POV, Oblivion, and some Trivia Liner Notes
by Brett Milano
When Utopia signed with Passport Records in 1983, it seemed likely to be a make-or-break period. The band would produce either its most successful studio albums or its last ones. As fate would have it, they weren't the most successful ones.
Let it be said, however, that Utopia went out on a musical-if-not-commercial peak, refining the mix of pop and invention that was their trademark all along. Collected here is Utopia's complete Passport output: The albums Oblivion (1984) and POV (1985); the bonus track ("Man Of Action") that was only available on the POV CD and cassette; and the two songs ("Fix Your Gaze" and "Monument") that the band recorded for its last studio release, the compilation album Trivia.
Because Passport went out of business soon after these albums were issued, they've become the rarest items in the Utopia/Todd Rundgren catalog-especially on CD, since the format was young, and the original editions were limited. Copies of these albums have changed hands for $50 and up within the Utopia fan network. This collection makes them widely available for perhaps the first time.
When work on these albums began, Utopia had existed for just longer than a decade. Originally a vehicle for Rundgren's avant-rock/fusion adventures, the initial lineup included three synthesizer players and specialized in epic-length songs grappling with such spiritual concepts as reincarnation, the seven rays, and the wheel of karma. Over time the music got more direct while the lyrics came down to earth, and by 1977 Utopia jelled into the familiar four-piece lineup with Rundgren (guitar), Kasim Sulton (bass), Roger Powell (keyboards), and John "Willie" Wilcox (drums).
Though many fans were initially skeptical about Rundgren's intention to turn Utopia from a backup unit to a full-fledged band, it became the longest-lived and most democratic group he's ever had. By the time of the third quartet album, Adventures In Utopia (1980), all four members were sharing the writing, lead vocals, and production credits. Rundgren remained the strongest personality and the source of most of the lyrics, but Sulton had emerged as a capable second singer, bringing some youthful pop appeal into the band. It was his lead voice on Utopia's one mainstream hit single, the Adventures track "Set Me Free"-ironically, a song Sulton wrote to vent his frustration at Bearsville objecting to his plan for a solo album.
Utopia as a band proved no less ambitious than Rundgren as a solo artist, tackling new musical and lyrical territory with each album. To some extent, all of Utopia's original releases were concept albums: There was prog rock and pyramid power on RA (early 1977); a tougher, punk-inspired slant on Oops! Wrong Planet (late 1977); straight-ahead commercial rock on Adventures In Utopia ; affectionate Beatles parodies on Deface The Music (1980); and hard-edged, explicitly political songs on Swing To The Right (1982). Still, each of these albums came out sounding pretty much like Utopia and appealed primarily to a steady core of fans. The band never took that audience for granted; but as Utopia moved into its second decade, its failure to break beyond cult status was starting to grate.
"At a certain point in time, Utopia was performing live as well as any quartet in the world," notes Rundgren, "But that's not enough to get rich on." Wilcox adds that, "The fan/band relationship was still fine. But when you're still playing the same halls after ten years, getting the same guarantees, and expenses are going up, there start to be repercussions."
Along with the financial considerations, the lack of mainstream success didn't do wonders for the bandmembers' egos. "We'd worked really hard for ten years, and here we were in the same place instead of catapulting forward," notes Powell. "When we start making albums with titles like Oblivion and Trivia, you can guess how we were feeling." Nor did it help that Oblivion sported an all-black cover a la the one for This Is Spinal Tap. "It's funny, because our album came out just prior to the movie. We used to watch it on the tour bus all the time, but at times it hit a little too close to home."
Career frustration initially led to Utopia's departure from Bearsville, Rundgren's label since 1970, which they felt had never fully supported the group. As Rundgren notes, "The band was always of the opinion that Bearsville had a greater interest in me than they had in the band. That [assumption] was probably correct."
They first signed with Network, the new Elektra/Asylum-distributed label run by industry veteran Al Coury, and delivered the Utopia album in 1982. Meant to be a fresh start, the eponymous album was the most straightforward thing they'd ever done. No grand designs or ulterior motives, just 15 songs' worth of pure, '60s-influenced pop spread over three sides of vinyl (reissued by Rhino, it now fits comfortably on a single CD). Fans liked it, reviews were favorable, one track ("Hammer In My Heart") started getting airplay, and everything looked good...until parent company Warner Communications reorganized Elektra/Asylum's operation, shifting offices from Los Angeles to New York. The Network label disappeared, taking the album with it.
