Christmas has come early for Todd Rundgren fans this year with the release by Cherry Red’s Esoteric Recordings imprint of Todd Rundgren at the BBC: 1972-1982, a handsome new 3-CD/1-DVD box set of live performances drawn from Rundgren’s first decade of rock stardom. The latest release in Esoteric’s Todd Rundgren Archive Series, At the BBC captures the transformation of the ever-evolving artist from precocious pop chameleon to prog-rock adventurer and beyond.
1972’s sprawling Something/Anything announced Rundgren as an artist with whom to be reckoned, following the more modest solo releases Runt and Runt: The Ballad of Todd Rundgren. On the heels of the U.K. single success of “I Saw the Light,” Rundgren made a trip to Britain and the BBC for Radio One’s In Concert program in July 1972. His half-hour performance kicks off this set, and it’s a fascinating document. Of its six songs, five were from Something/Anything. Three were played solo by Rundgren at the piano (the aching ballads “It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference” and “Be Nice to Me” plus the dry blues spoof “Piss Aaron”) and three more with Rundgren accompanying himself to unique, pre-recorded backing tracks for which he supplied all instrumentation and backing vocals (the pure pop hits “I Saw the Light” and “Hello, It’s Me,” and the searing “Black Maria”). The stripped-down “Hello It’s Me” harkens back to the original Nazz ballad version of the song, with the backing vocals subtly enhancing what’s essentially a solo voice-and-piano rendition. The half-hour format also allowed for a liberal amount of banter, including Todd self-deprecatingly dismissing the beautifully vulnerable “Be Nice to Me” as a “simpering” song, or explaining the concept of meat loaf to his U.K. audience during “Piss Aaron.” No, not Meat Loaf, as in the rocker for whom Rundgren would produce the smash Bat Out of Hell, but meat loaf, the food!
While Rundgren’s 1972 appearance on The Old Grey Whistle Test has not survived, At the BBC happily continues with two October 1975 songs performed for Whistle Test. Rundgren is joined by Utopia – then consisting of Roger Powell on keyboards, John Siegler on bass and Willie Wilcox on drums – for the blue-eyed soul of “Real Man” and the extended prog rock-soul jam “The Seven Rays.” On those songs, Utopia welcomed backing vocalists Luther Vandross and Anthony Hinton, and the pair also appeared with the band for an October 9, 1975 Hammersmith Odeon concert broadcast by Radio One. That show, featured on the box set’s second disc, was previously released on CD by Shout! Factory in 2012, but here adds Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s pulsating West Side Story standard “Something’s Coming” which was unfortunately cut from the previous release.
The Hammerstein Odeon set closely resembled that of the concert released by Utopia as Another Live, which was recorded just a couple of months earlier with the six-piece line-up of Rundgren, Powell, Wilcox, Siegler, Moogy Klingman and Ralph Schuckett. Both concerts saw “The Wheel,” “Heavy Metal Kids,” Roger Powell’s “Mister Triscuits” and Jeff Lynne’s “Do Ya” all performed. Hammersmith Odeon, interestingly, offers both “Do Ya” and the Rundgren original “Open My Eyes,” first recorded by The Nazz. It’s been said that Rundgren covered “Do Ya” as a response to Lynne’s pre-ELO band The Move covering his “Open My Eyes.” The Hammersmith set deftly balanced Rundgren’s rock and pop sides, and also took in songs from select solo albums, including “When the Sh*t Hits the Fan/Sunset Boulevard/Le Feel Internacionale” (A Wizard, A True Star), “The Last Ride” and “Sons of 1984” (Todd, also original home of “Heavy Metal Kids”) and “Couldn’t I Just Tell You” (Something/Anything). “Freedom Fighters” originated on the 1974 Todd Rundgren’s Utopia album and “The Wheel” on Another Live.
Hit the jump for more, including the full track listing and order links!
