Rundgren keeps it informal and ‘Unpredictable’
By John Benson
Hello, it’s Todd Rundgren.
While it may seem as though the legendary artist-producer has been away, the truth is, these days he’s just chilling in Hawaii taking whatever life has to offer. Occasionally, the ’70s hit songwriter — “Hello It’s Me,” “I Saw the Light,” “We Gotta Get You A Woman,” “Can We Still Be Friends” and the ubiquitous “Bang the Drum All Day” — releases a new album or tours.
Now the 64-year-old, who during the ’70s and ’80s produced notable albums for Grand Funk Railroad (“We’re an American Band”), Meat Loaf (“Bat Out of Hell”) and XTC (“Skylarking”), returns to Northeast Ohio for more gigs at the Agora Theatre, where he last played in 1995.
This time Rundgren, known for his Runt moniker, is bringing his “Unpredictable” show to Cleveland for two dates – Friday and Saturday – at the famous Rock Hall City venue.
The Vindicator talked to Rundgren about his new unique set, his chances for Rock Hall induction and the overplayed, money-making track “Bang the Drum All Day.”
Q. First of all, how did you conceive the “Unpredictable” show, which has been described as “Todd and three accompanying musicians performing in their den for a house concert?”
A. I started them earlier this year. I decided we’d get together and have a very informal evening. We’d have a list of songs and not necessarily a setlist. They wouldn’t go in any order. It might be songs of my own that I hadn’t played for a very long time, or ever, and even mix it up with songs that are sort of on the weirder side of material. Things that may be completely obscure. So just throwing that stuff into the set and talking more than usual. It’s a purposely informal evening but one in which we have a lot of fun and in which the unexpected, at least for most audience members, is almost guaranteed to occur.
Q. How would you describe the vibe of the “Unpredictable” show?
A. Kind of like “Playboy After Dark.” We’d get into the elevator and go up to Hef’s penthouse and it would be an eclectic mix of people and suddenly Sammy Davis would be at the piano swinging away and Norm Crosby would tell some jokes. It’s supposed to be kind of informal like that. It works in places where people can have a cocktail.
Q. With any veteran act that has more than a few hit records to their name, naturally the possibility of Rock Hall induction comes to mind. Do you think you deserve consideration?
A. I began in a band called the Nazz but they only lasted about 18 months. After that I decided I didn’t like the politics of being in a band and the touring wasn’t everything it was cracked up to be, so I decided that I wanted to get involved in record making. I became fairly successful as a producer. Historically through the ’70s, I made much more money producing other people’s records than making my own. So at a certain point, two things occurred to me: I didn’t have to constantly fret over the commercial success of my records, ergo, I didn’t have to constantly adjust to whatever the market was all about. And conversely, with that kind of freedom, I had the opportunity to do things that other people might not have the liberty to attempt, so I became essentially an experimentalist. What I brought to music wasn’t necessarily a string of hits or a whole bunch of hit albums or anything like that. I brought a certain attitude. I filled a niche in music and simply filling a niche isn’t enough to get you into the so-called Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, like I care. It’s essentially you fulfill a function but it’s not necessarily one that warrants personal fame. It’s like my song “Bang the Drum All Day.”
Q. How so?
A. The song has become a sports anthem, a theme song for Carnival Cruise Lines and the go-to song whenever somebody wants to have a party scene in a movie. The song gets licensed endlessly. While most people are familiar with the song and may even know it enough to sing along to it at a football game, most of them have no idea who recorded it. They have no idea that it’s me. “Hello, It’s Me” is the same way. John Legend said it’s his favorite song but he thinks The Isley Brothers wrote it. So sometimes the contribution you make is visceral, it’s cultural and not specifically musical. In other words, “Bang the Drum All Day” is my contribution to American culture.