynical.

Still driven to prove his mettle, if only to himself, Todd at 74 has just released Space Force, the umpteenth album to bear his name as player, composer, console wiz or instigator. Subtract compilations and we’re still talking three figures. A second consecutive collection of collaborations, it follows 2017’s White Knight (Donald Fagen, Daryl Hall, Robyn et al) with another disparate cast of pals and admirers, including Neil Finn, Sparks, Rick Wakeman, The Roots, Alfie Templeman and Rivers Cuomo. Standing still has never been Todd’s bag.

I can’t help casting back to the night I cornered him backstage after a London gig shortly after his production of Bat Out Of Hell had made him a millionaire. Speaking strictly as a fan rather than a hack hunting an exclusive, I asked the question that had always intrigued me: I Saw The Light demonstrated beyond all reasonable doubt that he could have pre-empted his filthily successful fellow Philadelphians, Hall and Oates (whose most atypical album, the progrocky War Babies, he would produce), yet on his very next album, A Wizard, A True Star (1973), he veered so far away from the mainstream he might as well have called it Career Suicide Note. Why?

I can’t recall his exact response, but it involved a soft smile, a self-conscious giggle and the sort of understated self-assertiveness one hopes to find in one’s heroes but seldom does. In short, had he kept pursuing chart glory rather than artistic expression, he’d have been bored beyond stupefication. That Something/Anything? and its successor made 1995’s inaugural Mojo All-Time Top 100 suggests he got the balance spot on.

Come 2001 he was ready to elaborate. ‘I almost wrote automatically [on Something/Anything?], I was almost possessed. Most people struggle their entire careers for that state. By the time I got to the end I’d listen to it and hear the sameness. That plus the evolution of my drug habit led to Wizard, where I challenged the concept of songwriting.’

Thank goodness for that, I assured him. But still, every time I’ve fallen in love I Saw The Light has been the first song I turn to in celebration. In fact, I’ve just WhatsApped it to my latest flame. Unprecedentedly – in my extensive experience of deploying music as a seduction tool – her unbridled enthusiasm softened my scepticism and hardened my suspicions. Looks like I’ve found a keeper.


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