Once upon a time, there was a band nobody heard of. The people HAD actually heard this band many times. MTV, they were the backing band for Meatloaf’s massive debut album. This band and many members of Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street Band formed that famous backing troupe.
Their “leader” Todd Rundgren has the distinction of having the seventh video played on MTV’s debut (NOT the second as was rumored).
This was a band comprised of Rundgren and three musical sponges: Roger Powell, John “Willie” Wilcox, and newcomer Kasim Sulton. Powell worked for Moog and Arp, and now is a higher-up at Apple in the music development division. Wilcox composes music for Sci Fi among other networks. Sulton is a loyal sideman to Rundgren, and that loyalty has led to another career for Sulton, live musical director for Meatloaf (until recently, within the last couple of months) and often times Rundgren.
This blogger has seen this act live many times during its all-too-short lifespan, not even ten years. This book by author Billy James puts you in the middle of one of rocks most underrated and under-appreciated bands of all time!
A place a lot of your current musicians like Trent Reznor would like to be.
Up front, we have a foreword by Kasim Sulton. (Vol. 1’s foreword was written by Powell. I’d like to see vol. 3’s be written by Wilcox, the perfect trifecta!) Detailing his arrival in Woodstock NY to audition for Powell and Wilcox.
When Rundgren first started Utopia, recently deceased funny man Soupy Sales’ sons, Hunt and Tony were the rhythm section. Later, John Siegler (of Pokemon fame) would replace one Sales brother on bass; Kevin Ellman would replace the other brother on drums. Siegler grew tired of road life and Ellman left to run his dad’s steakhouse, Beefsteak Charlies.
Powell came in to replace often-wayward synthesizer and effect processor M. Frog (Jean Yves) Labat. His presence would negate the need for the other two keyboard players Rundgren carried around on tour to support his lush music. Wilcox came in to replace Ellman, hot off a production gig with Rundgren for a Hall and Oates record, currently drumming on Broadway for Bette Midler’s Clams On The Half Shell production.
So that left Utopia sans a bass player. Enter Kasim Sulton in time for 1976.
After that, this quartet slimmed down from anywhere from 7 to 10 members, sometimes including the late Luther Vandross on backing vocals, to the current 4 and hit the ground running! But the only place they couldn’t get to was to where the eyes and ears of the vox populii were at the time.
Here’s the hitch with Utopia: When Rundgren started the band in 1973, groups like John McLaughlin and The Mahavishnu Orchestra were the rage on FM radio. Especially since the English were kicking America’s butt and getting revenge for the Revolutionary War by exporting killer progressive bands like Genesis, Yes, King Crimson, and Pink Floyd to name a few. All these groups paved the exploratory road for Utopia’s earlier exploits.
One of the first exploits foreword writer Sulton would encounter, as a new Utopian was the Meatloaf project and the Utopia four-man debut Ra. Sulton had humorous recollections of both.
All four members of Utopia are equally represented in Volume 2, even “estranged” drummer Wilcox who was reported to have several major artistic differences with Rundgren.
Details of the tension between the two, good times, bad times, ups and downs, all here.
But before all you “I like Todd but not Utopia”-types tune out and run away, the last few Bearsville solo releases, the Rhino Records re-masters and the first two albums for Warner Brothers as well as the Japanese tour from 1988 is contained in Volume 2.
Author James calls on the actual culprits as well as researchers, archivists, rabid fans, crew, management, even family to get this extraordinary account accomplished.
James’ writing has a quicksand effect. It took me maybe a weekend to read, interruptions notwithstanding. As I pen this, my best thing to ever happen to me is being lured in by Volume 1 of this intense account of American Music’s greatest lost treasure, Todd Rundgren.
For you Utopia fans (all two of us) you will thrill to accounts of events where YOU were an attendee, participant, audient, or just own the albums and DVDs. For me, there are many of these such events and artifacts detailed in this book.
But as I referred to the Bill Bruford biography as the new “how to” book for musicians in the new millennium, this book would have to qualify as how NOT to run a rock and roll band, ever.
No matter how limitless the groups’ talent and potential was. I wanted to say, “is”.
The book literally takes you on that roller coaster ride from 1976 when they couldn’t produce fast enough (both their debut album and a follow-up masterpiece Oops! Wrong Planet were released in 1977, upon hearing both, you would realize just what an accomplishment and statement that is) to the very bitter, sweet, and impressionable end.
Thanks to James’ comprehensive study, both Volume 1 and Volume 2 are a must read.
But Volume 2 isn’t all doom and gloom. There is a brief period of modest success for the band, but you can read Rundgren’s reaction to that success and how the murder of John Lennon helped scuttle Utopia’s follow up to that success.
Dish, murder, business misappropriations, if it had more sex and a little foreign intrigue and this book would have been on Amazon’s Best Seller List!!!
In actuality, Rundgren and Utopia have touched and played alongside a veritable Who’s Who of rock musicians. Stevie Nicks, Hall & Oates, (produced an album for his Philly brethren), Rick Derringer, so many more, and even non-musical celebrities pack the book. Liv Tyler (Liv Rundgren, or at least as it was listed on her birth certificate well into her adult years) is interviewed for this book, and Rundgren mentions his relationship with Tyler’s biological father, Aerosmith’s Steven “Rehab Again” Tyler. Dana Carvey, Paul Schaeffer, Jon Lovitz, Mike Myers? All pictured with Rundgren. Why? Get the book!
Because this book will define and dissect how a band with four uber-talented musicians, one a brilliant producer, one a classically trained keyboardist with a technological insight into the available advances in the electric keyboard, one an orchestral-trained drummer with a penchant for jazz and elaborate compositions, and one a young, angelic voiced bass player with raw talent, FAILED!!!
Earlier I alluded that the other three members of Utopia were sponges, and they were. I could try to explain it here, but a better understanding is found in the book. All three became better singers by hanging around with Blue-Eyed-Soul’s lost champion, Rundgren. It really is more clear if you contact your local indy record or book store and get this, order it online, do what you have to do, but get this insightful probe of, as the New York Times said “The best band you’ll never hear on the radio”. Pam Lambert was right. You never got the chance to hear what a perfect album 1985’s POV was. January of this year, 2010, was the 25th anniversary of the release of the last full Utopia album ever made.
Your loss, I’m afraid.
Why am I pimping this book about a band nobody cared about back in their heyday, and that nobody gives a rat’s ass about today? First: because as I said, James is a dangerous author who will make you miss your favorite TV shows, appointments, keep you running late because you can’t put the book down!!!
Second: There are reviews, interviews, pictures, factoids, tour lists, recording dates, more information in the supplemental material at the end of the book, tallying to a dizzying amount of facts and dates collected.
Third: This book did something that has not happened to this blogger, not even when I read Volume 1. On the final page there is a passage so apt, so accurate, it brings tears to my eyes.
I will leave you with that:
“This is known for sure: While Utopia was in operation, the band created some of the most unique, thought-provoking, progressive, skillful, beautiful music ever to emerge from American Shores.”
Thanks to Mr. James for his permissions in allowing the reposting of material from Volume 2 “A Dream Goes On Forever, The Continuing Story of Todd Rundgren, The Utopia Years.” Get yours now!