Todd Rundgren's 1972 Classic

One format that is often an afterthought in discussions about downloads, LPs, and every other music storage and playback medium is the SACD. Fiercely beloved by a determined minority, most of them audiophiles, SACDs continue to be manufactured, most recently by Mark Piro's New York-based Analog Spark label. His latest hybrid SACD release is a reissue of Todd Rundgren's 1972 masterpiece, Something/Anything?.

A fascinating mix between a prodigious writer of inviting pop tunes and a musical mad scientist with a seemingly endless appetite for self-indulgence, Rundgren's career has bounced up and down since the release of Something/Anything?. While its pair of predecessors, Runt and Runt: The Ballad of Todd Rundgren, were fine and the two increasingly experimental records immediately following, A Wizard, a True Star and Todd, were worth a listen—critical opinion of both has grown more positive in hindsight—Rundgren made a string of middling albums in the mid-1970s before recording his other opus, the heartfelt and tuneful, Hermit of Mink Hollow, in 1978.

While his 1980s recording were never less than interesting, by the '90s he'd slipped into being overly enamored with technology. No World Order, a record that the listener could change provided they had a CD-ROM drive, was particularly silly and unlistenable. Since then it's been a similarly rough road with 2004's Liars being a rare return to a disciplined approach to making records filled with catchy melodies and focused musicianship.

But back in 1972, the singer/songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and skilled engineer/producer decided not only to play all the instruments by himself for his third record, he was set on making it a double album. The tales surrounding the record are legendary, whether believable or not. He says Ritalin helped him write songs. He sometimes made mistakes but left them in the final recordings, deciding on the fly to adapt a given song to incorporate them. It was on this album that he began his lifelong fascination with electronics through using a Putney Synthesizer. And finally, a California earthquake persuaded him to leave Los Angeles where three entire sides of the album had been tracked either in his apartment or in I.D. Sound Studios in Hollywood (a studio also favored by blues jammers Canned Heat).

It's crucial to remember that by 1972, Rundgren had been involved either as an engineer or producer in making records for The Band, Sparks, Jesse Winchester, and Badfinger. The hard-earned knowledge gained in those sessions was put to work on this album.

Having adjourned to the Record Plant in NYC after the earthquake, he decided he needed some human contact and so decided to record additional tracks with session musicians, most of whom he did not know. After a mad scramble by future Utopia member Moogy Klingman to assemble a band, the impromptu session took place on a Sunday night. A follow-up session took place in upstate New York at Bearsville Studios, near where Rundgren has lived for many years. In both cases, the material was cut live in the studio after a just a few rehearsals, not enough Rundgren reckoned to spoil the spontaneity that he wanted to hear on the tape.

Also, and not too surprisingly, considering what must have been a robust microphone collection at the Record Plant, the sound quality of the two New York sessions is clearly a step up from the Los Angeles material. In addition, some of the studio banter and false starts from these sessions were left in and can be heard on the final record. In true Rundgren fashion, at several other moments on the album's earlier solo sides, before "Couldn't I Just Tell You," for example, he also left in bits of banter with himself.

While the first three sides of the album are the layered sound of Rundgren maniacally creating by himself in the studio or his apartment, and do contain many fine tracks like "I Saw The Light," most fans of the album were instantly convinced that it's that final side of Something/Anything?, which was subtitled, "Baby Needs a New Pair of Snakeskin Boots (A Pop Operetta)," that makes the record such a success. With instrumental voices like horn players Randy and Mike Brecker, guitarists Rick Derringer and Rick Vito, and bassist Stu Woods (whose famous bass line opens and powers the entirety of "Hello It's Me"), and songs like a sprightly new arrangement of "Hello It's Me," a tune Rundgren had written and previously recorded with his previous band, Nazz, it is a much-needed antidote to the three more inward-looking solo sides.

In a bit of a foreshadowing of the obsessive studio tinkering to come in his musical life, two snatches of lo-fi recordings done by Rundgren-led groups in the mid-'60s of the tunes, "Money (That's What I Want)" and "Messin' with the Kid," open side four as a track called, "Overture-My Roots."

The two gold Analog Spark hybrid SACDs ($30) are packaged in a heavy cardboard mini-album sleeve replica, comes with a multi-page fold out insert of lyrics and liner notes that also reproduces the original gatefold art work. The album was previously re-released in an audiophile edition by Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab, who released a CD (1994) and an LP (1995). This 45th anniversary release was mastered from the original stereo tapes by Kevin Gray at Cohearent Audio. It was authored by Gus Skinas at the Super Audio Center.

While I have never been a particularly enthusiastic supporter of SACDs, I have many in my collection and, with few exceptions, I have enjoyed the slight improvement in sound quality. While I still prefer my original LP pressing (my standard broken-record response, though it's nearly always true), the sound here seems to have touch more clarity and presence than what can be heard on the standard CD issue. A bit of added space in this transfer seems to aid the often dense sound collage that is this record's schtick, and while the sound is appealing throughout it is a bit lacking in the bottom end.

Always a curious mix of the near genius crossed with a musician unable to curb his own worst impulses, Rundgren, who is currently back out touring with a reconstituted version of Utopia, struck the best sounding and most intelligible balance between his extremes on Something/Anything?.

teched58's picture

Extremely well written review, Robert. Best thing I've read on this site in a while. (That's not to denigrate other content; it's just that this was so good.) One thing you didn't mention is that Todd produced Patti Smith's 1979 album "Wave." Todd's influence is clearly evident in that it's the most "pop-like" of all of Patti's albums. At the same time, he didn't eviscerate her "edge." So it's the best of both worlds. The first three tracks -- Frederick, Dancing Barefoot, and the cover of the Byrd's So You Want to Be a Rock N Roll Star -- in particular sound very Todd-like.

DH's picture

You're the first person I've ever heard say that side 4 is what makes the record.
No, the great songs on the first 3 sides do. There are several masterpieces of pop song writing there.

Side 4 is a fun and funny self indulgence, nothing more.

BTW, there's also a 24/96 download from a couple of years ago that sounds good.

Bill Leebens's picture

Also worked at Rundgren's Secret Sound studio in NYC, first as an intern from the Institute of Audio Research.

I guess the circle is complete.

brenro's picture

I might need this. I remember reading a story of Rundgren being robbed at gunpoint at his studio and as the thieves were hauling out expensive recording equipment and musical instruments one of them was humming one of his songs. That's cold.

Allen Fant's picture

Excellent review! RB.

limahuli's picture

I had no idea what was going on with TR's NWO release for a couple years after I heard it. I came to my senses when I realized that "Property" was techno pop wizardry, with one of Rundgren's best guitar solos ever. People turned off to this album and "The Individualist" because Todd raps on them. Go back and listen again. They're both wonderful albums.

Something/Anything? is notable because it seems to have been recorded before Todd discovered compressors. The SACD of "A Wizard/A True Star" ("Something/Anything?"'s successor) isn't any improvement on the original recording; it's just a wedge of shrill mid-highs. An amazing album, to be sure, (and one of my favorite albums ever) but no amount of remastering can salvage the tinny blare of AWATS.

Some of my favorite Rundgren albums are those where he is "unable to curb his own worst impulse." With the particular artist, that's a feature, not a bug.

DanGB's picture

...and, in fact, the first time I'd ever heard his music. I took a chance, and I picked this album because it was a double, and I figured I'd get a good idea of his talent over two discs. And I picked the pearl of his catalogue as an introduction.

I haven't played it for a while now, so I will be correcting that over the weekend.

labjr's picture

All the raving about Todd Rundgren. What happened with Meatloaf's Bat Out Of Hell album?? It sounds horrible.