The Class of 1971: ‘Runt. The Ballad of Todd Rundgren’
After Todd Rundgren disbanded Nazz, he went about crafting a masterpiece for his first solo effort, Runt. It was every bit a masterpiece. Then he dug in on the second album, Runt. The Ballad of Todd Rundgren, which tucks in nicely between Runt (1970) and 1972’s Something/Anything? and A Wizard, a True Star (1973).
Each of these albums is outstanding, but this one is a pop classic, most of the tunes featuring Rundgren’s beautiful piano work. As is the case with all of these albums, he wrote, arranged, orchestrated, and produced everything, and he played most of the instruments, including piano, organ, pump organ, clavinet, Wurlitzer electric piano, EMS VCS 3, guitars, mandolin, fiddle, tenor and baritone saxophones, talk box, vibraphone, percussion, and vocals, lots and lots and lots of vocals.
The other musicians on the album were Tony Sales, bass (except on “Be Nice to Me” & “Hope I’m Around”), conga on “Long Flowing Robe,” tambourine on “Long Flowing Robe” and “Boat on the Charles,” vibraphone on “Boat on the Charles”; N.D. Smart, drums (except on “Be Nice to Me”, “Hope I’m Around” & “Parole”), timbales on “Long Flowing Robe”, maracas on “Boat on the Charles”; John Guerin, drums on “Be Nice to Me” and “Hope I’m Around”; Hunt Sales, drums on “Parole”, conga on “Boat on the Charles”; and Jeremy Scheff, bass on “Be Nice to Me” & “Hope I’m Around.” Tony and Hunt Sales were the rhythmic backbone of Runt.
The tracks were recorded at I.D. Sound Studios, L.A., engineered by James Lowe. Voices and mix down were done at Bearsville Studios in Bearsville, New York. The album was mastered at Artisan Sound, L.A. The cover was designed by Milton Glaser, Push Pin Studios; the cover photos were by Carl Fisher. The twelve photographs inside the gatefold LP (one for each of the 12 tracks) were taken by Ron Mael of the group Sparks.
The album was released June 24, 1971, by Ampex Records on the Bearsville label, A 10116. As noted by Wikipedia, “In mid-1971, Bearsville was purchased by Warner Bros. and plans were made to re-release both Runt and Runt. The Ballad of Todd Rundgren as a “twin pack” entitled Todd Rundgren’s Rack Job (Catalog Number 2BV 2156) in 1973. The album got as far as test presses and album art but was shelved as Rundgren preferred to release an album of new material.” That album was Something/Anything? Those first two albums were eventually released together on CD, then in a set of his ’70s albums, and also in a 12-CD set of all the Bearsville albums.
The album never broke the top 200 on the album charts, and two singles just barely cracked the top 100. Rundgren fans knew better.
Runt. The Ballad of Todd Rundgren
Clavinet helps intro “Long Flowing Robe” (3:30), the opening track. N.D. Smart’s approach to the drums is much like Hunt Sales’ on Runt. It’s bouncy pop with gorgeous multitrack vocals, a multitude of Todds. As was noted on his debut album, Rundgren is a huge fan of Laura Nyro, and that shows throughout this album as well with the piano-driven music.
“The Ballad (Denny & Jean)” (3:00) is a beautiful, laid-back ballad. The pump organ is a lovely touch, as are the chimes and harmonies. This is likely the first use of the talk box, described as “Waldo the Singing Guitar.”
Rundgren trades piano for “several guitars” on the rocker “Bleeding” (4:05). Tony Sales’ bass lines are great all through the album. The guitar break is the way we would think of Rundgren in future years.
“Wailing Wall” (3:05) brings me to tears every time I hear it. Vocal, piano, and that wordless chorus he debuted on Runt in “There Are No Words.” Absolutely magnificent.
Rundgren inserts some “good old C&W imagery” into “The Range War” (2:38), a story of two families battling for water over a marriage dispute. Slide guitar and fiddles are nice touches. And those vocals!
“Chain Letter” (5:02) is the longest song on the album. It opens with acoustic guitars before piano, organ, bass, and drums march in. He also uses “The Putney,” also known as EMS VCS 3, a portable analog synthesiser with a flexible semi-modular voice architecture.
“A Long Time, A Long Way to Go” (2:12) was one of the singles from the album. More Laura Nyro in the very best way. He utilizes the EMS VCS 3 again, tympani, and “one massive gong.” And the requisite chorus of Todds.
The construction of “Boat On the Charles” (4:28) is simply stunning, beginning with vocal, piano, “teensy cymbals,” vibraslap, and conga. As the full band kicks in, Rundgren’s plaintive voice is begging for relief, and then the saxophones chime in! That shift after the second chorus makes me melt.
The other single released from the album was “Be Nice to Me” (3:27), more beautiful piano balladry with all manner of percussion: Swiss hand bells, orchestra bells, triangle, sand blocks, and jingle bells. And The Putney.
“Hope I’m Around” (4:55) is another beautiful ballad featuring Wurlitzer organ, piano, organ, and guitar.
“Parole” (4:22) features “guitars, guitars, guitars, electric clavinette, and plenty of sweat.” Rundgren rocks out one more time, including a blistering guitar solo and multitrack guitars.
The album closes with “Remember Me” (0:51), one more Laura Nyro love song. When the chorus of Todds enters, well, just wow.
This is probably the quietest of all Todd Rundgren albums. It is also the most beautiful.