Determined not to get burned again, Utopia struck up a deal with Passport, the label owned by the record-importing company JEM. Passport's initial success came from licensing European albums for American release. Their first hit was the album Remember The Future by Anglo-German art-rock band Nektar. By the '80s they were developing a roster of American bands. Utopia was one of the first to arrive at Passport with a long-standing track record. In return, the band got the musical and financial autonomy they needed, setting up their own Utopia label and licensing the albums to Passport for North American distribution. "At that point we had nothing to lose by doing deals for one album at a time with a company like Passport, who essentially gave us enough money to make them," says Rundgren. "We were pretty sick of the record biz by then."
Their newfound freedom was put to good use on Oblivion-one of the more experimental albums in Utopia's catalog and a real about-face from the friendly pop approach heard a year earlier on the Network release. "The Network album was a departure because we wanted to make a more pop-oriented record, and Network's goals were similar to ours," explains Powell. "By the time of Oblivion, we'd been through two record companies, and we didn't want any more of their input. Utopia started off doing whatever the heck we felt like doing, and we came back to that on Oblivion, working without any outside influences. So there are a few harder-edged things on there, along with the total pop that we never really lost."
Though similar in spirit to the early Utopia albums, Oblivion was much different in sound. "The idea was to do a radical update," says Rundgren. "We started using sequencers and drum machines, which we'd never done before. And that engendered a working style that didn't involve everyone being around at the same time. In the past we'd come into the studio and pool our ideas, hack 'em out until we had a basic track, and then play it. When the sequencers came in, there started to be a more proprietary thing as various members wanted to experiment with their personal ideas. Not that anyone completed songs on their own, but it became a matter of one or two people working at a time instead of the four of us collaborating at once."
Oblivion was also a concept album, although the concept may not have been immediately apparent. Many of the lyrics were prompted by the fact that the Reagan years were in full swing and that 1984 was just around the corner. "We viewed those two things very much as a simultaneous event, so it was ripe lyrical pickings at that point," notes Rundgren. At times the approach was tongue-in-cheek, as on "Winston Smith Takes It On The Jaw"-a wry, Sulton-sung retelling of Orwell's 1984. But many of the songs on Oblivion found the band sounding uncharacteristically pissed-off. "I don't think that most people got everything that was in our records," says Powell. "They were always pretty complex. Even on the ones that seemed to have a bright pop sheen, there was always a big, dark underbelly."
That was most apparent on two of the album's topical numbers, "Bring Me My Longbow" and "Welcome To My Revolution." The latter was Rundgren's cynical reaction to what he saw as the decay of '60s ideals in the Reagan years. "In the '60s we were all saying, `Yeah! We're gonna have a revolution!' Then in the '80s the revolution turned into de-evolution. The same people who had long hair and hippie beads were now working on Wall Street, doing insider scams. So how can you join something like that? The best thing you can do is stay out of the way, just grin and bear it. That's the yin and yang of idealism." The message of "Longbow" was more elusive: "I look at conservatism as a longing for the good old days, but they don't know how far back they're really going-maybe all the way back to caveman days."
New musical ideas were coming into the band as well, with "Longbow" and "Too Much Water" both displaying a funky, African-flavored approach. "We were absorbing what eventually became known as world music, kind of getting back to Africa. There were a lot of artists discovering rhythm at the time-Talking Heads, Peter Gabriel. Bands in general were becoming open to more exotic influences."
Other tracks showed a more characteristic Utopia sound. Rundgren and Sulton both got the spotlight with ballads-Rundgren with "If I Didn't Try" (which appears to be about his determination to keep Utopia afloat against the odds, though he maintains that, "It wasn't anything that specific"), Sulton with "Maybe I Could Change" and "I Will Wait," the latter his favorite Utopia song. "It's brilliant and I wish I'd written it. But I heard Todd play the demo and said, `Man, that's great.' And he said, `Good, because you're singing it.'" "Crybaby" was the obvious single, a pure-pop number that seemed right in the "Set Me Free" vein. But the song's real inspiration may be a surprise. "That was our Def Leppard rip-off," Rundgren says. "We'd always look around and see what was happening in music, do our own skew on it, then get on with our business." Commercially, the song may have been sabotaged by its surreal, surprisingly dark video. "The obvious thing would have been to shoot a live video, have smoke bombs and whip our hair around," Rundgren says. "Our philosophy was always to play against the obvious. `Crybaby' sounds like a typical boy-girl thing, so if you don't make that assumption, you can apply it to other ideas."
The segue of "Itch In My Brain" and the humorous "Love With A Thinker" made an energetic opener, with "Itch" harking back to such Rundgren guitar rave-ups as "Heavy Metal Kids" and Nazz's "Under The Ice." The instrumental breaks on "Itch" feature a furious guitar/synthesizer duel and show the guitarlike role that Powell's keyboards were playing in the band. By now his onstage setup was unusually stripped-down, since he'd just invented a pre-MIDI software called the Probe, which enabled him to trigger a bank of synths from a single onstage keyboard. "Because of my early involvement with synthesizers, I'd already processed that whole Keith Emerson/Rick Wakeman `wall-of-Moogs' idea," he explains. "And I toured with something similar to that in the early incarnation of Utopia, so I was through with the synth-wizard deal. By now I saw myself as the extra guitar player and didn't see the point of impressing people with a wall of equipment. I liked the directness of just having a couple of keyboards and wailing on them. That was partly born of laziness as well-if I didn't need the extra stuff, why should I have to carry it?"
Another change was under way in Utopia's shows by the Oblivion tour: For the first time they played nothing but band-written songs, dropping all the songs from Rundgren's solo albums-even the ones that had become identified with Utopia, like "Just One Victory." This was mainly in the interest of promoting new material, but to some extent the band still had to fight for recognition. "There was some underlying current to push Utopia and emblazon it in people's minds," says Powell. "All through our career we got a lot of flak from people saying, `What's this Utopia? And why doesn't Todd do "Hello It's Me"?'" Utopia's final all-new studio album, POV, marked another shift of gears. Less experimental and more singles-oriented, it's long been a favorite among Utopia's fan network and sports a number of tracks, notably "Play This Game" and "Mated," that could have been hits if more promotion had been available.
Yet Rundgren recalls that the band was already beginning to splinter. "POV was an OK album. I wasn't 100% pleased with it. I think we had good material but some of the performances were lackluster. Certain band members...[who] were more dependent on the band economically...came in with the frantic idea that we had the capability of making a hit album, which I'd always been dubious about. And some of us were more enervated with the process-`Here we go making another freakin' album, for all the difference it makes.'"
In contrast, Sulton has fonder memories. "I think POV was our best album, along with Adventures-I can listen to both of those and not have to skip over any songs. I'd hate to compare us to The Beatles, but it was an Abbey Road situation where everyone was working on their own. There was a lot of tension, and it may have turned out so well for that very reason."
Musical differences were indeed beginning to spring up. In particular, Wilcox had become enamored of drum programming, while Rundgren favored a live-band sound. "[Wilcox] was looking to make a name as a producer, and he was starting to think like a drum programmer, so he'd lost some of his panache. I'd come into the studio and get a little frustrated watching Willie program drums. I'd think, `Well, if the guys aren't going to play, I can always go off and do this myself.'"
Wilcox offers a different take on the matter. "It was the beginning of the drum-machine era, and I felt it was important to bring that into the band. I could feel the direction that music was going, and being one-quarter of Utopia, I wanted to make that my contribution." At the time, Wilcox was landing outside gigs as a songwriter, placing tracks on albums by Natalie Cole and the Pointer Sisters, and saw drum machines as a way of bringing R&B into Utopia. "I never thought Utopia was a particularly soul-influenced band. And since the band didn't really play that way, my ability to program helped bring that influence out."
"You have to remember that technology was nothing like it is today," Sulton adds. "Nowadays you can do an album like POV in three weeks to a month, but at the time there were a lot of breakdowns in programming. Todd doesn't work well in that kind of situation, and Roger and I were caught in the middle."
In the end, Wilcox got a more prominent production credit on POV (he and Rundgren were listed as producers, Sulton and Powell as coproducers), and the tracks featured a roughly even mix of programmed drums and live overdubs. And the soul influence came out more strongly than ever, with "Mated," "Secret Society," and "Stand For Something" all sporting Rundgren vocals reflecting his Philadelphia roots. "I was figuring that if everyone else was going to go for it, I'm going to go for it as well," Rundgren says. But he denies that the success of Hall & Oates, who'd been produced by Rundgren in the early days and were at their commercial peak in 1985, had any influence on Utopia's soulful direction. "It's safe to say I've never been influenced by Hall & Oates; to me a lot of their things were just pop pap. We're both from Philadelphia, so we both go back to the same source."
Another of Rundgren's contributions to POV was a different approach to guitar playing. His main axe at the time was a vintage guitar that was painted in psychedelic colors by the English art group The Fool. The guitar had already been used by a number of famous players, including Eric Clapton, who played it with Cream at the Albert Hall. "I set a new agenda for how I wanted to play guitar on POV," Rundgren says. "My guitar playing had gotten more on the intellectual side; I'd been taking the same route as Clapton, who's more of an intellectual player than somebody like Hendrix. At the time of POV, Stevie Ray Vaughan was getting hot, and I was very much into his improvisatory style. So I decided that I wasn't going to prethink any of the solos I did. None of them were punched-in; they were all played from beginning to end. You can hear that on `Secret Society' and `Mystified'-there's some really goofball guitar playing on those." The closest thing to a straight blues that Utopia ever recorded, "Mystified" was later revived on Rundgren's 1995 guitar-band tour.
