Monday, July 30, 2012

Rundgren v. the Beatles

Todd Rundgren and his spat with Lennon came up in the comments thread on the "Ah, Girl" post -- I wasn't aware of it until Devin pointed it out. [Particulars here: http://trconnection.com/trconn.php/article=lennon.art#lennon]. The tenor of this interchange doesn't surprise me much, and brings into focus my sense of Rundgren's animosity toward the Beatles. Rundgren seems to have a clear case of what Harold Bloom would call "anxiety of influence" where the Beatles are concerned. That is, Rundgren knows both that he's influenced by them and that he can't play in their league musically, and resents that.

His references to the Beatles feel particularly pointed. Rundgren's first group, "Nazz," released a debut album in 1968 whose cover is an obvious take on "Meet the Beatles":



In 1980 Rundgren's group Utopia released "Deface the Music," the cover of which is another take on "Meet the Beatles," this time featuring songs satirizing the Beatles' musical styles and lyrical content:




Rundgren can write clever satire, no question. "I Just Want to Touch You" is an amusing take on the moptop-era Beatles, while "Everyone Else Is Wrong" skewers Lennon's occasional righter-than-thou rhetoric in his songs. "Hoi Polloi" skillfully makes fun of McCartney's songs about everyday life and people. Yet I don't go back to "Deface the Music" much, because its satire leaves a sour taste—unlike "The Rutles," which is funnier and more generous of spirit.

Rundgren's situation—indebted to the Beatles musically, not able to be as good as they were—is a lot like Oasis'. But Oasis seemed less bitter about it.

I'm indifferent to most of Rundgren's music, including the two albums most often cited as his best. "Something / Anything?" (1972) has me answering "No, not really." I'm willing to concede that "A Wizard, a True Star" (1973) is technically dazzling, but there's nothing on it I much want to listen to again. (And that title! This guy wants to smack Lennon for being full of himself? Puh-leese.) And the Rundgren song I hear most on the radio, 1972's "Hello, It's Me," sounds to me like a competent imitation of a second-rate McCartney ballad.

Am I being too harsh? I'd love to know what others think of Rundgren, his music, and his attitude toward the Beatles.



6 comments:

Devin McKinney said...

I like Rundgren, I really do, at least the Rundgren of a circumscribed period (late '60s-mid '70s). He's a sassbox, but has usually done his bit with youthful charm and panache.

I'd be lying if I said I thought about or listened to him much, but I have the recurrent sense that I need to dig out my old albums and hear them again: Runt, The Ballad of Todd Rundgren, Something/Anything? (way too much of a good thing, but dazzling as its best, especially "Hello it's Me," "I Saw the Light," and "Wolfman Jack"), A Wizard (come on, there's self-deprecating humor in that title), and Todd (yet another overstuffed double album, but why not, I dig those).

The Nazz put out three super albums--very Beatlesque, but also very homegrown in the sense that they smell of cheap pot and the suburban American garage. Their super-slow version of "Hello it's Me" (a dry run for Todd's hit) is mesmerizingly high. As for Utopia, they sound mostly dull to me, but there's one song, "Feet Don't Fail Me Now" that is on the precise border between really irritating and exceptionally catchy.

Todd's anti-Beatle rant doesn't offend me because he was for that period of time an eccentric, catchy, pugnacious rock presence with a sense of humor and a unique style (the high school geek in glitter jumpsuit, the multi-instrumentalist whiz kid who wrote songs about piss and getting laid). I also have the sense (though it is only a sense) that Todd's comments were produced by a passing post-adolescent fever of self-righteous self-definition rather than a long-nurtured resentment, a chip on the shoulder--which is how I've always felt about, say, Pete Townshend, who if you line up all his Beatle knocks down the years, clearly spent many years seething that they usurped his place as supreme genius of his rock 'n' roll generation.

Two other things to note in this discussion. In 1997, Rundgren wrote the score and libretto for an off-Broadway musical version of Up Against It, Joe Orton's Beatles screenplay that has never been produced in any other form. I've never seen or heard the show, but at least one Runtfan calls it a "lost masterpiece":

http://www.amazon.com/Up-Against-It-Todd-Rundgren/dp/B000005JYO

And the first side of Todd's 1976 album Faithful, consisting entirely of note-for-note replications of late '60s studio classics ("faithful," you see), includes two Beatles songs, both Lennon's: "Rain" and "Strawberry Fields." Rundgren would have begun recording this album not too long after John's "opened lettuce" was published; were the Beatles recreations his way of saying, "I'm sorry I hurt you, darling"?

