Kronomyth 1.0: DER TODD UND DAS RUNDGREN. Runt established the template for Todd Rundgren albums to come: eclectic songbooks that mixed rockers, ballads and big ideas, stuck together fearlessly with copious amounts of studio wizardry. From this point on, there was no looking back, only forward. The album produced a minor single, “We Got To Get You A Woman,” a likeable if pre-enlightened bit of pop music, which is easily overlooked in favor of gems like “Believe In Me,” “There Are No Words” and the medley of “Baby, Let’s Swing/The Last Thing You Said/Don’t Tie My Hands.” When Todd seizes on a winning melody, which is most of the time, the results can really get under your skin. I had the same reaction to his next two albums, each of which have a few songs that I’d carry a torch for on any given day. Runt also features some pretty complicated music that points forward to the work of Utopia: “Birthday Carol” covers a wide range of styles over nine minutes, “I’m In The Clique” is edgy stuff. Despite the rhythm section of Hunt and Tony Sales (who seem to have found their niche playing in make-believe bands), Runt isn’t a group effort in any meaningful sense of the word. This is Todd’s show from the get-go, starring as guitarist, pianist, singer, songwriter, arranger and producer. Runt is not, however, a true DIY album like Something/Anything? either. That Todd was able to achieve the same results on his double-album opus remains one of its magical mysteries. It’s tempting to see this first album as a test run for Something/Anything?, but Runt is bigger than that. It’s a self-standing introduction into the unique musical world of Todd Rundgren that has everything you’ve come to love about him: lump-in-the-throat ballads, clever and catchy melodies, jacked-up rock songs, cool production tricks and the kind of track-by-track anticipation normally reserved for albums by people named Paul (Simon and McCartney) or Harry (Nilsson).
Kronomyth 2.0: ALL CHOKED UP. The Ballad of Todd Rundgren is a professionally produced pity party featuring piano ballads with minimal accompaniment (bass, drums) and multi-layered vocals, plus a few rock songs to shake things up. Where his last album, Runt, featured an eclectic mix of ideas, Ballad sticks close to the Laura Nyro/Joni Mitchell school of the solo confessional. It starts out promising enough with some surreal pop (“Long Flowing Robe,” “Bleeding”), but “Wailing Wall” bores me to tears and begins to show signs that Todd’s masterful production may be a thin veneer to hide structural weakness in the material. Some people enjoy this album more than his last; most people, actually. Me, I prefer “Believe In Me” to “Be Nice To Me” and the medley of “Baby Let’s Swing/The Last Thing You Said/Don’t Tie My Hands” to “Parole.” Although this record was again assigned to Runt, there is no band; in fact, the entire album is in sore need of one, since most of the songs feel about one musician light. The material on his next album, Something/Anything?, tries more things and hits more highs. The Ballad of Todd Rundgren is, as its name suggests, a portrait of the artist as a sensitive young man. The production is gorgeous in spots, the songwriting impressive enough, but I’m usually looking at my watch during the second side. That said, I can see where listening to this album repeatedly (something I really haven’t done) would breed a certain loyalty to it. I also enjoy the rock side of Rundgren more than the balladeer. If you’re not bored by ballads, then you’ll likely want to hang around for this one.
Kronomyth 3.0: EVERYTHING. One-man band be damned, Todd Rundgren is a one-man radio station. Something/Anything? is a landmark in the annals of DIY (do it yourself) recordings, a nearly perfect songbook of pop music that displays remarkable breadth as a songwriter, musician (Todd plays every instrument for most of the double-album set) and producer. You could argue that he was building up to this on the last two Runt albums, but I’m not buying it. Those albums had a handful of strong tracks between them, while Something/Anything? buries you in brilliant ideas: “Hello It’s Me,” “I Saw The Light,” “Couldn’t I Just Tell You,” “Marlene,” “Torch Song,” “It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference,” “You Left Me Sore” and seriously I’m just tired of typing of song titles because the list goes on. Carole King’s Tapestry is the precedent for some of this, but I think we can all agree that Tapestry didn’t rock, and a lot of Something/Anything? does. Frankly, I’m inclined to recall Zappa’s early albums like We’re Only In It For The Money when trying to explain how so much genius could be crammed into one head. Frank Zappa and Todd Rundgren are different artists, yet no so different as you might think. Both are uncompromising artists, perfectionists and geniuses with a genuine affection for doo-wop. While not everything on Something/Anything? is a gem, nothing on here is a trifle, from the souped-up instrumental “Breathless” (foreshadowing the synthesizer work of Healing) to a bad trip set to music, “I Went To The Mirror.”
Kronomyth 4.2: HELLO, IT’S ME AGAIN. This is a story of three hellos, beginning with the debut of The Nazz, which featured a slowed-down and slightly tortured version of this song. Several years later, Todd Rundgren polished it up for his magnum opus, Something/Anything?, now presenting it as part of the great pop tapestry. It was one of the most memorable moments on a memorable album, Todd starting off with a little banter and two false starts before launching into one of the most perfect pop songs you’ll ever hear. The song was edited down to three-and-a-half minutes, possibly doctored (the bass and vocals sound a little different) and released to an American public that didn’t give it so much as a “How do you do?” in return. One of the great pop mysteries, that. So Bearsville shelved the single and re-issued it the following year after the release of Todd’s next album, A Wizard, A True Star. This time, the single caught listeners’ attention and went up to #5 on the Billboard charts, giving Rundgren his first Top 10 hit. The B side, “Cold Morning Light,” is identical to the elpee version and continues the theme of lost love. It’s one of the few recordings that feature Todd playing the flute, the first instrument he tried playing as a child, and would warrant its own paragraph if I weren’t so lazy.
