Todd Rundgren is an underappreciated rock-and-roll superstar best known for a few bright pop music hits such as “I Saw the Light,” “Hello It’s Me” and “Bang the Drum All Day.” But his long and wide-ranging career, which began in the late 1960s, is filled with accomplishment.
His reputation as a producer who has worked with the likes of Hall & Oates, Patti Smith, the New York Dolls, XTC and The Tubes is at least as impressive as his enormous catalog of original music that bears his name.
Rundgren, who lately has been touring eight-10 months a year, will play a show at the Charleston Music Hall on Wednesday, Feb. 10. The set list will draw from about 50 prepared tunes and include many fan favorites, he said. The audience probably will get the straight-ahead rocker Rundgren, not the progressive rock artist of Utopia (an early Rundgren band) or the computer whiz of “No World Order” or the Blues-channeler who covers Robert Johnson songs.
It might be a good idea to shout out requests: “Influenza,” for example, or “The Want of a Nail,”or “Can We Still Be Friends” or “It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference” or “The Last Ride” or, just to see how far back his memory goes, “The Wheel.”
Rundgren’s two-track career as a performer and producer has delivered unequivocal proof of his virtuosity both on stage and in the studio. Several of his own records were made almost single-handedly, with Rundgren playing all the instruments and singing all the vocal parts. He’s one of those mad-cap, hermitic perfectionists blessed with a soulful and elastic voice and guitar chops that rival any of the great lead players you can think of.
“When I started out, I was in my mind just a guitar player,” he said in a recent telephone interview. “I wanted to be in a band and wanted to step up and do solos. I didn’t have the confidence to be the front man.”
He started the band Nazz, but it went bust after a couple of years, despite some intense and successful marketing, because of infighting and limited music-making, Rundgren said.
“I decided I wanted to be a record producer.” Thus began a more lucrative endeavor, one that would provide Rundgren a good deal of latitude when it came to making his own records. He could afford to take risks other musicians were compelled to avoid. He could write challenging material and not worry too much about selling a lot of records. It was liberating, he said. And it accounts for his eclectic musical output.
Even as he slid the knobs and turned the dials on the mixing board in the recording studio, Rundgren was writing songs.
“So I asked for money from my management to do little vanity project,” he said. And the vanity project, “Runt,” happened to include a song that became a commercial hit, “We Gotta Get You a Woman.”
“So suddenly I got dragged back into being an artist.” One who needn’t strive too hard to generate another hit. (Though he would, again and again.) “That became the signature element of my musical career,” this ability to experiment freely, he said.
It paid off. Rundgren gained a loyal following of fans more interested in the artist than the hit single, more inclined to follow a career. For Rundgren, it was a way “to cull out the dilettantes,” he joked.
He went through his art rock phase, and his expansive electronic phase. He made an amazing record in the 1980s — a tour de force of songwriting and technical wizardry — called “A Cappella,” using only his voice to create every sound you hear. He revisited his pop roots, kept writing songs, toured extensively and appeared repeatedly on “The Late Show with David Letterman,” who’s host was a big fan.
All the while, he was producing other people’s records. His session with the British band XTC during the making of the album “Skylarking” gained notoriety as a particularly contentious experience that pitted two strong-headed artists against one another. XTC’s Andy Partridge, the band’s prolific lead songwriter, didn’t fully appreciate Rundgren’s vision, his intention to make a concept album on which all the tunes related to one another. Partridge resisted the producer’s ideas and efforts.
In a way, it was a forced collaboration, Rundgren said. Virgin Records, concerned that XTC was not selling enough records, especially in the U.S., threatened to dump the band unless the fellows worked with a respected American producer who might inject some commercial appeal into the XTC enterprise.
“It was such a combination of situations ... that created, ultimately, an album that sounds like we were having a great time doing it,” Rundgren said. “And at times we were having a good time.”
But disagreements over drum patterns, song selections (“Dear God” was at first left off, then added for a later vinyl pressing) and innumerable small details forced the antagonists into their separate corners. Rundgren prevailed, mostly, and the end-result was critically acclaimed. Even Partridge begrudgingly acknowledged Rundgren’s talents.
“Musician and producer Todd Rundgren squeezed the XTC clay into its most complete/connected/cyclical record ever,” Partridge wrote for a promotional insert that accompanied the record “Nonsuch.” “Not an easy album to make for various ego reasons but time has humbled me into admitting that Todd conjured up some of the most magical production and arranging conceivable. A summer’s day cooked into one cake.”
Rundgren, 67, is very much still in the game and showing no signs of slowing down, though he said he’s looking forward to taking a long-overdue vacation with his family later this year. When he first started out, he was something of a loner, a hyper-creative guy who lived in his head and in the studio most of the time. These days he’s more gregarious.
He’s working on some new songs with The Roots, the hip-hop/soul band that collaborates with Jimmy Fallon. He’s got a side project going of some kind, he said; and he’s contracted to make a new solo record this year. Plus he’s touring (again) with Ringo Starr & His All Starr Band, with dates scheduled in places along the Pacific Rim.
Somewhere in there he hopes to find a little time to himself.
“I want to do some scheming at home,” the man famous for his musical scheming said.
No doubt, the effort will generate another batch of fine songs.
Reach Adam Parker at 843-937-5902. Follow him at facebook.com/aparkerwriter.