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(Credit: Guus Krol)

Music

The best-selling record that Todd Rundgren produced as “a spoof of Bruce Springsteen”

Over the years, Todd Rundgren has learnt to not be too particular about the music he chooses to produce. This was a lesson that he has both gained wild fortunes from, but also lived to lament from time to time. As he recently said of the chaotic process of working on Kanye West’s Donda: “There’s so much junk in that record!” He then dubbed him a “shoe designer” and later added: “He’s just a dilettante at this point. Nobody would regularly make records like that unless they had stupid money to throw around.”

You live by the sword, and you die by the sword in the production game. But seeing as though your name isn’t on the cover, you can often dip a toe in foreign creative waters fun of it. Rundgren is footloose enough with his own wandering records, so why not delve into all kinds of genres and ideals behind the mixing desk? In the words of George Clinton: “Funk them just to see the look on their face.” 

His exploration in production was a prolific one, so much so that some of his fellow musicians so him as some sort of industry kingpin. As he once told Billboard: “I had a friend and occasional bandmate named Moogy Klingman, and in the mid-’70s, I was getting a lot of production work — probably more production work than I could handle — and so Moogy approached me [to say], ‘Well, if I find a band or an act that you think is worth producing, I’ll do the legwork on it, and that’ll help me get into the production game’.”

That idea sounded swell to Rundgren, it was no skin off his nose and it gave a friend a leg up in the production game. Thus, Klingman went squirrelling off to find a talent. “It was Meat Loaf,” Rundgren fatefully recalled, “and he explained it was also this guy Steinman who I hadn’t heard of. I knew who Meat Loaf was; I’d seen him in the Rocky Horror show on Broadway. So I said, ‘Okay, interesting enough, let’s listen to it’ — and the only way that they would demo the material was to do it live. They didn’t have a demo tape.”

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Things would continue to rot in Denmark thereafter. The band rattled through a live set in a rehearsal studio, and that fabled session went on to be the album we now know as Bat Out of Hell… only it wasn’t all that fabled at first. “They related to me that they’d essentially done this for any producer who would entertain coming to see them, and that they had been essentially turned down by everybody. And I could understand why, because it didn’t have an obvious commerciality,” Rundgren recalled. 

That is one of the first ironies of many in this tale. The next one even got Rundgren scoffing mid-sentence. “I saw it as a spoof of Bruce Springsteen. Because the songs were sort of very basic changes, the themes were all… [Laughs}… by the time it was the ’70s, the themes were kind of nostalgic.”

As he explained: “Even though Bruce Springsteen would represent them as still being real, the iconography was still out of the ’50s, you know? It was switchblades and leather jackets and motorcycles and that sort of junk. So I saw the whole presentation as being a spoof of Bruce Springsteen, and that’s why I decided to do it.”

However, things would quickly get serious and Rundgren’s role was far more than merely giving a friend a leg-up. “Meat Loaf comes to me and says ‘My label doesn’t understand me, and I want to get off my label’,” Rundgren recalled, and he had to explain to the industry novice that that was the job a manager. Nevertheless, the headstrong Mr. Loaf decided he should cut ties. This left the ever-integral Rundgren in a hole not wanting to let anyone down. 

RCA were now out of the picture, so Rundgren went to “Bearsville and I said, “If you will pay for the rest of this production, you’ll get the right of first refusal, and otherwise you will charge it to me.” And in the end, they turned the record down, and Warner who was distributing them also turned the record down. So essentially I had this big red item on my debit sheet, and they went off to find someone to actually pick up the record and distribute it. And that took like six months or so. Just like during the auditions, everybody turned them down because nobody heard it. At least the way I heard it.”

The mark of the majesty of that ear would soon come to the fore and declare the rest as ancient history. It now resides firmly amid the top ten best-selling albums of all time. And, in my opinion, it ranks quite highly amid the oddball list for quality too.

As written in my ranking: “The crux of this best-selling list is that people like camp things. Bat Out of Hell is an album that knows what it’s about and it screams that message home in an almost ridiculous attack on the senses. Meatloaf’s utter insistence to constantly offer up nothing other than the height of sonic drama throughout is an act of frenzied persistence rivalled only by a caffeinated dog trying to catch its own tail.”

“Perhaps if I had been reflecting on this album a year ago, when the bristling frontman was still with us, then glaringly gaudy elements (basically all of it) might have been open for denigration. However, it is not an act of posthumous sympathy to now cherish them, it’s simply that his sad passing and the tales and retrospect that came along with it reminded us all to see to fun beneath the frenzy. Say what you like about the album, it couldn’t care less and that much was true before it was even released, in fact, that seems to have been its benevolent intent.” Rundgren was an integral part of that, and he has been reaping the rewards for the long-forgotten red on his debit sheet ever since. 

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