Sunday, April 12, 2009

No Place Like Utopia

I was a big fan of Utopia.

Not the three-keyboardist prog period. And not the heavy metal period. But the brief New Wave/Power Pop period (which lasted from about 1980 to 1982).

A couple days ago, I heard "Set Me Free" by Utopia on XM Radio. It was like running into an old lover years after the passion had cooled. You can see things more objectively (the good and the bad) and hopefully you leave the encounter with some good feelings (and not still be crazy after all these years).

Adventures in Utopia was all over hipper radio stations in 1980, with its mixture of anthemic space ditties and straightforward pop-rock. Flush with cash from some afterschool job I can't remember, I bought the album new instead of hunting down a used copy.

The band was always seen as a Todd Rundgren side project (and most of its fans were Todd-heads), but it's secret weapon was always Kasim Sulton, who sang the band's one real hit "Set Me Free" (which barely crept into the Top 40 in 1980).

Utopia's next album Deface the Music was a collection of Beatle soundalike songs that sounded exactly like what might have happened if Todd Rundgren had joined the Rutles. In a masterstroke of shitty timing, the album came out just before John Lennon was killed. And suddenly the idea of clever fake Beatle songs seemed much less appealing (especially when compared to real Beatle songs people already knew and loved). I saw them at a club in Hartford touring behind this album; the show was half-full, but the concert was amazing. (Link for Gmail subscribers.)

For the next few years, Rundgren alternated solo albums and Utopia albums with Utopia never quite breaking through and usually playing second fiddle to whatever directions or passions were important to Rundgren. Ironically, Todd's solo albums proved much more popular than Utopia records just as Utopia was finally developing a signature sound and group identity that wasn't based on Rundgren. But Utopia never regained the momentum they had in 1980 and each successive album was less successful (artistically and commercially).

Swing to the Right, a concept album that grew out of Reagan's election, failed to catch fire with audiences. Utopia was more notable for being a three-sided album than for the music itself (it came on two vinyl records, but the second record had side 3 on each side). The ironically named Oblivion sunk like a stone (perhaps because it traded the Utopia sound for a generic arena-rock sound that sounded like Asia on a bad day). I bought all these records; like a gambler on a losing streak, I figured my luck had to change (and the few good songs on each album kept my hope alive like an occasional winning hand). By 1986, they'd faded away which ultimately may have been a good thing (but it left me feeling like I was at a casino that closed just when I'd deluded myself into thinking my luck had changed).

Ironically enough, after college, I lived down the block from a club called Johnny D's; I always wondered about the place but never went inside. And then tonight, I found this video of Kasim Sulton singing "Libertine" at Johnny D's in 2008 and it sounds as good as it did back in the day.

1 comment:

Mike said...

Skinny black ties...ahhh.