By Larry Widen, Special to OnMilwaukee   Published Sep 29, 2019 at 3:01 PM

Singer-composer Todd Rundgren came out of Philadelphia like a rocket in the late 1960s, quickly scoring radio hits with a cover of "I Saw the Light" and his own catchy tunes that included "Hello, It’s Me" and "Can We Still Be Friends." Many musicians would have chosen to ride the gravy train provided by those songs and created more just like them.

But Rundgren turned his back on the opportunity to become a household name, instead exploring one different musical style after another. His fierce independence won him a small but loyal fan base just as it frustrated others who wanted more in the vein of what they just heard. 

Over the next four decades, Rundgren made records that contained hard rock, ballads, blue-eyed soul and progressive rock. At the same time, he became a highly sought-after producer with a reputation for taking on difficult projects and getting a salable product into the marketplace. Rundgren produced successful albums for Grand Funk Railroad, Badfinger and The Tubes, among others. 

In 1977, an album fronted by an overweight Broadway actor had been rejected by every major label when Rundgren chose to tackle it. Over the next few months, he helped shape the material and even played guitar on a few tracks. Anybody who says they knew Meat Loaf’s "Bat Out of Hell" would go on to become a phenomenal hit and one of the top-10 selling records in history might be guilty of Monday morning quarterbacking. 

In the early '80s, Rundgren pulled another rabbit out of his hat – this time a silly, hummable, radio-friendly tune called "Bang on the Drum All Day." Fans of that song who expected a follow up would be disappointed.

In 2001, Rundgren channeled his love for the music of the Beatles into a tribute tour called "A Walk Down Abbey Road." On stage with him were Alan Parsons, Ann Wilson from Heart and The Who’s John Entwhistle. In true Rundgren fashion, it took him almost 20 years to become part of another Beatles tribute, this time with musicians from Chicago, the Monkees and Badfinger.

On Wednesday, Oct. 2, "It Was Fifty Years Ago Today – A Tribute to The Beatles’ White Album" will take the stage at The Pabst Theater. In advance of the show, Rundgren, 73, talked with OnMilwaukee about his long, if somewhat eccentric, career as one of rock’s most respected figures.

OnMilwaukee: For 50 years, you’ve been one of rock’s greatest chameleons. Just when someone thinks they have your music figured out, you go off in a new direction. Other than David Bowie, who does that?

Todd Rundgren: To be unpredictable has a certain appeal. I never wanted to be compared to someone else, and a certain percentage of my fans get that. They’re the ones who are are still here. On the other hand, another segment of the audience can be confused or disappointed. They’ve come and gone over the years. I understand that completely. It’s bound to happen. 

Did you avoid being a mainstream star by choice?

I didn’t avoid it as much as I just didn’t embrace it.

The day after your appearance at the Riverside in 1975, one reviewer called you "horse-faced" and "stylishly frail." 

(Laughs) Really? That’s funny. What else did it say?

That you were the "latest of the slick rock androgynes to hit Milwaukee," and you minced around the stage with New York campiness.

(Laughing) I love it! 

Were reviews like that typical of the time?

Well, they weren’t uncommon. Music was changing then and not everyone was ready to change with it, especially reviewers.  The writer in Milwaukee overlooked the music and fixated on how I looked. Reviewers are often frustrated musicians themselves. There were upwards of 2,000 people at that show, and it had pyramids and acrobats and all the other special effects that went with the music. People still tell me how much they loved that tour. I wish we had time for you to read me the whole review. It sounds great!

You performed at the Electric Ballroom, one of Milwaukee’s most popular rock clubs, in 1978. The tour was called "Back to the Bars" or something to that effect.

I remember that show very well. The performance was recorded for a live radio broadcast, and it turned out great. We retained ownership of the tape, and years later, a deal was made to release it as a live CD.

What was it like growing up in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania?

