Todd Rundgren – A Wizard, A True Star: Round 25 – Tom’s Selection

Where to start?

I’ve been saving this one up since we started DRC – the joker in the pack – and have almost brought it to a number of previous meetings but the time has never seemed quite right. However, having inflicted some pretty dark, harrowing LPs on Nick, Graham and Rob recently, I felt Round 25 and its Spring infused optimism was the perfect time to unleash this kaleidoscopic maelstrom of sounds and styles. But would its breadth and ambition and pace be too much for the uninitiated? As Melody Maker’s Paul Lester stated in the wonderful Unknown Pleasures freebie that came with the magazine in March 1995, ‘A Wizard, A True Star was the first vinyl LP I ever bought and it may just as well have been the last’. But on first listening does it just sound like an incoherent mash up of pretty much all popular music from the late 60s and early 70s – the last album you would ever want to buy? Having owned the album for getting on for 20 years now, I can barely remember how it felt the first time the needle nestled in AWATS’s unhinged groove, so I am fascinated to know what the others thought and I am still unsure (just as they might well still be) of how it went down on the night.

Whilst AWATS was not even the first Todd Rundgren vinyl LP I bought, it is the one I have come to cherish the most, another one of those pivotal, turning point/tipping point albums where the planets align and the artist’s only urge is to make the album they need to make, irrespective of the consequences. And so it is on AWATS, right from the opening lines of the cosmic International Feel where our hero sings ‘Here we are again. The start of the end. But there’s more. I just want to see if you’ll give up on me’. Talk about setting your stall out early! Up to this point, Todd’s albums had developed from lovely if somewhat straightforward singer songwriter fare (Runt, Runt : The Ballad of Todd Rundgren), to 1972’s wide ranging but quite well behaved double album, Something/Anything. But, at some point in between S/A and AWATS Rundgren discovered LSD and the effects couldn’t have been more dramatic. Rundgren has described the experience as causing a ‘permanent destruction of his ego’ and so it is played out on AWATS – akin to that moment that happens every so often on the dancefloor when suddenly you are freed from inhibition and you don’t care whether you make a right tit of yourself or not…or is that just me? Whatever, AWATS is completely uninhibited but manages, somehow (as Rob pointed out on the night) to not sound too indulgent. How this can be is hard to pin down, but I think it may be due to the the playfulness that runs throughout the album (especially on the, frankly exhausting, first side), the lack of pretension and the obvious reverence that Rundgren reveals for those genres he is so skillfully appropriating.

It’s pointless referring to individual tunes – they really are as different as chalk and something even less like chalk than cheese. Suffice to say, the first side is the mad psychedelic side, the second side the slightly calmer, soulful side.  My favourite track changes with each listen, but my favourite sound is always the thwuuuunnnnggggggggg of the arrows hitting the trees in Zen Archer (even more than the sounds of animals having sex on the mercifully brief Dogfight Giggle). Very much of its time and place, AWATS is no Ege Bamyasi, but I love it just as much and know that if I ever feel the need for a whistle stop tour of pop music from that time, I just need to strap myself in, take a few deep breaths and enjoy the trip (pun very much intended).

Nick listened: While we listened to this I was tweeting about how nuts it is, and got into a conversation with Stephen Thomas Erlewine of All Music about it; Stephen commented that it had convinced him that he never needed to take acid or other hallucinogens, because just listening to it was psychedelic enough. I concurred (and explained that I felt the same way about Jane’s Addictions’s Ritual De Lo Habituel in relation to opiates). AWATS kind of sounds like the cover looks; a recognisable face, distorted and made weird and confusing echoing recognisable songs, distorted by nuts arrangements, performances, sequencing and decision-making, and made weird and confusing. Rundgren’s a name I’ve been aware of for ever, seemingly, but never listened to. I’m glad I have, though I’m not sure how representative this is!

Rob listened: I’ve been through the AWATS funhouse a few times before, clinging on by my fingertips. The only Todd Rundgren I own is a Best Of which… doesn’t really hint at the swivel-eyed kaleidoscope craziness he managed to conjure up here. I think I came to him via a sneaking love for piano rock, but on the evidence of AWATS Todd Rundgren is to Billy Joel what Captain Beefheart is to Jamie Cullum. Has to be heard to be believed and then has to be heard again, preferably after a few months’ recovery.

Graham listened: During the 80s I  always  somehow managed to confuse Jim Steinman and Todd Rundgren. It was always something about those American performers names that seem like they have been invented create a bigger impact (in fact I can still remember collapsing with laughter when watching a West coast TV news channel being hosted by Kent Shockneck and Flip Spiceland). Anyway, for that reason I spent many years thinking Todd Rundgren was responsible for Meatloaf’s and Bonnie Tyler’s success.

In fact that state of confusion could have been helpful in approaching listening to the first half of this album. I’m not sure being completely lucid/sober is that helpful. During the first half of this I laughed, cracked strange facial expressions and almost felt a few moments of pain! That’s my review of side 1. Side 2 felt like it should be available for GP’s to prescribe for those who have listened to side 1. Very strange.

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