You took the words right out of my mouth

I was surfing on Google recently, just doing some research into various artists and albums, when I came across a most fascinating interview with Todd Rundgren, Todd-Rundgren-009conducted in 2017 for a Billboard Magazine article.

Rundgren had been a critics and fans favorite since he first showed up on the charts in the early ’70s with hit singles like “We Gotta Get You a Woman,” “I Saw the Light” and “Hello, It’s Me.,” and the tour-de-force LP “Something/Anything?.”

The focus of the article was on Meat Loaf’s 1977 LP “Bat Out of Hell,” then celebrating its 40th anniversary.  It’s an album that was rejected by dozens of producers and dozens of record labels but went on to become one of the biggest-selling albums of all time, with more than 43 million copies sold worldwide.  Rundgren had been the album’s producer, Bat_out_of_Helland he was asked how he happened to get involved with the project.

Said Rundgren, “Well, I had a friend and occasional bandmate named Moogy Klingman, and in the mid-’70s, I was getting a lot of production work — Hall and Oates’ ‘War Babies’ and Grand Funk’s ‘We’re an American Band’ and ‘Shinin’ On,’ to name a few.  It was probably more production work than I could handle, because I was still doing my own albums (‘Todd,’ ‘Initiation’) at that time, and the first two albums with Utopia as well.

“So Moogy approached me and said, ‘Well, if I find a band or an act that you think is worth producing, I’ll do the legwork on it, and that’ll help me get into the production game.’  So I said, ‘Okay, that’s a fine idea. If I hear something, sure, we can give that a try.’  A couple weeks later, he came to me with this act.  It was Meat Loaf, and it was also this guy Jim Steinman, who wrote all the material.”

A little background:  Steinman was an up-and-coming musical playwright who had been working on “Neverland,” a futuristic rock musical about Peter Pan, but despite earlier success as a playwright, this one faced challenges in getting made.  Steinman had been working with Meat Loaf, known primarily for his work in “Rocky Horror Picture Show” on Broadway and in film.  The two had also been touring together as part of the National Lampoon stage show.

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Meat Loaf (left) and Jim Steinman in 1977

Steinman and Loaf had been particularly jazzed by three of Steinman’s compositions — “Bat Out of Hell,” “Heaven Can Wait” and “All Revved Up with No Place to Go” — and they became the anchor pieces to the seven-song set that would later become the “Bat Out of Hell” album.

 

“I never intended to do music,” Steinman said.  “I didn’t think I was a good enough musician.  I was gonna do film and theater, but I figured, ‘This is fun, let’s do this,'” Steinman said.  “I didn’t want it to be just a bunch of songs.  I wanted it to feel like you were entering a cinematic or complete theatrical environment.  No one could deal with it.  They couldn’t figure out what it would sound like finished.

“All I can say is that thank God we knew nothing about making albums, because otherwise it couldn’t have happened.  I wanted to make an album that sounded like a movie.”  But they could find no financial backing nor a label that showed any interest in the concept, which was ‘admittedly overwrought and pretentious,” said Steinman.

Rundgren picks up the story:  “The only way that these guys would demo the material was to do it live.  They didn’t have a demo tape, or they didn’t want me to have a demo tape,  because they thought that was not representative of what they were trying to do.

“So they set up in a rehearsal studio, Jim Steinman and Meat Loaf and (singer) Ellen Foley, just the three of them, and they essentially performed most of what turned out to be the first record.  They did it all live, with all the familiar tropes that would become the video later, the whole ‘Paradise By the Dashboard Light’ thing, that whole part of it.  They told me that they’d essentially done this for any producer who would entertain coming to see them, and that they had been essentially turned down by everybody.  I could certainly understand why, because it didn’t have an obvious commerciality.”

But here’s the surprise nugget from the interview:  “I saw the whole presentation as a spoof of Bruce Springsteen.”

That made me sit up and take notice.  I had been a Springsteen fan since his early albums, and had fallen head over heels in love with the “Born to Run” song and album.  And when the “Bat Out of Hell” LP came out two years later, I really enjoyed that too, but it never occurred to me it might be related to Springsteen’s opus in some way.

11SNAPExh210212“In 1975, the mid-’70s, the themes were kind of nostalgic,” said Rundgren.  “Even though Bruce Springsteen would represent them as still being real, the iconography was still out of the ’50s, you know? It was switchblades and leather jackets and motorcycles and that sort of junk.  It was so annoying to me personally that Springsteen was being declared the savior of rock and roll.  You know, he was on the cover of Time and Newsweek, and I thought, ‘You know, this music is going nowhere.’  He may have represented the image that people wanted, but from a musical standpoint, I thought it was going backwards.  So I thought he needed to be spoofed.  I saw the whole ‘Bat Out of Hell’ concept as being a parody of Bruce.  That’s why I decided to get involved.