Kronomyth 7.0: TODD’S GOT EVERYTHING COVERED. Faithful (in some cases, uncanny) reproductions on the first side. An album’s worth of original aces on the second. Like Utopia’s Deface the Music, it’s hard to know what to make of the first half. Is it an homage to the sonic pioneers that came before him or simply a knobby need to show off his production savvy? I’m impressed, of course, but I was already. And I don’t buy Todd Rundgren albums to hear The Beach Boys or Bob Dylan. So onto the real payoff for the faithful: the ballads, the rockers, the breezy numbers. Todd gives us two of each, starting with the bleak and heavy “Black and White.” This and the vegetarian “Boogies (Hamburger Hell)” feature the compressed and distorted sound most often associated with Utopia. (In fact, there’s not a lot that separates the second side of Faithful from Oops! Wrong Planet.) Then comes the cooling “Love of the Common Man” and, later, “When I Pray.” I like Todd’s midtempo masterpieces the best, and these rank right up there with “Love In Action” and “Marlene.” The ballads are usually a mixed bag. “Cliché” doesn’t click with me because it’s too fragile, but “The Verb ‘To Love’” is flawless, providing the album’s lump-in-the-throat moment. You’d think I’d be happy with half a great album, and I am, but I keep eyeing the first side and wondering if it isn’t taking up too-valuable real estate. Fans who indulged Deface will do the same for Faithful, but there’s only limited happiness to be had in hearing Todd and the rest of Utopia try so hard to sound like
Kronomyth 5.0: TUBETOPIA. Produced by Todd Rundgren, Remote Control is a concept album that could be seen as the next installment in Utopia, so similar are the two. Rundgren is credited with cowriting two songs (“Love’s A Mystery,” TV Is King”), but his fingerprints are all over Remote Control, from the high-register choruses to the compressed and sped-up arrangements. Of course, sounding like Utopia isn’t a bad thing; in fact, this is probably my favorite Tubes album after their first. The album generated a legitimate hit (okay, in the UK) with “Prime Time,” and should have had a second with “Love’s A Mystery (I Don’t Understand).” If the reports are true that the band entered the studio with a concept but without any songs, then this record is a testament to the band’s creativity because there isn’t a bad song in the batch. The opening “Turn Me On” immediately pulls you into the story, and Remote Control keeps changing the channel without losing its audience: “I Want It All Now,” “No Way Out,” “Only The Strong Survive,” “Be Mine Tonight.” The closing “Telecide” is a breathless rocker that mixes clever, rapid-fire wordplay (could Michael Stipe have been a closet Tubes fan?) and nihilistic rock to bring the curtains crashing down. A&M had no reason to be disappointed with the results; the record charted as well as Adventures In Utopia and restored faith in the band’s ability to harness their talent. Along with Adventures In Utopia, Healing and Swing To The Right, Remote Control represents a sort of Rundgren renaissance for art pop fans between 1979 and 1982. The Tubes never made another album like it, and they never made a better one after it. If you haven’t heard this or the three Utopia/Rundgren records I just mentioned, turn off the tv tonight and turn on to some great music instead.
“It sucked, pretty much, it really sucked.” – Fee Waybill, explaining the appeal of Love Bomb in a 2001 interview with the San Francisco Herald.
Kronomyth 8.0: STOP WORRYING. This is the worst record that The Tubes have released. And it’s still pretty good. That last sentence is something of an emotional breakthrough for me. For years, I held genuine antipathy for Love Bomb. (It’s a piece of plastic. I need to get a life.) The production from Todd Rundgren is polarizing. Todd was in sort of a strange place artistically, having released a string of disappointing Utopia albums and the confounding A Capella, so it’s unfair to expect that Love Bomb would become Remote Control Redux. The album is littered with extraneous sounds, strung together in fragments, plagued by the kind of restless curiosity that presumes a lot of patience on the part of the listener. And the truth is that few people, Tubes fans included, had much use for “Muscle Girls,” “Bora Bora 2000,” “Say Hey” and “Theme From A Wooly Place.” They’re cute ideas, but the sort of thing that should have been left on the editing room floor, not sandwiched in between Rundgrenesque rock ballads. Sift out the strangeness, and Love Bomb is actually a decent record of sophisticated studio rock: “Eyes,” “Piece By Piece,” “Come As You Are.” Bill Spooner has defended this album in interviews, and I would agree with him (now, anyway). It’s not far removed from the band’s last two records in terms of quality. David Foster reigned in the band’s strangeness, however, where Rundgren seems to feed it. It’s too bad that I didn’t warm up to Love Bomb before I wrote a review of it for All Music Guide. Lord knows it wasn’t a lack of listening to Love Bomb that led to my displeasure. Maybe I listened to it too much, looking for the treasures of the past. Commercially, the album was a dud; that much is true. Artistically, it’s not the mess I first imagined, although I still have the sense that Todd wanted to turn The Tubes into Utopia Mark II. Yes, it’s still probably the last Tubes album you need to own, but I’ve learned to stop worrying about what it’s not and enjoy it for what it is.