Deface The Music

Review by Josh Chasin (Switch to

Utopia, a four man band who's most famous member is Todd Rundgren, and which attracts a hard core of almost cultish fans, has just released an interesting record. The foursome, which came together in late 1976, had evolved from the collection of musicians Rundgren used on his solo albums, on tour, and in previous, six-man incarnations of Utopia. Willie Wilcox hooked up on drums in time for Utopia's 1975 tour, as did synthesizer whiz Roger Powell. Nineteen year old Kasim Sulton joined as bassist in 1976, and the current line-up began to jell. After releasing three albums of catchy, vocal, crisp, and usually optimistic tunes featuring songs written and sung by each member and highlighted by Rundgren's electric virtuosity on guitar, the band has just put out Deface the Music, which is part parody, part homage, part fun; and which pays loving and precise tribute to the Beatles.

Rundgren has acknowledged his roots in Beatlemania before, covering "Rain" and "Strawberry Fields" on his Faithful album, but on Deface the Music the band performs thirteen original songs. From the opening "I Just Want to Touch You". which Kasim Sulton belts out like Paul McCartney in a song best described as "Please Please Me" meets "Love Me Do", until the closing "Everybody Else is Wrong", a Rundgren-sung, Lennonesque "I Am the Walrus" meets "Strawberry Fields", Utopia traces the Beatles' progression from mop tops to gurus with deadpan accuracy. In between are tunes like "Take It Home", which quotes "Day Tripper"; "Alone", which could surely fit on the Beatles' Rubber Soul album; "Life Goes On", a stirring counterpoint to "Eleanor Rigby"; and "Hoi Polloi", which opens side two and leaves no doubt that we have arrived in Pepperland. In fact, the second side of Deface the Music is actually a journey through Pepperland, complete with those Beatley suburban references (remember "She's Leaving Home" or "Penny Lane"?), while side one seems to quickly bring us from 1962 to 1967 in seven exuberant songs.

The question I'm sure a lot of critics will ask is this: Who do these completely eccentric, non-commercial guys think they are exploiting the Beatles' good name? Conversely, as a Utopia fan I asked a different question: What good is a Utopia record that sounds like the Beatles? If I wanted to hear the Beatles I'd listen to the Beatles, and if I felt like listening to Utopia I'd play my other Utopia records. Happily, after listening to Deface for a couple of weeks, I'VE FOUND THE ANSWERS.

First, understand that Utopia is more than just a catchy name for a rock group; it is a reference to Thomas More's 1516 book Utopia, about an island paradise where life and society are ideal, and which was ultimately an imagined place, or a state of mind. Now remember what Paul says on "Penny Lane":

"Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes
Here beneath the blue suburban skies..."
McCartney's head is filled with the simple joys and ecstacies of a suburban street, because Penny Lane, which is an actual British street, is smack in the middle of Pepperland, which is a gloriously optimistic state of mind. The music and feeling of the Beatles' post-psychedelic albums-- Sergeant Pepper, Magical Mystery Tour, Yellow Submarine-- evoke imagery of a magic and wonderful place, but in listening to the words we see that the Beatles are still singing about simple, suburban England. What makes their environment such an ideal place to live is a positive mental attitude-- or, as Rundgren says on a 1974 album, Utopia is the " in my head."

I am reminded of a Mary Tyler Moore Show" rerun I saw recently, wherein Ted Baxter, the perpetual fool, brings Mary out of a depression caused by the dreariness of her life. "Mary, here's what you do. You get up. Eat breakfast. Go to work. Come home. Have dinner. Go to bed. What you should do is: GE-ET UP! EAT BREAKFAST!! GO TO WORK!!! COME HOME!!!! EAT DINNER!!!!! GO TO BED!!!!!!"

Ted was right.

Times are bad lately-- I won't list the particulars, you can pick up a paper or watch the news-- and when I ride the subways each day I see that people are not smiling. Deface the Music brought me to Pepperland, and damn it, I hadn't been there in a while. Listen to the song "Feel Too Good", in which Utopia sing:

"Feel too good to go to work today
I need a little more time so I can stay this way.
Let's go for a ride on the Circle Line?
Couldn't you use a day in the sunshine...
Feel too good
Can't let the little things bother me
Because I feel too good..."
I defy anybody to listen to that song without feeling at least a little bit better. The Beatles may have passed into history, and no one can change that, but we still need to spend a little more time in Pepperland-- or in Utopia-- each day. Deface the Music has opened my eyes, sent me back to my old Beatles records, and helped me to put things into perspective.

Thanks, Utopia. Again.

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