Retro spin: Todd Rundgren’s “Hello, It’s Me” and “Not Tonight”

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Musician and songwriter Todd Rundgren has been an integral part of American popular music for almost 50 years. Songs like “Hello It’s Me” and “Bang the Drum All Day,” are practically woven into the fabric of American life. With each either focusing on an estranged personal relationship or a triumphant revolt against America’s work-a-day culture.

But it isn’t just Rundgren’s solo work that earns him his place in American music. His early work includes time in a band called Nazz, and later, he joined a new version of the American new wave band The Cars, cleverly named The New Cars. With The New Cars, Rundgren wrote and performed the song “Not Tonight.” Rundgren’s work as exemplified in “Hello It’s Me” and “Not Tonight” is at turns poignant and funny.

“Hello It’s Me” by Todd Rundgren

Originally released in the UK as a B-side by Nazz in 1969, the song received new life in 1972 when Rundgren re-recorded it. Given how the song seems to show up everywhere, from radio airwaves to situation comedies to movies, it is difficult to imagine that there are people who haven’t heard “Hello It’s Me.”

The song’s lyrics sound like one half of a phone call. The title serves as the opening line. The relationship between the two people is revealed in the word “me.” The speaker does not have to explain who he is.

Rundgren’s voice can change based on the needs of each song. In “Hello It’s Me,” his voice sounds like a middle tenor that pushes up its register to amplify the emotional weight of phrases like “Seeing you, or seeing anything as much as I do you.” The same thing happens with the phrase “Think of me.” That phrase and the ones that follow it are repeated toward the end, and the word “you” in the next line is given several notes and the stylized approach drives home the idea that the speaker longs for the person he is speaking to.

Around the lyrics is a soundscape that includes a saxophone that is a little bit unexpected. Except, when a listener considers closely what is happening in the instrumentation, the saxophone begins to make a great deal of sense. The sound has the feel of a jazz arrangement. The clatter of drums, the declaration of the horn. It suits the story of the song perfectly.

“Hello It’s Me” is featured prominently in the dark movie, “Virgin Suicides,” and it was also used in the situation comedy “That 70’s Show.”

Todd Rundgren and The New Cars: “Not Tonight”

For those who have been paying attention, this is not a remake of The Cars’ song “It’s Not the Night” from 1984’s “Heartbeat City.” The titles are similar, but that is where the comparisons end.

The New Cars formed in 2005. The Cars had broken up, or had taken a break. Bassist and sometimes vocalist Benjamin Orr had died of cancer in 1997. The only original members of The Cars who performed in The New Cars were Elliot Easton (guitar) and Greg Hawkes (keyboards).  The New Cars went on for two years from 2005 until 2007.

“Not Tonight” is from the band’s only album, “It’s Alive!” The single was released ahead of the album in March 2006. The album followed in May of that year.

“Not Tonight” has a driving, bouncy beat and keyboard effects. It sounds a great deal like The Cars. There is humor in the lyrics  – – a man interested in a woman literally is too busy to date her properly. Lines like “I could squeeze you in,” and “I could make some calls, move stuff around” don’t require any interpretation.

The backing vocals and even Rundgren’s lead vocals sound a lot like the original Cars. There is a bass showcase that shouldn’t be missed, and the way the guitar riffs run up to the end of each line is a nice effect, too. As with songs by The Cars, the blending of guitar and keyboards gives the song energy and verve.

While not everyone was pleased with what Rundgren accomplished as part of the New Cars, it is an interesting period in a varied career.

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Dodie Miller-Gould is a native of Fort Wayne, Indiana who lives in New York City where she studies creative nonfiction at Columbia University. She has BA and MA degrees in English from Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne, and an MFA in Fiction from Minnesota State University, Mankato. Her research interests include popular music and culture, 1920s jazz, and blues, confessional poetry, and the rhetoric of fiction. She has presented at numerous conferences in rhetoric and composition, and creative writing. Her creative works have appeared in Tenth Muse, Apostrophe, The Flying Island, Scavenger's Newsletter and elsewhere. She has won university-based awards for creative work and literary criticism.

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2 responses to “Retro spin: Todd Rundgren’s “Hello, It’s Me” and “Not Tonight””

  1. “Around the lyrics is a soundscape that includes a saxophone…”

    It’s a *trumpet*, my friend. Yes, there is a sax player in the horn section, but the main obligato riffs are trumpet, trumpet!, (Randy Brecker) in the first break, and then trombone (Barry Rogers) in the second break. Smallish distinction to some, perhaps, but …

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