In recent weeks, Ace Records has made two new additions to its ongoing Producers Series, and both titles spotlight the versatility of the respective talents, Todd Rundgren and Gus Dudgeon.
The Studio Wizardry of Todd Rundgren is, in many senses, an update of Rhino's 1992 compilation An Elpee's Worth of Productions. Like that set, it paints a portrait of the singer-songwriter largely in service of others' songs, though a handful of his own compositions appear, too. Ace's collection spans 1970-1990, when the prolific Rundgren worked his studio magic on essential recordings by an array of rock legends including Cheap Trick (the gleaming, Utopia-esque "Heaven's Falling," written and co-produced by Todd for 1983's Next Position, Please), Rick Derringer ("Something Warm," featuring the members of Utopia and a ringer for their work), The Patti Smith Group (the bright and romantic "Frederick," from 1979's Wave), Daryl Hall and John Oates (the richly melodic, beautifully sung and arranged "You're Much Too Soon," off 1974's adventurous and altogether excellent War Babies), "Baby Blue" (from Badfinger's 1971 Straight Up), Janis Joplin (the brassy outtake "One Night Stand") and Sparks (the typically quirky "Fa La Fa Lee," from the band's eponymous 1971 debut as Halfnelson).
Anyone familiar with Rundgren's expansive catalogue - both as a solo artist and with Utopia - will be unsurprised at the sheer versatility on display here as he jumps from power pop to punk, soul to psychedelia. While his single biggest hit as a producer is conspicuously absent - there's nothing off Meat Loaf's Bat Out of Hell, one of the best-selling albums of all time - Rundgren's penchant for a hit is evidenced by "Baby Blue" (a top 20 U.S. hit) and Grand Funk Railroad's chart-topping "We're An American Band." So is his knack to identify cult favorite talents, from Sparks to pioneering all-female rock group Fanny (heard via the mellow, moving "Long Road Home") and New York Dolls (the glammed-up garage punk of "Jet Boy").
Studio Wizardry makes room for Rundgren's acclaimed if controversial work with XTC ("Dear God") as well as some choice lesser-known productions from former Rascals frontman Felix Cavaliere ("Long Times Gone," a soul ballad with echoes of The Rascals' "How Can I Be Sure"), Canadian band The Pursuit of Happiness (the sparkling power pop of "She's So Young"), American singer-songwriter Jill Sobule ("So Kind," incisively tackling domestic violence), and New Zealand's Dragon, a.k.a. Hunter ("Midnight Sun," written and offered to the band by Rundgren, who also plays guitar).
A pair of Todd's own songs from his two bands bookend the release: The Nazz's crunchy, enduring classic "Open My Eyes" (1968) and Utopia's original version of the uplifting "Love Is the Answer" (1977), a top ten hit in England Dan and John Ford Coley's subsequent rendition. Rundgren's influences, from the soul tunes of his native Philadelphia to Broadway, operetta, The Beatles, and The Who, crop up in unexpected corners of his production discography, but what's more obvious is how he more often than not brought out the best in his "clients" and collaborators with sonic clarity and a visceral immediacy. These tracks all bear his stamp but one would be hard-pressed to say that they sound similar to one another, a testament to his keen sense of what was right for a particular artist at a particular time. The hallmarks of musicianship and songcraft, however, are consistent from track to track.
Four tracks have been reprised from An Elpee's Worth of Productions: "Dear God," "Midnight Sun," "We're an American Band," and Bourgeois Tagg's U.S. top 40 hit "I Don't Mind at All." Compiler Dave Burke has provided the detailed liner notes within the 24-page full-color booklet, and Nick Robbins has splendidly remastered.
Angus Boyd "Gus" Dudgeon spent his extraordinary career less-heralded than Rundgren, as he wasn't an artist himself, but this "producer's producer" was in the top echelon of his craft. Just look at the boldfaced names on the cover of Ace's release: Elton John, David Bowie, and John Lennon among them. John Kaufman, co-compiler with Ady Croasdell and Executive Producer of Gus Dudgeon: Production Gems, explains the collection's genesis in its lavish 40-page booklet. It was originally scheduled for release twenty years ago, in 2002, to mark the producer's sixtieth birthday. But when an automobile crash tragically claimed the lives of Gus and his wife Sheila, just months before that landmark birthday, Production Gems was put on hold...but not before Dudgeon had submitted a list of productions he wished would be included. Ace's release, a percentage of which benefits The Gus Dudgeon Foundation for Recording Arts, brings his career anthology to fruition in belated but still potent fashion.
Dudgeon's longest-lasting collaboration, with Elton John, is represented by three key tracks: the U.S. and U.K. top ten hit and signature anthem "Rocket Man (I Think It's Going to Be a Long, Long Time)," deep cut "Sixty Years On," and U.S. No. 1 duet with John Lennon, "Whatever Gets You Thru the Night." Lennon's only U.S. chart-topper in his lifetime, Elton famously bet his friend John that it would reach the top spot. A skeptical John then agreed that, if it did, he would appear onstage with Elton. Sure enough, John found himself at Madison Square Garden on November 28, 1974 - his final major concert appearance - for the live version featured here. From Elton's orbit, The Kiki Dee Band's "How Glad I Am" (on Elton's Rocket label) takes a welcome slot here, too.
David Bowie's "Space Oddity" is surely among the most famous of Dudgeon's productions, and the 1969 single - a U.K. top five smash - is another essential addition here. (The liner notes remind us that Dudgeon engineered Bowie's Deram debut LP and whimsical single "The Laughing Gnome." Producer Mike Vernon notes that Dudgeon went "totally crazy" with its memorable Chipmunk-esque vocals!) The strings on "Space Oddity" were arranged by Paul Buckmaster; like Dudgeon, Buckmaster would go onto help define Elton John's sound. Paul's composition "Love You, Too" is heard here in his arrangement for organist Tim Mycroft's instrumental outfit Sounds Nice.