Though that may drive home Nancy's point--that his most direct and sincere route to saluting Lennon and the Beatles was simply to copy them note for note.

Michael Gerber said...

Funny, guys--I was just about to write something like Nancy's post today. But knowing me it would've been something dreary and historical. :-)

I sense an "anxiety of influence" thing in Rundgren, yeah, but here are two other things I sense as well:
resentment that he's a one-man band being compared to The Beatles, and resentment that his timing is off, where The Beatles' timing was so exquisitely perfect.

I can relate to both of these feelings, and for that reason feel a bit of rachmanus for Todd Rundgren--whose stuff I like, but save for the big hits, doesn't stick with me.

But what's important for the Beatlefan is how it underscores that the best things about The Beatles were things The Beatles didn't control. YES they wrote great music, but Lennon/McCartney/Harrison/Starr would've all had their moments as solo performers. It was the fusion of the four that made them legendary. Comparing the output of a one-man band like Rundgren (or even Stevie Wonder, who I think gets closer, perhaps because he's working in a different idiom) simply isn't fair. The output of one brain is always going to feel "thin" compared to the output of four. In my field, you see this in The Simpsons or The National Lampoon High School Yearbook.

Rundgren was trying to better The Beatles after The Beatles had done it all, and that's not a game he can win. "You can only lose your virginity once," and--as with standup after Pryor, or mob movies after The Godfather, no matter how wonderful the work, unless it redefines the genre in some fundamental way--which Rundgren does not--it's going to make less of an impact than the original did.

Michael Gerber said...

Oh, and I forgot to say: I think the Lennon of 1974 was completely convinced that the reason The Beatles were great was because he (and to some degree Paul) were geniuses. They were, but I would think that the passage of time, and the accretion of post-Beatle pop music, would've shown Lennon that he was a genius doing the right thing in the right place at the right time...which is perhaps what "genius" is. I think as he felt more secure about his legacy, he would've made more space for people like Todd Rundgren--as he seemed to be doing for Cheap Trick, B-52s, etc...

Nancy Carr said...

Fair point about timing, Michael. And Rundgren seems pretty much to have always been a one-man show, whether he was in a band at the time or not. But Rundgren's stuff also doesn't stand out to me if I compare it to other one-man or one-woman performers. For whatever reason, his music tends not to resonate with me.

I don't actively dislike Rundgren or his music or feel offended by his anti-Beatle/Lennon ranting -- I just find the ranting interesting. Why make such a point of setting up comparisons to the Beatles? Were other people comparing him to the Beatles unfairly before he started making the comparisons (via album art, etc.) himself? (I really don't know the answer to that, and would like to.)

And Devin, "Faithful" is intriguing -- I've heard of that album, but haven't listened to it. Hearing his versions of "Rain" and "Strawberry Fields" as a veiled apology to Lennon makes sense, in context. I wonder if it was also a way of demystifying those songs, of proving that Rundgren could do them too. ( I hear "Deface the Music" as an exercise in demystification. Dig the title and the "monumental" cover art.)

Seeing how artists respond to feeling that it's all been done before is fascinating, and telling. The Clash could declare "phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust" because they had something new to offer musically. But if your musical instincts are quite similar to the Beatles, that's tough. I think of Emitt Rhodes, who was called "the one-man Beatles." I like his stuff, but he suffered from bad timing and bad contracts, and dropped out of sight relatively quickly.

J.R. Clark said...

I had read once that Deface The Music was meant to be an homage to The Beatles and, particularly, the Red and Blue Albums.

That said, the songs veer dangerously close to plagiarism.

People tend to think of Todd Rundgren as a singer/songwriter, but he also produced recordings for such diverse musicians as Janis Joplin, The New York Dolls, Grand Funk Railroad, Patti Smith, The Band, Badfinger, Cheap Trick, Meat Loaf, The Psychedelic Furs, and XTC.

Which song do you think is more annoying: "Wonderful Christmas Time" or "Bang on the Drum All Day"?

Anonymous said...

hmmm ... still open for comments?