Icons in music come and go and are often emblazoned in a listener’s memory by their vibrant primes that involved generational hits and unforgettable tours. For undersung icon Todd Rundgren, the focus has been rolling with the punches of the music industry while staying true to who he is as a musician, and the artist shared some time with the News-Press prior to his performance at the State Theatre tomorrow evening.
For those who are unaware, Rundgren is the mind behind two seminal hits from the 1970s and 1980s, with his singles “Hello It’s Me” and “Bang the Drum All Day,” continuing to live on in the cultural jukebox over the past decades. But like most all who experience a level of success in their lives, Rundgren’s road to crafting his now-venerable status was an up-and-down trajectory filled with pitfalls and adjustments.
Following his high school graduation, Rundgren dug into his Philadelphia roots and started a blues rock group known as Woody’s Truck Stop. He later moved on to the group Nazz, which he took an early version of “Hello It’s Me” from the group, upped the tempo and performed it solo for his first true hit.
From 1970 – 1984 Rundgren began to shift his interest from performing music to producing it, and laid the foundation for a solo career he maintained from the mid-80s until present day. His own evolution as a musician is largely attributed to the industry’s shift during the 1960s into how bands were introduced.
“Part of it was the influence of the Beatles. Before the Beatles there was a different formula: You had to be a handsome frontman then the rest of the guys backed you up, but nobody knew their individual names,” Rundgren said. “The Beatles changed all that. Everyone knew John, Paul, George and Ringo and it was like this ostensible democracy, but it was also a formula that allowed almost anybody to get into the game.”
Further influence from the Beatles included their expansive style that pushed them to learn new instruments and integrate them into future tracks — something Rundgren did as a guitar, piano and drum-playing musician throughout a bulk of his career. Even with his ability to play multiple instruments and forcing his naturally introverted self to become an onstage exhibitionist, Rundgren felt most at home behind a mixer in the studio.
His aptitude for creating music instrumentally and refining it technologically later made Rundgren a swiss army knife of skills. It allowed him to step up as an artist if he wanted to perform, but also slink into the background and help other musicians with their projects. Though just having the ability to play and produce music didn’t make it any easier to cope with the ever-present human element of the artistic process.
“It took me a long time to realize that there’s as much politics and psychology involved in record production as there is music,” Rundgren added with a chuckle. “You’re often dealing with people at their most vulnerable, and sometimes you’re dealing with a collection of personalities who have issues of their own that have nothing directly to do with the music, and that’s only something you learn after a having a done a lot of different projects.”
The nomadism that defines Rundgren’s career has been an essential ingredient to his success. Juggling multiple projects, people and potential outcomes have kept things fresh for Rundgren from the early days as an aspiring teen artist to his current role as a seasoned savant of the industry. The proof is in his own signature songs that were released more than a decade apart but remain grounded in the moment and sound of that time. Case and point was Rundgren’s shift in style from the more instrumental sound of the 1960s and early 1970s to the electronic and sampling-based tracks of the late 70s and beyond that have come to dominate much of the art form.
“A lot of times these movements are reactions to the status quo, but that’s the way music is almost more than any other type of media,” Rundgren continued. “It can’t sustain the same kind of style for too long before some movement comes along to challenge it.”
Keeping his musical career going until his body won’t allow support him anymore is Rundgren’s chief goal. And although the tides of change are inevitable in the industry, they present no danger to Rundgren’s still flourishing and re-configuring career.
Todd Rundgren will play at the State Theatre at 220 N Washington St., Falls Church on Nov. 28. Tickets can be purchased at thestatetheatre.com.