Treble 100, No. 38: Todd Rundgren – Something/Anything?

Todd Rundgren Something/Anything?

Why has it taken me so long to write a piece about my favorite album of all time?

I don’t mean just now, although I’ve punted on a couple of deadlines for this article already. I mean ever. I’ve commented on Todd Rundgren’s 1972 masterpiece Something/Anything? I’ve recommended it. I’ve sung along to it. Once in Seattle, Dana and I sang “Hello It’s Me” over the phone at karaoke to our friend Saundrah in Berlin. When I lived in San Francisco, the whole album (plus Runt: The Ballad of Todd Rundgren) was the backdrop for a budding relationship that ended up not happening mainly because the phone terrified me. (It still does, actually. Sorry if you made me your emergency contact.)

But a full piece on Something/Anything? from me, a reasonably talented but frayed-edged music writer who regularly and cheerfully churns out sprightly manifestos for bands that won’t exist in 10 years? Not one. Until, as I guess they say, now.


Rock and roll was only 18 years old when Todd Rundgren’s Something/Anything? came out in 1972. Or maybe 17 years, or 25, or 100, depending on your understanding of the scattershot history of rock and roll. But for the sake of this piece, let’s go with 18.

The genre was still new enough that it hadn’t quite reached a sense of self-awareness. Which is good, because that would have hindered the unflagging creativity in the genre in the ‘60s. But rock was also old enough that it had some history to analyze. Ambition crept into the codex, and the first traces of turgid self-seriousness surfaced.

The pop business “craft” had created a hegemony. And Rundgren had the engineer’s experience to smash it.

Enter Todd Rundgren, from the Philadelphia suburbs. At 23 he had made three albums with his band Nazz and two solo albums. Superstar manager Albert Grossman hired him to engineer albums of artists he oversaw, notably The Band’s Stage Fright. Rundgren had also racked up production credits for two albums, the self-titled debut album by Halfnelson—later renamed Sparks—and Badfinger’s Straight Up.

In 1971 the kid already had professional exposure across more rock and pop styles than anyone his age. According to a Rhino Records post, Rundgren had “[a] vision: a new album, created entirely by Todd Rundgren.” It wasn’t an entirely new vision, as Paul McCartney had just issued a couple of albums featuring him on every part but Linda’s vocals. But it was more ambitious.

Rundgren’s vision would eventually be hilariously adjusted, but we’ll get to that. He set up shop in an L.A. studio and—there’s no polite way to put this—stocked up on Ritalin. At the time, recording all the parts by yourself involved turning on the reel-to-reel, running into the studio, recording your part, and running back into the control room to shut the tape off. Pepsi is insufficient for this gauntlet, so Ritalin it was.


Rundgren had another vision: staying interested. He’d tired of many parts of the pop protocol, feeling that it clamped down on creativity in favor of short-term gains and audience retention. The pop business “craft” had created a hegemony. And Rundgren had the engineer’s experience to smash it.

His first two solo albums, while excellent, didn’t show off the widest range of songwriting. They were largely piano-based (“We Gotta Get You a Woman,” “Be Nice to Me”), broken up by the occasional guitar rave-up (“Parole,” “Chain Letter”). So the first part of composing for Something/Anything? was developing a formula to write a batch of songs across a variety of styles most solo artists couldn’t tackle.

The songs Rundgren came up with were, by the standards of the pop machine of the time, as varied as they could be. But even with all the diversity, the results on the first three sides of the double album had a consolidated sound. That’s probably easier to achieve when it’s just one man doing everything. Still, Rundgren’s wild talents and disregard for boundaries inspired other one-person innovators—especially Prince, an avowed Todd fan.

Breadth, attention to detail, and precision are the hallmarks of Rundgren’s arrangements. The hit “I Saw the Light” is perfect mid-tempo pop, from Todd’s croon to his overdubbed backup choir. “Wolfman Jack” is hard R&B, with Rundgreen adjusting the speed of the backup vocal tracks so they sound female. On “It Takes Two to Tango (This Is for the Girls),” the jerky time, rhythm changes, and alternate percussion send it careening.

That’s Side 1. Side 2 begins with a spoken-word track we’ll also get to later. The second track is an instrumental called “Breathless.” The Latinesque song probably marks the first time Rundgren’s electronic skills were made known to listeners, as keyboards swirl around a wafting melody and robotic vocals buried deep in the mix.

“The Night the Carousel Burned Down” ushers in the weirdness. It’s a loping, atmospheric stroll that switches from 4/4 to waltz in the second verse and builds as close to an all-musical firestorm as can be done. “Song of the Viking” is a simple piano mockery of Norse war chants (about time!) filtered through Rundgren’s pop valves. Finally, in “I Went to the Mirror,” Rundgren goes for a slow-release freakout that ends in controlled cacophony, sort of like Hawkwind with Duane Allman on guitar.

Side 3 is bookended by two nods to the bluesy hard rock Rundgren had messed around with in his first band, Woody’s Truck Stop. “Black Maria” trudges with a ghostly pall, not far removed from Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac. It also features Todd’s first extended guitar solo on the album. “Little Red Lights” satirizes the muscle car generation with Black Sabbath-type verses, MC5-like refrains, and a guitar-solo car chase to close things out. Does the car crash? Of course it crashes.

In between those tracks, “One More Day (No Word)” is a gentle, claves-driven ballad that has one of the album’s loveliest melodies. “Torch Song” reinvents the style of its title as a droning electronics/piano piece, one that lets Todd’s vocals soar. In between those tracks is American Top 40’s lost, golden opportunity: “Couldn’t I Just Tell You.” The hard-driving prototype for power pop, this track features raw vocals from Todd, an economical guitar solo, and one of the best acoustic guitar breakdowns ever made. It was released as a single. It only got up to #95. We owe Todd a big, big apology for that. Send a card.


The first three sides of Something/Anything? testify to Rundgren’s happy OCD. He pulls the feat off with intense concentration on detail and complete—but not suffocating—professionalism. On Side 4, he throws all of it out the window, with help.

I can’t find an oral history of the sessions and ChatGPT seems to think I’m asking about Blue Öyster Cult, so let’s stick with what I know. Rundgren dispatched himself to studios in New York and Los Angeles to record a few songs with top session musicians. They weren’t scheduled to work with Todd—they were people who just happened to be at the studios at the time and “didn’t have anything better to do.”

The very informal set is somewhat akin to the “Apple Jam” part of George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, except much shorter and with actual compositions. (Not a dig, Apple scruffs, just a description.) The polished approach in sides 1 through 3 is jettisoned for a side full of blithe chatter, false starts, and Live Excitement In The Studio.

After an unusual overture that, again, we will discuss in a minute, Rundgren launches into “Dust in the Wind,” written by future Utopia member Mark Klingman. It’s a reflective piano ballad that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Side 2, but you can hear Todd’s isolation being ripped apart by the jovial attendees, Rick Derringer’s oddly minimalist guitar solo, and Mike Brecker’s aerial sax solo.

It gets even looser from there. The comic “Piss Aaron” struts like a syncopated “Fixing a Hole” as Rundgren tells a coming-of-age story with copious bodily fluids. The band updates an old Nazz track, “Hello It’s Me,” with far more logical and lush surroundings than the original. It was Rundgren’s only Top 10 American hit.

The band wraps up with three songs that have no business being the last three songs on a double album. “Some Folks Is Even Whiter Than Me,” despite its uncertain message, rollicks along with “new Tempts” vitality (that’s Todd’s phrase—I think it’s more Curtis Mayfield). “You Left Me Sore” presages the medical commercial jingles of today, a cheerfully lilting song about venereal disease. 

The grand finale, “Slut,” is sleaze rock of the highest order. It’s as if Todd’s swagger had been in solitary detention for the entire length of the album to this point and he lets it out in one, massive, thrusting wave.


None of what I just said matters. I mean, it’s accurate. The music is wonderful. Every part of these songs is etched into my musical palette. Sure, I can bail out and say “To know me, you have to know this album,” but that’s not true. To know me, you have to watch the 1983 movie Local Hero.

But let’s get back to the premise that rock wasn’t yet self-aware. Rundgren was already weary of the promotion process and commercial concessions in the music business. But he was also, if not put off, then at least amused by the artistic conceit of some of its creators.

Pete Townshend had already written one rock opera and canceled another. Emerson, Lake & Palmer—well, they were allowed to exist. Rock music journalism was still in its infancy, but its gonzo analytics were already influencing musicians with suggested paths to artistic enlightenment and aesthetic grandiosity. Affairs at the hop were now getting serious.

I’m not sure this was the actual sequence of events, but it’s how I like to think of it: Rundgren, double album in the can, was far too observant and skeptical to channel it through traditional post-production and promotional processes. He was aware of how things worked in the business, the gentle codifications that went into music marketing, and how everyone around him in a suit needed to have the piss taken out. But in a loving way.

This led to the feature of Something/Anything? that probably cemented its status as my favorite recording of all time—the jokes.

The vast majority of these jokes appeared in the Todd-written liner notes, integrated into the multi-page lyric sheet. The liner notes offer an abstract course on music marketing up to that point, and a tiny jab at the “greater” consciousness floating around rock in those days.

Rundgren divides the four sides of the album into “parts.” Part 1: “A bouquet of ear-catching melodies.” Part 2: “The cerebral side. In fact, the last song is so cerebral it’s almost embarrassing.” Part 3: “The kid gets heavy.” Part 4… well, those last jam-like sessions have now been transformed into a “rock operetta, that kind of thing being very popular nowadays.

Every song gets a Todd blurb. “If there’s a single on this album this is it,” he writes for “I Saw the Light,” “so I put it first like at Motown.” He discusses the confusion over the meaning of “It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference”: “I always thought it meant, ‘if you really did (love me), then why did you act like such a schmuck?’”

“Sweeter Memories”: “No, this is not a drug song. Yes, I stole the drum part from Levon.” “Saving Grace”: “The theme song of a generation, yea, of all mankind. My publisher will be overjoyed.” “Little Red Lights”: “A song about the joys and hazards of driving. Also a ‘you know what’ to ‘you know who.’”

My personal favorite of these notes—aside from the entirety of the operetta—is “I Went to the Mirror”: “This song is sort of an experiment in mixed media. As far as AM programming goes, it’s a piece of crap. The idea is to lay with your head between the speakers and look into a hand mirror while the song is playing. Headphones will do if you can’t take it lying down. Let me know if it works.

I don’t know where to start with the notes to the rock operetta. I’ll just let you read the libretto (yes, the libretto) yourself if you find it online. I will say the piece is called “Baby Needs a New Pair of Snakeskin Boots,” it’s “about” the vagaries of the music business, and it focuses on a comically tortured artist who dies in the end after finishing “Slut.”

Some of the jokes make it onto the record. Remember that track I referred to above that opens Side 2? It’s a spoken word piece. With no background music, Rundgren suggests listeners play a game: Find all the recording defects on Something/Anything?

This is called ‘hiss.’ It comes on records that were mastered lousy, or mono reprocessed for stereo, or any number of things.” Also, be on the lookout for “hum — P’s popping — this is the ound [sic] of bad editing. And here’s what happens when the machine gains control and mangles your tape.

The overture of Side 4 consists of two extremely low-fi snippets of two of Todd’s first bands playing live, focusing on his “demonic guitar work”. The between-song banter between Todd, the musicians, and the engineers is left in, making for abstract humor with some tremendous standalone lines.

It doesn’t have to be perfect… if it’s stupid enough, it’s cool” (“Piss Aaron”). “I’m falling in love with the singer” (“You Left Me Sore”). “Todd — there’s that nation of fans YOU CAN’T LET DOWN” (“Slut”). “I’ll go all night if you want me to. Just throw money. THROW MONEY. I decided right now I’m changing the name of the album to ‘Throw Money.’” (Also “Slut.”)


So. You’re reading these 2,000-plus words (my editor will be overjoyed). You’re looking at the sum of the parts here. You’re asking, “Wait. How is it that liner notes and in-jokes make a given album somebody’s favorite album of all time? Todd was right about music critics!”

But this isn’t a music critic writing this. It’s a 15-year-old boy from the past. He’s riding on a family friend’s speedboat on Folsom Lake in California. He’s been into music since he was 8, but he’s still unaware of the context and subtext of the pop music business. He’s still purely into the sound. 

And he just picked up the cassette of Something/Anything? last week. He’s listening to it now on his Walkman as the speedboat cruises because he’s still shy around most adults. He gets more impressed at just how many different styles the artist pulls off and how the fourth side switches gears entirely.

Later on, this boy buys the vinyl copy of Something/Anything? He reads the liner notes. It’s never occurred to him that humor, irony, or skepticism could play any part in decoding pop music—he’s always been deadly serious about it. This is his first experience in which he sees an artist demystifying themselves.

The boy listens to Something/Anything? several times for the next 40 years. Every year there’s usually a 2- to 3-day period during which he revisits the album. The boy becomes a music writer, more for his own amusement than anything else. By the time he’s had a few publications, he realizes a few of his approaches that Something/Anything? probably informed.

The wild genre-tripping and pop shuffling? That re-emerged several years later with the album that would become his third favorite album of all time: The Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs. The demystification of rock and pop music practices? It helped him a lot later when he was learning about punk, and also when he was developing his interview strategy. The depth of Rundgren’s arrangements and the attention to detail? That made him understand what went on behind the lush arrangements of ELO and the Divine Comedy, two bands he also grew to love. The “no-big-deal” feel of Side 4? The kid used that ethic lots of times just to survive the music industry. It almost worked, too.

All of the above feed into the most important attribute of Something/Anything?: the almost effortless openness to unfamiliar styles and differences. That was something the kid turned into a credo. It wasn’t always easy. It wasn’t always popular. But he was certain that it would always be the right path for him.

It would take him 40 years to finally put together why Something/Anything? never had any serious competition for his favorite all-time album. But eventually, he did. 

I bet he’s grateful you’ve read this.

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View Comments (7)
  • Excellent stuff, Paul. All real music fans are bonkers and unfit for a place in civil society. I know this. I’ve known this for 60 years, give or take. I’m about to go dig out my original UK vinyl of Something/Anything and play as much as my wife will let me in one sitting. That, I suspect, won’t be much. Next up, who knows? Maybe it’s time to bust out A Wizard, A True Star. Anyway, I need to know: What is your second favorite album of all time?

    Onwards, ever onwards,

    • Thank you David! I appreciate your note and your pending S/A? marathon. My second favorite album of all time is “Get Happy!!” by Elvis Costello & the Attractions, about whom I maintain a cottage journalism business. — P

  • Most of my experience of Todd Rundgren, came from listening to Dr. Demento as a kid. 🙂

    So for me, this was a pretty fascinating read. I kinda want to dive into his catalog and find out what the rest of his material sounds like.

    • Hi Bob,

      The best compliment any music writer can get — at least here at Treble — is that we’ve encouraged readers to find out more about the artists we love. So, you’ve just paid me the highest compliment. Thank you.

      Re: Todd, David is right that your next step is to listen to A Wizard/A True Star, which is kind of Todd’s response to the popularity of S/A? and the conventions he really wanted to break free from. His first two solo albums are awfully good, too. I’m a big fan of “Healing” — which was my first Todd album — and “Hermit of Mink Hollow,” “The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect,” and “A Capella.” More recently, I loved his album “Liars,” and his latest efforts “White Knight” and “Space Force” have a lot of compelling moments.

      I hope you have a nice Todd-listening journey in the future — it’s worth it. Thanks again. — Paul

  • Loved your article! I just recently revisited the album and reading your words brought back great listening memories! I agree with the comment above – time to give Wizard a True Star a listen.

  • Very thoughtful and insightful piece, Paul. Thank you!

    If we go back in time to Todd’s debut solo album, “Runt” (1970), some of TR’s future experimental musical journey is encapsulated in one 2 minute song, “There Are No Words”. Layered vocal harmonies (think otherworldly, ethereal Beach Boys), beautiful and haunting, reappear throughout Todd’s catalog on “A Capella”, “Initiation”, “Liars”, and “State” to name a few.

    Also from Runt, “Birthday Carol” showcases Todd’s innate ability to infuse spirituality, deep emotion and beautiful melodic sensibility into his musical creations, then and throughout his decades of output.

    Something/Anything was my favorite record until AWATS was released. At that point, I knew the connection I formed with this man’s music was going to last a long time. It’s still going strong today.

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