Interview: Todd Rundgren Discusses His New Album, 'Todd Rundgren's Johnson'
Eric Clapton did it. Peter Green did it. Now it’s Todd Rundgren’s turn to pay homage to Delta blues legend Robert Johnson by recording an album of reinterpretations of Johnson’s iconic songs.
But as its title suggests, Todd Rundgren’s Johnson isn’t nearly as reverent as Clapton and Green’s efforts (Me & Mr. Johnson and Robert Johnson Songbook, respectively). Rather, the album gives props to the electric bluesmen who introduced Johnson’s music and style to rock and roll.
“The album is a tribute to the white players of the Sixties who were influenced by Robert Johnson — guys like Clapton, the Bluesbreakers and Michael Bloomfield,” says Rundgren, the 63-year-old former Nazz and Utopia frontman.
“It was modeled after the Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton album from 1966. That one really turned heads. It was like an atom bomb for guitarists.”
Todd Rundgren’s Johnson finds the guitarist blithely shredding his way through rocking arrangements of 12 diverse Johnson compositions, including “Crossroads Blues,” “Sweet Home Chicago” and “Hellhound on My Trail.” The album is packed with crunchy Strat tones, blistering pentatonic solos and Mick Taylor–meets–Albert King bends — all performed by Rundgren, who, except for some help from former Utopia bassist Kasim Sulton, played every instrument and sang every song on the disc.
“This album was an opportunity to put myself into an 18-year-old frame of mind,” says Rundgren, who began his career as a member of Woody’s Truck Stop, a mid-Sixties Philadelphia-based outfit that was heavily influenced by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. “I decided early on that I wanted to be Michael Bloomfield, Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton — not George Harrison.”
And while Rundgren’s own music has at times tended toward sophisticated pop, soul and jazz-fusion workouts, he loved the opportunity to cut loose and solo over chugging three-chord patterns. “I’ve always done very ‘composed’ music and worked-out solos,” he says. “But sometimes it’s fun not knowing where you’re going.”