“There was a lot of interesting stuff in there.  Jim Steinman kind of wove this sense of humor into the material in a way that Springsteen never did.  I was rolling on the floor laughing at how over-the-top and pretentious it was.  I thought, ‘I’ve got to do this album.’

“We had the guys from Utopia playing on it, and also Edgar Winter on sax.  And as it turned out, you know, Max Weinberg and Roy Bittan from the E Street Band wound up Musicourt '82playing on the record, so that kind of made it even spoofier.  I recruited them to work on it, but I don’t think I instructed them to think of it differently than they would have otherwise. But quite obviously they were cast because they could bring that ‘Springsteeniness’ to the whole project.”

Rundgren added, “Everyone kind of puts the focus on Meat Loaf, but the reality is, everything’s coming from Steinman.  Meat Loaf is essentially someone that Steinman cast in an imaginary musical.  So it isn’t like a calculated attempt to break into radio or anything like that.  It’s really Steinman trying to realize his vision of a musical, albeit somewhat compromised from the original, because his original idea was to retell the story of Peter Pan. So just imagine Meat Loaf as Peter Pan.”

Rundgren claims to barely know Springsteen and has never spoken to him about the fact that he always envisioned “Bat Out of Hell” as a Bruce spoof.  “I have not really had any communications with Bruce.  I’ve run into him once or twice in backstage situations, but we haven’t had much to talk about.  As far as I know, he’s unaware of the fact that it’s a spoof of him.  That’s how I regard it anyway.”

Apparently, when the operatic “Bat Out of Hell hit the radio airwaves in 1977, only a few critics saw the Springsteen comparison.  “Every track sounds like a fever-dream rendition of ‘Thunder Road’ or ‘Jungleland,'” said Rolling Stone.  “Some of the people who 8127ICDt45L._SY355_bought it might have just gotten sick of waiting for ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’ (whose release had been delayed and wouldn’t finally occur until the following summer).”

Steinman concedes that he shared some of the same influences as Springsteen — ’50s rock and roll, Chuck Berry, the “wall of sound” approach of producer Phil Spector, the Shangri-Las’ “Leader of the Pack” tragedy, the Motown sound.  “They’re all in there,” Steinman said, “but then I also added in Wagner and the drama of opera music.  I was quoted at the time as saying, ‘If there’s a market for a 350-pound guy singing Wagnerian ten minute rock & roll epics, we’ve got it covered!’”

The album proved the classic “sleeper.”  It was ignored in most U.S. markets and in England for the first six months after its release, but then “The Old Grey Whistle Test,” a British music TV program, took the ambitious step of airing a film clip of the live band performing the nine-minute title track.  Response was so overwhelming, they screened it again the following week.  Soon enough, “Bat Out of Hell” was an unfashionable, uncool, non-radio record that became a “must-have” for everyone who heard it, whether they Unknown-61understood Steinman’s unique perspective or not.

Eventually every track on the album became a hit single in England, and even “Paradise By the Dashboard Light” snuck into the U.S. Top 40.  The album became a phenomenon, the most profitable release in Epic Records history, beating even Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” which had cost ten times as much to make.

Steinman described Rundgren as “the only genuine genius I’ve ever worked with.”  AllMusic calls Steinman “a composer without peer, simply because nobody else wanted to make mini-epics like this.”  AllMusic praised Rundgren’s production on the album, claiming, “It may elevate adolescent passion to operatic dimensions, and that’s certainly silly, but it’s hard not to marvel at the skill behind this grandly silly, irresistible album.”

Let your voice ring back my memories

When I go deep diving for “lost classics” in my collection of 1,800 vinyl albums and CDs, I often lean more toward the uptempo rock music I favored much of the time.  Just as important to me, though, were the acoustic strains of the early ’70s singer-songwriter era, a time when I was learning to play guitar so I could perform them at parties and school variety shows.

Popular-Guitar-Chord-SongsI certainly didn’t learn how to play all of them, but the songs of James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Crosby Stills & Nash, Paul Simon, Cat Stevens and others will always have a soft spot in my heart.  They wrote such lovely melodies and piercing lyrics that speak so tenderly of the human condition we all must navigate.

For this week’s post on the blog, I’ve decided to focus exclusively on songs from that genre and that period.  The forgotten deep tracks from these artists’ albums were great then and are just as mesmerizing now as I’m helping you rediscover them.  Crank up the Spotify playlist and pay attention as these tunes gently wash over you.

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“One Man Parade,” James Taylor, 1972

536d9e4fe675fabdea3ff2be2348bc23.800x800x1Both his “Sweet Baby James” and “Mud Slide Slim” albums had been recorded in L.A. studios, but for his next effort, “One Man Dog,” he decided to record in his new homemade studio in a barn next to his homemade house on Martha’s Vineyard.  He had written a dozen or so short songs, intending to tie them together in an “Abbey Road”-like manner, and the result was compelling, but he also had a couple of standard-length tunes that might get Top 40 radio play.  Sure enough, “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight,” reached #12 on the charts, but the follow-up single, “One Man Parade,” inexplicably died on the vine at #67.  It’s one of Taylor’s most carefree tunes, with a charming melody and lyrics about how his dog is exactly the kind of friend he’s looking for — loyal, easygoing, enjoying life’s simple pleasures.

“To Each His Own,” America, 1972

AmericaHomecomingDewey Bunnell, Dan Peek and Gerry Beckley comprised America, a talented trio of singer-songwriters who had great success on the charts in the early ’70s — “A Horse With No Name,” “I Need You,” “Ventura Highway,” “Lonely People,” “Sister Golden Hair.”  The albums these songs came from were chock full of more acoustic melodies and CSN-like harmonies that have pretty much been forgotten over the years.  On their second LP “Homecoming,” you can find the amazing John Martin song “Head and Heart” and Peek’s minor hit “California Revisited” and country-inflected “Don’t Cross the River,” but my favorite is the simple melody of “To Each His Own,” Beckley’s song of a romance that is ending even though the love endures.

“The Lonely One,” Dave Mason, 1973

it-s-like-you-never-left-albums-photo-u1As one of the founders of the British folk-jazz-rock group Traffic, Mason was quickly overshadowed by Steve Winwood and decided to head out on his own instead.  His solo debut LP “Alone Together” is considered one of the finer albums of 1970, but Mason found himself mired in a struggle with his foundering label Blue Thumb, losing career momentum in the process.  When he signed with Columbia and released “It’s Like You Never Left” in 1973, he began a run of six successful albums and nearly non-stop touring throughout the ’70s, peaking with the platinum “Let It Flow” LP and Top Ten single “We Just Disagree” in 1977.  At least a dozen Mason tracks qualify as lost classics, and this go-around, I’ve picked the acoustic gem “The Lonely One” from the 1973 album.  Dig Stevie Wonder’s excellent harmonica here!

“Barangrill,” Joni Mitchell, 1972

image_10135e2c-0d61-4e71-8787-061f9ee8e993In every discussion of Mitchell’s repertoire, everyone focuses on her confessional masterpiece “Blue” from 1971 or her pop-jazz pinnacle “Court and Spark” from 1974.  Me, I’ve always been partial to the album in between these two, 1972’s “For the Roses,” mostly because I discovered it during an emotional time when I was able to absorb her music non-stop through headphones.  Again, I could have selected any of nine of the 12 tunes on this amazing record (“Banquet,” “For the Roses,” “See You Sometime”), but I was moved to go with “Barangrill,” a perceptive study of the regulars and employees at the nation’s truck-stop diners.

“Where Do the Children Play?”, Cat Stevens, 1970

51yt4ogh5wL._SX466_So many of my generation were instantly captivated by the music of Cat Stevens when his “Tea for the Tillerman” album arrived in late 1970, sparked by the hit single “Wild World.”  Stevens (who later embraced Islam and changed his name to Yusef) had released three earlier albums that were ignored in the U.S., but that changed in a hurry with “Tillerman.”  “Father and Son” emerged as an underground favorite, and pretty much every song here qualifies as a lost classic.  My candidate would have to be “Where Do the Children Play?”, one of the first songs I remember hearing that decried the spoiling of the planet and our environment.

“One Of These Things First,” Nick Drake, 1971

220px-Bryter_LayterDrake’s tragic story of sublime talent tortured by stage fright and clinical depression wasn’t well known during his short life, which ended in suicide in 1974.  He made just three albums, all critically acclaimed, but he wasn’t appreciated more deeply until the new millennium.  Like many folks, I discovered Drake from the use of his song “Pink Moon” in a TV commercial ten years ago, and consequently picked up a wonderful anthology CD featuring a robust cross-section of his repertoire.  The song that grabbed me instantly, originally found on his “Bryter Later” album, is “One of These Things First,” a beautiful piano-and-guitar melody carried by Drake’s feather-light voice.  If you’re not familiar with Drake’s work, here’s a great place to start.

“Peace Like a River,” Paul Simon, 1972

R-3055486-1372780911-7597.jpegAs a huge fan of Simon and Garfunkel, I was very disappointed when Simon chose to give his partner the heave-ho and go solo following the stratospheric success of “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”  Their friendship endured in an on-again-off-again way, but Simon was far more interested in exploring the rhythms and musical textures of other lands than Garfunkel was.  The reggae feel of “Mother and Child Reunion” and the peppy Latino beat of “Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard” are the two most notable examples to be found on the “Paul Simon” solo debut LP.  Buried on side 2 is “Peace Like a River,” which sounded to me like the album track that would have fit quite nicely on any S&G album.

“Minstrel Of the Dawn,” Gordon Lightfoot, 1970

R-1361049-1285558009.jpegThe acoustic guitar work, strong vocals and delightful songwriting that have marked Lightfoot’s lengthy career as a recording artist were at their most simple and direct on his breakthrough LP, “If You Could Read My Mind.”  That album’s title tune reached #5 and made a fan out of me, but there were another 4-5 songs on the LP that I found just as engaging.  One is “Minstrel of the Dawn,” a lovely piece that describes the life of a traveling troubadour, offering a lively string arrangement that augments Lightfoot’s dextrous finger-picking and strong baritone vocals.

“Johnny’s Garden,” Manassas, 1972

Manassas-by-Stephen-StillsCritics called Stephen Stills’ band’s double LP “a sprawling masterpiece,” with an impressive diversity of rock, folk, country, blues, Latin and bluegrass music.  Side 3 of “Manassas” focuses on folk and folk rock, and the centerpiece is the lost classic “Johnny’s Garden,” written by Stills in honor of the gardener who tended to the extensive grounds at the English manor Stills once owned.  The song is perhaps the simplest on the album, with an arrangement limited to Stills’ guitar, Fuzzy Samuels’ bass and some light drums from Dallas Taylor.  It’s one of Stills’ most engaging songs, harking back to the tunes he was writing when with Crosby, Nash and Young.

“Seagull,” Bad Company, 1974

220px-BadCompanyBadCompanyKnown far and wide as a straightforward British rock band, Bad Company hit a home run with their debut LP in 1974, which topped the charts in the U.S. and spawned three singles.  Buried amidst the solid rock and roll of “Can’t Get Enough,” “Ready for Love” and “Movin’ On” is an evocative track called “Seagull” that features vocalist Paul Rodgers humming and singing along to his own acoustic guitar accompaniment.  I always wondered if Rodgers might have had any more songs like this tucked up his sleeve that were never recorded…  A tip of the hat to my friend Ray for turning me on to this fine song when he sang it often around the campfire.

“Bitter With the Sweet,” Carole King, 1972

220px-CKRhymesKing’s “Tapestry” LP was the early ’70s biggest success story, selling 20 million copies and reigning supreme on the charts for most of 1971.  The two albums that followed — “Music” and “Rhymes and Reasons” — carried on in the same vein as “Tapestry,” with similar heartfelt lyrics and easygoing piano-based melodies.  The singles “Sweet Seasons” and “Been to Canaan” did well, and the albums reached #1 and #2 respectively, but how often do you hear Carole King any more, besides “It’s Too Late”?  Such a treasure trove of fine tunes on these albums.  I’ve always been fond of “Bitter With the Sweet,” carried by Charles Larkey’s bouncing bass line and Bobbye Hall’s spritely bongos, congas and tambourine.  King’s lyrics tell of the importance of learning how to accept the bad with the good that life has to offer.

“Warmth of Your Eyes,” Lazarus, 1971

603497980567-1Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary was on tour in 1971 supporting his solo debut LP when a struggling singer-songwriter named Bill Hughes approached him after a gig and invited him to his home nearby.  Yarrow agreed and was then exposed to a demo tape of Hughes’ music, performed by his three-piece group Lazarus.  “I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the songs — music and lyrics — and the stunning harmonies,” said Yarrow, who helped the group secure a recording contract.  Sadly, inexplicably, Lazarus never did break through, throwing in the towel after only two albums, but I’m here to tell you their music is superb, and well worth your time.  I could have selected any of a half-dozen tracks from their debut LP, but I’m going with “Warmth of Your Eyes” for its gentle, spiritual vibe and gorgeous harmonies.

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