Todd Rundgren: Producer

Philadelphia-born and raised musician Todd Rundgren, as of late 2022, is still continuing his musical career well into a second half-century with the release of his twenty-first studio album Space Force. Even that doesn’t really tell the whole story – his separate band project Utopia released ten studio albums during its time, while his early band the Nazz put out three albums as well; compilations, live sets and more covering all these areas of work further expand what’s been an extensive career, eventually leading to his inclusion in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2021. 

But just as notable as his discography, and in some cases very much more well known than it, has been his production work for a wide variety of artists and bands over that same amount of time. Covering everything from forgotten obscurities to subcultural landmarks to one of the rock era’s biggest smash albums of all time, his work as producer and engineer, readily seen in his own artistic work, is notably hands-on and can emphasize high-end sounds and polish but always with a preference to try and be just a little out of the ordinary when possible. Two quotes from Paul Myers’s book A Wizard A True Star: Todd Rundgren In The Studio serve as useful summaries for his sometimes brusque approach. Lenny Kaye, longtime guitarist for Patti Smith, told Myers: “Todd’s aphorism was ‘If you know what you want, I’ll get it for you. If you don’t know what you want, I’ll do it for you.’” Separately, Jim Steinman, the songwriting architect for Meat Loaf’s Bat Out Of Hell, and a notable musical control figure himself, noted his financial commitment to the album when no label had put up the cash and concluded that Rundgren was “the only true genius” he’d ever met.

Rundgren’s own start as a producer and engineer came in 1969 after leaving the Nazz when he took up an offer to work for Albert Grossman’s Bearsville label, leading to a variety of engineering work in particular for acts such as Jesse Winchester and the Band; his rapid reputational growth on that front allowed him to begin his solo work in earnest via Bearsville while also beginning to work for clients beyond that label. A fellow Bearsville artist, Sparks, resulted in one of his earliest production standouts via their debut album, originally titled Halfnelson (the band’s original name), while that same year he ended up taking over the sessions that would result in Badfinger’s Straight Up, which scored the band a top five hit with “Day After Day.” This pattern of achieving underground or critical success with his clients as much as commercial ones became unexpectedly common; in 1973 alone he produced Grand Funk’s smash We’re An American Band as well as the raucous dawn-of-punk debut album by the New York Dolls.

During the mid to late 1970s, while still very much in overdrive with both solo and Utopia work, his growing production reputation led to more acts seeking him out directly, including ex-Gong member Steve Hillage for early solo work as well as his fellow Philadelphians Hall and Oates. But it was the combination of a young theatrical/musical performer and a songwriter with a taste for the incredibly melodramatic that proved to be what fully established him as a producer par excellence, when he went to bat for Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman to create the ultimate Broadway rock musical in all but name, Bat Out of Hell, at over forty million copies sold around the world since release, an undeniable musical landmark. At the same time, other contemporary or newer acts, often inspired in turn by his own self-driven artistic muse and goals, worked with him on various efforts, ranging from the arch comedy/conceptual artists the Tubes and the artistic and poetic explorations of the Patti Smith Group to the down-to-earth sentiments and warmth of the Tom Robinson Band.

The 1980s continued Rundgren’s overall hot streak; if a Bat Out Of Hell could never truly repeat itself as a phenomenon, his abilities and ear meant regular demand. He was often sought out by veteran acts for a little extra creative juice, as with Dragon on Dreams of Ordinary Men or Cheap Trick for Next Position Please, but was just as apt to work with younger acts looking either for a new focus – most notoriously with Shawn Cassidy on the new wave turn Wasp – or a general reset, with a notably successful example being the Psychedelic Furs’s Forever Now. Towards the end of the decade he produced the initial albums by Canada’s The Pursuit of Happiness to great effect, but overall his standout for the decade as a producer likely remains XTC’s Skylarking. Infamously one of the most fraught experiences a band/producer combination has ever been through – even in late 2022 Andy Partridge could tell an interviewer a story about almost wanting to put an ax through Rundgren’s head – the end results were an elegant artistic pinnacle which helped the band achieve a new level of overall success.

Beginning in the 1990s Rundgren’s schedule as a producer on outside work slowed down, as much a shift in general outside tastes as with Rundgren’s own preference to focus on his own work or on collaborations with others, though notable production jobs included work for Jill Sobule, Bad Religion and 12 Rods. Every so often in later years he’d return to the role, and in the 21st century that included one of his earliest clients when in 2009 he produced the second New York Dolls reunion-era album, Cause I Sez So; a 2021 stand-alone single with Sparks, “Your Fandango,” was an engaging example of how both acts had proven to be good long-haulers. Whether or what Rundgren chooses to do next will always be up to his own impulse, but as someone who has made a clear case several times over of what so many acts could and should sound like, his legacy is absolutely clear.

Straight Up cover

Resulting from separate sessions overseen by Geoff Emerick, George Harrison and then finally Todd Rundgren, who the band clashed with, Straight Up was famously trashed upon release by various rock critics and later looked on poorly by the band itself. Time has led to a greater appreciation of how Badfinger was still in good creative health at a time when their future looked bright. Certainly the sound has an extra polish courtesy of Rundgren, but songs like “Day After Day” and “Baby Blue” were deserved hits, melodic, emotional but still possessing sonic bite.

