Utopia was an American maximalist-rock band that released six studio albums and a live disc on Bearsville between 1974 and 1982, followed by three further albums on Network and Passport. The band was formed by musician/producer Todd Rundgren and initially featured a six man lineup, as heard on Todd Rundgren’s Utopia (1974). By the time of Ra (1977), the lineup had trimmed to the classic foursome of Rundgren, keyboardist Roger Powell, bassist/vocalist Kasim Sulton, and drummer John Wilcox. This lineup would hold for eight studio albums, concluding with the 1985 release POV.
Members: Todd Rundgren (guitar, piano, vocals), Mark “Moogy” Klingman (keyboards, 1974-77), Ralph Schuckett (keyboards, 1974-77), John Siegler (bass, cello, 1974-77), Jean-Yves Labat (synthesizer, 1974-75), Kevin Ellman (drums, 1974-75), Roger Powell (keyboards, vocals, 1975-86), John Wilcox (drums, vocals, 1975-86), Kasim Sulton (bass, vocals, 1977-86)
Utopia Mark I: Formation and Background
Utopia got its dry run during an abortive April 1973 tour by musician Todd Rundgren, who arranged an elaborate stage show for his then-current release A Wizzard, a True Star. His backing band on this brief tour included bassist Tony Sales, drummer Hunt Sales, keyboardist Dave Mason (not the Traffic alumnus), and synthesizer specialist Jean-Yves “M Frog” Labat, who released the album M. Frog that year on Rundgren’s Bearsville label.
The Sales brothers served as Rundgren’s rhythm section on his first two solo albums, Runt (1970) and The Ballad of Todd Rundgren (1971). They also appear on “Slut,” the closing number on his 1972 double-album Something / Anything. However, they weren’t included in the revised Utopia lineup, which Rundgren assembled in the summer of 1973 after completing production work on albums by the New York Dolls and Grand Funk Railroad.
The reconfigured Utopia featured Rundgren on guitar and vocals, backed by Labat and drummer Kevin Ellman, bassist/cellist John Siegler, and keyboardists Ralph Schuckett and Mark “Moogy” Klingman.
Klingman hailed from psych-rockers The Glitterhouse, which issued the 1968 album Color Blind on Dynovoice Records. He first worked with Rundgren in 1970 on the Runt track “I’m in the Clique.” He also played on albums by Shuggie Otis, Carly Simon, and Buzz Linhart and issued the 1972 solo album Moogy on Capitol Records. Both Klingman and Siegler partook in the live in-studio sessions that comprise side four of Something / Anything. Along with Schuckett, they formed three-fourths of Moogy & the Rhythm Kingz, Rundgren’s informal backing combo on A Wizzard, a True Star. (The fourth Kingz, drummer John Siomos, joined Frampton’s Camel.)
Siegler was part of the jazz-pop combo Air with husband/wife duo Tom and Googie Coppola. Their singular album, produced by Herbie Mann, appeared on Embryo Records in 1971.
Schuckett was a member of Elektra psych-rockers Clear Light and Altantic rustic-rockers Jo Mama. He played on albums by Carole King, John Stewart, David Blue, and the 1969 release For Children of All Ages by folk-rockers the Peanut Butter Conspiracy. In 1971, he played piano and accordion, respectively, on the tracks “Nose Open” and “Georgia Swing” on Taking Care of Business, the Rundgren/Klingman-produced fourth album by The James Cotton Blues Band.
Elliman, a Berkley College of Music alumnus, performed with Barry Manilow and played on The Divine Miss M, the 1972 debut album by Bette Midler. He is one of 11 performers, along with Siegler and Schuckett, credited on Make Music, the 1973 album by singer/songwriter Rena Sinakin.
The six-man Utopia made their live premier in Central Park on August 25, 1973, on a triple-bill with the Brecker Brothers and Hall & Oates, who Rundgren would soon produce. Before any further shows, Rundgren recorded his fifth solo album, Todd, with backing on select tracks by Klingman, Schuckett, Siegler, Ellman, and the Brecker’s. Utopia hit the road that November and recorded their first album.
1974: Todd Rundgren’s Utopia
Utopia released their debut album, Todd Rundgren’s Utopia, in October 1974 on Bearsville. Side one contains two lengthy epics (“Utopia,” “Freak Parade”) and a Rundgren-penned rocker (“Freedom Fighters”). Side two consists of “The Ikon,” a group-written suite with ten sections. At nearly an hour (58:55), Utopia stretched the limits of LP side-allowance.
