There comes a time in any person’s life when only pure sweet unadulterated pop music will do. If there’s a sweeter, more uplifting three-minute (well, 2:59) pop song not written by a Beatle, then surely Todd Rundgren’s ‘I Saw The Light’ is it. And although it’s the brightest star in this double album, it’s certainly not the only one in the constellation.
I picked this up from a market stall at the end of a very cold trip to Cambridge to visit some school friends at the university. For two or three days, the sky was blue but the wind blew directly from the Urals, or so it seemed. I'd never in all my days of living in Belfast, sheltered by its lough and its surrounding hills, experienced cold quite like that.
The market stall was, I think, Andy's – who went on to establish a chain of shops called Andy's Records. It cost me £3.30, which seemed like a lot of money in those days, but just for good measure I picked up a cassette version years later in a remainder bookshop in Sheffield where they sold books by weight. At the derisory price of 49p, it said Buy me!, so I bought a few copies to give away to friends whose lives would surely be incomplete without it. I don't remember receiving any feedback to this effect.
I suppose it wouldn't be to everyone's taste. There's a blue-eyed soul track on Side 4 called 'Dust in the Wind' and many of the 25 tracks on the album have the throwaway ephemeral quality of DIY pop music. Todd as usual wrote almost everything on the album, produced it himself on his own Bearsville record label and played all of the instruments (on the first three sides), so there's a certain sense of playing around with big boys' toys. Side 2, for example, starts with a silly introduction in which Todd, sounding like a teenage punk, runs through the tell-tale sounds of a badly produced record. And it's followed by 'Breathless', the kind of synthesised noodling that would punctuate A Wizard, A True Star, his uneven self-indulgent follow-up.
But the fact is that 'Breathless' is also the kind of tune that stays in your head and makes you want to whistle along to it. In any case, I needed the record in my life at that time (1973). Probably searching in vain for Mrs. Right, as one does at 18, I disgraced myself during that Cambridge trip by drinking far too much beer with my friends in their student-oriented pub of choice, where I spent most of the evening shut in a privy with my head on my knees.
My young foolish heart would have responded to all the pretty songs for yearning lovers like 'I Saw the Light', 'It Wouldn't Have Made any Difference', 'Sweeter Memories', 'Torch Song' and the delicious 'Marlene' ('you're the prettiest girl I've ever seen'). And that's not to mention the song he resurrected from his days as leader of the proto-garage band, Nazz (whose second album bore the splendid title Nazz Nazz), which would be covered , exquisitely, by The Isley Brothers, and become his biggest solo hit single, 'Hello It's Me'.!(upload://nFhUwghDE84YfgX0yqaEWiIg717.jpg)
But, as the title of the album suggests, there is something for everyone on these four sides: from the heavy metal of 'Little Red Lights' to the up-tempo R&B of 'Slut', 'Wolfman Jack' and 'Some Folks is Even Whiter than Me', to the guitar heroics of 'Black Maria', and even to the cod Gilbert & Sullivan of 'Song of the Viking' (indeed, he would go on to include their 'The Lord Chancellor's Nightmare' on his next double album, Todd).
The predominant influence, though, seems to be the ingenuous spirit of doo-wop and the kind of uptown early soul to which he no doubt listened as a kid growing up in Philadelphia. He always wore his heart on his sleeve and wasn't shy of expressing the kinds of emotions that didn't necessarily go with his alter ego, the guitar-wielding front man of Utopia, his erratic prog-rock band (for whom he insisted on sublimating his not inconsiderable ego and song-writing talents in the name of democracy).
Fortunately, when I saw him live in concert at Exeter University in the mid '70s, it was much more Todd than Utopia. As someone who loved to dabble at the cutting edge of technology, the sound – in an era when high-volume distortion was often the name of the game – was superb and the concert was all the more memorable. Something of a perfectionist, he would go on to record cover versions of songs like 'Good Vibrations' on a curious album called Faithful which were so close to the originals as to be almost pointless.
Techno-whizz, guitar hero and producer (of, among others, Meat Loaf and Grand Funk Railroad for God's sake), there were so many strings to his bow that he might have ended up dissipating his considerable talents. But he enjoyed a long, diverse and mainly fruitful career that continues to this day. Ultimately, however, he would never top the sheer winning simplicity of this, his third solo album.
For someone whose posturing could be irritating, he could also be very self-deprecating. He talked, for example, of having knocked off 'I Saw the Light' in 20 minutes because it's full of simplistic moon/June-type rhymes. But that's to deny what it must take to write a pop song that still sounds, nearly 50 years on, as fresh as the day it was recorded in his own private studio.
He was a friend and a big fan of Laura Nyro – for which he racks up masses of Brownie points in my ledger – and la grande dame of blue-eyed soul even asked him to lead her touring band at a time when he was still tied to Nazz. Todd was a big admirer of her Eli & the Thirteenth Confession and there’s the same kind of short, sharp, soulful quality in many of the songs that grace this, his own enduring masterpiece.
What a team they might have made. Laura Nyro was one of the very best white interpreters of black music (as her versions of Martha Reeves' 'Jimmy Mack' and 'Nowhere to Run' bear out) and Todd would go on to include a convincing medley of soul numbers on A Wizard, A True Star, which includes Smokey Robinson's 'I'm So Proud' and the Delfonics' delicious 'La-La-La Means I Love You'.
But it wasn't to be. While Laura Nyro died prematurely, Todd's career has proved that longevity has its place. Based now in Hawaii, he's still churning 'em out. I gave up buying his albums after 1981's Healing (which typically included a 7" single of two songs that he didn't manage to cram onto the 33⅓ record). Befitting a classic, though, Something/Anything? continues to delight, just as other facets of his career continue to surprise. He has toured with Ringo Starr's All-Starrs, performed 'Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite' at a Hollywood Bowl celebration of the Beatles and, I recently discovered, my beloved Green Bay Packers have adopted his minor hit, 'Bang the Drum All Day', as an unofficial theme tune.
Let us now praise multi-faceted men!