DUST IT OFF: Todd Rundgren’s “A Cappella”… 30 years later

Todd Rundgren photo ToddRundgren_cover_zps4xcz7j53.jpg
In 1985, I was aware of who Todd Rundgren was, for he was a member of Utopia and Nazz, both of which had its share of airplay on MTV, along with the small handful of his own stuff that was played. Radio in Honolulu may have played its share of Rundgren’s solo work but between December 24, 1981 and June 10, 1984, much of my listening came through MTV.

However, it was one album that made me want to hear more Rundgren, and it was much more than because he is “Todd Rundgren.” A Cappella (Reprise) was an album that seemed unusual upon release but considering everything that has come along since then, this album essentially helped pave the way for a lot of great music in the last 30 years. Up until September 10, 1985, producers using sample-based technology did it in an intricate and delicate manner, for one could only sample less than two seconds at a time, and it had to be “played” live. What made A Cappella work was the fact it was promoted as an album where every sound came from his mouth. The title suggest that he was a singer, and he is. He not only did the lead vocals, but all of the harmonies. Not only that, but he vocalized bass lines and filtered his voice tracks so it would sound like keyboards. To make it more interesting, he also was a human beat box by creating snares, bass drums, and hi-hats. Early reviews suggested Rundgren only did the vocals, but he did every sound heard, which seemed like an impossibility, especially in rock circles. It may have been the norm in dance and pop circles, and Frank Zappa’s use of Fairlight’s and Synclavier’s wasn’t understood, partly because no one knew what he was doing with 25K dollar keyboards. What Rundgren did was use an E-mu emulator along with multi-track recording and did something that only a select few knew about. The word “sampling” wasn’t even in use yet but that is what Rundgren was doing in part for this album, sampling himself.

As someone who worshiped the Art Of Noise, A Cappella was mind-blowing because at the time, while I partly understood what he was doing, I didn’t understand *how* he did it in full. I understood the multi-track dubbing techniques, but I used to say “I hear drums and claps, so this thing is not really all from his voice.” Oddly enough, I’d make my own tapes at the same time, sometimes using my Casio SK-1 and while that was lo-fi compared to an emulator, I’d say “psssst” and “kk” and play that rhythmically, which is when I realized what Rundgren was doing. When you overdub one song, a “kk” can turn into a group of people clapping. I was someone who listed to not only a lot of Art Of Noise in the early and mid-80’s, but Kraftwerk. My love of electronic music was only held back by not being able to afford the toys that would make it possible to play it. However, as someone who had wanted a 4-track cassette recorder but knowing how to do pause-tape mixing, I had a sense of how to do it the poor man’s way.

Around the same time, the production in rap music was also drastically changing, go listen to LL Cool J’s first album, also from 1985. That album became a timepiece as a way to say “you know what you had known about the music before this, now you’re going to hear what it’s going to sound like now.” Go listen to Run-DMC’s King Of Rock, the Krush Groove soundtrack, or even the first UTFO. You may not feel there is a link between these albums and something by Todd Rundgren but there is a connection in terms of recording technology. Everyone was upping their game, some intentionally, others just to be adventurous. Once the adventure was heard and understood, there wasn’t any holding back.

The album only went as high as #128 on Billboard, which means it was a flop compared to his previous albums. Some of the songs have been covered, while “Hodja” became an influence for the theme to the ALF cartoon from 1987. A Cappella was very much a midway point for the decade and while it is often ignored by those who expect to talk about albums by Prince, Madonna, and Bruce Springsteen but this album is easily one of the best albums of not only 1985, but of the entire decade.

…cause we’ve all loved something and lost it
and it’s burning my heart
I can’t open my mouth and just let it out

  • What lead to the prompt release of this album was when rough tapes were released as a bootleg, credited to Runt and called Acappella. Even then, no one was sure if this was just demos of a bigger project or if this was the final album but brisk sales lead Warner Bros. to make sure the mixes were up to par and release it promptly. Rundgren had been on Bearsville Records for years but the label shut itself in 1984, which lead Warner Bros. to release the album, leading Rundgren to his first “proper” album on a major.

    When the album started, it was uncertain what the album would sound like. What sounded like a keyboard was his voice altered just a bit before you hear a Rundgren vocal quartet, then the “cha cha cha”. All of a sudden, the vocal bass and the vocal drums came through and in a few seconds, a thumping drum beat. This sounded nothing like what I had heard before, and definitely nothing like what I had known Rundgren for with songs like “Hideaway”, “Hammer In My Heart”, and “Time Heals” but looking back, the harmonies are in common. The lyrics are metaphorical, covering on what Orpheus is, a Greek mythological figure who was known for “his ability to charm all living things”. The lyrics touch on ones self-doubt or the other side of happiness, having fears and unsure of what will happen next. In the first verse, Rundgren describes the theme of the album:
    but you have a gift that the rest of us just can’t live without
    and it’s something in your voice when you tell us how you feel

    In other words, there’s a sense of confidence he has and he chooses to share it with the talent of singing. Within the song, he shows the song may not only be about him but also of a loved one who he hopes he will find, or hoping she will find the one she longs for:
    Sing, you will one day be together again
    though you can not see her
    she is somewhere in the world

    Thus it’s the start of a journey, to see what he looks for and perhaps what he will find at its end.

  • “Johnee Jingo” begins with foot stomps and claps, all vocalized and the harmonies are full and lush. It sounds like an old R&B group hanging on the corner and like many of those original songs, this one has a message about a 15-year old kid who joins the military for the sake of having the opportunity to do something better in life, but soon discovers what he gives is often not thanked or acknowledged:
    and the throne, the pulpit, and the politician
    Create a thirst for power in the common man
    It’s a taste for blood passed off as bravery
    or just patriotism hiding bigotry

    What I always loved about the song is the bridge, where there’s an obvious shift before it carries itself to the end.

  • “Pretending To Care” could easily be something done in the R&B tradition as well, very much originating in doo-wop’s roots, as the harmonies that open the song tend to shape what you’re meant to feel and experience from listening to it. The song is about a mixture of self-doubt or wondering if the affecting he feels is genuine. The chorus is easily one of the ebst things Rundgren has ever written:
    If I was blind would you still be my eyes
    or hide everything you see
    pretending to care about me
    When all the time, you’re just wishing I’d fade away
    you just can’t bring yourself to say

    One line I could relate to is when he sings “though I’m ashamed to be afraid, I just can’t help myself, can’t help myself” because there have been moments in my life where I hesitated to do things and I’d often question why I’d hold myself back when all I’d have to do is just do it and get it over with.

  • When I first heard “Hodja”, I had no idea what he was singing about but completely understanding that the song is joyous, not only in what he’s singing about but how he sings. In Muslim philosophy, a hodja is someone who makes a pilgrimage to seek and find devotion, so he is on his journey to find a sense of happiness, whatever it may be:
    Hodja, please show me how to spin now
    Hodja, please show me how you do it
    all the other boys are laughing at me again now
    Hodja, please show me how you do it
    whenever I talk they don’t hear a thing
    and everyone laughs when I sing

    Hodja, please show me how to spin
    I want to do that dance ’til I forget where I am
    so get up out of your bed one more time
    Hodja, make me spin

    The line that confused me for years is the bridge, for I used to think he used to say something about how “nirvana sings”, but that doesn’t quite make sense. The actual line is:
    from every alley in konya
    Mevlana sings “turn around, turn around
    you’ve got to spin ’til your feet leave the ground

    Mevlana refers to Rumi, a 13th century poet who also was considered a philosopher, mystic, theologian, and Islamic scholar, writing a lot of word that continues to be read, examined, and explored to this day. He once wrote a peace about the universal message of love, and perhaps Rundgren is trying to seek that oneness, by exploring different philosophies and finding that commonality that everyone searches for. Those subtle references to the spiritual throughout the album is almost unknown until you decide to single out what you may not understand, then discover the album is a blueprint for what many of us try to find, that great unknown.

    One of the more interesting influences this song has done was when NBC created a cartoon in 1987 for the TV character ALF, and the theme to the cartoon is pretty much pulled from what “Hodja” created.

