Todd Rundgren is probably best known for his solo hits “Hello It’s Me,” “I Saw the Light” and “Bang the Drum All Day,” in addition to his production work for other artists (perhaps most notably Meat Loaf’s diamond-selling Bat Out of Hell). In 1974 he launched Todd Rundgren’s Utopia, a progressive rock project featuring a collective of varying musicians. He reintroduced Utopia in 1977 with the album Ra, this time altering the dynamic to a streamlined four-piece band, which also included bassist Kasim Sulton, keyboardist Roger Powell and drummer John “Willie” Wilcox. Although still sometimes referred to as “Todd Rundgren’s Utopia” (and Todd Rundgren remaining the highest-profile member), for the next eight years the band seemed to be comprised of four equal parts, with each musician receiving writing credits and singing lead on different songs.
The album Ra was also varied in its sound: some tracks still leaned towards the concept’s prog roots, but the song “Jealousy” could’ve been considered punk at the time. The line-up continued that move towards straight-ahead rock and pop with their next release Oops! Wrong Planet. Late-in-the-game hippie anthem “Love is the Answer” even became a Top 10 hit… two years later for soft rock duo England Dan & John Ford Coley (oops, wrong artist). Utopia’s sole appearance in the US Top 40 came with “Set Me Free” from Adventures in Utopia (1979), which was also their highest-charting album.
Utopia managed a noticeable presence on MTV during the network’s earliest days, which the band basically achieved just by being there when they opened the doors, having already made a handful of videos in time for the period when MTV pretty much aired whatever was handy. Lest anyone think they were veering too close to the predictable, Utopia released the Deface the Music, a tongue-in-cheek (we imagine) album of songs each of which was an obvious knock-off of a specific Beatles track (eat your heart out, Rutles).
In 1982 Utopia released two studio LPs, Swing to the Right (which features probably the most punk cover artwork ever for a non-punk album) and one self-titled. The latter was bit of an odd duck for three reasons: 1) It was a three-sided double LP (side four was the third side repeated); 2) It represented the only burp in the band’s line-up during this period, as Sulton was briefly replaced by bassist and vocalist Doug Howard (both ended up contributing); and 3) It was their only release on the label Network, resulting in rights issues which later made the album scarce for many years (ironically, it was their next album which would be titled Oblivion ).
On the cover of their 1985 release POV, the band members appear as military strategists (from an indeterminate alliance) carefully plotting some manner of attack. There was probably just as much concise planning behind the record itself, between the slick graphics and radio-friendly sound. Regardless, POV ended up as the band’s lowest-charting album and would become their final full-length studio release. An attempt in 1992 to pick up where they left off was unsuccessful, and Todd Rundgren would later reuse the name for various projects which he fronted. However, three-quarters of Utopia’s classic four-piece line-up (with keyboardist Gil Assayas replacing Powell) reassembled for a 2018 tour (which included an amazing show at the Town Hall in New York City).
Utopia’s one actual hit is barely remembered, and the band tragically has very little presence on any sort of nostalgia radio format. However, this means that in picking Utopia’s Top 10 songs, we’re starting out with basically a level playing field. These ten gems only represent a small part of the band’s incredible body of work, and it’s certainly not too late for the masses to discover their Utopia.
# 10 – Fix Your Gaze
One of the last new tracks released during the band’s original period of existence, this straightforward and tight song based around a series of simple three-chord riffs and a killer bass line could – and should – easily have been a radio hit (certainly on AOR). Instead, it’s been relegated to deep deep cut status, surfacing almost randomly on various best-of collections and reissues of Oblivion or P.O.V.
# 9 – Feet Don’t Fail Me Now
One of the few Utopia tracks to be co-written by- and feature one-time bassist Doug Howard, this bouncy novelty song hides a deeper sadness in the lyrics, in which a chorus (i.e. a group of people singing together) tries to convince the protagonist that his lover has moved on, which he responds to by stating that he’s trying desperately to do the same but just can’t bring himself to (if all this isn’t enough, the video features the band members dressed up as eight-legged bugs).
# 8 – Welcome to My Revolution
Todd Rundgren takes lead vocals for this arty rocker from the band’s Oblivion album, a “too-much-information” protest anthem for the often confusing era that was the early Eighties (Def Leppard would later seemingly quote this song – plus the album title – in their 1999 track “Kings of Oblivion”).
# 7 – Magic Dragon Theater
While Utopia would later do a whole album of original songs paying tribute to The Beatles, this track from Ra shows that they had already embraced the sound of the Fab Four, particularly the approximate era of Magical Mystery Tour. The cut even includes a brief spoken work section featuring several different “characters,” one of whom sounds frighteningly like Beavis of and Butt-Head fame (though it’s obviously just a coincidence, since Beavis creator/voice actor Mike Judge was in high school at the time).
# 6 – Abandon City
This jazz-funk flavored musical counterpoint from Oops! Wrong Planet featuring Powell on lead vocals also serves as a cautionary tale of a decaying berg (not specifically identified, but everyone probably has their own guess) which is too quickly becoming uninhabitable (“You better run for your lives”).
# 5 – Crybaby
Rundgren at the helm once again for this solid and to-the-point rocker which features a new wavy synth opening and employs a soft-then-loud-then-back vocal approach which would later be used by Nirvana and others (there’s also the elaborate video, which re-imagines this fairly standard breakup song as a post-apocalyptic epic in which authoritative roles have shifted).
# 4 – You Make Me Crazy
Though never really considered part of it, Utopia was fully on board with the new wave movement at the dawn of the Eighties, as proven by this track featuring lead vocals by drummer John “Willie” Wilcox, which would be right at home alongside hits by groups like The Cars, Devo and The Tubes. “Crazy” also features a great synth bridge along with a cryptic WTF lyric: “I heard a knock on the door/But it was only Harry Jones” (we have no idea who – or what – Harry Jones is, and Google is no help).
# 3 – Last of the New Wave Riders
Even though the title mentions a very different rock genre, this is unquestionably a heavy metal song, replete with the monster guitar riff, atmosphere production and appropriate lyrical imagery (“… and the whole universe is a giant guitar”). It’s hard to imagine why this song has never been covered by Kiss or another band of that ilk.
# 2 – Caravan
Keyboardist Roger Powell takes lead vocals for this ethereal but hard-rocking cut inspired by biblical imagery which proves that song can be straightforward and epic at the same time.
# 1 – One World
Sounding kind of like simplified Springsteen (complete with a handclap break), this rocker from the band’s Swing to the Right album offers a message of unity between all manner of common people (“Politicians and dictators and the guys with the dough/They think they run the world, but they just don’t know/’Cause down here on the street we got it under control”) that’s even more relevant today than it was in 1982.