This year, Todd Rundgren was announced as part of the 2021 Class of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. My view of the institution is not exactly high, and I doubt an iconoclastic figure like Rundgren is too chuffed at the idea either. Still, as a titanic figure of popular music for more than four decades, his absence began to feel more and more egregious with every passing year. The man once known solely as the singer behind ‘Hello It’s Me’ and ‘Bang the Drum All Day’ has rightfully been acknowledged as a major creative influence over a litany of musical styles and genres, including pop, rock, progressive rock, and electronica.
But Rundgren’s legacy can’t just be confined to his own work. The musician’s second calling, as it turned out, was as a producer who could both expand an artist’s sonic horizons and reel in the more experimental minds of music. His production work varies wildly from act to act, sometimes favouring stripped down live takes with a heightened focus on band chemistry, and other times providing lush arrangements and new technology for artists to explore their most eccentric of ideas.
When looking at it all together, Rundgren’s career thus far looks to be one of the most prolific in all of popular music. Through his stints in the band’s Nazz and Utopia, his 26 official studio albums, and his collaborations with other musicians, Rundgren’s place has now been permanently etched among the greatest of all time. To celebrate, let’s look at how he shaped the world of music through his production. These are ten albums that feature Rundgren behind the studio glass, helping others fully realise their visions.
Todd Rundgren’s 10 best production credits:
The Band – Stage Fright
Although his name doesn’t appear as an official producer, Rundgren’s first big break after his departure from Nazz was helping roots rock stalwarts The Band craft their impressively funky third LP Stage Fright.
Taking an especial interest in the complex keyboard interplay between the savant-level musicianship of Garth Hudson and the hardened boogie-woogie of Richard Manuel, Rundgren was able to highlight the blend of old-style Americana that the Canadian group had so lovingly fostered on their first two albums and pair it with updates in newer technology and stopping arrangements.
Badfinger – Straight Up
Like a number of Rundgren’s future production projects, Straight Up was fraught with difficulties and miscommunication. Unlike those future projects, Rundgren wasn’t initially a complicit party: Badfinger were being battered around by Apple Records, having their first attempt at the album produced by Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick shelved and their second attempt, this time produced by George Harrison, stuck in limbo.
The resulting album with Rundgren is a mishmash of different captains steering a ship in opposing directions, but it helps that all those captains happen to be musical geniuses. ‘Baby Blue’, ‘Name of the Game’, and ‘Day After Day’ are stone-cold classics, while the deeper cuts roar to life with a rollicking energy that would soon become recognized as a precursor to power pop.
Sparks – Halfnelson/Sparks
Despite their combined reputations for eccentricity and intractability, Rundgren actually had a positive report with the Mael brothers when they worked together on Sparks’ debut LP. Sharing a similarly experimental bent and penchant for sugary melodies, the trio crafted what could very well be described as the band’s most accessible studio effort, initially released as Halfnelson and later.
Still finding their voice, Sparks presented themselves as simply a “weird rock band” instead of the genre-defying amalgam they became. For his part, Rundgren didn’t attempt to change the band’s quirky uniqueness, simply trying to record the songs as cleanly as possible. The result might be a bit thin compared to both artist’s lofty heights, but Sparks remains a highly enjoyable time capsule of a band and a producer both finding their signature voices.
New York Dolls – New York Dolls
The great thing about Todd Rundgren was that he could work with anyone. Genres were blurred lines to him, and the singular sounds of an artist’s style took precedence over whether it was in line with what he personally would have done. The New York Dolls, in all their proto-punk sloppiness and jagged edges, were miles away from the increasingly intricate leanings of Rundgren, but the album that resulted from the pairing, New York Dolls, is everything that it needed to be: loud, aggressive, unpretentiously wild and fun.
Rundgren’s occasional additions on tracks like ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘Personality Crisis’ never overshadow the band’s gritty energy, and the result just might be his one production effort most resistant to changing times and tastes. New York Dolls still sounds as badass as it did nearly 40 years ago.
Grand Funk Railroad – We’re an American Band
Grand Funk, it could be argued, were not a great band. A meat and potatoes hard rock outfit from Flint, Michigan, Grand Funk played unpretentious, uncomplicated good time rock and roll that sang about girls and cars and dancing, the farthest thing from “art” that you could possibly find. The trick for making Grand Funk a success wasn’t about making them smarter or cooler, and Rundgren doesn’t even pretend to try on We’re an American Band.
Instead, he focuses on how goofy, dumb, and uniquely patriotic he can make the proceedings, resulting in a bare-chested, flag-waving, beer-drinking party that remains completely committed to the joys of being as simple as possible. Grand Funk didn’t have to be a great band to be at their best, they just needed to be an American band.
Meat Loaf – Bat Out of Hell
On the complete opposite spectrum from Grand Funk lies Meat Loaf, the theatrical wild man performer and his writer Jim Steinman, the poet laureate of excessive kitchen sink style rock and roll. The songs on Bat Out of Hell are multipart suites that owed as much to musical theatre as they did to Chuck Berry, and Rundgren placed all of his Phil Spector-esque grandeur into making the album as over the top as possible.
That turned out to be a stroke of genius, as the only way to contain a personality like Meat Loaf on record was to surround him with the biggest, cheesiest, most extravagant arranging and production humanly possible. The result should be a muddled mess, but instead, it soars with a completely unexpected grace, the kind that doesn’t require subtlety or simplicity to have a gigantic impact.
The Tubes – Remote Control
Bizarre new wave collective The Tubes were far too artsy to ever make a lasting impact on popular music. Their wild stage shows, consciously futuristic sound, and insistence on complex concepts to drive every aspect of the band’s existence meant that they were always destined for cult adoration.
Fee Waybill’s singular warble spitting out a half-coherent story about television obsession found Rundgren in a unique position of being a comparatively straight-laced presence, but he gamely rode the band’s vision to its sleek, electronically bustling, utterly strange conclusion.
Patti Smith – Wave
Such distinctive and idiosyncratic voices as Patti Smith and Todd Rundgren should, in an ideal world, cause creative explosions that result in career-defining albums for both.
If that’s what you’re expecting going into Wave, you’ll be disappointed. But if you temper your expectations, what you’ll find is a consistently rewarding album that brings out the poppiest recordings of Smith’s career that never compromises her unmistakable growl or poetic lyricism. Rundgren is a deceptively transparent figure, subtly edging Smith and her group away from punk and towards art-pop. It might rankle fan’s of Smith first three albums, but Wave is an exciting and worthy addition to Smith’s canon.
The Psychedelic Furs – Forever Now
Rundgren’s production style very rarely overlapped with the predominant tastes of contemporary pop music. He was drawn to unique textures and restlessly forward-thinking sounds as opposed to popular trends. He was able to synthesize both, however, on The Psychedelic Furs Forever Now.
‘Love My Way’ is an indelible slice of ’80s pop, but the rest of Forever Now plays into the post-punk foundations of the group and the willingness of all involved to indulge in angular guitar lines, growling vocals, and decidedly uncommercial darkness. Rundgren’s contributions, including marimba and the instigation of backing vocals from harmony extraordinaire Flo & Eddy, gave the album just enough polish to have it be viable for public consumption.
XTC – Skylarking
Now, finally, comes the culmination of all of Rundgren’s sometimes creatively fertile, sometimes combatively combustive tendencies. In most productions, Rundgren could either commandeer the album’s direction or sink into the background and let the band ride on their own peculiar inclinations. No such luck with Andy Partridge.
The two fought, verbally sparred, and clashed all throughout the making of Skylarking. Rarely seeing eye to eye on anything, the two creative geniuses made the recording process as difficult as it could possibly be. No matter. The album is a masterpiece, one that represents the peak of each other’s best musical ideas and worst social proclivities.