Over the years, Newport, Rhode Island has been home to many of my life’s best memories. No trip to town was ever complete without a pop in to The Music Box, once one of the finest record stores in the Northeast. I can’t remember ever leaving empty handed. Unfortunately it closed its doors for good this past New Year’s Eve and on its last day I reminisced with the owner about the famous people who had come by over the years to thumb through his bins, and shared some of my most memorable “finds” from his store. To this day, Todd Rundgren’s Nearly Human is the most significant.
I bought Nearly Human on an unforgettable August weekend in 1989. The record had just been released in May and the single “The Want of a Nail” connected with me quickly. There are those songs that, when you hear them for the first time, you realize that buying the entire record was going to be inevitable. This was one of them. In those days, there was no just hopping on a computer and downloading a track or an album. It meant actually going to a record store. For people like me that means carving out a few hours. Shopping for records isn’t like running into a grocery store for milk and eggs. I camp out. That day in August I knocked out a few hours at The Music Box and my first grab was Nearly Human.
Todd Rundgren had always fascinated me. For starters, I have always had a soft spot for all kinds of Philly soul. The first being the Philadelphia soul of songwriters and producers like Thom Bell, Linda Creed, Norman Harris, Dexter Wansel and the production teams of McFadden and Whitehead, and Gamble & Huff. The other is the blue-eyed soul of Hall & Oates and Todd Rundgren.
Over the last 50 years Todd has remained one of our most consistent singer/songwriters. Across his many bands and incarnations he has brought a familiar and bright soaring orchestration to his music. With his best known work it’s almost become a signature sound. But he has also remained on the periphery of popular music. Rundgren has released just enough hits to be a familiar name but never enough to be considered a superstar. That doesn’t seem terribly important to him. He is instead regarded among the best of musicians as a genius, and has produced some of the most successful rock records ever, like Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell to name just one. That recognition has always seemed to be what drives Todd, along with having the freedom to follow his own path.
At the time, Nearly Human was the first album he had released in over four years. Like many of his records the songs here deal with self-doubt, loss, and spirituality. The songs are carefully selected because they play a role in the general dynamic of the record. Not because they could be a hit or court rock radio. It’s always a tremendously pure endeavor with Rundgren. That was the case with Nearly Human.
Rundgren had done some work producing the band Bourgeois Tagg, who was known at the time as an incredible live act. Working with them in the studio convinced Rundgren that his next record should be recorded live. No overdubbing. As groundbreaking as it might have appeared at the time, it had been a process that had been the norm up until the mid-1960s. But by the late 1980s no one was doing anything live. Music was assembled, recorded instrument-by-instrument on multitrack recorders, and stripped together, becoming something distilled and clinically removed from its soulful origins in the process.
Rundgren has often said that music at its best is a platform for people to communicate things that are sometimes too difficult to express with words alone. With all of the then-new recording technology that had become available, most music began to miss a certain live performance element that helped make that expression real. By cutting the album live, Todd knew that he could better capture that energy and amplify the meaning of each song. With that he headed to California to begin recording.
The approach to each song was old school and unique in its simplicity. Each day was devoted to only one song and he would begin by assembling his musicians and running through take after take of the track. Once they seemed to have a handle on what he was looking for, Rundgren would leave them to rehearse on their own. In a separate room he would assemble as many as 30 singers and they would work through the vocals. Finally, he would then bring everyone together and they would begin to move through the song as a complete band. Start to finish, each song took eight to 10 hours.
While this may not sound that complicated, it’s almost impossible to pull off. Today, session players know that they can go into a studio and lay down a track as their own schedule permits. It doesn’t matter when they do it; it doesn’t matter if anyone from the band is even there. That’s how they book their work. Todd wasn’t able to get a lot of people that he really wanted on the record. They just couldn’t make his live recording process fit around their other commitments. As difficult as it was for him to pass on these players, his overall vision was more important. Todd wanted everyone in the room looking at each other as they performed. As you listen to the record you can hear why.
The band he assembled for this record is as good as it gets. First, he started with the core of Bourgeois Tagg – Brent Bourgeois on keys, Lyle Workman on guitar, Larry Tagg on bass, and Michael Urbano on drums. Urbano would later gain more attention as the drummer for Smash Mouth and the touring drummer for Cake. From the Tubes he recruited Vince Welnick on piano and Prairie Prince on drums and percussion. On sax he brought on board the incomparable Bobby Strickland. Lastly, on background vocals he assembled a chorus of over two dozen different session singers and one surprise guest in the late Clarence Clemons. The first single, “The Want of a Nail” features soul great Bobby Womack whose shout-outs gives the song even more weight and resonance. The song charges along like a freight train, perfectly kicking off the record and re-establishing Rundgren as the bearer of the blue-eyed soul crown.
A musician who is masterfully skilled on almost every rock instrument, Rundgren is often overlooked for the range and expressiveness of his vocals. Here he owns each song, knowing just when to push the vocals forward and when to hold them back. With the more delicate pieces like “Parallel Lines,” Nearly Human offers his best group of ballads since the previous, and superb, Hermit of Mink Hollow album and tracks like “Can We Still Be Friends.”
The record includes cover songs as well. He transforms the old Tubes song “Feel It,” taking it to Philly by adding beautiful choruses and a fat sax solo by Strickland. It sounds like something straight out of the Philadelphia International Records catalogue circa 1975.
There’s even something for fans of his old band Utopia. The song “Can’t Stop Running” reunited Rundgren for the first time in five years with his Utopia bandmates Kasim Sulton, Willie Wilcox and Roger Powell. They apparently just showed up at the studio one day, surprising Rundgren. He quickly put them to work where they helped him lay down what might be one of the best Utopia songs ever.
Rundgren went out on the road to promote Nearly Human with an 11-piece band along with backup singers and guest performers. Even then it was rare to see an artist head out on the road with such a large outfit. It doesn’t make much financial sense. But the tour was met with rave reviews and unfortunately was only captured on film during performances in Japan.
It’s unclear why the album was named Nearly Human. It may simply reference the manner in which the album was recorded. In the end, it doesn’t matter much, because in what has been argued to be Todd Rundgren’s best album ever, he demonstrated a commitment to his craft that broke with convention. From the songwriting process to the expansive live tour, Rundgren is presented as a master at work with an eye for detail that can’t be overlooked. With Nearly Human he delivers some of the most beautiful, best-performed music of our time. So much so that when you let it spin what you’ll hear is not only nearly human. It’s almost godly.