One of the best-selling albums by what is arguably the most popular rock band in history will be honored for the 50th anniversary of its release Saturday by five musicians who have all reached the upper echelon of success in their own right.
The ninth studio album by The Beatles — a two-record set which, upon its late-1968 inception in England, was merely called “The Beatles,” but became much better known as the White Album due to its stark white cover — will be the focus of a show called “It Was 50 Years Ago Today — Celebrating The Beatles’ White Album.” The show starts 9 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 21, at the Grand Ballroom at Golden Nugget Atlantic City.
The White Album was critically acclaimed and one of the Beatles’ best-selling compilations, but is also notorious for marking the start of creative and ideological differences among the band members, who split up forever about a year after its release.
Performing the tribute will be Philadelphia-area music luminary and multi-instrumentalist Todd Rundgren; singer Micky Dolenz of the former pop band/TV show The Monkees, whose hits include “Pleasant Valley Sunday” and “I’m a Believer”; five-time Grammy-winning singer/songwriter Christopher Cross (“Sailing,” “Ride Like the Wind”); Jason Scheff, former bassist and vocalist for the band Chicago (“25 or 6 to 4,” “If You Leave Me Now”); and singer/songwriter/guitarist Joey Molland of the bygone British band Badfinger (“Day After Day,” “Come and Get It”).
Rundgren, who hails from the Philly suburb of Upper Darby, engineered and/or produced albums for many notable artists throughout his music career, among them Badfinger, Hall & Oates, Grand Funk Railroad, the New York Dolls, and Levon Helm and The Band. He also performed on and produced one of the most popular and commercially successful rock albums of all time, “Bat Out of Hell” by Meatloaf. He honed a reputation for being at the forefront of cutting-edge recording techniques as a producer and sound engineer, and the best-known band of three he fronted during his career thus far was Utopia, which existed in various incarnations from 1973 through ’86.
He chatted with At The Shore by phone from his Hawaii home.
At The Shore: With as many hits as the five of you have combined, and with the White Album containing 27 songs, how do you come up with a set list for a show like this?
Todd Rundgren: Well, because we want to pay a little more attention to the pacing of the show, we won’t be doing the exact running order of the album. The record itself was made in the days of LPs, so it’s broken up into four chunks. We’ll open with a set of songs from the White Album and then we do a set of two hits by each of the participating members.
We have five principals — so that’s 10 songs right there, with everybody playing two — and then the whole rest of the show will be songs from the White Album. We get our own hits out of the way in one chunk, and then the rest of the show is all White Album …
The Beatles were certainly the model that everyone aspired to back then, and when the White Album came out it certainly sounded different from a lot of what they had done previously, but not necessarily for the best of reasons. There was some discord among the group members, much of this having to do with their wives.
ATS: How did your involvement in this 50th anniversary project come about?
TR: Over the years I’ve done this kind of thing in one or another context, tributing either The Beatles in general or a specific album. It’s the same production company involved in all of them, that’s why I believe it’s the third time I’ll be performing with Christopher Cross in this type of format.
It’s not something I do all the time because usually I’m preoccupied, and for about 5 ½ years I was part of Ringo’s All-Starr Band (a touring “super group” with changing personnel, led by former Beatles drummer Ringo Starr), so there was no reason to do a Beatles tribute show when I was already touring with a Beatle.
ATS: You mentioned Christopher Cross, and I know you’ve produced Badfinger albums with Joey Molland, but have you ever worked with the other two guys?
TR: I have not worked with Micky and I’ve not worked with Jason, so that will be something new and interesting. Micky sang a lot of the Monkees’ hits, and I know Jason has been singing for Chicago for a long time (taking over as lead vocalist in 1985 when Peter Cetera left the group), but the weird thing is, the biggest hits in the case of Badfinger were all sung by Pete Ham, and he’s not alive anymore. Joey has to sing them even though he’s not the voice of the original hit record, so this may be a new and interesting experience for him.
ATS: As well as being highly regarded as a musician, you’re equally well known as a producer who has always been on the cutting-edge of technology with production techniques. Is that a knack that just came naturally to you, or one you developed?
TR: Well, I’ve always had a certain comfort level with technology because my dad (Harry Rundgren) was an engineer, and that sort of stuff was always in our house. He had a big tool bench and he’d build radios, and he knew all about how to design and build old-fashioned circuits using transistors and capacitors and that sort of thing. So through that I developed a sort of comfort level with technology that maybe a lot of other people never had.
But I get very selective with the type of technology I adopt. I don’t adopt everything. I don’t own a cell phone, for instance, but that’s just because it doesn’t work for me for a number of reasons. But if I find something useful in my work, or with organizing my thoughts, then I bear down and get pretty authoritative about it.
So, I started engineering on the second Nazz (Rundgren’s band from 1967 to ‘69) album. It was at that point that I began putting my hands on the board and turning the knobs and listening to what the results were. And as a result of that, I left Nazz and became an engineer and producer for other artists almost exclusively, and before producing any more of my own albums.
So I had plenty of experience as an engineer previously, and set up my own studio to be able to personalize things without time or cost constraints. When you have your own studio without these constraints, you have the freedom to wake up at any time of day or night with an idea, and go in and start working on it.
ATS: Last year I saw that Utopia reunited for the first time in a long time — do you see any more Utopia reunions in the near future?
TR: No, I don’t think so. It was a challenge and took us several years to find the circumstances that would allow us to do it. When we finally did, it was barely a week before we supposed to tour that (keyboardist) Ralph Dion Schuckett was diagnosed with a condition that did not allow him to tour due to the treatment regime he had to undergo. So at the last minute we found a replacement and it turned into a different thing than what we expected, but at the same time I think the audience was satisfied with how it turned out. But we did (the reunion) mostly at the behest of our fans. It wasn’t something I was going around longing to do.
ATS: Speaking of your fans, is technology and computer-info sharing bringing more young people out to your shows?
TR: We have seen more, and part of it has been organic in the sense that as fans get older and they have kids, they indoctrinate the kids and the kids wind up coming to the shows. But there are now a contingent of fans who just independently discovered the music and have become interested enough to come out. And that seems to be increasing, which is a good thing for me, because my original fans are getting quite old and don’t get out as much at this point anymore (laughs).
So yes, younger crowds who seem to appreciate the experience we have and the attention we pay to more traditional aspects of music are showing up. I think that’s important, but I think much of today’s technology is also responsible for engendering a sort of shorter attention span in some young people. They see themselves less as music appreciators and more as music consumers. They just seem to want whatever’s new, and once that comes out they forget about the old thing.
It’s not true for everyone, but I think people of a certain generation were the beneficiaries of a revolution in music — such as when the Beatles came out. They saw it as important to seek out and learn new things. If you stayed in the same place, people didn’t think you were serious. The Beatles would invent and discard genres that other bands would make a career out of. Over time I think people began to see that as an exceptional kind of artist — and artist that wants to live and die by that particular kind of ethos.