Next producer please
by Bill Paige
"I'd definitely work with them again," says a road-weary Todd Rundgren, who is paying a little too much attention to his onion, cheese and turkey sandwich. "But I don't know if they'll work with me. Lately, they haven't used the same producer twice in a row. Then again, I don't usually produce the same acts twice in a row."
Rundgren has just completed working his special brand of "one-time-only" charm on Next Position Please, the latest aural installment in the continuing Rockford, Illinois, soap opera that is Cheap Trick. In a way, the pairing brings full circle the legendary Nazz, which Rundgren formed in 1968, and which Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen joined for a short time with drummer Thom Mooney and vocalist Robert "Stewkey" Antoni. It also matches two of the most obviously Beatle influenced musicians of the 1970s and 80s, who intelligently decided not to try and make a Sgt. Pepper for the home computer generation.
Rundgren has the studio know-how to pull off such a stunt. While keeping busy with his own musical projects, both solo and with Utopia, video projects like a 90-minute autobiography for the BBC, and live shows (again, by himself and with Utopia), he's managed to turn out well over a dozen LPs, from the dazzling pop masterpiece Something/Anything to the familiar, but basically cheerful The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Affect. His message of love and unity has remained unchanged in the face of many musical facelifts.
Todd also has kept busy as a producer, twirling the knobs for everyone from the Band and Grand Funk Railroad to Laura Nyro and the Psychedelic Furs. By now his work in the studio is so second nature that, when asked if he prefers recording a group playing live, or building tracks from the bottom up, he replies, "I don't know the difference."
Without hearing a note of Next Position Please the well- informed fan of either Cheap Trick, or Rundgren, or both, can well imagine the kinds of sounds of which they are capable. Yet Rundgren never has been the type of producer to put more of himself into a record than the artist making the disc (with an exception or two), so one can expect familiar Cheap Trick mannerisms (Robin Zander's schizophrenic vocals; the thundering drums of Bun E. Carlos) along with the clarity of Rundgren's solo albums and recent Utopia outings.
"I had to convince them to do certain things," says Todd, "like to avoid excessive overdubbing, and to try and sound more like a band than an orchestra."
On Cheap Trick's more recent LPs (which did okay-but-not- great at the record store counter) that excess has been a big part of the problem. All Shook Up, the George Martinizing of Cheap Trick, showed that the former Beatle producer never clearly understood what these four Midwestern boys had in their minds. Perhaps it was the British communications barrier, because Cheap Trick had the same problem with Roy Thomas Baker during the One on One sessions. The songs took on a heavy metal life of their own that the band was not able to dismiss.
"I think they were just trying to achieve a bombastic sound, and kind of went over the line, bombast-wise," notes Rundgren. "It got so bombastic that it was curving around back on itself, and the listener couldn't find the human element in the great morass of guitar wash."
That's an accurate, if diplomatic, description of Cheap Trick's work since the blockbuster Live At Budokon LP. It wasn't easy for Neilsen & Co. to transform an act that had worked so well for so many years in small clubs into something that would get across to a kid in the back of a sports arena. Multi-necked guitars and drumsticks the size of Louisville Sluggers can only exaggerate--never compensate.
When it looked as though gimmickry was not the answer (and it never is), Nielsen steered his rock 'n' roll army in a new direction, somewhere between the Who and AC/DC. Melody and wit suddenly took a back seat to power chords and 32-bar jam sessions or solos. It was only a matter of time before someone figured out the means did not justify the end.
"I was familiar with their records," says Rundgren, "mostly the early ones. They were better because the band was still sort of fresh in terms of songwriting. As things went along--by the time they got to their last record--they were concentrating less on the song and more on the effect.
"The problem," he continues, "is with having six or eight guitar tracks on every song, and 20 effects on the voices. It was too much for people to figure out what was going on beneath all the production values."
So simplicity--not always one of Rundgren's strongest points-- became the byword for Next Position Please. Rundgren and Cheap Trick recorded 14 songs in four weeks, not all of which will find their way onto the LP. Rundgren admits to playing a little rhythm guitar on the album, as well as a fighting lead guitar battle with Nielsen on the title cut.
"What a battle," says Rundgren, laughing up his sleeve. "More like a skirmish, really. Maybe even just a heated exchange."
Also recorded, and produced by Bun E., was a Yardbirds medley, recalling the "Shapes of Things" solo Nielsen often tossed into Cheap Trick's version of "Day Tripper." "He'll have to finish the medley at some point," says Rundgren. "Bun E. went back to Rockford in the middle of doing it, and I wasn't about to mess up all his hard work."
For all his reputation of cutting to the quick, and making average rockers sound like technological geniuses, Todd Rundgren remains professionally cool about Next Position Please's potential for success. Can Rundgren bring Cheap Trick back from the edge of self- destruction? Is he the savior for whom Cheap Trick fans have been waiting?
"It's not up to me," he says. "We did the best we could under the circumstances. And it was fun."
What more can anyone ask for?