Utopia Theme (live)
By 1974, fans of Todd Rundgren had had to get used to him changing from record to record. But if the shift he’d effected between his first three albums and 1973’s A Wizard, A True Star had seemed dramatic, this was another quantum leap entirely.
Todd Rundgren’s Utopia was this most mercurial of artists’ first recorded foray with a band since his (late-60s) stint with The Nazz, but it was a long way from Anglophile power-pop and winsome balladry. Four cute guys sporting Beatle cuts this was not.
If the image on the front cover of an all-seeing eye at the centre of a pattern of coloured balls suggested there might not be too many I Saw The Light-style three-minute pop singles on this latest venture, confirmation lay with the live photograph on the back: it showed Rundgren on stage at his most gaunt and strange, leaning back, lost in music, flanked by four musicians with outsized hairdos in full space-age regalia, and surrounded by a shiny arsenal of hi-tech equipment that looked as though it was capable of some serious instrumental bombast.
Final proof that Rundgren’s days as a purveyor of sweet pop candy and rock nuggets were behind him was provided by the tracklisting: there were just three numbers on side one, and one taking up the whole of side two. Goodbye, pop concision; hello, elaborate compositions bearing complex multipartite structures.
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Other albums released in October 1974
- Fear - John Cale
- Walls and Bridges - John Lennon
- Red - King Crimson
- Paper Money - Montrose
- War Child - Jethro Tull
- It's Only Rock 'n Roll - The Rolling Stones
- Hotter Than Hell - Kiss
- Borboletta - Santana
- The Heart of Saturday Night - Tom Waits
- Homeless Brother - Don McLean
- The Impossible Dream - The Sensational Alex Harvey Band
- It'll Shine When It Shines - Ozark Mountain Daredevils
- Lost in a Dream - REO Speedwagon
- The Mirror - Spooky Tooth
- Mother Lode - Loggins and Messina
- Not Just Another Bunch of Pretty Faces - If
- Quatro - Suzi Quatro
- Rock and Roll Outlaws - Foghat
- Silk Torpedo - The Pretty Things
- Slow Motion - Man
- Smiler - Rod Stewart
- Veedon Fleece - Van Morrison
What they said...
"For anyone who isn't a dedicated fan, slogging through these seemingly endless prog excursions is a little tedious, and even the devoted may find that these roads, while occasionally interesting, don't necessarily lead anywhere." (AllMusic (opens in new tab))
"This album is one of the most astonishing and peculiar prog efforts to come out of the USA: prolific and eclectic rock musician/writer/producer Todd Rundgren really nailed it when he became interested and obsessed with prog rock. Todd Rundgren's Utopia is a solid exposure to the straight pompous side of symphonic prog, with a prominent presence of keyboards, yet having a guitar that makes itself quite noticed. (Prog Archives)
"As a prog album, however, I’m not entirely sure that some of this isn’t tongue in cheek. At least, it feels like Rundgren is consciously trying to make a prog-rock album much of the time, as opposed to a natural outflow of his creative expression." (Progography (opens in new tab))
What you said...
Shane Reho: I started getting into Todd Rundgren five years ago after I bought a copy of Back To The Bars for the hell of it (great live LP by the way, I'd recommend it to anyone looking for a great place to start with his stuff). After hearing that I started checking out most of his studio stuff from that time, stuff like Something/Anything, A Wizard, A True Star and others.
Nothing really prepared me for this, not even hearing Utopia's Another Live (which has a really good version of The Move's Do Ya on it. I've read that Utopia's version is the reason Jeff Lynne wound up redoing it with ELO). Excluding Utopia's Ra, which I've only heard once and don't have, this might be the Rundgren 70s album I listen to the least.
There's plenty of great musicianship on display (Rundgren is definitely one of the most underrated guitarists out there), however a lot of the music seems to be good passages stitched together that never quite gel as a whole, and in the end don't really go anywhere. This is especially true with The Ikon, which starts off great, then goes within 6-7 minutes in (and then goes on for 20 more).
It also doesn't help that due to the length of the album, it had to be crammed onto one LP, which means this album sounds pretty lousy production-wise (an oddity considering how great of a producer Rundgren is). Side 1 is decent enough though, the guitar work on Utopia is good and Freedom Fighters is an enjoyable break from the overload, even if it isn't something that would ever show up on a best of Rundgren playlist (at least not one I'd compile).
Some editing on the longer songs would definitely have helped both the sound quality and the enjoyability of the music for me. Overall, not a terrible album, but I wouldn't say Rundgren's brand of prog is my cup of tea.
John Davidson: Todd Rundgren is the guitar player who made Bat out of Hell interesting... but there is little of that magic here. Instead we have a jazzy, keyboard centric display of prog rock overload.
This has more in common with Frank Zappa than Yes or Genesis though and the musical segments that make up the longest song (Ikon) seem disjointed and inconsistent. Utopia Theme is a decent opener but Ikon is all over the place.
Sadly this felt longer than its 60 minutes. So despite my natural prog leanings this one didn't work for me. 5/10
Cameron Gillespie: I was really excited about this weeks pick, I had never looked past Todd Rundgren's early classics like Hello It's Me and I Saw The Light.
Unfortunately my excitement was rather squashed. This album for me is a background noise kind of album. It's good technically speaking and I appreciate the bands musicianship, there's just nothing that makes me want to play it over again and again
Mike Canoe: Todd Rundgren's Utopia is a great example of what happens if I write my review after listening to an album five or six times, versus just two to three times. The first few plays felt very much like I was back on Zappa's turf. Some of the music actually sounded like Zappa but it was just as much an attitude of, "I'm a genius. If you don't get this music, it's on you."
With repeated listens, the melodies start to gel and the compositions start to sort themselves out in my head. Freak Parade is my current favourite. I am even starting to enjoy Ikon for the monster jam that it is, not in spite of it. At 30 minutes minutes (and 25 seconds) it holds the dubious record of longest club track, stretching past Pink Floyd epics like Echoes and Atom Heart Mother and even besting either side of Mike Oldfield's two track album Tubular Bells.
I consider myself a willing convert to the cult of Todd Rundgren. I started listening to more of his music after his third Rock & Roll Hall of Fame nomination in a row but, as usual, quickly got distracted by other ear candy. Based on his production credits alone, he's incredible. To appreciate him more as a musician/songwriter, it would have been nice to have an album with more songs that actually feel and sound like songs. So I don't know if this is the album that's going to do the trick, but I like it more each time I listen to it.
Greg Schwepe: So, interesting choice for this week’s album after last week’s Genesis album. Genesis seemed to have a “before and after” phase with the exit of Peter Gabriel; going from long, meandering songs to short more pop/rock songs. And Utopia seemed to have the same “before and after” phase as well.
This album features super long songs; some 30 minutes in length that are very “keyboardy” and seem to have a lot of noodling. And only four songs at that! Then starting with Oops! Wrong Planet the band (with a different lineup at that point) goes for the power pop formula they would stick with for the most part for the remainder of their career.
Being the creative genius that is Todd Rundgren, he never seemed to stick with the same formula or format too long. And for some that’s either a good thing or a bad thing. You might like something and want more… but the next album is something totally different. But on the other hand if you don’t like something, chances are he’s moved on to something else that you might like next time around. You seemed to win either way.
I became aware of Utopia after hearing something from Adventures In Utopia on the FM station I listened to in high school and liked it (“Oh, Todd’s other project. Cool.”). The next year at college I found out that lots of people in our dorm (and at our little 10 watt FM station I was a DJ at) were total Rundgren and Utopia fans. I have since either owned (or borrowed and recorded!) every Utopia album from Oops!… on. Have even seen the band twice (in addition to solo Todd numerous times).
Even being a Utopia fan, I had never listened to this album before this week. Pretty sure someone in the dorm had the vinyl, but I never had the urge to borrow and listen. All I knew is that it was not the same Rundgren/Sulton/Powell/Wilcox lineup I had really come to love and that the songs were “experimental and proggy.” Not that that’s a bad thing, I know I just really loved Last Of The New Wave Riders, Itch In My Brain, Hammer In My Heart and all that stuff. Something told me back then “Hmmm… I bet you wouldn’t like this one.”
And listening to this was quite a chore to tell you the truth. Just not a lot to keep me interested. And while I’m a fan of whole album-side songs that Yes, Genesis and Rush might perform, this was just a little too “wandering” for my tastes. I can tell you that I’m glad I didn’t use up a Maxell UDXL-II C-90 cassette back in college by recording this from someone in my dorm. Because I probably would’ve not listened to it twice.
But here’s the good thing I mentioned earlier. Rundgren didn’t stick with this format too long. And the band morphed to something I really, really liked a few albums later. You don’t like this album? Well, stick around because the next one might be something you like!
For someone interested in Utopia and wanted to check out their catalogue, I would not tell them to start here at the beginning. Just not a true overall picture of what the band sounded like if you listened to their entire catalogue. 6 out of 10 for this one.
Roland Bearne: The last time I saw Todd Rundgren was as a talking head on The Sparks Brothers movie which reminded me just how long this man's musical reach is. Sadly however I really know nothing of his own output and really only that he raised Liv Tyler as his own! So to Utopia, a record I had no idea even existed (love this page!).
My first thought when the proggy, wafty, wimbly keyboard stuff flounced out of the speakers was, "I'm going to hate this". Indeed, at first it all seemed self-indulgently showy and formless whilst giving hints in parts to the sort of instrumental approach which the likes of Vai and Satriani proved mastery of (and commercial viability) some years later.
Once we extricate ourselves from the bewildering musical pot-pourri of the Theme, I found that it all became much more enjoyable, a veritable smorgasbord of musical styles which sort of shouldn't work but to my surprise, I found did... and very enjoyably too.
There are flashes of what is more recognisable as "Rock" particularly in Freedom Fighters, but for the rest I heard great riffs, lots of moments which seemed to have more to do with the Mahavishnu Orchestra's Jazz-Rock stylings than say, psych as such.
I have to confess I positively beamed my way through a couple of playings of The Ikon. Talk about everything including the kitchen sink! Was almost chuckling aloud as the whole thing resolved into a kind of twiddly barn dance reminiscent of Yes at their most pastorally playful.
It serves to demonstrate not only what an extraordinary musical visionary Rundgren is but how different the music business was back then. These days InsideOut or one of the other plethora of prog specialist might go for this, but distributed by Warners (and I believe latterly by Rhino)? I think not. Bonkers and mostly brilliant. An unexpected joy.
Adam Ranger: This is a hard album to listen to.
Todd Rundgren is a great musician. Many great songs of his own and on other artists albums
However, I just cannot get into this album. The only coherent song is Freedom Fighters (at four minutes the shortest by a country mile of the four songs in the album.)
The other three, whilst having good moments are, to me at least, just a mess of ideas and sounds. I can't even imagine having this on in the background bas an ambient soundscape either. Sorry Todd, just don't get this one.
Richard Cardenas: I actually like this record a lot. While it will never be an “I can only take ten albums to an island” record, there are some great moments. Specifically, the first and last cuts.
In many ways ahead of its time, in other ways, it seems like an attempt to mimic Zappa. Either way, I can see myself listening to it with some frequency.
Alex Hayes: You know the phrase 'thrown in at the deep end'? Well, that's kind of how I currently feel after having just given Todd Rundgren's Utopia a couple of full listens through.
This was my very first exposure to the music of Todd Rundgren. By that, I don't just mean his Utopia band project, but his entire discography. His body of work is absolutely enormous and, bar this album, completely unfamiliar to me. What a jumping on point!
It's pretty good though. It's the kind of album that just wouldn't get recorded in this day and age. Could you imagine a reasonably successful modern day singer-songwriter potentially jeopardising all that in order to satisfy his or her trippy progressive rock cravings? It'd never happen. Don't do drugs kids.
When I first saw the track listing for this, I thought it was in error. Nope. Todd Rundgren's Utopia consists of just four songs, but lasts an hour. The final track, The Ikon, clocks in at a daunting 30 minutes long. Wow, that's what I call dedication to your craft, and will definitely sort the wheat from the chaff. Casual listeners abandon ship now! It wasn't a double album either. How the hell did they fit all this onto a single disc of vinyl?
I can't help but admire the sheer ambition on display here. It takes serious guts to commit yourself artistically to something as grandiose as this. It's a bit jazzy in places, not a great fit with me that unfortunately, but a consistently varied, deep and engrossing experience otherwise.
Rundgren's lead guitar work on album opener Utopia Theme, starting at somewhere around the eight and a half minute mark, is just superb, and the standard of musicianship amongst all the Utopia band members is commendably high.
This will probably go down as a bit of a Marmite album. I got a lot out of it though. So much so that I have both Utopia's Ra and Rundgren's A Wizard, A True Star lined up for personal consumption in the very near future.
In at the deep end, but certainly not drowning. Having a pretty damn good time in fact.
Final Score: 6.47/10 (55 votes cast, with a total score of 365)
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