Very depressing. Our family was lower middle class. We lived in the Westbook Park housing development, which was a neighborhood of row houses commonly found in Philadelphia. I left on my 18th birthday and never went back. From an early age, it was always my goal to get out of there. When I finally moved out, I said, "Good riddance!"

And music was your ticket out?

Definitely. I always had musical aptitude as a kid. I’d listen to my 45s over and over on a little record player. But it wasn’t until the Beatles came along that I figured it all out. Up until then, everything was Elvis and you had to be really handsome and the songs would be written for you. But the Beatles changed that. Suddenly it was cool to write your own songs and perform them, and even the least attractive guy in the band was still chased by lots of women.

One of your early bands, The Nazz, very quickly went from an unknown commodity to being the opening act for the Doors, Alice Cooper and Jeff Beck, among others. 

It was a crazy time, for sure. The Nazz was only together for 18 months, and yes, things happened fast. We appeared on the cover of 16 Magazine before we even had a record deal! Our manager at the time had this rather strange philosophy in that he didn’t want us to play too many gigs. He thought we could command more money if we didn’t play as often. Like we’d become overexposed or something to that effect. It was as much about the marketing as the music.

In the early '70s, you performed "Hello It's Me" on one of the TV concert shows. You looked like a glam rocker but sang a pop ballad. Was the idea even then to keep people guessing?

I looked like a bird with Mary Tyler Moore hair! I didn’t have any input into that at all. There was a guy backstage in charge of the costumes. He did the eye makeup and stuck a bunch of feathers on me right before I went on. I never saw the end result, just went out and played. It freaked everybody out. (Laughs) "Oh, he’s coming out of the closet on The Midnight Special!" But that appearance made me really big in Japan. The audiences there love costumes and makeup that looks like it came out of a comic book. KISS could play in Japan every night if they wanted to.

Did having a hit single like 1983’s "Bang on the Drum All Day" give you the freedom to explore other, less commercial music styles?

If you mean financial freedom, yes, to a certain extent. I have a monthly nut to make just like everyone else. But I’m fortunate in that the record production work I’ve done for other artists was very successful. That work paid a lot of bills, and so I don’t have to worry about the commercial pressures of my own record sales.

What’s the story behind the first New York Dolls album?

I was living in New York City in the early '70s, and it was a great time for music. This was the pre-punk rock era, and I was checking out all the bands that sounded interesting when I came across the New York Dolls. They were an outrageous Long Island-based tribute to the Rolling Stones. They wore women’s clothes onstage and evoked that "Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadows" vibe, you know? (Laughs) Johnny Thunders looked like Keith Richards and David Johansen looked like Mick Jagger. A few years later, the Sex Pistols were considered the first punk rock band, but really they were heavily influenced by the Dolls.

How did you come to be in Ringo Starr’s band?

Ringo invited me to be in the first All Starr Band back in 1989, but I was busy with other commitments and I had to turn him down. But I toured with Ringo in 1993, and then again in 1995, and the last time was 2010. I had actually worked with him back in 1979, and this is a great story. Jerry Lewis was doing his annual MDA telethon in Las Vegas, and he was looking to pull in a younger demographic. The show’s producers used my band, Utopia, along with Ringo, Bill Wyman from the Stones, Dave Mason and Kiki Dee. We played in a school gymnasium for a live audience, and Jerry would keep cutting back to us every so often.

The upcoming Beatles tribute show in Milwaukee features an eclectic group of musicians on one stage. How did you decide who would sing what songs?

Good question. For the most part, the songs we’re doing from "The White Album" were given to each person based on their vocal range. Now I’ve been doing "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" in my set for years, so that one was off the table from the start. (Laughs) But for example, Mickey (Dolenz) will be doing "Happiness in a Warm Gun" because that’s perfect for him. I don’t want to give away too much, but I’m doing some of John Lennon’s songs because I can sing in that range. I’m doing one of Paul’s too, "Helter Skelter." But we don’t just play "The White Album" cut after cut. Each of us will do two songs of our own, so the audience will get some variety in between the Beatles numbers. It’s a great show, and it’s really fun.