Classic Rock Corner

Todd Rundgren: Your White Knight Against the Tin Foil Hatters

Todd Rundgren: Your White Knight Against the Tin Foil Hatters
Photo by Tom Callan

The era of the Great Trump Protest Songs has not yet materialized. However, Todd Rundgren – along with Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen – were early out of the gate with the satiric “Tin Foil Hat” off Rundgren’s new album, White Knight.

Jazzy as hell, the tune makes a comparison between our Commander In Chief with the silver accouterment popular (at least in pop culture) with paranoid conspiracy nuts who feel the chapeau will prevent their minds from being read.

Lyrical references include a man coming down an escalator with a girl “east of here” who’s “tweeting like a teenage girl,” along with phrases like “alternative facts,” “drain the swamp,” “tiny little hands,” “make the country greater,” and “YUGE!”

But, given all that has happened since the song’s May release, Rundgren says he could easily rewrite the song with all new words again. And again.

“We could do updates every week!” he laughs, before discussing the tune’s genesis. “The first thing Donald and I did was sit down and write down all the bizarre things that have been said by or about him, then tried to make them rhyme. It was really such an embarrassment of riches. It almost wrote itself!”

White Knight also includes plenty of other collaborations with people like Daryl Hall, Joe Walsh, Joe Satriani, Bettye Lavette, and other singers and rappers in addition to Rundgren-only tunes. And while he didn’t get everyone on his wish list, it was close.

“Most of the artists I contacted were open to doing some collaboration. But actually getting it done was easier said! You have to catch them at the right moment and get them to focus,” he offers.

“Often, I would have an artist in mind and they were interested in composing or co-composing. But if not, I came up with an idea for them. But they were mostly not bilateral situations. In Daryl’s song, I left spaces for him to fill in. Donald’s song was the only track where we were in the same place at the same time.”

Another sharp-edged tune, “Buy My T,” posits the wholly factual situation that a musician can make more selling T-shirts than records. Or, as he calls the former, “cotton goodies” up to size 5XL and available in limited editions. And if they’re sold out at the show? Just buy it online.

“The reality is that for a lot of artists, performing is a central part of their career, and then merchandising they sell at the shows to a captive audience,” Rundgren says. “The so-called record business that everyone thinks in the center part is more fringe exploitation!”

Rundgren is currently on tour as the middle act in “Yestival,” sandwiched between opening act Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy and headliners Yes (the Steve Howe/Alan White version. More on that here). This makes the show something of a Prog Rock dream (or...wet dream) bill. Rundgren was interviewed by Dave Weigel for the reporter’s recent book on the history of the genre, The Show That Never Ends. And he doesn’t seem to take issue with the term.

“I think ‘Prog Rock’ does indicate certain things. I’ve done a few of these shows with Yes and Carl Palmer, and one thing you can definitely say is...there’s a LOT of fast playing and a lot of notes! That’s one aspect,” Rundgren laughs. “The other is sort of unusual subject matter from the purely philosophical to tales of dwarves and dragons. Prog Rock is the music that goes with ‘Game of Thrones!’ But you have to have chops and play intricately. And Prog Rock does have [very] dedicated fans.”

Todd Rundgren has long been an enthusiastic student of and performer with a deep knowledge and usage of technology, computers, and synthesizers in his music. He says this came from childhood, when this son of a DuPont engineer would tinker with scientific experiments and home radio kits. At one point, he was so heavily into robots that he planned on building his own as sort of a “personal companion.”

“Everyone is at some point in the continuum of technophobia. There are those who are scared of things because they seem difficult or learn, and then I’m at the other end where I have a real interest in it. And that can turn into a fixation!” he says.

“So it didn’t seem as challenging to me maybe as other people. On the other hand, I don’t necessarily adopt the latest technology as soon as it is new. I have to figure out what works best for me. Like I remained analog when everyone else was going digital, then switched when it was convenient and dependable enough.”

One thing Rundgren says technology has killed is his offers of work as a record producer. Or for any producer. That’s not a small thing given that Rundgren has over the years guided albums from behind the glass for artists as diverse as the Band, the New York Dolls, Badfinger, Patti Smith, Cheap Trick, XTC, the Tubes, and Meat Loaf (that would be Bat Out of Hell, which has sold a few copies over the years).

“I’m no longer the gatekeeper to the studio for musicians,” he offers. “The studio is their bedroom now. And you don’t have to jump through as many hurdles to get signed. They would have never seen someone like [EDM DJ] Skrillex coming.”

click to enlarge Todd Rundgren in 1978. While known for romantic "Hello It's Me" and "I Saw the Light" he has serious Prog Rock cred both as a solo artist and with the band Utopia. - WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/MITCHELL WEINSTOCK
Todd Rundgren in 1978. While known for romantic "Hello It's Me" and "I Saw the Light" he has serious Prog Rock cred both as a solo artist and with the band Utopia.
This stop will be the second of three times his travels bring him to Houston this year, in between a June solo show at the House of Blues and an upcoming November gig as part of Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band.

Ringo’s current All-Starrs have been together intact since 2012, and also include Gregg Rolie (Santana), Steve Lukather (Toto), and Richard Page (Mr. Mister). He says that the joke among the group is that they are rapidly approaching a milestone of playing Beatles songs longer than the Beatles themselves did.

“I will say that Houston does gets short-tripped,” he says. “I never get to really spend time there since it’s usually the furthest [tour stop] south. So I don’t have many memories of Houston. And that’s a shame because I understand it has gone through some sort of Renaissance and become a little less petroleum-centric.”

Finally, there’s the matter of a certain pyramid-shaped building in Cleveland that many believe should have a place for Todd Rundgren. But while he’s often on short lists of musicians who should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame but aren’t, there’s at least one person not losing any sleep over the situation: Todd Rundgren.

“It’s more about the fans, for them it would be some sort of vindication. For me, it doesn’t matter at all. I always maintain that these institutions that are formed during your lifetime, you don’t have the same respect for them,” he says, before adding that even the title “Rock and Roll” for the institution is a misnomer.

“Rock and roll essentially died when Elvis got back from the army and started singing with choirs and stuff. Anything after that has been an evolution of the foundation of rock and roll, from Chuck Berry. And if there was something true about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Madonna would never be in it.”

Todd Rundgren performs at Yestival, also featuring Yes and Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy, Wednesday, August 23 at Smart Financial Centre, 18111 Lexington in Sugar Land. Doors open at 6:30 p.m.; tickets are $69.50 to $125.
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero