Why Todd’s most obscure ’70s album remains one of his very best
Fifty years after its release in June 1971, Ballad remains Todd Rundgren’s most obscure ’70s album.
But as a Rundgren studio album from his fertile run in the Me Decade, it is worthy of consideration, even veneration. If you’ve listened to all his other albums from this time to the point of memorization, here’s one that will still sound fresh.
Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
It was Rundgren’s second solo album after disbanding The Nazz. Well, sort of. Theoretically it was by a band named Runt, consisting of Rundgren with brothers Hunt Sales (drums) and Tony Sales (bass), the sons of children’s TV show host Soupy Sales. But Rundgren not only produced and wrote all the songs, he played most of the instruments (even saxophones) and brought in sessionmen to handle bass and, especially, drums, as Hunt was not quite ready for prime time and is on just two tracks, behind the kit on one and playing congas on the other; Norman Smart (Mountain, Hello People) plays most of the drum parts.
The semi-band’s 1970 debut contained a hit single in “We Gotta Get You A Woman”; the two singles from Ballad, peaked at 71 and 92, and the LP didn’t even make the Top 200 album chart despite a Rolling Stone review—by his pal Patti Smith—in which he is compared to Wolfgang Mozart, Maurice Ravel, Bobby Fuller, Smokey Robinson, and Paul McCartney (specifically “Hey Jude”). The Milton Glaser-designed LP cover featuring a Carl Fisher photo of Rundgren with his back to the viewer, seated at a grand piano with a noose around his neck, probably didn’t help. (Photos and design inside the original gatefold were by Ron Mael of Sparks, whose debut in September ’71 was produced by…Todd Rundgren.) Perhaps it’s the lack of success which led Rundgren to barely mention it in his sort-of autobiography The Individualist (it is cited merely as coming at the point in time coinciding with a relationship).
Eight months later Warner Brothers, which had bought Bearsville (founded by Dylan manager Albert Grossman) and thus acquired Rundgren, released his double-LP masterpiece Something/Anything, making him a superstar. His two Runt albums had laid the foundation upon which Something/Anything had been built. Fifty years later, revisiting The Ballad of Todd Rundgren, one can hear how in some ways (though certainly not scale) it was the template for its vastly more popular successor. It is full of good songs brilliantly produced and convincingly performed. It contains touching ballads: “The Ballad (Denny and Jean),” “Wailing Wall,” “A Long Time, a Long Way to Go,” “Boat on the Charles,” “Be Nice to Me,” “Hope I’m Around,” the brief “Remember Me.” It contains a rousing anthem: the mockingly meta “Chain Letter” prompted Smith’s “Hey Jude” comparison for its five-minute duration and buildup to a thickly arranged extended climax. It nods towards harder rock: “Parole.” There are some catchy mid-tempo tunes that are pure Todd-pop: “Long Flowing Robe,” “Bleeding.” There’s a quirky change of pace: “The Range War.”
What was the difference? The balance tilted too much in the direction of ballads, perhaps. But mostly, it was a matter of distribution. Bearsville had been distributed by Ampex, a tape company that was out of its depth in the cutthroat distro world. The Ballad of Todd Rundgren was literally the last Bearsville release distributed by Ampex. The vastly greater distribution and promotion muscle of Warner Bros. showed its importance with the much-improved sales and radio play Something/Anything achieved.
Fifty years later, though, we can listen to The Ballad of Todd Rundgren and hear Todd’s incipient greatness.