  • The vocal instrumentation returns for this one in the song that ends Side 1, a bit of a humble outlook on what life means, what one is still trying to find but pondering on the existence of everything surrounding us. “Lost Horizon” is one of these songs that may bring to mind what one might thing when you’re staring out into the ocean or in an open field, just taking everything in and trying to find some level of inner peace for the moment. In this case, it’s about finding what feels like love but still wondering if what is being felt is strong enough or just a passing phase:
    I had always believed that you and me
    were connected by destiny
    but the time never came
    it sounds so lame
    Is it all just my vanity?
    am I the only one to feel the sun
    exactly the way I do?
    when you sang how you felt I’d tell myself
    maybe someday I’ll sing with you”

    The theme of the album pops up again, a reason to sing, a reason to open ones mouth as a means to let out what you feel, even though sometimes we hold back due to the fears he lock on to.

  • It may seem funny now but if the mainstream knows only one song from this album, it would be the one released as a single, “Something To Fall Back On.” Arguably, it would be the only accessible song on A Cappella but it did not work for 1985 audiences. Did it have anything to do with Rundgren self-directing his video, not at all for he had been doing that for years. The video may seem low-budget but being made during a time when music video budgets from record labels were becoming an extravagant thing, “Something To Fall Back On” was a bit on the public access side and was probably not considered worthy by some people. It got a small bit of airplay on BET but not enough to carry it to the upper half of the pop charts, despite the 60’s feel of the track that may have reminded people of the Beach Boys or mid-60’s Motown. The song was about feeling as if one is another person’s last resort, and wondering if that’s the only thing you will ever be:
    Remember when you were the talk of the town
    and you didn’t care if I was around
    but still you kept me in the back of your head
    just like the teddy bear that you took to bed
    I was only something to fall back on

  • If there is one eccentric song on the entire album, it would have to be the somewhat freaky “Miracle In The Bazaar”. The song could easily be something pulled from some trippy progressive rock or Kraut rock album, complete with synthesized washes of sound, all created by the voice. What I loved about the song was the burst of energy, the explosive sound that happens at around the 0:50 mark before another “voice” stutters. Are we in a temple, a dome, is this meant to be a meditative piece or is it something more sacred or holy? He refers back to Rumi, whom he brought up in “Hodja” so it’s obvious a journey into something deeper:
    As jalaludin rumi has prophesied
    this day
    this day allah
    allah will make his presence known to you

    The song is not eccentric in content but musically, it is off center compared to everything else on the album and it’s safe to say it probably got airplay only on college radio stations, if even that. If anything, the placement in the album allowed the listener to truly listen, to attempt to figure out what he was singing about. Back in 1985, it wasn’t like how it is today where one can just do a Google search and find some sense of translation and interpretation, so “Miracle In The Bazaar” just became the weird song on the album, yet it is an essential part of the chain link that gets us from one point of the album to the other. Oddly enough, it leads us into something even freakier.

  • For “Lockjaw”, it may be the weird song found on a progressive album, as it’s about a mythical beast that finds children that lie to their parents and everyone else. The tale here is any child that is found to be a liar will have a rusty nail hammered into their jaw and suffer the consequences. It’s the equivalent of fearing the Boogie Man throughout our childhoods and if any kids listened to “Lockjaw”, I can’t imagine what type of visions they had in their minds after hearing this.

  • “Honest Work” is nothing but vocal harmonies, done in a fashion that could be a sea chanty of sorts, bringing up the metaphor of fear again in the song’s core:
    For I’m not afraid to bend my back
    I’m not afraid of dirt
    but how I fear the things I do
    for lack of honest work

    The song gets into what is lost throughout life and wondering if ones on hard efforts will be of value to anyone, but also questioning if it matters to them:
    I know I’m not the only one to fall beneath the wheel
    such company can not assuage the loneliness I feel
    so many are resigned to be society’s debris
    but I will be remembered for the life life took from me

    When the album gets to this point of the album, one wonders if there’s any hope for optimism but as the song reaches its conclusion, it leads to what may matter most to some.