Rundgren co-wrote the title theme with ex-member Dave Mason and co-composed “Freak Parade” with Klingman and Siegler. “Utopia” (later known as “Utopia Theme”) is a live performance from their April 25 show at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre. Todd produced and engineered the remaining tracks at Secret Sound Studio, a Manhattan facility recently established between him and Klingman on West 24th St.
“Utopia” (14:18) fades in with smoldering guitar, splashing cymbals, and spiraling Moog with a loose, open-cadence pattern. A closed-cadence riff (in E♭) takes hold, followed with polyrhythmic guitar–keyboard jam (in A minor). This signals the theme: a slow, plodding chordal ascent with compound meters. The earlier jam (Am) renews at faster pace, overlaid with stormy keyboards and oozing guitar runs. The two sections (jam and theme) trade off a second time. The third jam has a faster, more fluid feel with hyperactive drums and beaming synth sounds. Midway (6:50) everything fades to a sputtering vortex that signals a slow, heavy lyrical passage, comprised of two stanzas about a “City in my head” and “Heaven in my body” that rises into the sky. Todd’s vocal melody morphs into the next jam: a slow, open-cadence, two chord pattern (Fmaj7… G…) with crying leads, pile-driving drums, and glistening keyboard fills. Applause erupts as the band pauses for another Klingman “cosmic vortex” sequence. Todd (at 10:30) initiates a fast riff-laden sequence (F–C–B♭) over stomping drums and hand claps. This resolves with climactic drum rolls that signals the final two sections: a recap of the theme, interspersed with the main jam.
“Freak Parade” (10:14) fades in from the last track on a jumping ascent (I: G–AA–BC–D…) with alternating meters of six and eight. A waltz forms between two chords (II: Am… Fmaj7…), followed by a hyperactive, noodly bridge. After a pause, a slow passage unfolds with crying guitar over a tranquil two-chord progression (III: F… Cmaj7…) and a complementary bridge (Rundgren would reuse this section for an epic on the third Utopia album). The jumpy intro and waltz sections return. After a second pause, a funky bassline fades in, overlaid with wiggly Moog notes and a contrapuntal guitar figure (IV: variation of II).
A funky sequence of syncopated rhythms and wheezy synth (V) takes hold for the sung section. Todd awakes and joins the “freak parade” — the path of anyone who asserts him–herself and makes things happen in the world. Essentially, he argues that everyone’s a “freak” in his–her own way and those unaware of this phenomenon are the lowest functioning:
In a world full of freaks
You can creep, you can crawl
But the world’s biggest freak
Is the one with no balls
Once the lyrics end, the tranquil passage (III) returns with vibe-tone electric piano mimicking the earlier guitar line. After another fade (7:22), they enter a fuzzy, rhythmless stretch of oozing free-form sounds and effects. A wind tunnel signals a full-band jam with jazzy drums and piano runs over the two-chord waltz pattern (II). The final section recaps the contrapuntal overlays (IV) and fades out on the funky bassline.
“Freedom Fighters” (4:01) has a bouncy 7/8 intro with a three-note bass pattern (G–B–A). The verse — signaled by a vibrato riff (in low E) and vibraslap — addresses a “prisoner of the mind” who must free his–her suppressed inner-thoughts and feelings. The harmonized bridge uses military drill speak to hammer the message. On the chorus, a flowing chordal descent (Em…D…C…) carries the line “Your reward will come, it’s just a question of how and when.”
Graphic illustrator Haruo Miyauchi (Raices, Roy Ayers Ubiquity) did the album’s cover art, which depicts an eye in the sky with orbiting spheres. The lyrics appear on gradient panels (back) with a tinted, glowing live shot of Utopia.
The assistant engineer, David Le Sage, also worked with Todd on War Babies, the third Hall & Oates album, on which the duo embrace the cosmic sounds and themes of Rundgren’s current work. Le Sage also served as Klingman’s assistant engineer on the 1974 PM release Some Shapes to Come, the debut album by jazz saxophonist Steve Grossman.
Utopia toured nonstop between March 1 and May 18, 1974. In July, they did Pittsburgh and NYC double-bills with Eric Clapton, who Rundgren joined for an encore at Madison Square Garden (7/13). After the album’s release, Utopia did a fall–winter tour of the Northeast, Midwest, and Deep South.
Todd Rundgren’s Utopia reached No. 34 on the Billboard 200. Though the album generated no singles, “Freedom Fighters” appears on the 1975 Warner comp The Force, a four-sided artist sampler with cuts by Deep Purple, Doobie Brothers, Fleetwood Mac, Foghat, Graham Central Station, Jethro Tull, Kenny Rankin, Leo Sayer, Marshall Tucker Band, Montrose, Percy Sledge, Tower of Power, Trapeze, and Van Morrison.
