Something/Anything?: Thoughts on Rundgren’s classic and the progressive class

Something/Anything?  By Todd Rundgren (1972)

Todd Rundgren is a pop music genius. Todd Rundgren was also bored with pop music during his artistic prime. Most of his releases during his prime (70-78) skew towards the bored end. By bored this means these albums are inaccessible for most because there’s a uniformity of non-uniformity. They’ll be flashes of structure and poppy flirtations that reel you in initially. As soon as you begin to settle in and nod your head in anticipation of the next predictable bar..BAM..the song does a complete 180 becoming foreign to the ears. Sometimes the pop flair will show up in the middle of a song or at the end. Sometimes it’s faint but its always there. No matter how far Rundgren went in making his later compositions difficult you could discern a pop ideal within them. It’s just difficult as hell to find. It’s as if his progressive nature took the drivers seat for those compositions, but couldn’t run the entire show because he couldn’t deny his innate pop sensibilities. You can hear the pop characteristics fighting their way through the out-of-this-world weird songs he wrote during this period. He was creating his own “Rundgren language” that you had to sit with for a while listening to understand it. This Methodology lost him the commercial viability he gained with the hit “Hello, Its Me” that he wrote while in his first group “The Nazz.” His style earned him a passionate prog rock cult following leading to the formation of his band “Utopia.” Rundgren could have easily written as catchy of a song as many of his peers that were placing hits on the pop charts. Instead of following that route he went the other way writing music that gave you a hint of that sound, but one that asked you to follow him into a rabbit hole emerging in his bizarre world where what you originally thought was up is actually down and where left is right.

This approach alienated a fair amount of casual listeners that got to know him through “Hello, It’s Me” which was famously covered by The Isley Brothers. Even his hardcore base of fans were frustrated at times. Any idea conceived (sometimes 10 ideas within a song) was quickly abandoned after its initial execution. You could only expect the unexpected. If Rundgren attempted a previous idea he would make sure to apply it differently with the results sometimes disastrous. It’s as if someone makes you the perfect meal, invites you over to dinner again and proceeds to make the same meal while blindfolded. After dinner they’ll share that their now exploring the idea of preparing meals consisting of rocks and sticks. That’s how weird things get when your dealing with a musical progressive because they have a destroy, rebuild wierdly, and throw everything against the wall and out the window mentality. This leads me to some thoughts on the progressive artist (not just rock music), how they tick, and the individual Proger (short for progressive) evolution…

The Proger begins his or her career playing it straight as their still riffing and composing based off of their direct influences. Their first couple of albums and recordings are pedestrian compared to their sprawling kooky recordings later in their career. If you were you introduced to them at the tail end of their career and explored their earlier discography you wouldn’t know who these artists were originally. At the beginning of their career they had no identity other then mimicking their favorite artists. After one or two recordings their progressive gene begins to surface. The Proger gets bored beginning to see the style as repetitive and stagnant. They start to see their peers as conspirators of the status quo. The concept of being a light version of their influence drives them to become something different. They have a vision but don’t know how to make it come to life yet.

Examples: Outkast, Jethro Tull, Zappa, and Kool Keith

Change is in the air
The Proger begins to slowly create outside of the established rules put in place by past artists. Experimentation is they key as everything done before is now subject to being flipped on its head. Nowhere is this more apparent than the studio. The Proger begins to use the studio as an instrument tweaking songs and adding effects (particularly vocal effects) within their work where it had not been before. They perform audio and stylistic alchemy introducing ideas and aesthetics from various other genres. This mix of experimentation and studio trickery brings a new dynamic to the genre that had not been seen or heard before. With these techniques in mind and a conscious decision to try something different, the Proger creates an album that expands on their primary musical references but one that brims with a progressive spirit and execution. The recording is not too weird and not too boring. The album receives critical accolades for its fresh take on a established style inspiring a host of other artists to add a dash of weird to what they do. The ante has been raised within the artists community that the Proger exist in.

Examples: Company Flow, Parliament, Dr Octagon, and Wilco (Yankee Hotel)

Were here
The proger gains notoriety for creating an album with a slightly twisted take on standardized style. The album is celebrated as a breakthrough by critics who previously did not see the genre as stagnant. The album is seen as a game changer. The Proger along with similar artists are declared the new vanguard. The culture of getting weird for weird sakes is now in full effect. The Proger then creates the definitive album of their career mixing the standard form that was once the model for composition with a heavy hand of their method turning everything inside out. They have created and own a new style. There’s no looking back artistically from this point forward. The following albums after the definitive album are a continuation of expansion within their new world, with each subsequent release detracting from the originality, freshness, and urgency of the original sound.

Examples: Ornette Coleman and The Mars Volta

Progers eats themselves alive
Writing untraditional weird songs can become as repetitive as composing traditional songs with traditional structures. What was once innovation within a style or genre has now become its own separate genre. The Proger’s definitive recording has influenced a new group of artists that embrace and mimic its sound. This eventually fosters a scene that has its own standard practices and artistic limitations. Even a scene that rages against in the box mentality develops its own check list of necessities for members to abide by. Opinions are formed of people outside of the style and litmus tests are constantly applied within the artist community. At this point innovation ceases and the scene becomes stagnant. The pioneer Proger becomes what their original influence was to them because their now the matriarch and direct influence to new artists. Each release from the pioneer and their following is a low grade version of the constitutional recording that established the scene in the first place. This scene is now progressive only in terms of a the name affixed to it. Every artists makes the same sounding material. At this point its up to a new artist to innovate by writing stripped down songs. This would be as foreign and weird to a prog community as writing techinically complex songs was for the initial scene that the pioneer emerged from. This new artist will surprise everyone and be declared the artists that changed everything. The cycle starts over again, albeit this time it’s a reaction to the “progressive stagnation” of music.

Examples: Ornette Coleman, Frank Zappa, Northern California underground Hip-Hop (Anticon) and Math Rock (every Hella offshoot) between ’99 -’04

This cycle is good for music as it keeps things in check. It keeps things fresh. It creates new genres/ideas while providing an alternative (hence “Alternative Rock”) to get away from a tired repetitive style (Example:  The innovation and popularization of underground Hip Hop in the late 90’s in response to “Bling Bling” era Hip Hop). When things get stagnant and predictable Progers shake things up. After a while the actual shaking up becomes influential making all output from that point forward predicitable. Although its far from where it started this new style takes on the same characteristics (group think and stagnation) of the previous one. We deal in extremes when it comes to music. The pendalum will always swing drastically in another direction in response to an established sound. Progressives are the straw that stirs the pot. After they have created their musical utopia (pun intended) it falls into the same pitfalls as the world that it was a refuge from. After some time it will go away after being replaced by something new and fresh. All things must pass.

The best part of the cycle is when the proger exists in the world that they entered in and the world they are about to create. This doesn’t last long as their beginning to find their own voice and will move on quickly. By the end of their prime their releases are a parody of previous acclaimed albums. This middle area is the point where someone figures out how to take a style that they were influenced by as far as it can go stretching the unimaginable thereby creating something new and making their individual contributing to music. This music challenges you but doesn’t frustrate you with a negligent approach to everything. It doesn’t bore you with retread ideas. It brings in new ideas to a sound that they we didn’t know even needed updating.  Albums written in this period matter because they put something in your head that you would have never conceived of before. They make our minds and hearts race with music that makes us feel as if were going somewhere we could have never charted. These albums are audio evidence of a sound being perfected. After that it’s gone.

“Something/Anything?” by Todd Rundgren is a great example of that particular moment in the cycle. It doesn’t take one style or genre and tweak it, it’s Rundgren’s attempt at all of the prevailing popular styles at that time. The album ranges from riffs on Motown to songs in the vein of Carole King. Its Rock, its Soul, Its everything. What makes his attempt at these styles so magnificent is the eccentric nature of the recordings. Its extremely odd but fun. On the first side of the album he gives in to his pop instincts writing catchy song after catchy song. What makes them different and great is a unexplainable odd ingredient within them that give it the right amount of “weird” (Like Ariel Pink who I contend is this generations Rundgren with his DIY tactics, unpredictable discography, and stature as an outsider).

“I Saw The Light”

The second side is where the weirdness truly begins with a vocal intro of Rundgren oddly explaining studio techniques and how recording hiss happens. The next song “Breathless” sets the stage for side two as a pop masterpiece interpreted through a demented mind. “Breathless” which is a instrumental sounds like a Neptunes outtake from the “In Search Of…” sessions. The song reinterprets the pop song with electronic drum programming and synths instead of their acoustic counterparts. This was a daring attempt at creating modern music for 1972.  He was in good company as fellow progressives Shuggie Otis and Sly Stone were mixing electric programming on their albums at the same time. In the middle of  “Breathless” it goes whacky sounding like animals breaking free in a circus tent (with no one getting trampled of course). From that point on it’s a slippery slope into further pop weirdness (In the beginning of the song “Saving Grace” he chop and screws his vocals. This was 1972! Texas should we credit Rundgren instead of DJ Screw?).

“Something/Anything?” is a double album. The first record alone makes it worthy of classic status. By the second record Rundgren is already in his own way because his musical idea A.D.D takes over. The balance was gone never to be found again in a complete recording of his again. There’s moments on some albums but not the consistency that he achieved with “Something/Anything?.” These releases are as exhilarating as they are frustrating. As you follow him through the tunnels and melodic booby-trap’s of his music you get lost and he’s doesn’t come back for you. On “Something/Anything?” he was with you learning the pathways and in awe as you were to the possibilities of new roads that weren’t there before.

“The Night The Carousel Burned Down”

“Song Of The Viking”

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4 Responses to Something/Anything?: Thoughts on Rundgren’s classic and the progressive class

  1. Kim, this is phenomenally written. I never even heard of this man or his music and am completely engaged in listening after reading your take on his work. This stuff is beautiful man, thank you. Continued success my genius friend.

  2. robinsk2 says:

    Thanks much Clarence! totally appreciate it.

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