Utopia were the perennial New Wave also-rans. They were fairly well-known, if never exactly popular. They were critically favored, but not exactly lauded. They sold a decent amount of albums, but I don’t think your average punter could name any of their songs today. If they were known for anything, it was that they were Todd Rundgren’s band – he formed them in 1974 as a progressive rock group, which he ran concurrently with his solo career. But he took care to ensure that they were more than just his backing band (though they functioned as that too), giving everyone in the group a chance to sing, play solos, and write songs, though nobody could write ’em at the pace that Todd was.
If anything, the problem is that they didn’t really have an identity. In the beginning, they had three (!) keyboard players in their midst, playing instrumentally-heavy prog that would occasionally be broken up with a song of some kind. That was pretty cool, but it fell apart as members started to leave, and I think there was probably a second album in the works that got aborted (parts of which you can hear on 1975’s Another Live). John Wilcox (drums) and Roger Powell (keyboards) were in the band by that point, and the next year Kasim Sulton (bass) joined, turning them into a power quartet. They transitioned rather abruptly to a more traditional, song-oriented group almost overnight, releasing both Ra and Oops! Wrong Planet in 1977, two wildly different albums. Alas, they still kept getting labelled as “prog”, even though later albums were anything but. Not surprising since albums like Big Generator and Invisible Touch get the prog label too, but Utopia didn’t exactly have that sort of history. Rundgren probably viewed Utopia as being something like the Beatles; adept songwriters who could spin out perfectly constructed tunes and could go in any direction at any time. As if to prove the point they released the Beatles tribute/parody album Deface the Music, which did not go over well. What Rundgren really needed was a McCartney to his Lennon, and Sulton wasn’t quite there, though for a while it must’ve seemed like he was an emerging star (“Set Me Free”, the band’s sole Top 30 hit, was his creation).
The other thing they needed was a hit, something that would elevate them to be more than just “Rundgren’s band”. They had many a valiant effort, but it just never happened. Maybe they were like XTC in that regard – great songwriters, but certain people must’ve felt they were just not very marketable. I mean, Deface the Music really killed their momentum – you just didn’t make fun of the Beatles back then, and Lennon’s shooting seven weeks after its release (by a Rundgren-obsessed fan!) didn’t exactly help matters. Clearly it was Todd’s idea (the album, not the assassination), and as I understand it the other members of the band were quite bitter at him for it. People began to question the band’s sincerity – see Swing to the Right, quite a deconstructionalists’ album, enough to make you wonder who the joke is really on. Utopia, their second release of 1982 (and their second self-titled one), on the other hand, feels like a do-over. The jacket was just a snazzy picture of the foursome dressed up as though they were like The Knack, with simply the word “Utopia” on top. It’s so basic, one could be forgiven for thinking this was a debut album. Contained within: a 10-song LP along with a “bonus” record with five additional tunes, either on a 7″ or a 12″ with a blank 4th side. Bizarre, since these five “extra” songs are clearly part of the album (the CD version makes no distinction) and could’ve fit on the LP. Todd Rundgren of all people should know this, considering that he had released one of the longest single LPs of all time (Initiation). Maybe there was an aesthetic reason for it – in the early 80’s, an album side was no longer something to be explored and conquered, but rather a place for 5 or 6 songs, and if they were all good, then you had a great album (and hopefully a big seller too).
Certainly, one thing that stands out about Utopia is its consistency. 15 songs, only one of which eclipses four minutes (and barely so). All four members write and sing lead at some point, but their styles had all started to merge together – on first listen, only the ballad “I’m Looking at You But I’m Talking to Myself” struck me as being distinctly Todd, only because he shoehorns a song like that on all his albums. Otherwise, most of these songs are quite similar – tons of harmonies, crunchy riffs, bouncy rhythms, and memorable choruses. There are enough synthesizers to keep things sounding 80’s-modern, but many of these songs could’ve been written for Please Please Me. This formula worked well for The Cars, which you know Todd was influenced by. The songs are expertly crafted, but maybe a little too expertly crafted, if you know what I mean. Outside of a little backwards guitar in “Infrared and Ultraviolet” they never get out of line – the only things that really made me take notice was the gorgeousness of the vocals on “Private Heaven”, the thundering riff-fest of “Princess of the Universe”, and the sheer stupidity of the lyrics at times. Sometimes that’s intentional (“Say Yeah”, “Burn Three Times”), but sometimes they’re just klutzy – “Neck On Up”, the latest in a long line of “looking for a girl who X, not a girl who Y” anthems, tries to be sweet but just winds up sounding demeaning.
Still, there’s a ton of single fodder here, maybe eight or nine good ones, but somehow only two were released; the hard-edged, mechanically funky “Hammer in My Heart”, and the clever, Beatlesy “Feet Don’t Fail Me Now”. Predictably they were both clunkers; good tunes, just not exactly in line with what was getting played on the radio in 1982. Ironically, Todd hit it big on his own in the same year with the novelty reggae tune “Bang On the Drum All Day”, a song he’d probably rather not be known for. That was kind of Todd’s curse, wasn’t it? He had the pop and soul ballad thing down to a science, but after he reached stardom he found himself uninterested in doing anything that he didn’t find challenging. By the time he was willing to come back, nobody would take him seriously anymore. Certainly most of the songs on Utopia feel like exercises in songwriting – “I’m Looking at You But I’m Talking to Myself” is the only song that feels real in a way. Between Utopia and his solo work, Todd had released six albums between 1980 and 1982, touring both acts all the way, leading one to wonder where all these songs were coming from. At least, it begs the question of how thinly-veiled “There Goes My Inspiration” really was. Things began to wind down after – Todd’s career of course continued, albeit at a slower pace (that was still quicker than nearly everyone else in his class), while Utopia started to fizzle out – two more albums and a few more non-charting singles, and once their record label folded they decided to call it a day.
Still, Utopia left behind a pretty sizable and impressive discography, given how commercially frustrated they must’ve been. Listening back, I’m surprised at how great some of the tunes are, particularly the non-Todd ones, and how well they did those big harmonies on nearly every track; they were the Beach Boys and the Cars rolled up into one. They had the talent and the ambition to be boundless, but spent most of their time trying to figure out how to sell out. Look at the album cover – without nary an instrument nor expression in sight, are they musicians or are they businessmen? Their audience certainly didn’t seem to trust him, which inevitably was an extension of Todd, the living embodiment of “buyer beware”.