Rock Cellar Magazine: The first time you played with Ringo Starr was back in the ‘70s for a Jerry Lewis Telethon.
Todd Rundgren: Yeah, that’s right. We didn’t get to meet Jerry (laughs), he was in God knows, Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas where the event was held and we were performing in the UNLV gymnasium. It was basically Ringo. Bill Wyman, a couple of members of Utopia and Dave Mason, he refused to come to rehearsal but he showed up eventually during the actual show. (laughs)
Rock Cellar Magazine: You didn’t play a Beatles song, you did a Rolling Stones song.
Todd Rundgren: Yeah we did Jumping Jack Flash and did things like Money. It was great playing with Ringo but by that time he was the only Beatle I hadn’t met. I’d had at least some contact with all of the other Beatles under various circumstances. So playing with him wasn’t the first time I had met a Beatle.
But Ringo is a simple, humble guy and doesn’t have a lot of attitude about it. He’s easy to get along with and we had a good time.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Before you did Utopia’s 1980 album Deface the Music which was a Beatles spoof, you’d already met the entire band.
Todd Rundgren: The reason why we did that record wasn’t really because we had some long standing desire to make a Beatles style record, we were kind of contrarians. The Knack was really hot at the time with My Sharona. They dressed like the Beatles and were doing that whole ‘60s English Invasion thing so we recorded a power pop song called I Just Want to Touch You for laughs and submitted it for the movie soundtrack for a film called Roadie.
I had produced two songs for Alice Cooper for that album and they said to us, “Why don’t you put a Utopia song on the soundtrack?” We weren’t using Alice’s band so Utopia played on the records and actually appeared in the movie except for me. (laughs) So we gave them that song and they came back and gave us the excuse that it sounds too much like The Beatles. They were afraid The Beatles might take some issues with it and sue them.
You have to remember that Apple was very litigious at that point. I can’t see what issues they could have had with it; maybe they just didn’t want to use the song.
So here we go and say, ‘Well, screw you, we’re gonna do a whole album of Beatles-inspired songs like this” (laughs). We had a lot of fun with that record. We thought it would get some attention just for the novelty of it. We did a little bit of touring behind Deface the Music but we didn’t actively promote it because we considered it a novelty. (laughs) We did it as an act of spite.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Was it a fun experience channeling that Beatles spirit?
Todd Rundgren: Yeah, it was great going back and dissecting the originals and trying to figure out how we could create the same sort of texture and similar instrumentation. Sometimes the songs would be mash-ups of two or three other Beatle songs.
One fond memory of that period was when we played a big gig in New York City at The Ritz. We decided were going to pretend to be the Beatles just so we could see what it felt like. We got dressed at the hotel, put on our instruments and got into the limousine and went directly from the limousine right through the crowd and onto the stage and it felt great to pretend to be the Beatles for an evening. (laughs)
Rock Cellar Magazine: Prior to Deface the Music, you had deconstructed some Beatles songs and covered Strawberry Field Forever and Rain on your solo album, Faithful.
Todd Rundgren: I was also musical advisor on the set of the movie version of Beatlemania. I don’t even know if I was credited but I spent the whole frigging time there (laughs) while they were essentially just filming the Beatlemaniacs onstage with an invited audience.
Rock Cellar Magazine: You never saw the Beatles live, right?
Todd Rundgren: No, unfortunately, I never had the opportunity. I was too young and poverty-stricken to get a ticket for the times they toured in America and by the time I was out on my own the band was disintegrating. By the time they got to Sgt. Pepper they had sworn off touring.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Do you think Ringo or any of the other Beatles ever heard Deface the Music?
Todd Rundgren: I have no idea. I think I mentioned to Ringo I’d done that album but you can imagine he gets a constant onslaught of this kind of stuff. It would have been interesting to hear his reaction.
Rock Cellar Magazine: You’ve taken part in numerous All-Starr band tours, one of the more memorable lineups you participated in included Jack Bruce of Cream.
Todd Rundgren: Yeah. That was a good band. Gary Brooker from Procol Harum was also in that incarnation along with Simon Kirke of Bad Company and Free. It was the smallest band that Ringo had taken out on the road. (laughs)
Working with Ringo has always been great.
Rock Cellar Magazine: What’s impressed you the most about Ringo as a player?
Todd Rundgren: This is a topic of conversation amongst all of us in the All-Starr Band, which is how disappointed we are that Ringo won’t play a song without a second drummer. When he first went out on the road he had two other drummers (laughs) on his very first tour.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Who do you think he’s reticent to play without another drummer?
Todd Rundgren: I think it’s just a habit at this point. But he was just paranoid about taking on the entire load himself of being the only drummer. Part of it is he likes songs that are simple and straight ahead on terms of his own playing, If it gets too complicated it becomes an issue. I remember the first tour I did with him, one of the songs I did was called Black Maria and there’s all these odd stops and starts in there and odd bar counts.
As soon as we started practicing that one Ringo said, “No, I’m gonna sit this one out.” (laughs) So I think he depends on the other drummer to sort of remind him where in the songs we’re at because we’re playing some songs that are five or six minutes long (laughs), particularly the Santana songs we do have some odd time signatures in there. So he depends on the other drummer to kind of cue him into what’s happening.
But from a playing standpoint it’s a great disappointment that we don’t ever get to just play with Ringo and get to wallow in that groove.
Rock Cellar Magazine: What is it about his groove that makes it work so well?
Todd Rundgren: There’s a little bit of a shuffle or something in everything he does. He’s got this other feel going on over top of it and also the fact that when you hear the drum arrangements he’s come up with on records often times he can slip in and out of various feels with a relative degree of ease. He can go from a shuffle feel to a straight eight feel without having to think about it.
For instance, the drum part on Rain, at the time people had a hard time figuring out how do you do that. How do you play this combination of solid rhythm and at the same time over this bizarre syncopation going through it? With his playing on Rain in that sense he characterized the entire song.
Rock Cellar Magazine: This incarnation of the All-Starr Band has stayed together for a much longer time than all the other versions. It seems like the group is not just aligned musically but also personally as well.
Todd Rundgren: We all sort of felt that way in the beginning. When Ringo puts these acts together he doesn’t really require that you undergo a psychological evaluation; you just have to have three hits. (laughs) So there certainly have been instances where there were issues with people in the band. I think it also affected how Ringo would feel about the bands.
Personality-wise we all clicked since day one and I think that’s one of the reasons why Ringo has kept the band together. It’s not only a superlative group of musicians but also it’s just a fun bunch of guys to be with.