Todd Rundgren – Something/Anything? – Classic Music Review

I had planned to review Something/Anything? early last year but when I started my research I encountered a slew of articles celebrating the album’s 50th anniversary and decided to leave Todd Rundgren for another day.

I hate being part of a crowd.

In addition to the celebratory flood, Something/Anything? has been the subject of several retrospective reviews over the decades, many of which combine truthful information with speculative stretches:

  • Yes, Todd Rundgren played all the instruments and performed all the vocals on the first three sides.
  • No, he did not record and arrange those three sides “over long nights at his home studio in Nichols Canyon” (Pop Matters). Most of the backing tracks were recorded at a gen-u-ine recording studio (I. D. Sound) in Los Angeles; only three of the songs that appear on the album (and a few overdubs and tweaks) were primarily recorded at home.
  • I will somewhat reluctantly grant that Something/Anything? can be considered “a landmark in the annals of DIY (do it yourself) recordings” (Progrography), as it featured far more complex arrangements and sophisticated recording techniques than McCartney’s DIY solo effort—but only with the understanding that Rundgren had more help from professionals than your average DIYer.
  • No, Something/Anything? did not inspire generations of musicians to go the DIY route. The number of non-punk/non-riot-grrrl DIY recordings in the twenty-five years that followed Something/Anything? is pathetically small and most of those recordings were made by name artists (Mike Oldfield being a notable exception, but he had Richard Branson on his side when he created Tubular Bells). From a historical perspective the person who had the most enduring impact on the DIY scene wasn’t Todd Rundgren or any other musical artist but one who gave millions of do-it-yourselfers the tools to produce credible home recordings—Steve Jobs. The release of GarageBand in 2005 (for free!) had a far greater impact than the play-it-all-by-myself efforts of Rundgren, McCartney, Phil Collins, John Fogerty, Prince, Stevie Wonder, Oldfield and a few others.

I also noticed that some folks are deeply attached to the album and get so worked up when talking about it they speak in hyperbolic terms that defy reality. In a celebratory piece on WHYY hawking a 50th-anniversary charity tribute album, the guy who put together that album put on a championship display of exaggeration in the form of a breathtaking double-dare-ya:

Fernando Perdomo, a longtime session musician and music producer, is one of many who cherish “Something/Anything?”.

“What other Top 10-charting album can you think of that combines hit songs with experimentation over two sides?” he asked.

Putting aside the fact that he shorted Rundgren on the number of sides (there are four, not two), the double-dare ya question is an easy lay-up. What other Top 10-charting album can you think of that combines hit songs with experimentation over two sides? Uh . . . Revolver? Pet Sounds? Surrealistic Pillow? Are You Experienced?

A more accurate take on Something/Anything came from Dave Connolly of Progrography:

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.

There are two amendments I’d like to make to Mr. Connolly’s assessment. I’d change “one-man radio station” to “one-man radio station reflecting the radio programming of the 60s and early 70s.” Not only was Top 30 radio more diverse in the 60s (with Sinatra likely to be followed by the Yardbirds in the rotation who would then be followed by the Statler Brothers), but the emergence of stereo FM radio devoted to album-oriented rock expanded that range even further. Something/Anything? is a smörgåsbord of pop ballads, rockers, soul tunes, progressive numbers and novelty songs set to a variety of moods: sweet, sour, sassy, comedic, hot and downright kooky.

My second amendment is way better than the one that mars the United States Constitution. I would change “a nearly perfect songbook of pop music” to “your favorite radio station that may play a song you don’t particularly care for but you don’t change stations because the overall vibe is so satisfying.”  Something/Anything? is one of those albums where the sum is better than the parts—I even like most of the songs I don’t like because they fit nicely in the “rotation.”

Another noticeable aspect of the album is Rundgren’s unflagging energy, resulting from a mix of artistic liberation, marijuana and Ritalin. For the most part, the constant flow of energy is a plus, but Todd tends to overplay his hand on occasion, loading the arrangements with too much clutter when a more economic approach would have served him better.

Mr. Perdomo did get one thing right: “The thing that made Todd different than every other hit artist in the ’70s is that you never knew what he was going to do next.” Something Anything? certainly confirmed his mastery of pop structures (not unexpected given his deep admiration for Burt Bacharach). The album made him a superstar; the more progressive and less radio-friendly follow-up album (A Wizard, A True Star) led to a “complete loss of about half of my audience at that point.” Todd Rundgren had no interest whatsoever in becoming the next Carole King or America’s answer to Elton John; he was (and still is) an explorer easily bored by the same-o, same-o. His ability as a producer gave him the financial freedom to go wherever his fancy led him:

I had the advantage, being a record producer, of not having to link my commercial success with my artistic explorations. So this was great for me, from a musician’s standpoint. Drove the record label crazy because I wouldn’t stick with any one thing. Every record was a reinvention, something different.

“Todd Rundgren,” Red Bull Music Academy lecture, hosted by Torsten Schmidt, 2013

Though he would occasionally toy with pop in later albums, Something/Anything? serves as both his farewell to popular music and a pathway to new possibilities in music composition and production.

Side One: A Bouquet of Ear-Catching Melodies

Rundgren’s subtitles for each side generally reflect the side’s content, but there’s always at least one song on a side that doesn’t fit the subtitle’s description. Side one is geared more toward pop songs that welcome the listener with the accessible and the familiar. It’s in close competition with side four for my least favorite side on the album.

“I Saw the Light”: Depending on which source you prefer, Rundgren wrote “I Saw the Light” in either fifteen or twenty minutes. His explanations in both scenarios provide some valuable insights into his mind, his methods and his reasons for abandoning pop:

  • 15 minutes (American Songwriter): “I wrote this song in 15 minutes from start to finish. It was one of the reasons that caused me to change my style of writing. It doesn’t matter how clever a song is—if it’s written in 15 minutes, it is such a string of clichés that it just doesn’t have lasting impact for me. And for me, the greatest disappointment in the world is not being able to listen to my own music and enjoy it.”
  • 20 Minutes (The Independent): Part of the music’s enhanced vitality was triggered by his whole-hearted immersion in drugs, specifically pot and the speed-like Ritalin. “It caused me to crank out songs at an incredible pace. ‘I Saw the Light’ took me all of 20 minutes. You can see why, too, the rhymes are just moon/June/spoon kind of stuff.”

It sounds like he wrote the lyrics in either fifteen or twenty minutes; we’re not sure how long it took him to come up with the music. There are many artists who claim to have written hit songs at hypersonic speed; given his energy level, deep knowledge of pop structures and use of Ritalin, I think Todd’s claim is more credible than most. Given his innate musical abilities, he might very well have written the music and lyrics in one sitting.

All the verses follow the same structure (AAAB); the chorus uses AAB. At first glance, it looks like any idiot with access to a rhyming dictionary could have written the lyrics, but closer inspection reveals a well-constructed “moment of truth” tale where a hesitant and skeptical young man realizes that the babe he’s been courting is the real deal when he experiences the magic of deep eye contact:

But I tried to run (I tried to run)
Though I knew it wouldn’t help me none (not help me none)
‘Cause I couldn’t ever love no one
Or so I said

But my feelings for you
Were just something I never knew
‘Til I saw the light
In your eyes (in your eyes)
In your eyes (in your eyes)

However, I do take umbrage with Rundgren’s dismissal of the song as “a string of clichés.”

Wow! I’ve never taken umbrage before! I’ve taken exception, taken advantage, taken interest, taken notice, taken part, taken a ride, taken responsibility, taken a walk, taken a leak . . . but never umbrage. Feels good!

I take umbrage because nearly all love songs (and their break-up song companions) are strings of clichés, largely because the average human being is generally incapable of accurately expressing the complex feelings triggered by love in the form of language. Whether you’re talking about “Walk on By” (a Bacharach-David composition that Rundgren deeply admired) or the Bob Crewe-Bob Gaudio classic, “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” love-and-breakup songs are loaded with oft-repeated phrases human beings use to describe the highs and lows of the mating experience. What makes a love song pleasurable has less to do with lyrics and more to do with the singer’s ability to convey various emotions (see Sinatra, Frank) and the mood set by the accompanying music. In this case, Rundgren’s rather shy and understated delivery reflects the character’s hesitant acceptance that someone else could really love him, and the use of major and minor seventh chords tells us he’s a softer soul than your typical macho asshole.

Todd also demonstrated his acute understanding of the pop music market by designating “I Saw the Light” as the album’s hit in the liner notes. While its performance fell short of the “Hello, It’s Me” remake, the song made the Top 20 with room to spare.

“It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference”: This mood-shifting number was obviously composed on piano, where one has an easier time augmenting the E and A major chords with the II note. The musical oscillation reflects the changing and uncertain moods of the narrator, a guy who’s trying to get his head around a break-up with a jealous and untrusting partner. The verses combine resignation with emphatic resolution (“But those days are through”) and the uptempo bridge with its more assertive rhythm gives the narrator the opportunity to release some frustration and anger. The basic lesson is “you can’t have love without trust and vice versa.” Rundgren’s vocals are absolutely superb, and I particularly like the melancholy “oohs” in the opening passage that foreshadow the unhappy ending.

“Wolfman Jack”: My dyed-in-the-wool San Franciscan father and I share a complete loathing of the Los Angeles Dodgers, but while my anti-LA orientation pretty much ended there (unless I found myself stuck in LAX or stuck on the freeway on my way to LAX), my father remained absolutely committed to loathing all things LA and extended that loathing to most of Southern California.

I can remember two instances in particular when he blew his top because I didn’t adhere to the party line. The first came when I made the decision to attend college in the LA metro area. “I’m not fucking paying a dime to send you to fucking college in fucking LA!” My mother stepped in and reminded him of California’s status as a community-property state and we formed a two-against-one majority that put dad back in his place.

The second outburst occurred a couple of years later when I came home for the holidays. Somehow our dinnertime discussion morphed into a nostalgic recollection of the good old days of radio when DJs ruled the airwaves. Of course, Dad argued that the best DJs in the country were in San Francisco and said something like “Wolfman Jack had nothing on Tom Donahue.” I foolishly opened my mouth, admitted to listening to old recordings of the Wolfman’s shows and closed with “I think the Wolfman was pretty cool!” In typical Irish fashion, Dad’s face turned beet-red before growling, “Don’t try to feed me that LA bullshit.” I tried to explain that the Wolfman was hardly an LA-only phenomenon and that his sequencing was the best I’d ever heard, but Dad would have none of it. “The Wolfman didn’t mean dick in San Francisco,” he argued, completely in sync with his eternal San Francisco parochialism.

Unfortunately, the liner notes on Something/Anything? support my dad’s perspective by equating Wolfman Jack with LA: “I have a dream that I am cruising along Mulholland Drive late at night and the Wolfman plays this record over the air, screaming his jive and singing along at the bottom of his lungs.” The Wolfman was in fact extremely popular in SoCal, and as a temporary transplant from the Philadelphia-New York corridor, Rundgren obviously picked up on the Angeleno adoration. However, the lyrics paint a rather superficial portrait of the iconic DJ, focusing more on aspects of the wolfman persona (full moon, midnight) than capturing the reasons why the Wolfman became a must-listen experience (grit-and-gravel croak, great tune selection, wild sense of humor, envelope-pushing sexual references).

And the song has no business in a “bouquet of ear-catching melodies.”

“Cold Morning Light”: The most celebrated feature of Something/Anything? is revealed as problematic in this song and a few others. The admiration attached to the fact that Rundgren played all the instruments on the first three sides fails to address the obvious follow-up question, “And how well did he play those instruments?” For the most part, Todd does pretty well, but when it comes to the drums, it’s hit-or-miss.

He does okay on the songs set to straight time, but “Cold Morning Light” involves a rhythmic shift from straight time to a slow waltz that (intentionally or not) continues to slow down (and sometimes seems to speed up). Rob Moura of Pop Matters noted a similar (but less noticeable) issue in “I Saw the Light”: “Listening closely, you can tell the track is the work of one person: the parts don’t line up perfectly, and there’s a stiltedness in the rhythm that’s unmistakably the product of a piecemeal process.” Since the drums were recorded first on all the tracks, I think the problem here lies with the drummer and not track misalignment. The very busy arrangement may have been an attempt to compensate for the rhythmic flaws, but what Rundgren really needed (as he admitted himself) was a click track to ensure coherent rhythms.

“It Takes Two to Tango (This is for the Girls)”: After that rhythmic fiasco, Todd does a better job keeping up with the shifting tempos on this number, relieving the drum kit of the central rhythmic role and allowing the keyboard instruments to move things forward. He does overdo it with the cymbals on the chorus and his penchant for busy arrangements is again present here (and remained a constant on the follow-up album).

The cliché title is applied to the practice of casual sex and the misunderstandings that often arise when the tingles down below overwhelm one’s emotional intelligence. I don’t have a problem with the male narrator’s conclusion (“But it’s easy to see that I used you and you used me”), as I will fully admit that many women I know (self included) have used men as fuck toys when the vibrator just wasn’t going to cut it. What bothers me is that the guy expends a whole lot of energy defending his behavior, which tells me that he probably came on a bit too strong and is in denial about it, looking to deflect the blame. “My only sin was being me” and “This is for the girls who couldn’t understand/What it’s like to try to be a man” combine to form a pretty pathetic defense. The likely truth is that the narrator was so frigging horny he doesn’t remember what the hell he did—a serious problem he needs to address before he stands accused of date rape.

“Sweeter Memories”: I always jump when this song comes on, as it appears a split-second after “Tango” and starts at maximum volume with a BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM of drums, bass and guitar. As the song proceeds, I get the feeling that the music is way too powerful and far too dramatic for a song that champions sweeter memories. The best parts come near the beginning and near the end where Rundgren finally tones it down and treats us to a couple of soulful guitar solos. As is the case with several songs on Something/Anything? Todd Rundgren still needed to learn that less is sometimes better than more.

Side Two: The Cerebral Side

Side two is generally cerebral, but I think “whimsical” may be a better fit. The side definitely confirms his wizard-in-the-studio moniker and I find it much more interesting than side one. 

“Intro”: This brief introduction to recording challenges is sort of an aural version of the wizard opening the curtain and revealing himself as an average guy. What’s amazing is that despite all the high-tech gizmos and software we have at our disposal today, all the challenges described in the “Sounds of the Studio” game remain challenges: p’s still pop without a filter; hum can still mess up the works; editing fuck-ups are painfully common; and the preference for warmer recordings manifested in the vinyl revival ensures that engineers will still have to deal with the possibility of mangled tape.

“Breathless”: This showcase of electronic instruments is one of the cleanest arrangements on the album due to superb panning and placement in the sound field. The mid-piece shift to electronic mariachi set to the chords of “La Bamba” is an absolute hoot, and the transitions in and out of that passage are well-executed. Though the electronics take center stage, Todd’s bass runs are equally impressive.

“The Night the Carousel Burned Down”: Todd’s liner notes read, “My first movie score. Unfortunately, there is no movie to go with it.” Stuff and nonsense! The sounds and moods he created are vivid enough to allow listeners to visualize the carnival scene and perhaps give into a sudden urge for pink popcorn or cotton candy. Matthew Bolin of Popdose wrote a superb description of how Rundgren managed to convey the imagery through the music:

“The Day the Carousel Burnt Down”(sic) starts out like a Carole King solo song, with a slow but jaunty electric piano line. It has a nice switch twice within the song from 4/4 to 3/4 time and back that feels natural and appropriate given the subject matter and arrangement.

At 1:56 at the first musical break, though, things start to get weird. The sounds in the right channel start to back off and shift to the left channel, then reverse back to the right. At 2:09, Rundgren starts to play with the tape speed slightly while he continues to make the music swirl from channel to channel–like a carousel going in a circle around its central musical source, only inverted. After a few rejoinders of the tagline, the second musical break begins at 3:20 with another slight speed change. Then, around 3:35 a whooshing noise starts in the back, emulating a fire, and the speed changes become more distorted and pronounced. This continues on for another 20 seconds, until this madness sinks behind the original piano line that began the song, and plays itself out into the fade for the last half-minute.

Bolin also explores the whodunit aspect of the lyrics, which will forever remain a mystery due to the ambiguity of pronouns. Let’s look at the first verse:

Weren’t you there when the carousel burned down
The fire and confusion, the smoke and the sound
I swear you were there when the carousel burned down
We were all around
The rings charred and tarnished all over the ground
And the heads hung down
And we all left town the next day

Okay, so the narrator (whoever they are) has a nagging memory that “you” (whoever they are) were present at the crime scene. The implication of “I swear you were there when the carousel burned down” is that “you” denied the narrator’s assertion; the subsequent implication is that whoever “you” is has something to hide. The third ambiguous pronoun comes in the last line: “And we all left town the next day.” “We” could refer to the carnies packing up and moving on to the next town or to the townspeople (though deciding to leave one’s home just because the merry-go-round went kaput seems an extreme overreaction).

The second verse shifts to a waltz, and while neither the music nor the lyrics help close the case, we are presented with another tantalizing clue hidden in another ambiguous pronoun (line italicized):

The children all cried when the carousel burned down
The old ladies sighed and the carousel burned down
The rest of us lied as the carousel burned down
And the flames did fly
The pipes steamed and shrieked out a blazing goodbye
As the boiler died
And they melted down the midway

Who are “the rest of us,” why did they lie and what did they lie about? Did the carnies set off the fire or was it a gang of local hoodlums? And while we’re at it, who or what are “they” that “melted down the midway?” Does “they” refer to the flames or to the perpetrators? Bolin isn’t sure whether the first “you” is “Accomplice, bystander or victim” but concludes that “They did something. Something bad.”

Here’s where I land: I think Rundgren would have screwed up the whole song by solving the mystery for us. The ambiguity allows us to imagine several possibilities, and musing over those possibilities is a lot more fun than having someone feed us the answer.

“Saving Grace”: Rundgren labeled this one “The theme song of a generation, yea. of all Mankind.” In an interview with Rob Steen (“Dissecting Something/Anything? with Todd Rundgren”), Todd described his generation as follows: “We were long-haired hippy draft dodgers – the tune-in, turn-on generation.”

Having been accused of stereotyping Baby Boomers, it’s nice to see a Baby Boomer stereotyping Baby Boomers.

I think his description was one of those throwaway comments common to interviewees who want the interviewer to move the fuck on. The key to interpreting “Saving Grace” is the second part of the comment, “Yea. Of all mankind.” The song captures the frustration of the “typical” boomer regarding the inability to change the minds of either parents or the powerful while gently suggesting to the Boomers that their generational struggle was hardly unique. The generation gap may have manifested itself more clearly in the 60s (when the term “generation gap” came into existence), but there was certainly a generation gap in the America of the Roaring Twenties, and today’s “typical” Boomers are now old farts who have a hard time relating to Millenials and Gen Z.

The narrator of the song retained the early optimism of the Boomers (before the assassinations, Chicago and Nixon), insisting “I think I’m going to love it . . . when someone else will see it my way” and can someday rid himself of the feeling that “they think I’m no good.” Rundgren correctly asserts that achieving that validation confirms one’s worth in society:

‘Cause I believe it all along
I think I’m gonna love it
I know they won’t believe it
When they finally see the saving grace in me
I know the time is gonna come
When I will mean something to someone
Until that day I’m hanging on

The song is essentially an ode to patience and perseverance—qualities too often abandoned in frustration. And damn, does this song have a catchy melody or what?

p.s. I have no idea what the heavily distorted voice that opens the song is trying to tell me, but the tone is the very opposite of optimism.

“Marlene”: Many notable artists have written songs about jail bait, ranging from disgusting (Ted Nugent, Spinal Tap, Kiss, The Stones) to ambiguous (Gary Puckett, The Beatles) to literary (The Police). My general opinion about guys who go after girls under the age of consent (16-18 in the US, 15 in France) is that they’ve never left adolescence and at minimum deserve a whipping of at least one hundred lashes targeting their most tender spot.

Okay, how many of you males out there put your hands over your balls in response to that last sentence?

Rundgren asks Marlene, “Who’d believe that you’re only seventeen?” which sounds like he’s preparing his defense for a statutory rape charge (confirmed later in the line “Then I don’t care if they bust me”). Does it make any difference that Marlene became Playboy’s Miss April in a couple of years? No. Does it make any difference that Rundgren bagged a second Playmate in Bebe Buell? No. Does it make any difference that the LAPD was asleep when Rundgren released a song where he admitted to sex with a minor? No.

As you may have discerned, I loathe this fucking song—a pretty melody wasted on I-really-didn’t-want-to-know-that lyrics.

“Song of the Viking”: If you’re into Gilbert & Sullivan and don’t mind historical inaccuracies (the Vikings of yore did not sail in galleons and there’s no mention of essential Viking activities like plundering, raping and pillaging), this little novelty song is probably right up your alley. It’s too cute for my tastes but it certainly validates the “Anything” in the album title.

“I Went to the Mirror”: Family, friends and lovers have frequently commented on how happy I appear to be when I wake up in the morning. That’s part of the reason my dad calls me “Sunshine.”

There’s a reason for that. When I wake up, first I go wee-wee and then I go to the sink to wash my hands without ever looking into the mirror. I deliberately avoid seeing my reflection until I’ve had a cup of coffee and a cigarette. It’s a routine I started in adolescence when my face was still in formation and frequently marred by zits and other weird little uglies. Looking in the mirror first thing is the worst possible start to one’s day.

In that sense, “I Went to the Mirror” serves as a PSA warning the public of the horrors that await those who for some reason need to make sure they’re the same person they saw in the mirror after pre-bedtime toothbrushing.

Rundgren uses both music and lyrics to convey those horrors. The piano opening the song adopts the tempo of deliberate steps as he makes his way to the can; his sleepyhead voice mumbles the lyrics; we hear vague noise on the left channel as his brain shakes off the pixie dust; then a sudden shot of feedback causes the brain to repeat the line “The first thing to come into focus” in classic brain-fart form; and that first thing “was a face wrapped all around my head.” A tempo change heralds a shift to anxious idiot dialogue in which he describes complete disorientation. At this point, I want to scream, “Don’t do this at home, folks!” The rest of the song follows the dark path of self-criticism he chose to take because he was stupid enough to look at himself in the mirror before completing the wake-up process.

The song ends side two, and Matthew Bolin commented, ” . . . the listener is left to think to themselves in complete silence about what the hell it was that just happened and whether they have the mental fortitude to listen to this crazy-ass tune again.” I’m not a horror movie fan but if someone asked me, “What’s your favorite horror flick?” I’d say, “‘I Went to the Mirror,’ directed by Todd Rundgren.” It may be a crazy-ass song, but the recording is a brilliant depiction of real-life horrors.

Side Three: The Kid Gets Heavy

My father explained to me that “heavy” was a fairly common adjective at the time, but could mean many things. The Urban Dictionary lists over four hundred definitions of “heavy” and its variants, so whether or not you think these songs qualify as “heavy” will depend on your definition of “heavy.” Dad went with “whoa man that’s some heavy, far out, happening stuff, you know man?” Once a hippie, always a hippie.

“Black Maria”: Hallelujah! Todd Rundgren finally starts kicking ass! (Adjective/Interjection) Very exciting or fun. Possibly derived from the phrase “better than a kick in the ass.” 
(We had a kick-ass time at the show!”)

The liner note tagline for this one is “I wish I knew what this song is about. I could swear I’ve heard it before.” The familiarity can be found in both the lyrics and the music. Lyrically, the song is what I call a “Delilah Song,” one where the evil wiles of a captivating woman leave a man obsessed, limp, frustrated and/or pissed off. Heidi’s Music Channel on Apple Music offers a “Bad/Evil Woman” playlist of twenty songs about these nefarious wenches, featuring artists as diverse as Cliff Richard, Spooky Tooth, Santana, ELO, Black Sabbath, The Beatles, The Allman Brothers Band and Skip James. Musically, the song reflects the emphasis on lead guitar riffs and solos that took hold in the mid-60s, dominated the 70s and continues to this day (as confirmed by the popularity of Guitar Hero).

What makes Rundgren’s piece so exciting are the frequent cutaways to guitar riffs supported by drum and bass punctuation. While those riffs are consistent in style, I couldn’t find any that repeated the notes verbatim, and his creative, disciplined use of panning strengthens that diversity. The extended guitar solo that follows the first rendition of “If you must kill me please let me die now” is marked by a marvelous build that leads to an exciting mix of hyperspeed picking and sweet bends. The drama of the song is intensified by the frequent moves from soft to loud, all executed seamlessly. His vocals, drums and bass are all outstanding and bear none of the stiffness or misalignment that marks some of the DIY songs on the album. Huge thumbs-up for “Black Maria.”

“One More Day (No Word)”: Todd does a 180 and shifts to a different definition of heavy: the heaviness one feels when waiting; the heaviness one feels when no one seems to care about your plight. The music is on the light side, dominated by piano, what sounds like a bass synth on the left channel and claves leading the Latinate rhythm.

The song presents three separate stories of someone who fruitlessly waits for something that is unlikely to happen: a soldier waiting to come home for Christmas; a field worker waiting for a union contract that will allow him to continue working; a man who hasn’t seen his girl in a while and hasn’t heard a word from her. The essence of their stories is initially captured in the bridge . . .

All alone, all my friends are gone
Ears of stone, eyes gone blind
Too little to do and too much time

And with sad finality in the fade:

Doesn’t anybody know I’m alive?

Todd’s vocal is both plaintive and touching, with harmonies intensifying the melancholy. It breaks my heart to think about “all the lonely people” out there waiting for a sign, a job, some good news or a visit from a friend or loved one. It sucks to be in limbo and it sucks to feel that no one cares that you’re hanging by a thread. Todd Rundgren can come across as a smart-ass at times but here he reveals his empathetic side. “One More Day (No Word)” may be tough to take but it’s a great piece of work.

“Couldn’t I Just Tell You”: I’ll say right up front that I have loved this song since the first time I heard it as a kid and it still excites me to this day. I love the music, I love the lyrics and I love the arrangement—and most of all, I love the song’s message.

The track opens with a fuck-up, where Todd playfully moans, “Mother of god!” followed by giggles, “Take two” and a countdown. Intentionally or not, the fuck-up demonstrates vulnerability in the form of an all-too-human mistake—and vulnerability is at the core of the song’s message. It’s followed by the delightfully jangly 12-string arpeggio of truncated E-B-A chords using only the G-B-E strings with the bass entering halfway through the phrase. This engaging pattern is repeated with the drums entering the fray and then we’re off to the races.

The verses begin in overdrive on D major, followed by a syncopated descent (D5-C#5) down to B major for the second line. The rhythm temporarily shifts to half-time on the third line, queuing an explosive accelerating effect when the song shifts back into overdrive. The strum then changes to a slightly offbeat rhythm marking the transition to the chorus. The changing rhythms in the verses reflect both the overwhelming urge to unload hidden feelings and the predictable hesitation to share the emotions described in the lyrics; the chorus feels like one huge sigh of relief:

Keep your head and everything will be cool
You didn’t have to make me feel like a fool
When I tried to say I feel the way that I do
I want to talk with you
And make it loud and clear
Though you don’t care to hear

But couldn’t I just tell you the way I feel?
I can’t keep it bottled up inside
And could we pretend that it’s no big deal
And there’s really nothing left to hide?

The bridge involves a temporary key change to B major introduced by a rising half-step slide (A-A#-B), which leads directly to Todd’s seriously hot guitar solo. The solo proves to be something of a feint, for while it feels like Todd is letting it rip with the maximum intensity normally associated with a climactic moment, he ends the solo with an emphatic rise up the scale at the high end of the fretboard to bring us back to D major—a move that launches the one-man-band into an even higher level of overdrive in the first two lines of the closing verse:

I don’t come whining with my heart on my sleeve
I’m not a coward, if that’s what you believe

Though Todd’s vocal has been set to belt-out mode for all three opening couplets, he takes it to another level on those two lines (especially “I’m not a coward, if that’s what you believe”). The vocals on this piece are uniformly outstanding, with Todd alternating between belt-out and plaintive, harmonizing in both falsetto and natural voice while layering the vocal patterns to stunning effect.

The close of the song is signaled when Todd delays the chorus by repeating the key phrase “make it clear” three times, ending up in his falsetto range. Those repetitions are immediately followed by a thrilling stutter-picked descent using the opening arpeggio notes as a baseline, a surprising burst of power pop guitar that makes the heart leap one last time before the fade into the chorus.

The chorus is worth repeating here because that’s where the all-important message resides:

But couldn’t I just tell you the way I feel?
I can’t keep it bottled up inside
And could we pretend that it’s no big deal
And there’s really nothing left to hide?

Here’s why the message is so important to me and should be important to you. Human beings waste a lot of time and energy hiding thoughts and emotions and that habitual repression leads to serious misunderstandings and broken relationships. While there are risks to emotional honesty (people often find me off-putting because I’m so direct), you shouldn’t have to carry the stress of repression just because some asshole can’t deal with honesty. Take a tip from Mary Lambert, who let it all hang out in her hit single, “Secrets”:

I’ve got bi-polar disorder
My shit’s not in order
I’m overweight
I’m always late
I’ve got too many things to say
I rock mom jeans, cat earrings
Extrapolate my feelings
My family is dysfunctional
But we have a good time killing each other

They tell us from the time we’re young
To hide the things that we don’t like about ourselves
Inside ourselves
I know I’m not the only one who spent so long attempting to be someone else Well I’m over it

I don’t care if the world knows what my secrets are (secrets are)
I don’t care if the world knows what my secrets are (secrets are)
So-o-o-o-o what
So-o-o-o-o what

“Torch Song”: This is the misfit on side three, a cliché-ridden pop song with the heaviness of a feather that belongs on side one. A bit too sweet and sappy for my tastes.

“Little Red Lights”: I suppose this song “about the joys and hazards of driving” qualifies as heavy due to the rock trappings but as it’s unlikely to enter the pantheon of great car songs, I think the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean can relax.

Side Four: Baby Needs a New Pair of Snakeskin Boots (A Pop Operetta)

A short medley of pre-fame Rundgren band performances is followed by songs recorded in New York and Los Angeles with a raft of well-qualified session musicians. The pre-song/post-song studio chatter and false starts continue on this side, in sync with the one-man-band performances. From a compositional standpoint, this is clearly the weakest of the four sides. Though the hired hands generally perform their parts with due professionalism, their work pales in comparison to the one-man-band in terms of energy and commitment. The parenthetical label “A Pop Operetta” is an example of false advertising.

“Overture-My Roots: Money (That’s What I Want)/Messin’ with the Kid”: These primitive recordings of Rundgren’s teenage bands may feel like filler to most people, but I consider them fascinating relics of an age gone by. I’m particularly tickled by the truncated version of “Money” (also the name of the band) because it sounds like the garage band of my fantasies—rough and brimming with testosterone-laden enthusiasm. The second piece is an excerpt from a pretty-tight-but-maybe-a-bit-too-fast cover of Junior Wells’ R&B hit by a band called Woody’s Truck Stop, who allegedly became the most popular band in Philly during their brief time together. In both pieces you can tell that the bands were trying their very best to impress the audience and any A&R reps who might have dropped by.

“Dust in the Wind”: The only non-Rundgren composition on the album was penned by Mark Klingman, who would later join Rundgren in Utopia. The song has an R&B/gospel feel with tinges of biblical phrases in the lyrics, a chorus of gospel singers, a clunky guitar solo from Rick Derringer and a soulful saxophone solo from Mike Brecker.

Sorry, but in The Battle of Dust in the Winds, Kansas wins in a landslide.

“Piss Aaron”: You can file this one under “Yuck, Gross.” I hated it when my friends made fun of classmates they judged as “weird” and I don’t think this song is the least bit funny. Double thumbs down.

“Hello It’s Me”: To appreciate this remake, you have to listen to the Nazz original, which Rundgren described as “dirge-like.” It appears Todd has a gift for understatement, for the original sounds like it’s sung at a funeral by the stiff in the coffin as a farewell “fuck you” surprise for all those mourners who were glad to see him go.

The heavily revised arrangement really makes both song and story come to life, resulting in a pop song as close to perfect as any you care to name. This was the first song Rundgren ever wrote, and though he credits Bacharach as the primary inspiration in terms of song structure, the arrangement has enough jazzy touches to give equal inspirational credit to Laura Nyro, who also had a major impact on Rundgren’s approach to songwriting.

Setting the song as a phone-call breakup was a brilliant stroke on Rundgren’s part because it allows us to focus on the contrary feelings, subliminal suggestions and creative bullshit the narrator lays out as he struggles to ease out of a relationship. “I take for granted that you’re always there” (his fault) is followed immediately by “I take for granted that you just don’t care” (her fault). In his attempt to ease any pain he might have triggered, the guy offers to “come around once in while” (thinking of her) then turns around and offers her a friends-with-benefits package “And spend the night if you think I should” (thinking with his dick). That line ends the narrative (though the verse is repeated twice), the kind of closing twist that Rundgren used to wrap up “We Gotta Get You a Woman.”

In the end, we have to conclude that this is one confused dude who likes to hedge his bets by avoiding straight talk. Alas, we also have to admit that the story is painfully true-to-life. “Hello, It’s Me” is a pretty accurate description of how break-ups usually go—they’re rarely clean and tidy.

If you want to see what a successful breakup between two functional adults looks like, check out the Schitt’s Creek video “Alexis and Ted’s Relationship” and move the playhead to 35:22.

“Some Folks Is Even Whiter Than Me”: Speaking of confusion, I have no idea what the hell Rundgren was thinking when he wrote this song. The chorus “Some folks is even whiter than me/Some folks is even blacker than me” means . . . what? The first verse tells us he wants to stay the hell away from racial conflict (“I got myself caught in the middle somewhere/And that’s just where I want to be”). In the second verse he seems to change sides and concede the value of integration (“But if we was all to live another mile uptown/I think we’d like to get it changed a whole lot sooner”) then returns to nowhere land (“I got myself caught in the middle somewhere/And I don’t know where I want to be”).

The more charitable view is that he’s playing a role and using the character to bemoan the “not my problem” attitude toward racial tension—but if that’s the case, he failed to give us a clear and distinct picture of the main character.

“You Left Me Sore”: Uh oh. Poor Todd has boo-boos on his weenie. Lesson 1: Wear a rubber, dummy. Lesson 2: Avoid writing cute songs about venereal disease.

“Slut”: As a certified expert on sluttery, I am forced to take umbrage once again at those anti-sex feminists who claim the song is misogynistic in the extreme.

There are many pejorative definitions of the word “slut.” The stiffs at Cambridge define a slut as “a woman who has sexual relationships with a lot of men without any emotional involvement.” Bullshit. Their competitors at Oxford argue that “a slut is a woman who has many casual sexual partners.” True, but it still misses the mark. Dictionary.com weighs in with “a person, especially a woman, who is sexually promiscuous.” Close, but no cigar.

The most accurate and empathetic definition comes from one of my favorite reads, The Ethical Slut: “a person of any gender who has the courage to lead life according to the radical proposition that sex is nice and pleasure is good for you.” I am proud to be an ethical slut!

I think the guy in the song is also an ethical slut in search of an ethical slut. He’s obviously not the smooth talker who can seduce through suggestive language and he’s certainly not practiced in dating etiquette (“See that girl, watch her dance/If I knew her name I wouldn’t have to sit on my hands/If my mouth don’t work I get some help”). It’s also very clear that any move he makes will be welcomed by his partner in sluttery (“And she don’t mind if I don’t keep my hands to myself”). Much to his credit, he doesn’t care about superficial flaws or conventional notions of beauty (“She’s got saggy thighs and baggy eyes”)—all he cares about is sexual satisfaction (“But she loves me in a way I can still recognize”). The fact that she loves him indicates a voluntary relationship between two highly ethical sluts who just want to skip the niceties and get down to fucking business. When he concludes “She may be a slut but she looks good to me,” it sounds like he’s defending the woman after one of his male buddies dissed her (“Whatcha doin’ messin’ around with that slut?”).

The music (recorded in L. A.) is heavy on the horns and suitably sleazy. Todd plays the role of guy-in-constant-heat with unbridled sexual passion, and I can easily imagine the background singers shaking tits and ass in absolute ecstasy. Kudos to Rick Vito for an absolutely filthy guitar solo. “Slut” is fun, sassy, sexy and a great way to end an album that broke pretty much all the rules.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that “Slut” and “Hello, It’s Me” saved side four, but when the needle has lifted and I leave the music room to tend to other issues, I usually find myself singing, “S! L! U! T! She may be a slut but she looks good to me!”

*****

Though Something/Anything? is far from perfect, it remains a remarkable achievement. In the larger scheme of things the imperfections are relatively minor and actually turn out to be something of a plus because they’re typically human mistakes made in the context of an honest effort. His choice to go one-man-band on the first three sides combined with the album’s diverse and often daring music definitely wowed the listening audience and the flaws made him feel more accessible than your typical rock/pop star.

Even with the financial security provided by his production work, Something/Anything? was a risky career move that took a lot of courage. At this point, Todd Rundgren was hardly a household name; his only Top 20 hit was attributed to the band Runt. Though the follow-up album “Runt. The Ballad of Todd Rundgren” incorporated his name, it failed to crack the Top 200. Given that track record, the “smart move” would have been to bow to common wisdom and leave the experimentation for a date far in the future, after he was well-established. Had the album bombed it certainly would have damaged his reputation as a performer and might have lowered the demand for his production expertise.

We can all thank our lucky stars that the kid got heavy and cerebral, creating a unique collection of music that keeps you on the edge of your seat wondering, “What’s this crazy dude going to come up with next?” You may not care for what comes next, but there’s no way in hell you’re going to change the dial and tune into another station.

6 responses

  1. Great article as usual. I look forward to your look at “Todd,” which I’ve always seen/heard as his psychedelic follow-up to the wide ranging S/A.

    1. We’ll see! I have several other reviews lined up so it may be a while before I get back to Rundgren.

  2. Mary Lambeth Moore | Reply

    Excellent review! Appreciate the DIY history, too. Happy new year and warm regards, Mary

    1. Thank you and warm regards back at ya!

  3. No mention of either Stevie Wonder or Prince, the greatest masters of DIY of them all?

    1. The list wasn’t intended to be all-inclusive, simply to demonstrate the point that DIY efforts by prominent musicians did not ignite a DIY craze. However, I admire both Stevie and Prince so I added them to the list. Thanks!

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: