Published in Rhythms Magazine, September 2010
The question you need to ask yourself before you head off to this year’s Great Southern Blues Festival in Batemans Bay, is how much do you want to see Todd Rundgren’s Johnson? The question I had to ask myself before I spoke to cult guitar icon, Rundgren, was how much did I want to talk about his Johnson. Understandably, I was a little nervous, somewhat dubious, and quite rumpled, given it was seven o’clock in the morning when I was connected to the man, but as it turns out, Todd Rundgren’s Jonson is quite a good thing. I’ve heard tell it’s a small Johnson, I’ve also heard the opposite – regardless, what Todd Rundgren’s Johnson is, is loud, powerful and going by the couple of YouTube clips I watched, quite unruly. ‘Yes’, I thought to myself, ‘I actually wouldn’t mind heading down to Batemans this year to catch a bit of this Johnson, it looks like a good one’.
Of course, what we’re talking about here is Todd Rundgren’s latest in a long, long line of projects, which entails him and his current band reworking classic Robert Johnson tunes, hence the show title, Todd Rundgren’s Johnson. The thing that strikes me first up, is that I would never have associated Rundgren with anything blues related. Sure, with Nazz in the early 70s, through their garage rock influences, he would have launched from the blues, probably without even thinking about it, but everything he’s done since then – his solo work, his production work, his video direction work – not particularly drenched in those old sounds from the deep south of America methinks.
“Well I actually started out my profession life in a blues band,” confides Rundgren with a smile. “I got out of high school and had a band that did a combination of English bands and blues numbers and the grey area that straddled them both. So my first ever gig was in a blues band, this is before I ever wrote anything, before I ever sang anything, so when it was proposed that I do this album of covers, it wasn’t the strangest thing in the world.” Rundgren and his Johnson have indeed put together a record, a record of Robert Johnson covers of course, which is due for release later this year – at this point then, it’s all about the live Johnson, something the man is obviously bringing to Australia, for the first time.
“When I’d finished the record, I was figuring out how I’d go about presenting it live, and I realised that all through my career, there are instances of me going back, in my own peculiar way, to something that sounds like the blues,” he tells. “So the show that I’m doing is peppered throughout with songs of mine…for example, if you go back to Nazz, we had a song called ‘Kiddie Boy’ on our second album (Nazz Nazz, 1969) and that’s just straight up, it sounds like John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers with a big horn section. So we’ve dug a lot of that stuff out of the shadows and into the light.
“And it’s kind of surprising, even to me, how often, even up until my most recent records, that I’ve written something that is arguably in the blues form.” So, Rundgren involved in the blues – not such an odd thing. I’m still interested though, how he really got into the music, back when he was playing in his first band, fresh out of high school. “Well, there’s a different dynamic in the United States as concerns the way that the blues found it’s way into the ears of all these white guitar players,” Rundgren muses. “Particularly in the north, where I live. We heard a lot of this stuff for the first time being played by English musicians. And that was because England, being an island nation and having this merchant marine tradition, there would be a lot of ships out of Liverpool coming to American ports of call, a lot of which were in the south.
“So these seamen would bring back to England all these records from small, blues oriented labels, music that would only get played in the south of the United States, not the north because it was considered race music,” he goes on. “So almost everything we were coming in contact with was from bands like John Mayall and Graham Bond and bands of that ilk who actually had exposure to those original records. Then later on, we had to root around a little, but we began to discover directly some of the blues greats.
“It’s kind of funny, I’ve played a vast variety of styles of music and a lot of that comes from the fact my Dad was a little bit of a snob, musically,” Rundgren smiles on what then drew him to this music. “He wouldn’t allow us to play the rock music on his stereo. All the music he would play was contemporary classical music and show tunes and then folk music in the early 60s, so the music I was listening to in the house was pretty eclectic…and so when I found the blues, it became an undercurrent to everything else I was influenced by.” Of course, it isn’t just the blues that’s informed Rundgren’s music over the years – one listen to any of his solo recordings attests to that – eclectic is the name of Todd Rundgren’s game, and always has been.
Now then, a good 43 years after he first made a foray into music, Rundgren has come full circle with his Johnson project. As he says, it wasn’t the oddest thing in the world to be asked to do, given his early flirtations with the blues, it seems it’s something he’s taken to quite naturally. “I recorded an album about two years ago called Arena, which was an experiment in 70s and 80s style arena rock,” he tells on where the idea initially came from. “And in the course of trying to find distribution for this record, we found a sympathetic ear in a company called MPIA I think it is, I can’t remember, it’s a combination of letters.
“But they coincidentally happened to be administering the Robert Johnson catalogue from a publishing standpoint,” he goes on. “But they had no masters, it was only the song publishing. So they claimed to me that they were constantly getting requests for masters to use in film and TV of Robert Johnson songs. So they said to me, ‘OK, we’ll distribute your album, but you also have to do an album of Robert Johnson covers for us’. At the time, all I was thinking about was getting my own record out, so I said, ‘Fine, I’ll figure it out later’. Then, much to my chagrin, after researching it a bit, I found out Eric Clapton has made a second career out of covering Robert Johnson songs.
“So I thought, ‘Oh jeez, the one thing I don’t need at this point in my life is to be compared to Eric Clapton again’, at least not in terms of how authentically I can render a Robert Johnson song,” he laughs. “So instead, I went in my own head back to the 60s, back to when I was first being influenced as a guitar player, and so looked at all the songs simply as an excuse to play the guitar. So I arranged them that way, with that jam mentality…like, you sing a verse, and then you play guitar for five minutes.”
From that them, Todd Rundgren’s Johnson was born, and as I mentioned earlier, watching the band jam together on YouTube, you get the impression that this is a big Johnson. Rundgren brings to the table the guitar power and depth he’s renowned for, and lets it loose all over the place – this stands as a big, brash, guitar-drenched electric blues stand-off. Not everyone’s cup of tea, granted, but something pretty eye-catching, let me tell you. Still, there’s always that fine line, one that Rundgren is aware of, that it’s a musical tightrope walk between interpreting these classic tunes, and completely re-working them, therefore missing the point of the whole project.
“Well, I didn’t try to sing like Robert Johnson, and it’s hard to say sometimes whether the songs have melodies or not,” he says thoughtfully. “Because he tends to sing the same thing, and in some ways, he tends to sing idiomatically the same thing, and if you hear the alternate versions of some of the songs, he never does the song the same way twice. And so it’s hard to find a melodic hook to hang your coat on sometimes and so you have to go back and study the vocals and find out what is the signature aspect of this particular song.
“So from my standpoint, that was the biggest challenge, trying to keep it from all sounding the same,” he goes on. “And at the same time, there has to be something in his original performance that has to be preserved in order for it to be recognisably any one of those songs.” It’d be easy to think that reinterpreting old blues classics would be the easiest thing in the world, particularly for a guitarist of the calibre of Rundgren. However, it seems that isn’t so, but that strikes me as a good thing…here’s a man who grew up with the blues (surprisingly), and given his penchant for experimentation and exploration, has delved deep within these tunes and given them the workout they so richly deserve. Todd Rundgren’s Johnson then, should indeed be a musical highlight of the year.
Samuel J. Fell