I’ve always thought of Todd Rundgren as an alternate-universe Brian Eno (not that you immediately think of Eno as being from this universe). Both Rundgren and Eno are brilliant and unusual musicians who are equally, if not more, famous for their production work and use of the recording studio as they are for their own music; both wore outlandish, colorful costumes that stood out even during the glam-rock era; and both embraced digital technology even while showing a great appreciation for classical music and doo-wop. What differentiates the two artists is audience and approach: Eno’s oblique and theoretical experiments with pop music curry favor with high-minded artists and art lovers who prefer music with a brainy undercurrent and tasteful design, and Rundgren’s technically complex yet often lowbrow (XTC notwithstanding) pop music attracts Berklee grads, dweebs, and classic-rock diehards. If Eno is a European art film, Rundgren is a big-budget action musical.
That characterization isn’t meant to undermine Rundgren, who puts his noggin to use in different ways than Eno does and who is at least partly responsible for such brilliant game changers as the New York Dolls’ debut, the aforementioned XTC’s sophisti-psych masterpiece Skylarking, and the nonstop parade of whip-smart silliness that is Sparks. While his career hasn’t been nearly as consistent or as rich as Eno’s, Rundgren nonetheless made a significant mark on pop music, particularly with his first few solo albums in the early 1970s. This is especially true of the boundary-dissolving trifecta of futuristic FM radio that are 1971’s Runt: The Ballad of Todd Rundgren, 1972’s Something/Anything, and 1973’s A Wizard, a True Star. All three of these albums are gooey, rainbow-colored mishmashes of mid-to-late-60s Beach Boys, Tin Pan Alley, glam, soft rock, and proto-power pop. On these albums Rundgren plays most of the instruments, and at times mixes sounds and effects at different levels to explicitly showcase the studio at work (check out “Intro/Breathless” on Something/Anything, in which Rundgren points out various studio sounds before launching into a layered, dew-speckled electronic-pop instrumental).
Rundgren plays the Vic tomorrow night—I cannot recommend this concert with any assurance, since it’s possible that he will indulge in the excessive noodling and cheesy pyrotechnics that characterizes a lot of his post-mid-70s solo work. But I do suggest checking out his early albums if you haven’t already, as there is some incredible music therein. For today’s 12 O’Clock Track, here’s “Bleeding,” a charging, hard-rocking cut from Runt—maybe it will be the pin-sized gateway into Rundgren’s kaleidoscopic body of work.