Utopia Mark II
In May 1975, Rundgren released Initiation, a single album that (at 68:11) exceeds the run-time of Todd Rundgren’s Utopia with similar cosmic density. The opening track, “Real Man,” features Klingman, Schuckett, Siegler, and Ellman. Side two consists of “A Treatise on Cosmic Fire,” a multi-movement suite of avant-garde, electronic experimentation that (at 36:00) surpasses “The Ikon” by almost six minutes.
“Treatise” and another track (“Born to Synthesize”) feature synthesizer treatments by Roger Powell, a protégé of Robert Moog responsible for the 1973 Atlantic release Cosmic Furnace, an album of experimental electronic instrumentals. Along with Ellman and Siegler, he also plays on the 1974 album that Rundgren produced by ex-Rascals frontman Felix Cavaliere. Powell joined Utopia in place of Labat, who played on a 1975 album by John Tropea and debuted as a solo artist with the 1976 French Barclay release Underwater Electronic Orchestra.
Meanwhile, Ellman cleared out for John Wilcox, the drummer on War Babies who plays alongside Kevin on the Initiation track “The Death of Rock and Roll.”
The Utopia lineup of Rundgren, Klingman, Siegler, Schuckett, Powell, and Wilcox debuted on July 4, 1975, at Nelson Ledges Road Course in Warren, Ohio, where they played a multi-act bill with Pure Prairie League, Hello People (another Rundgren client), and Buzzy Linhart (a Klingman collaborator). Their July–August tour covered twenty-seven cities in the Eastern US and Canada, including stops in Massachusetts (8/23/75: Cape Cod Coliseum with Orchestra Luna) and Central Park, NYC (8/25/75: Wollman Rink).
1975: Another Live
In October 1975, Utopia released Another Live, an album half-comprised of exclusive originals with no studio counterparts. Side one contains one Rundgren number (“The Wheel,” from Wollman) and songs he co-wrote with Shuckett (“Another Life”) and Siegler (“The Seven Rays”), both from Cape Cod Coliseum. Side two (Wollman) has a Powell exclusive (“Intro–Mister Triscuits”), a Move cover (“Do Ya”), a tune from West Side Story (“Something’s Coming”), and numbers from Wizard (“Just One Victory”) and Todd (“Heavy Metal Kids”).
“Do Ya” first appeared as the b-side of the Move’s final single, the April 1972 release “California Man.” Rundgren states in the liner notes that the Move did live renditions of “Open My Eyes,” a song by Todd’s earlier band Nazz. Utopia’s cover of “Do Ya” prompted its writer, Jeff Lynne, to re-record the song with his current band, Electric Light Orchestra, on their 1976 album A New World Record.
As an album title, Another Live puns the phrase “After Life” and invokes the Dharmic concept of reincarnation. The front cover, by artist Jane Millett, depicts Utopia performing live on a yellow glass spiral above a crowded park across the river from New York City. The album’s UK version has an alternate cover: a zoomed-in monochrome live shot of Todd mid-performance.
Another Live peaked in the upper-third of the Billboard 200. “Something’s Coming” appears ob the 1975 Warner comp The Works another two-LP sampler with cuts by Al Jarreau, The Beach Boys, Black Sabbath, Little Feat, The Meters, Rod Stewart, Van Dyke Parks, and one track (“Debra Kadabra”) by Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart from their joint effort album Bongo Fury.
Utopia plugged Another Live with an overseas October tour that included dates in England, Scotland, Belgium, France, Germany, and the Netherlands. In November–December, Utopia toured the Eastern US before hitting California, where they closed 1975 with a December 31 show at LA’s Forum.
Utopia entered 1976 as a four-piece composed of Todd Rundgren, John Siegler, Roger Powell, and John Wilcox. Before they trimmed, five-sixths of the Another Live lineup (Rundgren, Siegler, Wilcox, Klingman, Schuckett) partook in the sessions for Songs for the New Depression, the 1976 third studio album by Bette Midler. Schuckett plays on 1976 albums by Baby Grand, General Johnson, Nona Hendryx, Ruth Copeland (Take Me to Baltimore), and the Daryl Hall-produced RCA Victor release Hip Shot by Hall & Oates touring bassist Stephen Dees.
That spring, Utopia backed Rundgren on his May 1976 Bearsville release Faithful, an album with six new originals and a side of covers from 1966: recorded to mark his tenth anniversary as a professional musician.
Utopia also recorded Disco Jets, a collection of space-age instrumentals with titular spoofs on current fads (“Pet Rock”) and the looming Bicentennial (“Spirit of ’76”). It also includes covers of Rick Derringer (“Time Warp”) and the Star Trek theme. Bearsville passed on Disco Jets, which first appeared twenty-five years later on the third disc of Demos and Lost Albums, a 2001 three-CD rarities compilation on Rhino.
Siegler left Utopia after a May 26 show in Detroit. He plays on General Johnson and 1976–78 albums by Dan Hartman, Galdston & Thom, Martha Velez, and the Klingman-produced solo album by ex-Lady Flash singer Ramona Brooks. Klingman employed Siegler on the 1978 EMI release Moogy II. They both appear on Todd’s concurrent live double-album Back to the Bars. In 1979, Siegler backed Carolyne Mas and joined the Hall & Oates band for a three-album stint.
Utopia Mark III: Classic lineup
Utopia hired bassist Kasim Sulton, who recently played in the backing band of publicist-turned-singer Cherry Vanilla. The Utopia lineup of Todd Rundgren, Kasim Sulton, Roger Powell, and John Wilcox would last ten years and eight studio albums.
Utopia performs alongside members of Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street band on the 1976 sessions for Bat Out of Hell, a collection of Rundgren produced songs by songwriter Jim Steinman and singer–actor Meat Loaf, who recently played Eddie (the biker) in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The album appeared in late 1977 on Cleveland International.
On June 18, 1976, Utopia Mk II debuted at the Memorial Auditorium in Utica, New York. They played thirty North American shows that summer, including a July 24 show with Journey at the Starlight Bowl Amphitheater in Burbank. That month, Rundgren produced L, the second solo album by English space-rock guitarist Steve Hillage (Arzachel, Khan, Gong) with backing by Powell, Sulton, and Wilcox, plus jazz trumpeter Don Cherry.
On July 11, Utopia played partook in the World Series of Rock, a four-act event at Cleveland Stadium with Aerosmith, Jeff Beck, and Derringer. On the 13th, Utopia appeared with the Atlanta Rhythm Section at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville as part of the Mississippi River Festival, a summer-long event that (on different nights) had double-bills of Grinderswitch and the Marshall Tucker Band (7/7) and Melba Moore and the Spinners (7/20).
Their setlist at the Edwardsville show featured everything on Another Live and three-fourths of the first album: “Utopia Theme” and the encore number “The Ikon.” Utopia also performed three songs off Todd (“Everybody’s Going to Heaven,” “King Kong Reggae,” “The Last Ride”) and the Nazz signature “Open My Eyes.”
Utopia flew to England, where they played on August 21 at Knebworth Park as part of a concert event headlined by the Rolling Stones. The event, which drew between 150,000 and 200,000 attendees, also featured sets by 10cc and Lynyrd Skynyrd. In December, Utopia flew to Japan for shows in Osaka (12/5: Kosheinenkin Hall) and Tokyo (12/12: Nakano Sun Plaza).
Utopia released their third album, Ra, on February 4, 1977, on Bearsville. Side one contains two smouldering rock epics: Todd’s “Communion with the Sun” and the Rundgren–Powell opus “Sunburst Finish,” on which Utopia (barring Wilcox) trade vocals. Sulton sings one Powell co-write (“Eternal Love”) and harmonizes on “Magic Dragon Theatre,” a music-hall collaboration with Rundgren, who partnered with Wilcox on the latter’s “Jealousy.”
Side two consists of two opuses: the Powell–Rundgren slow-burner “Hiroshima” and the group-composed suite “Singring and the Glass Guitar (An Electrified Fairytale).”
Sessions took place in late 1976 at two New York studios: Bearsville Sound (Bearsville) and Utopia Sound (Lake Hill). Rundgren produced Ra, which Bearsville staffer John Holbrook engineered with assistant Tom Mark. Holbrook worked beforehand with Rundgren on L, the 1976 Virgin release by English space-rock guitarist Steve Hillage (Arzachel, Khan, Gong). Mark also mixed one track on the recent Funkadelic album Hardcore Jollies.
Ra has a crimson–yellow cover with a giant setting sun (front) and the group aligned to a pyramid (back). The photographer, Ron Slenzak, also has visual credits on 1976–77 albums by Brainstorm, Edna Wright, Main Ingredient (Music Maximus), Parliament, Rose Royce, and Sunbear. Original copies contain a lyric inner-sleeve and a cutout insert of a pyramid with pictures of the four members. Calligrapher Hal Fiedler designed the logo in which the letter “T” in Utopia has a wide ascender that underlines the names of each member. Fiedler also did visuals on Initiation and recent albums by Chick Corea (My Spanish Heart), Harvey Mason, Hermann Szobel (Szobel), and The Kinks.
Bearsville issued an edit of “Communion with the Sun” as Utopia’s first single, backed with an edited “Sunburst Finish.” Utopia toured Ra with an elaborate setup that featured a 22-foot-tall pyramid and a golden sphinx. The tour commenced on January 8, 1977, in Cologne, Germany, where Utopia taped a segment for the local music program Rockpalast. They swung through Denmark, France, Netherlands, England, and Scotland. On March 2, they launched a four-month North American tour at the Memorial Center in Kingston, Ontario, Canada.
Oops! Wrong Planet
Utopia released their fourth album, Oops! Wrong Planet, in September 1977 on Bearsville. It features two lead vocals apiece by Powell (“Windows,” “Abandon City”), Wilcox (“Crazy Lady Blue,” “Gangrene”), and Sulton (“Back on the Street,” “The Martyr”), who each co-wrote their numbers (with Todd) apart from “Windows” (a Powell lone-write) and “Back on the Street” (a Sulton-sung Rundgren song).
Rundgren sings three contributions: “Love in Action,” “Rape of the Young,” and “Love Is the Answer.” He shares lead with Sulton on one lone-write (“Trapped”), one Powell co-write (“My Angel”), and the three-way composition “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” the album’s centerpiece.
Musically, Oops! marks a shift toward compact verse–chorus songwriting with humanist and spiritual concerns. The songs range from explosive rock anthems with bristling riffs and harmonized chants (“Trapped,” “Love In Action”) and airy ballads with layered vocals (“My Angel,” “Love Is the Answer”). Both styles would dominate their subsequent four albums. Here, they make forays into funk (“Abandon City”) and punk (“Rape of the Young”) and retain their multi-movement epic style on “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” (a song with musical similarities to “Sunburst Finish”).
Sulton deals with human struggles and spiritual pursuits. “Trapped” opens with lyrical speculations about the martyrdom of Brother John. Staccato synth-strings signal tense riffing and bursting chorus lines about persecution. “Back on the Street” has pensive, stomping verses about the plights (and potential crimes) of wayward ex-cons, dead-end workers, and hopeless spendthrifts — all bound in the harmonized chorus line “each in his way has a hustle to play.” An airy acoustic figure opens “The Martyr,” a slow, contemplative number about the meaning of life and the afterlife of those who die for their ideals.
An acid-guitar figure heralds “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” a two-part rocker with booming verses about a man who questions his ways “on the road to Armageddon.” A bluesy, harmonized chorus takes hold with the line “It’s the wrong world, I must be on the wrong planet,” hence the album’s title. Sulton takes the middle: a 2/4 music hall pattern about the indifference of “Mr. and Mrs. Universe.” A chant ensues with a thrice harmonized stanza about a dance between the devil and the holy ghost: a presumed spectacle at the pearly gates. A phased-out pause precedes a recap of the “wrong world” chorus.
Powell addresses doomsday scenarios and human harmony. “Abandon City” describes a post-apocalyptic scenario of curfews, empty streets, and bare shelves. The arrangement — staccato organ over a syncopated funk groove — breaks for a steamy, billowing trumpet solo, which Todd wrestles down with oozing, scaly leads. A reference to the 1717 poem The Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope starts an “ock” quatrain (“seven o’clock… looking for a piece of the rock… get my Cadillac out of hock”). “Windows” opens with windy, harmonized vocables that summon a brush-snare shuffle with cosmic lyrics about how “the web of life connects each of us to the other.”
Wilcox tackles the troubled sides of life. “Crazy Lady Blue” starts with slow bluesy licks (in C minor) and Queen-like harmonies. The lyrics — boosted with layered vocals and sinewy leads — reveal the singer’s affection for a woman with psychological problems. “Gangrene” is a gruff uptempo rocker in which the skin-tissue infection is equated to the act of selling one’s freedom for money. Despite the attempt of Wilcox and his mates to “take to the road like a thief on the run; regroup underground and find our own kind of fun,” the “vampires” always prevail.
Rungren confronts avarice and summons love and divinity. On “Love in Action,” Todd asserts that no act of greed (“Money, money, money makes your world go ’round”) or hate (“You just joined the Klan, your head’s full of sand”) can triumph over the better good of humankind (“Can’t stop love in action”). The chorus unfolds in two stages: a conventional four-chord, closed-cadence pattern (E…D…A…G…) followed with an odd, upward half-step for a harmonized, open-cadence title chant (A♭m…E…) with vocally imposed sevenths.
On “My Angel,” Kasim tenderly declares “I must stand alone, it’s the kind of a life I’ve chosen” but Todd suggests “Something to live up to, someone to depend upon.” The verses spiral upward as they both encounter the “pair of sweet eyes” of the angel. They join in heavenly harmony as “the breath of gentle wings” swells to the chorus.
“Rape of the Young” — a titular pun on Pope’s poem, which addressed rape by its 18th century definition: the theft of a hair lock — opens with a piercing, picked guitar figure (in G minor) followed with a brisk, frenetic exchange of call-outs (“Hey mist Exxon!”) and damning questions (“Won’t you have pity on the guiltless ones?”). With high-speed tautness, Todd assails corporate polluters and war profiteers and their impact on future generations.
“Love Is the Answer” opens on a watery piano theme (ala “Sometimes I Don’t Know What to Feel”), followed with harmonized vocables. In a flowing, angelic tone, Todd prays for heavenly blessings on the “homeless boys and girls” (in the spiritual sense) and pleads with everyone to “love one another” in this “lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely world.” He ad-libs while the others harmonize the title with choral essence over the flowing chordal structure (Am… Em… Dm…).
The Oops! Wrong Planet sessions occurred in the summer of 1977 at Utopia Sound Studio. Rundgren produced and engineered the album, a self-contained effort apart from Mike Young, the assistant engineer (in his first credit). Horns are played by Rundgren (sax on “My Angel”) and Powell (trumpet on “Abandon City”).
Utopia conceived the album cover, which depicts a bar pyramid at the center of a New York street amid skyscrapers and the distant spire of the Chrysler Building. Grayscale photographer Fred Weiss captured each member mugshot style (back) and grouped in matching jeans and t-shirts (inner-sleeve).
Utopia promoted Oops! Wrong Planet on an East Coast tour with Epic symphonic-rockers Starcastle, who also released two 1977 albums: Fountains of Light and Citadel. On December 18, both bands played Curtis Hixon Hall in Jacksonville with a third act, Robin Trower (then performing his latest album In City Dreams).
Bearsville lifted “Love Is the Answer” as a single (b/w “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”). A cover of “Love Is the Answer” became a 1979 Billboard No. 10 hit for soft-rock duo England Dan & John Ford Coley.
1980: Adventures in Utopia
Utopia released their fifth album, Adventures in Utopia, in January 1980 on Bearsville. It features ten group-credited songs: three sung by Rundgren (“Second Nature,” “The Very Last Time,” “Rock Love”), two by Sulton (“Set Me Free,” “Love Alone”), three harmonized between the two (“The Road to Utopia,” “Last of the New Wave Riders,” “Shot in the Dark”), and one apiece by Powell (“Caravan”) and Wilcox (“You Make Me Crazy”).
Rundgren envisioned the album as the soundtrack to a never-completed TV show. Musically, Adventures in Utopia continues the band’s trademark mix of explosive harmony rockers (“You Make Me Crazy” “Set Me Free”) and intricate epics (“The Road to Utopia,” “Caravan”) with forays into disco-rock (“Rock Love”) and quirky territory (“Shot in the Dark”).
Sessions took place in late 1979 at Utopia Sound, where Rundgren produced and engineered Adventures in Utopia between his work for Smith and Derringer. The album lists four engineers: Holbrook, Young, George Carnell (an assistant on Wave), and Chris Andersen, a studio hand on Todd’s subsequent productions.
Adventures in Utopia was their only album packaged in a gatefold sleeve, designed by the firm Creative Directors Inc. It shows a space coffin orbiting Earth with a zoom-neon logo (repeated on the LP labels) and the members listed in lower-case. The back shows pics of each member (Todd in a tiger top) against color strips. Lyrics appear on the inner-gates within the chips of an illustrated computer motherboard. The inner-sleeve has a group photo of Utopia clad in suits (Powell and Sulton), pajamas (Wilcox), and casual black (Rundgren). The logo artist, John Wagman, co-designed the subsequent four Utopia covers.
Bearsville lifted “Set Me Free” as the album’s lead-off single, backed with the non-album group-written song “Umbrella Man,” a Sulton-sung Tin Pan Alley ballad with sparkling keyboard glissandos and a thunderous guitar break. On the week of April 19, 1980, “Set Me Free” reached a Billboard Hot 100 peak of No. 27, one slot below “Anyway You Want It” by Journey (which peaked two weeks later at No. 23). In the “Set Me Free” video, Sulton plays a news anchor who “reports” (lip syncs) against a green screen of footage from the Iran hostage crisis. Powell and Wilcox play in-field reporters (John “interviews” the Shaw). Rundgren appears later as a prison subject.
An edit of “The Very Last Time” appeared in May as the second single (b/w “Love Alone”) and dented the Hot 100. In August, Bearsville lifted “Second Nature” (b/w “You Make Me Crazy”). Adventures in Utopia reached No. 32 on the Billboard 200.
Sulton also plays on a 1980 new wave rock album by Frankie Eldorado (aka Frank D’ Augusta), an engineer on mid-seventies albums by Al Di Meola (Land of the Midnight Sun), Elkie Brooks, Ruth Copeland (Take Me to Baltimore), Patti Smith, and Peter Frampton.
Deface the Music
Utopia released their sixth album, Deface the Music, on September 24, 1980, on Bearsville. It consists of thirteen group-written songs that mimic the sound and style of The Beatles. Each track is a pastiche of one-or-more songs in the Fab Four’s catalog.
Utopia self-produced Deface the Music in the summer of 1980 at Utopia Sound, where Rundgren engineered and mixed the album with Andersen. Another Live artist Jane Millett did the cover, which depicts the four members as marble statues and retains the Adventures logo. The back cover, by photographer Kenneth Siegel, pictures Utopia from afar in a grass field — a setting picked in emulation of sixties-era album covers.
“I Just Want To Touch You” appeared in November as a single (b/w “Always Late”). The song was initially tapped for the soundtrack to Roadie, a 1980 musical comedy starring Meat Loaf with appearances by Blondie, Asleep at the Wheel, and Alice Cooper, whose band in the film includes Powell, Sulton, and Wilcox. Roadie producer Zalman King vetoed the song as he feared that its Beatles similarities might prompt a lawsuit against the film.
“Solo (Alone)” appeared as a second single on the Spanish Edigsa label, backed with “Muchacho Alocado (Silly Boy).” Deface the Music placed at No. 65 on the Billboard 1981 year-end chart.
1982: Swing to the Right
Utopia released their seventh album, Swing to the Right, on February 24, 1982, on Bearsville. It contains nine group-written originals with socio-political lyrics and a cover of The O’Jays “For the Love of Money,” which ties to the overall theme.
Swing to the Right was Utopia’s response to the direction of the US after the 1980 election. In the title-track, Rundgren lampoons the yuppie archetype: a sixties progressive who sells out for avarice simply because he “ain’t that young no more.” Utopia recorded
Utopia recorded Swing to the Right in the spring of 1981 but Bearsville blocked its release for ten months. In response, Utopia launched the Camouflage Tour, a spring–summer run through the Northeast and Midwest where they played the unreleased material in camouflage garb. Utopia urged fans to call Bearsville and ask for Albert Grossman, the label’s president, and urge him to issue the album. Bearsville relented on the condition that two songs, “Special Interest” and “God and Me,” be cut from the final running order.
The cover of Swing to the Right is a doctored photo of an August 1966 Beatles record-burning rally in Waycross, Georgia — one of many such events that summer in light of John Lennon’s “more popular than Jesus” remark. In the original photo, the boy holds a copy of Meet the Beatles before the fire. Here, the kid holds a copy of Swing to the Right (effectively turning the event on its own participants).
Bearsville lifted “One World” as a single, backed with the non-album “Special Interest.” In June, “Lysistrata” appeared as the second single (b/w “Junk Rock (Million Monkeys)”). After promotions wrapped on Swing to the Right, Utopia parted ways with Bearsville.
Utopia released their eighth album, Utopia, in September 1982 on Network (US) and Epic (UK). It features fifteen songs across three LP sides. The original album was packaged as two 12″ records inside a single sleeve. The first record contains tracks 1–10, five tracks per side, while the second record repeats tracks 11–15 on both sides. Comprised of short songs, the three-sided album’s total running time (48:18) barely exceeds conventional LP length.
Utopia contains nine songs group-credited to Utopia (Rundgren, Sulton, Powell, Wilcox) and six songs written in the absence of Sulton, who was busy for a time with his debut solo album, Kasim. Four songs (“Libertine,” “Bad Little Actress,” “Princess of the Universe,” “Infrared and Ultraviolet”) are joint-credited to Rundgren, Powell, and Wilcox.
Two songs (“Feet Don’t Fail Me Now,” “I’m Looking at You But I’m Talking to Myself”) have writing input from bassist Doug Howard, who deputized Sulton on Utopia’s summer 1982 tour. Howard played in melodic rockers Touch, who cut a 1980 album on Ariola and recorded a second with Rundgren at Utopia Sound. (The Rundgren-produced album remained vaulted until archivists Bareknuckle compiled Touch’s recordings on the 1998 two-CD set The Complete Works I & II.)
Utopia features three lead vocals apiece by Rundgren (“Hammer in My Heart,” “I’m Looking at You But I’m Talking to Myself,” “Chapter and Verse”) and Sulton sings lead on three songs (“Libertine” “Call It What You Will” “Private Heaven”) and two each by Powell (“Feet Don’t Fail Me Now,” “Burn Three Times”) and Wilcox (“Neck On Up,” “Princess of the Universe”). Todd and Kasim share lead vocals on “Bad Little Actress,” “Say Yeah,” “There Goes My Inspiration,” “Infrared and Ultraviolet,” and “Forgotten But Not Gone.”
Utopia bears a single sleeve with photography by Bill Hayward, who captured the band in two-tone ensembles (black jackets and patterned shirts) by stylist Yonah Schurink. The logo presents the U in Utopia as a magnet.
For the album’s US release, Utopia secured a one-off deal with Network, a short-lived Elektra subsidiary that also issued 1982–84 albums and singles by Ontarian rockers Toronto, Aussie popsters Moving Pictures, and “Fame” singer Irene Cara. In Europe, Utopia appeared on Epic as a ten-song album with a bonus five-song maxi-single.
Network lifted “Feet Don’t Fail Me Now” as a December 1982 single (b/w “There Goes My Inspiration”). In April 1983, “Hammer In My Heart” appeared as the second single (b/w “I’m Looking at You But I’m Talking to Myself”).
Utopia released their ninth album, Oblivion, in January 1984 on Passport. Rundgren sings lead on five of the ten songs and Sulton sings on four. They share vocals on “Too Much Water.”
Rundgren produced, engineered, and mixed Oblivion at Utopia Sound Studio in late 1983. His production load that year included albums by Jules Shear, Laura Nyro (Mother’s Spiritual), and Cheap Trick, whose Next Position Please contains the Todd-penned “Heaven’s Falling,” an uptempo harmonized rocker akin to “Crybaby.” Another Rundgren client, The Rubinoos, cut an EP at Utopia Sound with backing by Sulton, Powell, and Wilcox. Powell also plays keyboards with Patrick Moraz on the 1983 MCA release Sons of Heroes, a synthpop project produced by Bill Wyman.
Oblivion sports an embossed black cover with a white two-dimensional Wagman logo and an impression of the title. The names and titles appear scattered across the back in the same logo font. Select subsequent pressings show the title in cursive gray brushstroke (front) and a photo-negative of the group (back).
Passport issued “Crybaby” as a single (b/w “Winston Smith Takes It on the Jaw”), which reached No. 30 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock chart. “Love With a Thinker” appeared as a UK single (b/w “Welcome to My Revolution”) and as an Australian b-side to “Maybe I Could Change.”
Utopia released their tenth album, POV, in January 1985 on Passport.
Rundgren and Wilcox co-produced POV in late 1984 at Utopia Sound Studio, where Todd worked beforehand on the first album by Irish post-punks Zerra One. POV was mastered at Manhattan’s Sterling Sound by Gregory Calbi, who also mastered 1984–85 albums by Howard Jones (Dream Into Action), Naked Eyes (Fuel for the Fire), Propaganda (A Secret Wish), The Stranglers (Aural Sculpture), and Tears for Fears (Songs from the Big Chair).
Photographer Lynn Goldsmith took the POV cover shot, which portrays Utopia as military strategists overlooking a battle-map. The golden sphinx from the Ra tour appears behind their heads. The back cover shows distinct POV backronyms enacted by Powell (Price of Victory), Rundgren (Persistence of Vision), Sulton (Pillar of Virtue), and Wilcox (Point of View). Rundgren worked with Goldsmith on her 1983 musical project Will Powers, a multi-artist collection of dance-pop songs that spoof the self-help industry.
Just as Passport readied POV for release, Bearsville blocked a new Rundgren solo album comprised of sampled vocal bits. (The album, A Cappella, finally appeared in September 1985 on Warner Bros.) Passport lifted “Mated” as a single (b/w “Stand for Something”).
- Todd Rundgren’s Utopia (1974 • Todd Rundgren’s Utopia)
- Another Live (1975 • Todd Rundgren’s Utopia)
- Ra (1977)
- Oops! Wrong Planet (1977)
- Adventures in Utopia (1980)
- Deface the Music (1980)
- Swing to the Right (1982)
- Utopia (3-sided, 1982)
- Oblivion (1984)
- POV (1985)
- Disco Jets (2012 • Todd Rundgren & Utopia, recorded 1976)
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