By the time Utopia returned for another Radio One “In Concert” broadcast, John Siegler had been replaced by Kasim Sulton. The third disc of At the BBC premieres a January 1977 performance from Oxford Polytechnic with the band at the height of its powers. Recorded just prior to the February 4 release of Utopia’s second studio album Ra, the concert features that album’s “Overture,” “Jealousy,” “Sunburst Finish” and the side-long epic “Singring and the Glass Guitar.” The latter, which runs over 27 minutes here (vs. the album version’s 18-minute length), affords solos to each band member, and the live setting clearly inspired them to create some of their most inspired improvisational music. While the radio broadcast can’t preserve the Ra tour’s ambitiously elaborate visuals (like a 22-foot tall pyramid and sphinx), it makes for a powerfully visceral aural attack. The setlist includes a concession to pop with the catchy “Love of the Common Man” and also previews Roger Powell’s “Windows” which hadn’t yet been released on record. (Reportedly three additional songs from this concert – including “The Verb to Love” and “Hiroshima” – were originally transmitted by the BBC and have circulated in fan circles; perhaps these tracks no longer exist in the archives?)
Happily, a taste of the live Ra was captured on video and is included on the fourth disc of this set. This approximately 70-minute DVD is a real Rundgren treasure trove, beginning with the visual component of the two Whistle Test songs included on CD 1 (“Real Man” and “The Seven Rays”) and continuing with segments of a 1978 episode dedicated to The Bearsville Picnic hosted by Rundgren’s then-record label. During this featurette, we see Rundgren in the studio showing off his then-new-fangled video toys as well as a performance of “Singring” on the Ra set, with the band furiously conjuring up the elements. The DVD, and the box, concludes with Rundgren’s solo appearance on Whistle Test from 1982 including a couple of tracks not aired on the original broadcast (“The Song of the Viking,” “Lysistrata”). Todd the piano man is in fine form, offering a mini-career retrospective with all-time favorites like “It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference,” “Can We Still Be Friends” and “A Dream Goes On Forever.” He also plays acoustic and electric guitar during this entertaining set. The DVD is region-free and therefore viewable no matter where you are in the world.
Producer Mark Powell has supplied the excellent essay in the 16-page booklet which accompanies this set, and Ben Wiseman has remastered all audio which is superb considering the live sources. Packaging is similarly top-notch, with the discs housed in paper sleeves and stored in the compact clamshell-style case. For Todd Rundgren, the dream does go on forever. It’s been a busy 2014 for the artist as he’s toured with Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band as well as on his own “Unpredictable Tour.” Todd Rundgren is still unpredictable, and still every inch the sonic wizard and true star his earliest music revealed him to be. This chance to revisit that first key decade isn’t to be passed up.
CD 1: BBC Radio One In Concert (1972) (Tracks 1-6)/The Old Grey Whistle Test (1975) (Tracks 7-8)
- I Saw the Light
- It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference
- Piss Aaron
- Hello, It’s Me
- Be Nice to Me
- Black Maria
- Real Man
- The Seven Rays
CD 2: BBC Radio One In Concert (1975)
- Freedom Fighters
- Mister Triscuits
- Something’s Coming
- The Last Ride
- Sunset Boulevard/Le Feel Internacionale
- Heavy Metal Kids
- The Wheel
- Open My Eyes
- Sons of 1984
- Do Ya
- Couldn’t I Just Tell You
CD 3: BBC Radio One In Concert (1977)
- Overture: Mountain Top and Sunrise/Communion with the Sun
- Love of the Common Man
- Sunburst Finish
- Singring and the Glass Guitar
- Utopia Theme
DVD: The Old Grey Whistle Test (all tracks from 1982 broadcast except where indicated)
1. Real Man (1975)
2. The Seven Rays (1975)
3. The Bearsville Picnic 1977 featuring “Singring and the Glass Guitar” (1978)
4. Love of the Common Man
5. It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference
6. Too Far Gone
7. Can We Still Be Friends
8. The Song of the Viking (not originally broadcast)
10. Lysistrata (not originally broadcast)
11. Tiny Demons
12. Time Heals (Promotional Video)
13. One World
14. A Dream Goes On Forever