I Want To Change The World - Part One
Long ago, I once wrote a review for an album known as A Wizard, A True Star
. The fourth album in Todd Rundgren’s discography, the Upper Darby native eschewed his prior image of a “male Carole King” for Ritalin-infused psychedelia and marijuana-laced power pop. If “The International Feel (In 8)” suite gave anyone an indication of what Rundgren was aiming to achieve, it was a bizarre twist of career suicide and startling reinvention – a remarkable refusal to adhere to traditional songwriting standards, instead firing off successive micro-compositions that wove into one another to create a cohesive singular piece, which notably exclaimed “You want the obvious/You’ll get the obvious” as a response to executives and fans clamoring for another hit record, while containing a nightmarish sound collage in another. However, to fully understand how and why Rundgren came to create a divisive record, one must go back a few years to 1970. Rundgren had recently departed from Nazz, which failed to make it big due to internal arguing and lackluster management, and now landed himself a job with Bob Dylan’s former manager Albert Grossman. Grossman’s investment in Rundgren laid solely with his abilities behind the recording console rather than his skill as a musician, being hired to be the house producer for the Ampex label.
The story of how Rundgren’s first work Runt
came to be is short – Ampex simply knew Rundgren had experience as a musician from his prior exploits with Nazz and taking a chance on the producer, gave him a small advance to record an album, moreso to indulge him rather than seeing any potential in him whatsoever. Upon delivering his project to the label, executives noticed the finished product had an obvious hit and ok’d it for release, the hit in question being the piano pop cut “We Gotta Get You a Woman”, which would go on to be Rundgren’s first hit record – the same kind many would beg him to recreate in the years to come, much to his chagrin. Aside from the hit single, which told of the woman-less Leroy and the narrator’s promise to get him a girl before proclaiming he, too, is alone in a case of situational irony, “Runt” featured a scattershot array of songs that varied in quality and was stylistically all over the place.
On one side, “Runt” contained a decent selection of highly-accessible, catchy pop songs that brought forth the Carole King comparison, such as “Believe in Me” and of course, “We Gotta Get You a Woman”; a bluesy slow-burner in “Broken Down and Busted” with “Devil’s Bite” turning the tide as the album’s straightforward rocker; as well as the lengthy, yet somewhat aimless “Birthday Carol”. On the off-set, “Runt” also featured songs that didn’t have much to offer aside from occupying space on the record, most notably the mediocre “I’m In the Clique”, which took to the Zappa blueprint without containing the charm of Zappa’s greatest works, instead coming off as overly obnoxious (complete with gratingly zany vocals and smart-ass lyrics) and a waste of time.
Other offenders, such as the bland run of the mill 70s pop rocker “Who’s That Man"” and The Band-influenced “Once Burned” respectively serve no purpose to the overall experience of “Runt” and in the latter’s defense, would’ve been a better song had Rundgren bothered to knock it off with his blatant imitation of Richard Manuel and did it straight instead. However, if there was a single track to sum up Rundgren’s debut, the medley “Baby Let’s Swing/The Last Thing You Said/Don’t Tie My Hands” would serve as an appropriate approximation of the quality of “Runt” – it’s complete with several wondrous ideas, yet lost in its attempt to experiment beyond the piano rock sound Rundgren was already becoming a master of. Only if “Runt” had more time to gel and to gather a certain direction, it would've easily become worthy to be compared to subsequent works, yet it falls short of the mark greatly. Despite its failings, "Runt" is most definitely Todd Rundgren with his training wheels still on, crafting an album that isn't entirely "there" at just the age of 22. Better things were certainly yet to come.