But the collection also makes room for even earlier work from Dudgeon as engineer, including The Zombies' 1964 hit "She's Not There" and John Mayall's 1966 "All Your Love" featuring Eric Clapton. Gus had graduated to producer with such tracks as The Strawbs' "Oh, How She Changed" which boasts an arrangement by another key Bowie collaborator, Tony Visconti, and Tea and Symphony's interpretation of Procol Harum's "Boredom." Dudgeon also produced the final version of The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band's 1968 cut "I'm the Urban Spaceman" after none other than Paul McCartney had helmed the raw sessions.
Production Gems also spotlights Dudgeon's work with folk artists such as Ralph McTell and Lindisfarne (in a decidedly contemporary vein) as well as prominent singer-songwriters Joan Armatrading and Chris Rea. The most off-the-wall item, no doubt, is the track which closes the compilation: "Legs" Larry Smith's 1978 rendition of Mel Brooks' "Springtime for Hitler," the showstopper which brought the house down in The Producers. Long before Brooks himself turned The Producers into a Tony Award-winning sensation in 2001, The Bonzo Dog Band drummer was inspired by the original film to write an entire musical bringing to life the show-within-a-show. Call Me Adolf! never made it to the West End or Broadway, but Dudgeon's production of the single did arrive. (The 1978 single was backed with Smith's own "I've Got a Braun New Girl," natch.)
Production Gems is housed within a four-panel digipak, and the deluxe booklet includes not only Richie Unterberger's comprehensive liner notes but rare photos and memorabilia plus tributes from such luminaries as Elton John, Bernie Taupin, Davey Johnston, Nigel Olsson, Ray Cooper, Rick Wakeman, Colin Blunstone, Rod Argent, Joan Armatrading, Kiki Dee, and others. Duncan Cowell has nicely remastered the compilation which proves to be a definitive tribute to a producer whose work still resonates today.
Both titles are available from Ace at the links below!
- Open My Eyes - Nazz (SGC 001, 1968)
- Jet Boy - New York Dolls (Mercury LP SRM 1-675, 1973)
- Heaven's Falling - Cheap Trick (Epic LP FE 38794, 1983)
- Frederick - The Patti Smith Group (Arista 0427, 1979)
- Dear God - XTC (Virgin 882, 1986)
- You're Much Too Soon - Daryl Hall and John Oates (Atlantic LP SD 18109, 1974)
- We're an American Band - Grand Funk Railroad (Capitol 3660, 1973)
- Long Times Gone - Felix Cavaliere (Bearsville LP BR 6955, 1974)
- Baby Blue - Badfinger (Apple 1844, 1971)
- So Kind - Jill Sobule (MCA CD MCAD 6375, 1990)
- L-5 - New England (Elektra LP 6E-346, 1981)
- The Girl - The Rubinoos (Warner Bros. LP 9 23940-1, 1983)
- One Night Stand - Janis Joplin (first issued on Columbia box set C3K 65409, 1993)
- She's So Young - The Pursuit of Happiness (Chrysalis 45016, 1998)
- Long Road Home - Fanny (Reprise LP MS 2137, 1973)
- Fa La Fa Lee - Sparks (Halfnelson) (Bearsville LP BV 2048, 1971)
- Piece by Piece - The Tubes (Capitol 5443, 1985)
- Something Warm - Rick Derringer (Blue Sky ZS9 2783, 1979)
- I Don't Mind at All - Bourgeois Tagg (Island 7-99409, 1987)
- Midnight Sun - Dragon (Hunter) (Polydor LP 829 828-1, 1986)
- Goodbye - The Psychedelic Furs (CBS LP 85909, 1982)
- Love Is the Answer - Utopia (Bearsville BSS 0321, 1977)
All tracks stereo
- She's Not There - The Zombies (Decca F 11940, 1964) (*)
- All Your Love - John Mayall with Eric Clapton (Decca LP LK 4804, 1966) (*)
- I'm the Urban Spaceman - The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band (Liberty LBF 15144, 1968) (*)
- Oh, How She Changed - The Strawbs (A&M AMS 725, 1968)
- Armageddon - The Locomotive (Parlophone R 5758, 1969) (*)
- Love You Too - Sounds Nice featuring Tim Mycroft (Parlophone R 5797, 1969)
- Space Oddity (U.K. Single Version) - David Bowie (Philips BF 1801, 1969) (*)
- Boredom - Tea and Symphony (Harvest HAR 5005, 1969) (*)
- Streets of London - Ralph McTell (Transatlantic LP TRA 177, 1969)
- Sixty Years On - Elton John (DJM LP DJLPS 406, 1970)
- Eye to Eye - Audience (Charisma CB 156, 1971)
- Tokoloshe Man - John Kongos (Fly BUG 14, 1971)
- My Family - Joan Armatrading (Cube LP HIFLY 12, 1972)
- Rocket Man (I Think It's Going to Be a Long, Long Time) - Elton John (DJM DJX 501, 1972)
- Whatever Gets You Thru the Night - Elton John Band featuring John Lennon and The Muscle Shoals Horns (DJM LP 379-7, 1976)
- How Glad I Am - The Kiki Dee Band (Rocket PIG 16, 1975)
- Run for Home - Lindisfarne (Mercury 6007 177, 1978)
- Fool (If You Think It's Over) - Chris Rea (Magnet MAG 111, 1978)
- Halfway Hotel - Voyager (Mountain VOY 001, 1979)
- The Disappointed - XTC (Virgin VS 1404, 1992)
- Springtime for Hitler - Larry "Legs" Smith (Arista ARIST 194, 1978)
All tracks stereo except (*) mono