Todd Rundgren on his influences, progressive rock & the Philly sound

Todd Rundgren has been a restless innovator over the years. Here he is talking about two sides of his personality: soul singer and experimental rocker. Think they’re at odds? Think again!

Gene: I wanted to talk a little bit about The Sound of Philadelphia… It sounds like it seeped into your music, both in your singing style and the kind of music you write.

Todd: Yeah, well, a lot of that came from the radio. Philadelphia had a somewhat unique radio scene because we had a lot of R&B on the radio, Jerry Blavat, the Geator with the Heater he was known as. But we did have a DJ who was hugely popular and played a lot of R&B, as did some of the other stations. But the difference I think in Philadelphia radio is that we were right there on the Mason-Dixon line and there was enough liberalness that we could hear what were called race records growing up. Whereas if you got too much further south you wouldn’t hear much of that, at least not on the mainstream radio stations.

Gene: Do you see progressive rock and R&B as pulling you in different directions? Are traditional R&B and progressive rock polar opposites?

Todd: Not particularly. It’s interesting when I first got out of high school and got into a real band and started working, the eclectic nature of all the bands was probably pretty remarkable. Philadelphia had a high concentration of folk acts. They had a high concentration of blues bands and such, and what eventually became progressive music. A lot of it came out of what was originally a migration of blues into the consciousness of white musicians and everyone was starting to change the way they played guitar. At the same time, Philadelphia has always been a musical center. The Philadelphia Orchestra is, and has always been, world renown. There was a thriving jazz scene as well. So all of these eclectic musical elements are compatible with the so-called Philly Sound. It’s just that what Philadelphia is most known for is certain forms of R&B, starting first with Cameo Parkway and all the dance records that they made and then later on Gamble and Huff, when they started doing The O’Jays and Spinners and other R&B bands in a style that became recognizable worldwide.

Gene: I ask because you’re the only artist that I know of who will have a flange on a drum over a doo-wop progression.

Todd: [Laughing] Yeah, I guess. There are no rules. I suppose it’s because I do have a certain experimental element, that’s a proactive way of continuing to move, but then there’s also sort of reactive ways that cause you to move. That’s me not wanting to repeat myself and also not wanting to be mistaken for somebody else or something else. I’m not trying to be accurate to the letter to some previous style. I’m trying to retain the kind of preferences and musical predilections that I have picked up over the years. When I think back to my musical roots that kind of stuff always co-existed. When I first put together The Nazz we didn’t have a lot of original material, so we would be doing stuff like “Ooh Baby Baby” by the Miracles with the full harmonies and things like that. Then some song from a Who record or “Train Kept A-Rollin’” from the Yardbirds record or something like that. All of that co-existed for us, and there was a time in music when there was a lot of hybridization. Cross-breeding genres were popping up all the time: jazz rock, classical rock, folk rock, something rock, you know? As long as there was a loud guitar in it, you could be playing in any style. So it’s not a huge gap to straddle to get from any sort of rock music to R&B. They all came from the blues.

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About genemyers

Gene Myers is a New Jersey poet, music journalist and columnist who learned to walk twice. His weekly column is called The Joy of Life. He was awarded first place in Arts and Entertainment Writing by The New Jersey Press Association.
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