Jul 11

Todd Rundgren: “Couldn’t I Just Tell You”


Rundgren’s mastery of the studio didn’t necessarily extend to choice of relevant cover art…

Todd Rundgren is one of those musicians who was quite successful back in the day (’70s and early ’80s, in his case), but who seems not to get the popular recognition he deserves for his brilliance. Sure, you still hear “Bang on the Drum,” “Hello It’s Me,” and “I Saw the Light” fairly frequently on the radio, but “Bang on the Drum” was from a later period and is a pretty misleading song if one were to judge Rundgren by it. Because what he did earlier, throughout the ’70s, was produce a body of work that was nothing less than genius in its peaks. A somewhat odd but apt comparison that always comes to mind for me when thinking about Rundgren is Stevie Wonder. While they obviously work in different (although at times overlapping) genres, and while I would have to admit that overall Wonder throughout the ’70s was the more consistent of the two, they both had an incredible way with melody, lyrics, and musicianship that placed them at the forefront of pop music songwriters. Both of them were a “one-man band” on a number of their best albums, playing nearly all the instruments, producing the albums themselves, and of course writing all (or most of) the songs. I suspect in both cases that ego played a large part in their decisions to work that way, but regardless, the fact that they were able to turn out such great music without someone else acting as a sounding board says a lot about their natural instincts and abilities.

But back to Rundgren. His greatest album, in my mind, is 1972’s Something/Anything? double LP. Over the course of 4 sides (or 2 CDs, if that’s the way you have it) he put together a collection of over 20 incredible songs covering a wide range of genres. Both “Hello It’s Me” and “I Saw the Light” are on the album, but while those may be the best known singles, it doesn’t stop there. For example, he has a song called “Dust in the Wind” that will make you forget all about the completely different, maudlin song of the same name by Kansas. Song after melodic, rocking, moving, funny, and/or romantic song fill up those sides, and Rundgren’s musicianship is stellar throughout. Only on Side 4 does he bring in other musicians and backup singers, positioning the side as a “pop operetta” — as he says in the (often funny) liner notes — and recording every song on the side live and in one take. (That side includes “Hello It’s Me,” so keep that in mind next time you hear it on the radio — it was done without overdubs.) The album on the whole is a masterpiece, one of the best albums of the ’70s.

Rundgren bridges the space between some of the songs with studio patter that is oddly amusing to listen to, especially knowing that in some of those cases he’s just talking to himself. There’s even a minute-long track where all he does is demonstrate “sounds of the studio.” And it’s with studio patter that he begins probably my favorite song on the album, “Couldn’t I Just Tell You,” a great song of being in love with someone who just doesn’t want to hear about it, having to keep those emotions inside for fear of being shot down. You’ve probably heard this one on the radio as well, although maybe not as frequently as the other two singles — and it’s one of the high points in all of ’70s power pop, wrapping a great melody and Rundgren’s intense singing into a tightly wound package. The changing tempo, galloping guitar, and quiet/loud dynamics add up to an exploding firework of a song.

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