    In a song that explores personal and social love, perhaps the ending of A Cappella could only end with a song about a search that may be mighty and strong. It is a cover of The Spinners’ “Mighty Love”, which touches on those hopes and dreams, fear of some sense of failure and not discovering what you have been seeking, or some sense of solace. As the song says, that is the way love goes but there can be more if you keep at it:
    Some say that you’re sure to find true love and piece of mind
    at the end of the rainbow, there’s no sign in the sky to follow
    ’cause that’s the way love goes
    and so there’s a rhyme that says life will soon be fine
    love is just what you make it
    keep on loving, you’ll soon discover
    a mighty love

    This is the point of the album where Rundgren’s one-man choir hits his gospel moment, where all of him has found the glory he had been looking for and he can’t stop singing, and it feels like it too. He would return to the gospel vibe four years later with the Nearly Human album and “I Love My Life”, this time with a real vocal choir and a band, but with “Mighty Love” it’s great to know it was Rundgren contributing everything from faithful hand claps to a feeling that may feel foreign to anyone who may not understand where it came from. Did it originate for Rundgren at a church in Philadelphia or did it come from his worldly travels and experience? By even questioning it, it hides the fact that a feeling, a good feeling, can be experienced by all, anywhere and regardless of where it’s found, the truth is that the feeling can be found, especially when that feeling is love. That feeling of love is celebrated by the power of the word, even if that world is vocalized in many variations, from singing to bass lines, keyboard blurbs and drum beats. Rundgren spent the whole album being able to open his mouth and letting it out, and he did so in a glorious manner.

    A few things of interest. In 1985, Rundgren did an interview with Entertainment Tonight about how he created the album, and this was considered very weird since the majority of the world had no sense of how any of this worked. Computers weren’t just an everyday thing just yet and to be able to record your voice and play it? That was a fairly bizarre process. These days, we like to look at that episode of The Cosby Show where Stevie Wonder sampled the Huxtables and played their voices in the studio. Meanwhile, people like Rundgren explained how it was done here and was widely ignored by most who didn’t think Rundgren should make music like this. Art Of Noise member Jonathan “J.J.” Jeczalik showed how it was done in 1984 when he and the group appeared on the British music show The Tube, then used host Jools Holland to say a few things before his voice was played in a new version of “Beat Box”. When Chic member Nile Rodgers released his solo album B-Movie Matinee, he briefly spoke on how he’d use sounds taken from other movies, including the voice of actor Harrison Ford and it seemed no one could comprehend how he did it. Herbie Hancock was dabbling with it in the early to mid-80’s too, but what was considered freaky turned into influential hits. Rundgren was explaining it in detail but again, maybe it seemed like it was something only musicians are capable of doing. The compact disc was becoming the format of choice in 1985 and no one knew how a CD worked either, so being able to play a voice you just recorded was an outer space thing. Sample-based production would eventually become a major way of creating music for the next 30 years, and it’s safe to say those in the know heard A Cappella and said “if he can do that, maybe I can create something like this too.”

  • Due to how the album was considered a flop, no one heard any live material from the tour Rundgren did for the album, which consisted of twelve singers, each recreating songs from the album in a group situation, along with a band for the other tracks. This included a great version of “Lost Horizon” where he also incorporated Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”, “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” and “I Want You” in a way that could only come from Rundgren at the time. A recording from the A Cappella was done but was not properly released until 15 years later on the A Cappella Tour CD, which is worth hunting down to be able to hear how he and the group did these songs. (The A Cappella Tour double CD can be ordered over at Amazon.)
  • SOME STUFFS: Tour dates announced for Lindstrøm

    What you need to know is this:

    March 16 – San Francisco, CA @ Mezzanine
    March 18 – Los Angeles, CA @ El Rey Theatre
    May 24 – Denver, CO @ Cervantes Masterpiece Ballroom
    May 25 – New York, NY @ Webster Hall
    May 26 – Toronto, ON @ Wrong Bar
    May 27 – Detroit, MI @ Hart Plaza [Movement Electronic Music Festival]

    These are tour dates for Lindstrøm, who released his Six Cups of Rebel album last month via Smalltown Supersound. To come, a remix of “Quiet Place to Live” done by the one and only Todd Rundgren. What more is on the way? Only time will tell, but until then, see him on stage.