Skylarking cover

The recording of Skylarking was a fraught affair, with stories of Andy Partridge and producer Todd Rundgren butting heads still surfacing decades after the fact. But in its original release it was one of the band’s richest sounding efforts, a semi-song cycle that had more than the average amount of Colin Moulding tracks, such as the saucy “Grass” and the perverse destruction of “Sacrificial Bonfire.” Yet it was the attention given to Partridge’s “Dear God,” a B-side turned into a reissued album track, that led to a new US breakthrough for the band.

Sparks cover

Thanks to Todd Rundgren’s production skills and his enthusiasm for what Ron and Russell Mael and company were already cooking up in their initial demos, Sparks’s debut album has a crisp, engaging sound that matches their already distinct, unusual songs and delivery. The satisfyingly catchy thwack of “Wonder Girl” starts things off on the right foot, while their range from the sparkling minimalism of “Fletcher Honorama” to the heavy riff drama of “(No More) Mr. Nice Guys” is striking.

Love Junk cover

The Pursuit of Happiness and its frontman Moe Berg had already scored Canadian attention with the original 1986 release of the amusing coming-of-age power pop anthem “I’m An Adult Now.” But it was their eventual 1988 debut Love Junk which proved to be the wider breakthrough, helped out by one of Todd Rundgren’s most direct, full sounding production efforts. The rerecorded “I’m An Adult Now” remains the standout but other winners include the wry “Consciousness Raising As a Social Tool” and the brawling opening song “Hard to Laugh.”

Wasp cover

Cassidy’s album career came to an end with Wasp, the last of three that failed to match the heights of his first two and led him to concentrate on acting and TV series writing and production. But as a swan song it’s a doozy, an attempt to embrace early 80s new wave for all it’s worth, with Todd Rundgren producing the heck out of it. Covers including David Bowie, the Talking Heads and Ian Hunter plus Rundgren-written tracks like the title song don’t really work per se, Cassidy trying out various vocal approaches, but it’s a fascinating curio at the least.

Wave cover

The final album of the original Patti Smith Group’s run, Wave is often seen as an uneven attempt to attract more of the mainstream attention Smith and company had gathered with Easter and “Because The Night.” Certainly some of its polished production by Todd Rundgren sounds perfect for late 1970s rock radio playlists, as the opening “Frederick” shows. But the cover of the Byrds’ “So You Want To Be (A Rock’n’Roll Star),” the unsettling flow of “Dancing Barefoot” or the intense rampage of “Citizen Ship” all show much more was happening.

Yoyo cover

The second and final Bourgeois Tagg album was also the band’s most successful, thanks to the low key but still Top 40 charting “I Don’t Mind At All,” a short, sweetly orchestrated and sung breakup ballad that also had a notable video. All the same, Yoyo is an audibly late 80s major label effort – there’s an awkwardness in a lot of the songs, with Todd Rundgren’s usual production polish servicing an airless stiffness masquerading as slick pop/funk more than once – but whenever Brent Bourgeois and Larry Tagg harmonize the results are very attractive.

Bat Out of Hell cover

Meat Loaf had the pipes, Jim Steinman had the songs, and Todd Rundgren recognized both the humor and the potential; with the latter working off the duo’s vision of taking Bruce Springsteen to Broadway decades before that happened – and recruiting E Street Band members to actually play on it – the result was undeniable. Bat Out Of Hell’s theatricality was always part of the point, and the sheer bravura Meat Loaf brought to songs like the title track, “Paradise By The Dashboard Light” and “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad” anchored one of rock’s biggest sellers ever.

New York Dolls cover

With Todd Rundgren’s production allowing the rough edges to show just enough, on their debut the New York Dolls helped rewrite the expectations of rock and roll under the noses of the mainstream, their genderqueer presentation matched with evident r’n’b/girl group love as much as Rolling Stones worship. David Johansen’s brash vocals and main songwriting, Johnny Thunders and Sylvian Sylvain’s raunchy guitars and the Killer Kane/Jerry Nolan rhythm section all resulted in subcultural anthems such as “Personality Crisis,” “Looking for a Kiss” and “Trash.”

The New America cover

The New America concluded what had been a choppy run for Bad Religion on Atlantic Records, with nearly all songwriting done by Greg Graffin aside from one cowrite featuring Brett Gurewitz, who would rejoin the lineup soon after. The lyrical focus of the album is as much personal as political, while musically it’s often a good blasting, rollicking affair, a kind of mature hardcore for lack of a better term. Todd Rundgren’s production helps in that regard, and songs like “It’s a Long Way to the Promise Land” and “Don’t Sell Me Short” have familiar shoutalong bonhomie.

L cover

For his second studio album, Steve Hillage wrote to his fellow prog-inclined guitarist Todd Rundgren to see about handling the recording, leading to sessions at the latter’s Woodstock studio to create 1976’s L. With Hillage and Miquette Giraudy accompanied by three members of Rundgren’s band Utopia, not to mention a guest appearance by trumpeter Don Cherry, L is a curious beast in the best of ways, with covers of songs by the Beatles and Donovan balanced by Hillage and Giraudy’s compositions, Hillage’s liquid, sometimes frenetic guitar the linchpin.

The American Dream cover

The sole album by the Philadelphia band the American Dream is, being somewhat fair, just another example of a lot of aspiring American rock bands as the sixties became the seventies: a little blues boogie, a bit of proto-metal, some post-Byrds folkiness and harmonizing, even some random vocal weirdness on “Credemphels.” Due to the later extensive musical and acting career of lead guitarist Nick Jameson, as well as being Todd Rundgren’s first production job outside of his own work, it’s earned retrospective notice, as its best a perfectly pleasant listen.

Mother’s Pride cover

Fanny’s fourth album was notably more engagingly pop leaning than their previous three efforts, something the Millington sisters later ascribed to Todd Rundgren’s overall production and mixing at the expense of live energy. But even with the harder edges toned down, Mother’s Pride gives Fanny a chance to show its overall range and ability, from the vocal harmonizing treatments on a cover of Randy Newman’s “Last Night I Had a Dream” to the easygoing chug and spirit of “Summer Song,” plus more contemplative songs like “Regular Guy” and “Is It Really You?”

Remote Control cover

Perhaps little surprise that the Tubes would strike up a working alliance with Todd Rundgren as producer given the latter’s equally evident love for the arch and conceptual; perhaps even less so than when he suggested a concept album approach the Tubes went for it, with TV in all its (pre-cable) addictive glory and chaos the subject. Starting with the charging singalong of “Turn Me On” and with other song titles like “Primetime” and “Telecide” in play, Remote Control exudes early new wave/demi-prog synth-driven energy, the Tubes’s careful madness on display.

TRB 2 cover

When the Tom Robinson Band followed up its debut, it was in a bit of a state, with drummer Preston Heyman, soon after the start of his decades-long stint as a session musician, stepping in after Dolphin Taylor left soon before recording. The band would soon collapse after TRB2’s release but producer Todd Rundgren made sure the album itself came together well. Robinson’s pub-rock-via-punk songwriting remained crisply passionate; Danny Kustow’s guitar work and Ian Parker’s keyboards in combination with Heyman’s work delivered pep and driving energy.

Forever Now cover

The Psychedelic Furs were in a slightly rougher place before the recording of their third album, with two band members suddenly quitting and drummer Vince Ely on the verge. But it was Ely’s suggestion to work with Todd Rundgren that proved to be key, with the now-quartet working with the producer and a small core of session musicians to create the shimmeringly propulsive Forever Now. Famed session singers Flo & Eddie were the further X-factor, especially their harmonies on the quirky, passionate punch of “Love My Way,” an instant new wave standard.

We’re an American Band cover

Iconic can be an overused word but there’s something about the smash hit title track of this album, which kicks off the whole deal, that might well describe its milieu absolutely perfectly: a clipped cowbell intro from Don Brewer, who adds his own good time vocals, a lyric about road life and partying it down, it’s early 1970s guys boogieing it up to the full. The rest of We’re An American Band can’t equal that – a couple of ponderous wannabe anthems don’t help – but Todd Rundgren’s clean but not overfussed production made it their best sounding album yet.

Next Position Please cover

Next Position Please found Cheap Trick aiming to right the ship a little bit, both by partially drawing on a variety of older songs that had that been demoed but never formally recorded while getting Todd Rundgren to produce, understandable given his own clear love for melody and loudness. The result’s more enjoyable than most of the band’s up and down 80s output; Jon Brant plays bass throughout for the first time and, especially in the band-approved ‘authorized edition’ from 2006, songs like “Y.O.Y.O.Y.” and the sparkling “I Can’t Take It” shine strong.

Things Here Are Different cover

Jill Sobule’s 1990 debut was a classic example of an artist having an aesthetic and musical approach fully in place – late 20th century singer/songwriter – but unable to win an audience quite yet. Seen from the vantage point of her later success that’s a bit baffling, since Things Here Are Different has perfectly catchy and well-sung songs bolstered by Todd Rundgren’s production and solid studio musician backing in turn. Only “Too Cool To Fall In Love” was a hit, but other standouts include “Sad Beauty,” “Evian” and the gentle anthem “Tell Me Your Dreams.”

War Babies cover

Hall and Oates’s third album was in retrospect easily one of their most engagingly atypical, though it lacked any hit singles and ultimately led to their switch from Atlantic to RCA. While part of that mixed reaction could be ascribed to producer/fellow Philadelphian Todd Rundgren’s musical contributions – that’s Rundgren audibly going nuts on lead guitar throughout – the vibe was also nearly Steely Dan-like, with nostalgic references mixed with character studies and cynical themes on songs like “War Baby Son of Zorro” and “Beanie G and the Rose Tattoo.”