Utopia (L-R: Willie Wilcox, Roger Powell, Kasim Sulton & Todd Rundgren), 1982.
Everybody Else Is Wrong
by Craig Kurtz
Unpredictabilities exist. Look no further than the music industry, which often plays like a casino. For every wrong guy that finds himself (momentarily) in the right spot (say, Christopher Cross), there's a right guy who will find himself (eventually) in the wrong time. Such as Todd Rundgren, the quintessential early Seventies star, another jesus of cool, who travelled, ambivalently, through the Eighties with his innovative, yet underachieving, prog/pop band Utopia.
What was his problem? Fundamentally, it's disequlibriate duality. There's Todd, the sensitive balladeer, following his piano hero Laura Nyro, merging ingenious chord progressions with coy sentimentality. then there's guitar Todd, flailing Townsendian riffs around with a solipsistic smirk. He's always at his best at piano but the man seems happier playing his weaker (compositional) instrument, and loudly. Utopia features more of the latter from him, to his (and their) detriment.
Then, there's a certain impatience with his audience which became increasingly impertinent as hits became less frequent. Maybe the facility in which he produced big scores for America's "worst rock band" Grand Funk jaded him somewhat. No doubt working with Badfinger frustrated him -- talented guys, sure, but, still. Then, the times changed. Nobody could mike a piano like Rundgren, but piano lost out to the Rhodes and the mini-Moog by '74. That would only be the first industry trend to confound his muse.
Utopia was a talented outfit, and fit Rundgren well. Consider Back To The Bars: every solo Rundgren number performed by Utopia (Kasim Sulton, bass & vocals; Roger Powell, keyboards & vocals; Willie Wilcox, drums & vocals) got their thermostats adjusted up. Beautiful harmonies, flawless chops, confident projection, and utterly versatile; adroit prog, solid pop. I saw Utopia open for Cheap Trick in 1983 and the headliners were extinguished. But Utopia was a study in existential unease that no level of professionalism could assuage.
They had everything going for them except the big hit and -- it was so palpable -- (finding) it was their everything. At the heart of the matter: Utopia never trusted their audience and their (intended) audience(s) never trusted them. And that rather makes them, at this historical remove, more interesting than their more-successful contemporaries and rivals. As their misdirected commerciality became increasingly pathological, their unaccountable inability to seal the deal became their main motif, their core identity. This is a saga of importunate fortune in eight acts.
The story starts with Utopia, "version two," tentatively morphing out of the first, flamboyantly prog, incarnation with the transitional album Ra, a pompous touring vehicle with significant hints of things to change. The big stage numbers occupies an aesthetic spot somewhere between Jethro Tull's A Passion Play and Alan Parson Project's (subsequent) Pyramid; make of that what you will. Nevertheless, "Eternal Love" is a key track, in that it's a composition penned by Powell and Sulton (who sings lead) that challenges the assessment Utopia was "really" Rundgren's indulgence. Fusing McCartneyesque melodic charm with the harmonic hubris of Queen, Sulton demonstrates his preparedness to put competitors, such as Eric Carmen, firmly in place. It is not unthinkable the reason this song failed to sway the public is the reason it's so compelling: sweet meets brains. Probably the guys in Supertramp appreciated the effort.
Utopia moved towards AOR with their next LP, Oops! Wrong Planet, wrong format maybe, nevertheless finding smart glimmers of (power) pop in the process. Rundgren's pen was intermittently hot, producing the uptempo "Love In Action," a repetitious contrivance of a Motown beat undermining its intended inanity with an impossible key change as the punch line. Almost Elvis Costello & the Attractions. Rundgren also wrote "Love Is The Answer," a classic Todd confection of Philly soul and Bacharachian chords. Both tracks were brought to life, especially on the road, by the superhuman harmonies of Sulton, Powell and Wilcox. Conversely, the opening, perhaps tellingly-titled, "Trapped" is the sort of leaden rocker only hapless pop bands blunder upon. Utopia had a patent and a factory on these spongy thumpers. Not to mention, courtesy of Powell, a weakness for Steely Dan fuzak, but without the necessary malice. The album was a moderate success. But which tracks did the trick?
1980 was Utopia's best year. The album Adventures in Utopia charted moderately well, largely due to the polished balladeering of Sulton. Although his slick, innocuous "Set Me Free," a post-disco bopper, broke through dashboards, it probably was his wedding number "Love Alone," replete with reactionary barbershop quartet crooning, that kept the album ovulating a few weeks. Cold-calling such glop in the era of powerpop was truly fearless. Reckless, too -- which might explain clumsy stratagems like the Cars knockoffs "You Make Me Crazy" and "The Very Last Time" or the sabotaging plodding rockers "The Last of the New Wave Riders" and "Rock Love." What a curse for a commercial-minded band: their sincerest persona shows up when at their most eccentric, least so when taking care of business. Tragedy, farce, fate and the free market -- considering their equipment, there was no reason Utopia shouldn't have been the act to land Paradise Theater that year.
Apparently, Utopia figured as much when they put together Deface The Music, their Beatles tribute/sendup, an album characterized in equal measure by the expectedly obsessive attention to detail with plagiaristic motifs and engineering legerdemain -- and the almost sociopathic absence of any emotional resonance associated with Utopia's targets. Was it amusing for its surface verisimilitude or its neurotic disrespect? Considering the record came out, and initially charted, seven weeks before Lennon got popped, it might be safe to assume, at first the former, soon after the latter. In case anyone ever wondered why Rundgren didn't get the Anthology gig: "Get your wallets in hand if you've been waiting for the answer to come along -- everybody else is wrong." Manhandling the past with such gusto, Utopia dropped an elementally cannibalistic '80's disc. Start to finish, an unhinged, off-putting album. Listen to the cassette issue to truly appreciate the studied shoddiness.
Followed quickly by a terrible move. If a dash of disgust got Utopia's contrivance a backhanded genuity, sincerity seemingly dissipated their focus. With a left-leaning critique of trickle-down yuppism and an apparent freedom to indulge their polyglot '70's tendencies, Swing To The Right inferred a Neil Youngish cantankerousness but it was undermined by AOL/Adult Contemporary conservatism. Instead of hitting a liberal U2 or Sting groove, Utopia simply sounded like sour hippies without hooks. Earwacks. Nevertheless, there's moments. With their unintentional unhipness sharpening with each album, Utopia's funk-wave forays ("Junk Rock" and "For The Love of Money") are so ill-informed, they surpass the bludgeoning irony of the Residents. Of particular note with mid-career Utopia are the dingbat "Ringo" numbers given to Wilcox who sings like a banker at the karaoke bar. How outside. Contractual obligation (ending Rundgren's long-standing association with Bearsville) is the only comprehensible explanation for this misdirected muddle of a record.
Just when things seemed terminal for this luckless outfit, a new label deal inspirited the lads to again tackle their raison d'Ítre, the glib minting of mindless hits. Utopia does so with such brutal professionalism -- and with such treble-contrasted "AM" engineering -- the album stands as arguably the most clinical New Wave commodity ever manufactured. Test tube pop. Out-maneuvering Bill Nelson's sarcastic Red Noise, Utopia is simply hostile in its committee design to entertain. Rundgren's melodic gifts ("Bad Little Actress") are sharper than ever, yet the overall tone is parodic, plastic, real politik. "Princess of the Universe" is the dumbest (most delicious) song the Knack never did, for example. Devo could never concoct anything quite so inhumanly wry; this sort of microwaved music (complete with frozen center) can only be generated by artists operating outside their own volition, and comprehension. Every track a counterfeit gem. Utopia is why Utopia is exigent. Get it on (three-sided) vinyl.
The next album, Oblivion, with its signifying nothing of a cover design, took it further -- all the way to psychological nihilism. Here is Utopia's arena pop/Clear Channel statement: electro drums, compressed guitars, squarewave bass, stock synths, mannequin vocals, cellophane production, a perfect blueprint of generic dissimilation. The Outfield, sampled and squared. Terrifying in its verisimilitude, this caustic installment in Utopia's unsubtle music industry critique succeeds all too well: subliminal overdetermination, conjoint analysis, push polling, it's trenchantly unlistenable. Zero sum, negative zen. Needless to say, this particular "concept" project militated against even one iota of melodic felicity passing the programmers. Oblivion is the record Mick Jones will have to hear -- eternally -- in his well-deserved elevator to Hell. The record-buying public in general, however, preferred actually enduring Foreigner. Rundgren fans took their business to Crowded House.
Nonetheless, there was one more Utopian component. Was it a coincidence the band shoot on the cover of POV resembled Wings' Back To The Egg? The thinness of composition and shrillness of production are similar, but, unlike anything McCartney ever did in his sleep, POV is antiseptic techno -- a transcription of techno -- devoid of even craft. An elpees worth of Mr. Roboto, these are inexplicable tracks, forgotten before their fades. Silly Putty, a by-product. Only "Mated," a classic Todd Philly/soul ballad, commands evanescent interest. It's cloned, though. If Utopia was more commentary than music, POV overstates its case. Play this game, indeed. At this point, customers could no longer "choose" to enjoy Utopia playing (presumably) "what they wanted"-- the band got so far into passive-aggressive overcompensation, the "concept" eventually subsumed the musicians, and music. Metaphorically, that noose around Rundgren's neck (on the cover of his 1971 Ballad of Todd Rundgren)-- he placed it there himself, no matter if, by the '80's, it was a skinny tie.
It is diabolically condign, that, after essentially inventing the indefectibly inauthentic Cars, Rundgren (and Sulton) should effectively kill their careers fronting the facsimile model, the jackpot always out of touch. All things being equal, people buy music for the emotional content, not the musical context. End of day, if anything explains the lovable failure of these overqualified bunglers, it was their resistance to respecting melodic monotony. Even on his solo albums, Rundgren relegates anything approximating "catchiness" and "simplicity" to the novelty numbers (burning him with the popularity of "Bang The Drum All Day"). As much as Utopia longed to pander, to figure out their fans, to accrue hits, to debase their "art," every cell of their superbity equivocated the attempt. They could have, should have done "Money For Nothing." But they didn't. Diminished, augmented, selling out is no less a talent than maintaining integrity.
Andrew Loog Oldham once opined that Brian Jones' main obstacle to songwriting was his disdain of the pop song itself. His primary compositional legacy is a Rice Krispies jingle. Even Utopia would have balked. Or fashioned a concept double album of it. In quad. Either strategy, every artist gets the audience they deserve -- even if everybody else is wrong.
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