Rundgren took half of the original album's lead vocals but as usual, all four members got a turn at the mike-Wilcox with "Wildlife" ("I always seemed to get the raunchy rock 'n' roll things," he says) and Powell with "Zen Machine." However, the singer of a Utopia song wouldn't necessarily be its main writer. For example, Rundgren wound up singing Sulton's main writing contribution to POV, "Stand For Something."
Sulton got three lead vocals, including the new-wavish "Style" and the requisite spirituality-themed number, "More Light." ("A lot of our songs were pleas, and that's a good example-just a guy asking for enlightenment," he says.) But the album's most appealing Sulton-sung number, "Mimi Gets Mad," began life as a Tubes song-its lyrics are an affectionate send-up of The Tubes' secretary. When Rundgren produced The Tubes' creative but commercially disastrous album Love Bomb, a full album's worth of additional material was demoed that remains unreleased. "Mimi" was dusted off from those sessions. "Writing for Utopia was becoming a struggle. In the end, we just tried to salvage any old tune," Rundgren says. But Sulton counters, "I loved `Mimi Gets Mad.' To me it's one of the best songs on the album. I heard the demo and immediately badgered Todd about letting me sing it. So I was really glad when The Tubes turned it down." "Man Of Action" didn't make the final cut for the album, due to vinyl time-limit constraints, but was included as a bonus track on the short-lived CD and cassette versions of POV.
Finally, there's the curious matter of the TV show. When Adventures In Utopia was released, it was billed as the "original soundtrack" to Utopia's TV series. In later interviews they claimed that POV was the soundtrack to the show's second season. Which left fans with only one question: What TV series? "You mean you never saw it?" asks Powell. "It was a show that ran in your mind. If you have a TV show or a movie, you can write a soundtrack. We didn't really have one, but we weren't going to let that stop us. And we hoped it could be a self-fulfilling prophecy."
Instead of hitting the small screen, Utopia hit the concert trail for a coheadlining tour with longtime friends The Tubes. Utopia made the most of its shorter-than-usual set time, playing most of POV and a handful of old favorites. Visually, the tour is best-remembered for Wilcox's remarkable drum set, an all-electronic kit mounted on a motorcycle frame. First introduced on the Adventures tour, the motorcycle kit was rebuilt and perfected in 1985. "That was born from having to do drum solos in our live show," he says. "I thought that in order to keep audience interest up and advance what a drum solo is, maybe we should investigate the visual aspects and find a more unique presentation. It took a while to get it right-originally the hi-hat was a piece of sheet metal." Why a motorcycle? "Just the image, I guess-a very male thing."
Though neither band realized it at the outset, the tour amounted to a double swan song. The Tubes got dropped by Capitol, split with singer Fee Waybill, and haven't released a record since; Utopia was also seeing their last hurrah as a regular touring unit. "At that point, everyone needed a break," says Powell. "I think we said, `We're not disbanding, just putting the band in a coma for a while.'"
For a time, things continued as usual. Rundgren toured in 1986 behind the delayed release of his solo album A Cappella, with Sulton in tow as part of the choir. And when Passport proposed the compilation Trivia, Utopia recorded a pair of new songs, this time in traditional live-band style. "Fix Your Gaze" joins the list of obvious hit singles that never were. It was revived in 1991 as an opener for the band's reunion concerts in Japan. Their final studio track, "Monument," was ostensibly a love song, but could be read as the band's farewell. "We allowed ourselves to get sentimental with that one," Rundgren says.
Fans have caught a few glimpses of Utopia since then. All four members performed on "Can't Stop Running" from Rundgren's Nearly Human album. Later Powell joined him for the 2nd Wind album and the subsequent tour. Save for a very brief string of 1991 reunion dates (in San Francisco and Japan) that produced the Redux '92: Live In Japan album and video, that was the end of the story.
Or was it? Certainly the four members are busy enough that further Utopian activity gets more unlikely by the year. Sulton's been a mainstay of Meat Loaf and Joan Jett's bands; Wilcox owns a Florida studio and has landed numerous commercial and songwriting gigs; Powell is designing software and occasionally plays clubs (on guitar!) in the Bay Area; and Rundgren continues his eclectic explorations. In terms of further reunions, "Don't hold your breath" would be the general consensus. Still, Utopia's importance to its members remains apparent to this day. "Utopia was the greatest band I could ever hope to be in," says Sulton. "Sometimes you don't know what you've got till it's gone."
-Brett Milano Boston, 1995