A Conversation with Todd Rundgren
Puremusic: What was the first song or piece of music that moved you?
Todd Rundgren: It would have to be some orchestral music of some kind, very early on. It's so hard to pinpoint. I look at my life as being sort of fated to be a musician. Circumstances have sort of borne it out, because it turns out I'm able to make a living at it. In terms of my musical remembrances, they're so rife with so many different things that continue to show up as influences in my music that it becomes difficult to pinpoint one particular piece of music. But my memories go back so far that they precede pop songs and things like that. I was aware of the work of Richard Rodgers or Leonard Bernstein before I was aware of Elvis or Patti Page. [laughs]
The first thing I ever tried to pick out as a player or musician, the first time I ever got out a pencil and drew out staves on a piece of paper and tried to actually figure out what a melody was, was probably one of the songs from On The Town. It was a very sort of Latin thing and it had a flute line in it. I would try to copy the flute part, and I was actually inspired to try to learn how to play the flute. This was before my love affair with the guitar.
PM: How old were you?
TR: Five maybe. [laughs] Before that, the music I was most aware of was this collection of 45s of the Boston Pops doing various classics. It was one of my principal playthings, partly because the records were made out of semi-transparent colored vinyl. Green and red. I used to gaze through those. RCA, they did this very smart thing, they marketed a record player that was just for playing 45s, and then they started marketing classics and other things on 45s, and eventually pop songs. I think my parents must've gotten this all as a package. The whole pile of Boston Pops records and this little RCA 45 player. You could just stack them up on the spindle, high as they would go. That's what I would do. [laughs] I'd stack them up, listen to the stack, flip the stack over, listen to the other side, while I gazed through the records.
PM: When you were picking out those songs at age five, were you doing that with the thought that you wanted to make your own music?
TR: I don't know whether that was my intention at the time. I'm sure I had some vague idea of eventually composing something. But at the time I think it was just a mysterious new thing to me. Not music, because it was omnipresent, but the concept involved in how music was transcribed and the ideas transferred to other players so that they could perform them.
PM: Was there anybody in your family who was encouraging you?
TR: My dad was encouraging, but it was in a sense that it was a certain kind of music. Like, for instance, when pop music did happen--in particular, The Beatles and other acts that I was interested in--my dad had this hi-fi player that he built himself. It was hi-fi, it was not stereo. [laughs] He wouldn't allow any sort of pop music on there at all. It had to be only his classical long-players and the other kinds of music he liked to listen to, which would also be from musicals. He was fairly high-brow in his tastes in terms of musicals. I don't recall hearing Music Man being played a lot in the house, but Kismet all the time.
PM: By the time The Beatles came along, did you have it in mind that you wanted to write your own songs?
TR: Yeah, but I don't think I had a good idea of how to go about it. I was well into high school before I came up with anything that resembled an original musical thought. [laughs] It probably wasn't until my senior year that I started to mess around with chord progressions that would eventually become my songwriting style. So no, I wasn't really serious as a songwriter until I was more or less forced into it. It wasn't until I actually put The Nazz together that I came to the realization that "Now you actually have to start writing music" because I had a band that I was fronting and the band has to have original material.
PM: You've said that "Hello It's Me" is the first song you ever wrote. That's pretty accomplished for your first at bat.
TR: As I say, I was an avid listener to all kinds of music, so my influences, even though The Beatles were the biggest thing happening, I still had all of this other music in me. I think one of the reasons why I really appreciated The Beatles was their eclecticism and their willingness to continually incorporate new musical influences. In that sense, it was possible to write a song that would be derivative of The Beatles in a certain era, but you couldn't write a song that captured everything they did. When I first started writing songs, I had no inclination to imitate The Beatles. As a matter of fact, by that time, they were starting to get a little silly. Like Magical Mystery Tour, which was what they might call odds and sods nowadays. [laughs] It wasn't done as an album, it was fragments of things all pastiched together. At least to me, it was a disappointment in some sense. I thought The Beatles lost a lot of momentum after Sgt. Pepper.
But in any case, the main influence for "Hello It's Me" was an eight bar intro that Jimmy Smith played on a recording of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home." He had this whole sort of block chord thing that he did to set up the intro of the song. I tried to capture those changes, and those changes became what are the changes underneath "Hello It's Me." I then had to come up with melody and words, but the changes are actually almost lifted literally from something that was, from Jimmy Smith's standpoint, a throwaway. continue