Graded on a Curve:
Todd Rundgren’s Utopia, Another Live

I’m of two minds when it comes to Todd Rundgren. Part of me hates him, and the other part of simply loathes him. Oh, I’m kidding. I really liked the Todd Rundgren who gave us 1972’s Something/ Anything?. It wasn’t until he formed the synth-heavy prog rock band Utopia that things got ugly. Ugly as in pompous, long-winded (a song off the band’s 1974 debut clocks in at 30:26), and philosophically empty-headed. He became the kind of guy who referred to Ra, the sun god, as a “holy synthesizer.” And speaking of Ra, Utopia’s 1977 LP, none other than Robert Christgau complained that, “The first side is bad, the second unspeakable.” And that’s before he really starts getting insulting.

That said, I have a horrible confession to make. I actually owned Utopia’s 1975 LP Another Live, which followed the band’s self-titled live debut. And not only did I own it, I played it, on my 8-track boom box, while painting houses in Gettysburg, PA in the bicentennial year 1976. It seems inexplicable to me now, given that I would soon despise them, but what I really liked, looking back, were the songs “Heavy Metal Kids” and “Just One Victory,” both of which appeared on Rundgren solo albums before Utopia got around to performing them. My brother and I even painted the legend “Heavy Metal Kids 1976” in silver glam paint on the stone windowsill of one of the houses we painted. I went back to Gettysburg not too long ago, in part to see if it was still there. It wasn’t. Some people just have no respect for history.

Anyway, I decided to gird my loins and listen to Another Live again, just to determine whether it sparked any nostalgic memories. And I’ll be damned, but the LP isn’t bad. Or not nearly as bad as I thought it would be. There are, admittedly, moments of sublime banality, combined with large amounts of futuristic brouhaha, but a few of the songs actually get out of their wheelchairs and dance, which is certainly more than I expected.

Todd Rundgren’s Utopia (later shortened to just Utopia) surprised me in several regards. First, I thought Todd was the synthesizer freak in the band. Wrong. Mark “Moogy” Klingman and Roger Powell played the Korg synthesizer and the Moog synthesizer, respectively, along with tons of other instruments. Rundgren played guitar and sang, while Ralph Schuckett played all manner of keyboards in addition to bass. John Siegler played bass and cello, and John “Willie” Wilcox played drums. Second, I was glad to discover (how could I have forgotten?) that Utopia covers The Move’s great rocker “Do Ya,” written by later ELO stalwart Jeff Lynne.

The band is heavy on fusion, which I also loathe, and their opener, “Another Life,” mixes horns and synthesizers in a manner that makes me blanche in utter horror. It’s all very space age, and goes on and on instrumentally for far, far too long. It turns around, slightly, when Rundgren finally commences singing, although I would advise you not to listen to the words, because they’re so much spiritualist doodah and guaranteed to lower your IQ by at least 10 points. That said, I like the big show closing, on which it sounds like a thousand people are singing at gunpoint.

And the philosophical bullshit only gets deeper on “The Wheel,” which at least has the decency to open with just Rundgren on vocals and Wilcox on drums. Then Klingman comes in on harmonica, and nary a synthesizer is to be heard. Eureka! Because I like Rundgren’s vocals, and Powell’s trumpet, and Klingman’s glockenspiel, even if Rundgren is going on and on about how he wants off the wheel of karma, and to stop the hands of time, which good luck with that pal. Still, I like the song’s repetitive groove, with Rundgren repeating his refrain in vain until everybody drops out and he’s singing acapella.

Unfortunately, “The Seven Rays” marks a return to bombast, although its melody is much more likeable than that of “Another Life” and Rundgren doesn’t launch the song with a long synthesizer workout, which is a show of mercy on his part. Truth is I kind of like the song, if not the synths, which unfortunately keep coming back, like a loud-mouthed relative you hate to see darken your door. As for the seven rays they’re undoubtedly more New Age hogwash of the sort then being purveyed by Gary Wright and his ilk, and I keep hearing him sing what sounds like “buy me a root beer,” although I’m certain that’s not what’s coming out of his mouth, and I’m too frightened to Google the song’s actual lyrics.

Meanwhile, the annoyingly titled “Intro/Mister Triscuits” opens with the spacy miasma of your mind on acid, and includes what I swear is the sound of a synthesizer farting. And once the intro is out of the way the band goes into a big, regal composition of the sort favored by Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Needless to say, it’s unbearable, although it moves fast enough that you’re not likely to fall into a coma listening to it, no matter how much you wish to. Take Rundgren’s vocals out of the equation, like they do on this one, and Utopia becomes a dystopia, and fast. Never listen to this song, because it’s the aural equivalent of a Claymore.

“Something’s Coming” opens on a friendly, almost bucolic note, before you realize, much to your horror, that you’re listening to a futuristic update on a song off “West Side Story,” with Rundgren playing the role of Tony. Fortunately it’s over pretty quickly, and you’re not likely to need ear replacement surgery. It’s followed by the fast-paced “Heavy Metal Kids,” on which Todd tries in vain to sound macho (even Elton John does a better job) while the band, thank god, plays a bona fide rock’n’roll song. Rundgren even plays a raucous guitar solo, while the synths are kept well in the background. Or at least I think they are.

As for “Do Ya,” it’s a pounding rocker for the ages, and Todd sings it like he has a grudge, especially on the cool choruses. This is undoubtedly the reason why I liked this LP back in the summer of 1976; Rundgren’s guitar has crunch, the melody is primal and in your face, and while nobody would mistake this number for something by Led Zeppelin, it demonstrates that Todd had a little hard rock in him. And I love closer “Just One Victory,” which boasts a nifty soul-infused melody and lots of great vocals. No synthesizer coups here; Rundgren is playing the blue-eyed soul man, and even the synthesizer that does come in plays an actual solo, rather than dousing noise over everything. It could well be a song off Something/Anything?, that’s how good it is.

Unfortunately by 1977 Utopia was producing songs like “Singring and the Glass Guitar,” an 18-minute “electrified fairy tale” that is introduced by a leprechaun. Which is even worse than it sounds, as Todd seems to know, as he sings, “If you take a look around/ Melody is dying.” Yes, Todd, and you’re the guy holding the shiv. Fortunately by 1977 I’d discovered friends with good tastes in both pot and music, and I was spared ever hearing it until now.

Rundgren is a very talented man, but he’s determined to scatter those talents to the winds via music that is not merely annoying, but just sheer weird. Which, who knows, might make him a visionary or something. He opens “Piss Aaron” off Something/ Anything? by telling the band, “It doesn’t have to be perfect as long as it’s… stupid enough, it’s cool.” I love the attitude, but “Piss Aaron” was stupid cool, as opposed to just plain stupid, which is where he wound up on “Singring and the Glass Guitar.” Todd, we love you, but please lay off the leprechauns. They just make you look dumb.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B-

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