Why the Wizard’s first solo album after The Nazz is his McCartney I
By the start of 1970, Upper Darby, PA native Todd Rundgren had already proven himself as a special singer / songwriter / multi-instrumentalist.
Having grown up a self-taught guitarist during the British Invasion, he was well suited to be the mastermind of his first major band, Nazz (who were often seen as the American answer to The Who, and for good reason). Although he was still very shy about singing—leaving Robert “Stewkey” Antoni to be the frontman—Rundgren’s treasurable and characteristic style were already on display by the start of his twenties, when Nazz classics like “Open My Eyes,” “Hello It’s Me,” “Under the Ice,” and “Forget All About It” first appeared. Likewise, his future reign as an in-demand producer/engineer began at the tail-end of 1969 and the beginning of the new decade, as he got his feet wet overseeing releases by Great Speckled Bird, Jesse Winchester, and even The Band’s Stage Fright.
AUDIO: Great Speckled Bird “Calgary”
Taking all of that into account, it’s not surprising that Rundgren’s debut solo record, Runt (which was also the name of the faux band he used to make it), was so enjoyable and prophetic from both a content and production standpoint. As WXPN’s The Key wrote in May 2013—when they ranked the LP as the #3 best Todd Rundgren studio collection—Runt “was pretty much the do-it-yourself introduction to what would become the Todd Rundgren blueprint.” It’s packed with the quality ballads, tongue-in-cheek playfulness, and adventurous recording techniques he’d soon perfect on subsequent works (especially with the one-two punch of 1972’s Something/Anything? and 1973’s A Wizard, A True Star). Thus, while it may not be his greatest album, it’s inarguably a very important one that still satisfies.
AUDIO: Laura Nyro Eli and the 13th Confessional (full album)
After leaving Nazz in late 1969 and working behind-the-scenes for other artists, Rundgren questioned whether he’d want to continue as a performer. He still wanted to be a creator, however, so he convinced his boss, Albert Grossman of Ampex Records and Bearsville Studios, to take a chance and let him have complete creative control for his initial LP. His wish granted, Rundgren looked to Laura Nyro’s catalog (namely, 1968’s Eli and the Thirteenth Confession) for inspiration on how to incorporate more elaborate and uncommon chord progressions into his piano-based songwriting. He also employed the skills of the Sales brothers—bassist Tony and drummer Hunt, both of whom would stay with him for a couple more years—and a few other players (notably, The Band’s Rick Danko and Levon Helm, plus future Utopia member Mark Klingman). Fortunately, former Nazz engineer James Lowe returned, too.
Released in June 1970—no specific date can be found—Runt was a thrilling and exploratory mash-up of art rock, power pop, rock ‘n’ roll, and even a touch of prog that undeniably offered a glimpse into how Rundgren would expand his sound into increasingly individualized templates going forward. The following year, its lead single, “We Gotta Get You a Woman,” reached #20 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart, while the album itself only peaked at #185 on the Billboard 200. (A few years later, Something/Anything? dashed up to #29, though, so he certainly rose quickly as a solo artist.) Sadly, reviews weren’t entirely positive, either, with Rolling Stone’s Ed Ward issuing a pithy determination that Runt exposes Rundgren as a “merely competent” musician who “spent a whole lot of time listening to a whole lot of groups in the studio and absorbed their facility without absorbing any of their originality.” In hindsight, though, Runt has been appraised more fairly for its merits.
Today, Runt does feel a bit amateurish and unfocused compared to its immediate successors, but it mostly remains an impressive debut. For instance, opener “Broke Down and Busted” conjures Cream with its rich and laidback blues vibe, yet it also has a tinge of Motown in terms of its melodic phrasing and lyricism. In contrast, “Believe in Me” is an archetypical Rundgren piano ode; it’s not as strong as some of his others from this time period, but it still houses his emblematic wounded singing, gentle arrangement, and inventive tones. Truthfully, “We Gotta Get You’re a Woman” and “Who’s That Man” are stronger productions than they are songs, but they nonetheless do a fine job of showcasing his diversity and ability to incorporate a wide array of timbres. Later, “Devil’s Bite” is a very fiery rocker; “I’m in the Clique” friskily—if superficially—foreshadows his prog rock leanings with Utopia; “Baby Let’s Swing”/”The Last Thing You Said”/”Don’t Tie My Hands” reveals his love for medleys; and “Birthday Carol” is an excellent blend of his lightest and heaviest personas. Part Beach Boys ballad and part Chicago-esque jam, it’s a stellar way to leave you content and excited for what’s next. (Luckily, 1971’s Runt: The Ballad of Todd Rundgren didn’t disappoint).
It’s worth noting that, following the success of “We Gotta Get You a Woman” as a single in October 1970), Ampex accidentally reissued Runt several months later with both alternate versions of a few songs and two new tracks: “Hope I’m Around” and “Say No More.” Both of them feel right at home, though, and it’s fun to compare how the material differs from one version to the other. Over the years, some other versions of Runt came out, too, but none are as significant. Luckily, the same cannot be said for Runt proper, which undoubtedly laid the groundwork for Rundgren to spend the next fifty years as a true star.