Todd Rundgren: “A Wizard, A True Star”

Love it or hate it, every serious music nerd should hear this strange album once.  A Wizard, A True Star was released in ’73 when I was 15,  and I soon became addicted (which might explain some things), although some of it annoyed me and still does.  This mash-up of prog, pop, and blue-eyed soul might be the densest, most overly over-dubbed album in history.  There is literally zero space unfilled.  Because of that, there is almost always something interesting going on, even if the song itself isn’t good.  Side one is a medley of song fragments, sort of like side two of Abbey Road produced by a crazier Brian Wilson with access to synthesisers (unfortunately, there’s not a gapless version on YouTube).  The medley sometimes gets cartoonish.  A portion of side two is a medley of Motown covers, which has always seemed a bit random to me. That said, there are plenty of addictive hooks throughout.  Highlights for me are “International Feel” (and its recapitulation, “Le Feel Internacionale,” which ended side 1), “When the Shit Hits the Fan/Sunset Boulevard,”  “Sometimes I don’t Know What to Feel,” and “Just One Victory.”  The anthemic quality of “Just One Victory” can get annoying, and it’s too long, but it has some great melodic and harmonic twists and turns.

I think Todd was trying to blow up his status as an AM radio pop artist.  The previous year he’d had a commercially successful album, Something/Anything?,  which was mostly straight-ahead pop ballads and rockers: it contained “Slut,” often covered by Big Star, as well as the power-pop classic, “Couldn’t I Just Tell You.”  Something/Anything also yielded a couple of big AM hits, the piano-driven “I Saw the Light” and “Hello It’s Me,” that made some people see him as kind of a male Carole King.  I’m guessing that didn’t sit well with him, so he went all-out weird for A Wizard, A True Star.  I’m sure there were hallucinogens involved as well.  It didn’t sell nearly as well as its predecessor.  Fun fact: the month after this album came out, he produced the New York Dolls’ first album.

So what to make of TR?  He was a highly talented multi-intrumentalist and producer, a true master of the studio, and a pioneer of power-pop and prog.  When everything clicked, he could be a very good songwriter.  But he lacked self-censorship.  Something/Anything? is a double ablum with way too much filler.  It could have been a much better single album.  As for A Wizard, A True Star, he really needed to rein in some of the self-indulgent goofiness.  He produced all his own albums, even playing all instruments on many tracks.  He just occasionally needed someone to say “no.”  In that regard, he was like an American version of The Move’s Roy Wood, who had the same issues.  That may not have been a coincidence.  The Move regularly covered “Open My Eyes,” originally by TR’s 60’s band, The Nazz.  And the first time I ever heard The Move’s “Do Ya” was TR covering it live.

A Nasty Repost

Season 2, episode 3 of The Young Ones, featuring Terry Jones as the drunk vicar and musical guest The Damned. (Original air date May 29, 1984.)

Happy Halloween, bastards.

Damn

The Cars were a great live band!

University of Sussex, January 13, 1979

Favorite Stories Song

This one’s a little soft for this blog, but what can I say?  Great melodies and harmonies.  I seem to be obsessed with early 70’s pop-rock and glam for the past year or two.  Maybe as people get older, they revisit their early teenage years?

Anyhoo, Stories was a NYC band trying to continue the Beatles’ legacy.   Only a few other bands were trying that at the time–The Move, Bandfinger, Big Star, sometimes Todd Rundgren–and they all were squeezed between the dominant trends of heavy blues-rock and glam.  TR and the Move always kept one foot in prog and glam, which broadened their appeal.   Badfinger kept things current with a heavy guitar sound.  And you all know the fate of Big Star.  The story of Stories is weirder:  they had a #1 crossover r&b hit,  a cover of Hot Chocolate’s “Brother Louie.”  The huge success of a song outside of their usual genre eventually led to their demise.  A tour at the height of the single’s popularity had them performing for a strange mixture of black and white fans of soul and rock, a truly odd situation for a Brit-pop band.  Like their fellow pop bands of the time, they influenced the late 70’s explosion of power pop.  Tommy Hoehn’s first album sounds like a lost Stories album, or Stories outtakes recorded by a less talented band.  Stories’ albums, like most others, are hit and miss, containing both good songs and duds.

By they way, Stories main songwriter, founder and keyboardist, Michael Brown, had been the leader of the 60’s baroque-pop band, The Left Banke, best known for their monster hit, “Walk Away Renee” and “She May Call You Up Tonight,” later covered by the Bangles.  Here’s the original, if you haven’t heard it: