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Utopia, 1977. L-R: Roger Powell, Willie Wilcox, Todd Rundgren and Kasim Sulton.
|Also known as||Todd Rundgren's Utopia (1973-1976)|
|Origin||New York, New York, United States|
|Labels||Bearsville, Network, Passport, Epic, Rhino|
John "Willie" Wilcox
|Past members||Jean Yves "M. Frog" Labat|
Mark "Moogy" Klingman
Utopia is an American rock band formed in 1973 by Todd Rundgren. During its first three years, the group was a progressive rock band with a somewhat fluid membership known as Todd Rundgren's Utopia. Most of the members in this early incarnation also played on Rundgren's solo albums of the period up to 1975. By 1976, the group was known simply as Utopia and was a stable quartet of Todd Rundgren, Kasim Sulton, Roger Powell and John "Willie" Wilcox. This version of the group gradually abandoned prog-rock for straightforward rock and pop.
In 1980, they had a top 40 hit with "Set Me Free". Though often thought of as a Rundgren-oriented project, all four members of Utopia wrote, sang, produced and performed on their albums; "Set Me Free", for example, was sung by Sulton. The group broke up in 1986, but reunited briefly in 1992. More recently, beginning in 2011 the earlier prog-rock incarnation known as Todd Rundgren's Utopia was revived for a series of live shows. In 2018 Rundgren, Sulton, and Wilcox reunited for a tour with new keyboardist Gil Assayas under the moniker Todd Rundgren's Utopia.
Todd Rundgren's Utopia
For a short period of time (1973–74) Todd Rundgren's Utopia consisted of Rundgren plus Hunt and Tony Sales together with David Mason and Jean-Yves Labat (who at first played rhythm guitars). (The late Mason, a musician from Gainesville, Florida, was not to be confused with the former member of Traffic of the same name.) However, the lineup had changed by the time the band recorded its first release.
The first two albums — Todd Rundgren's Utopia (1974) and Another Live (1975) — featured lengthy, complex and highly arranged progressive rock pieces, performed by a six-piece multi-instrumentalist ensemble. It was originally composed of Rundgren (guitar and vocals), Kevin Ellman (drums and percussion), Mark "Moogy" Klingman (keyboards), Jean-Yves "M. Frog" Labat (now on synthesizers), Ralph Schuckett (keyboards), and John Siegler (bass and cello). Klingman had played with Rundgren as early as his first album Runt; both Klingman and Siegler had played on tracks on Side 4 of Rundgren's third album Something/Anything, and together with Schuckett they had also played on Rundgren's fourth album A Wizard, A True Star. Meanwhile, Rundgren had played on Labat's solo album M. Frog. Ellman debuted with Rundgren on the album Todd.
The debut album itself contained only four tracks and ran for almost sixty minutes total, opening with "Utopia Theme" - recorded live in concert - and closing with the extended concept piece "The Ikon", which ran more than thirty minutes and took up all of side two of the album. Soon after this first album was completed, Labat left the band. This remaining five-piece lineup was referred to by Rundgren as the "Rhythm Kings" and recorded the song "Real Man", later released on Rundgren's 1975 album Initiation, along with other Rundgren solo material. Shortly, though, former Moog programmer Roger Powell joined the band on synthesizer, restoring it to a sextet, but then Ellman left the band to become an executive at his family's Beefsteak Charlie's restaurant chain. Ellman was replaced by John "Willie" Wilcox, who had been the drummer with Hall & Oates on the Rundgren-produced War Babies album.
The live LP Another Live (1975) featured new members Powell and Wilcox. The record showcased several extended progressive tracks which were not released in studio versions and also displayed Rundgren's continuing interest in the Broadway musical via a version of "Something's Coming" from West Side Story. Also included was a cover of "Do Ya", written by Jeff Lynne and originally recorded by The Move; the liner notes characterized this recording as a return gesture for the Move's having covered "Open My Eyes", a song written by Rundgren and recorded by his earlier band the Nazz. However, shortly after these sessions, Schuckett and Klingman both left the band, leaving Powell as the lone keyboard player.
On October 9, 1975, Utopia played their first UK concert at the Hammersmith Odeon in London with the trimmed-down lineup of Rundgren, Siegler, Powell and Wilcox, with backing vocals by future soul star Luther Vandross and Anthony Hinton (a former member of Vandross' early 1970s vocal quintet Luther). This concert was recorded by the BBC for broadcast and has since been widely bootlegged. The audio material from this concert was released in 2012 on Floating World Records' Todd Rundgren's Utopia Live at Hammersmith Odeon '75.
In 1976, the Rundgren/Powell/Siegler/Wilcox lineup of Utopia recorded an instrumental album entitled Disco Jets, which included a disco arrangement of the Star Trek theme as well as original compositions. Bearsville Records passed on releasing the album, and it was shelved. (Disco Jets eventually surfaced in 2001 as part of a Rundgren rarities box set, and was finally issued on its own in 2012.) The same lineup recorded Rundgren's 1976 solo album Faithful. Siegler left the group shortly after the recording of this album.
Siegler, Schuckett, and Klingman were among the many musicians who played with Rundgren for the concerts recorded and released as the live double-LP set Back to the Bars in 1978.
By mid-1976, the group became known simply as 'Utopia' and settled into a four-person lineup of Rundgren (guitar, vocals), Kasim Sulton (bass, vocals), Roger Powell (keyboards, vocals) and Willie Wilcox (drums, vocals). This line-up remained stable until the group's demise. All four band members wrote, sang, produced and even engineered material for the band.
The first Utopia album Ra (1977) continued showcasing the group's progressive leanings, opening with an electronic arrangement of the "Overture: Mountaintop and Sunrise" theme (from Bernard Herrmann's score for the film Journey to the Center of the Earth), but it also contained several shorter, more accessible songs. Utopia's subsequent albums increasingly featured more concise and pop-oriented material that showed the influence of the prevailing new wave trend.
1977's Oops! Wrong Planet was an even more pop-oriented album, and the song "Love Is the Answer" became Utopia's main set-closer. "Love Is the Answer" later became a big hit for England Dan & John Ford Coley, charting No. 1 on the Billboard Adult Contemporary list in 1979, but the Utopia version failed to chart.
Utopia had only one Billboard top 40 hit: "Set Me Free", from their best-selling album Adventures in Utopia (1979), peaking at No. 27 in the US in early 1980. The same year, the band issued the LP Deface the Music, which was an overt pastiche of the Merseybeat and Sgt. Pepper-era music of The Beatles. Though the album received some positive critical notices, the move away from new wave derailed the band's career momentum.
Utopia managed to hold on to their cult status throughout the '80s with their albums, concert performances and videos that were shown on MTV in its early years. The group had a number of album-oriented rock hits including "Caravan," "Feet Don't Fail Me Now" (co-written by bassist Doug Howard, who replaced Sulton during his brief hiatus from the group in 1982), and "Love In Action." The video for "Feet Don't Fail Me Now" memorably featured the band dressed in insect costumes. The album Swing to the Right (1982) featured satirical political songs, and the Canadian top 40 hit "One World", but its primary purpose was to fulfill the band's recording contract with Bearsville Records, which had stopped promoting the group, concluding that Utopia albums had a guaranteed audience of Rundgren fans but weren't likely to attract new listeners. While the band was without a label, Sulton decided to leave the band and was replaced by Doug Howard; however, once the band signed with Network Records (a subsidiary of Elektra Records), Sulton decided to return and Howard left.
The follow-up self-titled LP Utopia (1982) was the band's first album for Network and spread 15 tracks across an LP and a bonus unlisted EP. In addition, a video album was released. Unfortunately during this time Elektra/Asylum records decided to move their offices from New York to Los Angeles. During the consolidation they decided to cut Network Records out of its distribution causing the label to fold and left Utopia without label support once again. Utopia then signed a three-album deal with Passport Records, then a subsidiary of Jem Records.
The band's final two albums Oblivion (1984) and POV (1985) were neither commercially successful, nor critically well-received, partly because the Passport label on which they were issued folded. After issuing the compilation Trivia in 1986, which included tracks from their previous three LPs plus two previously released outtakes, Utopia called it quits.
Rundgren had a successful solo career before, during, and after Utopia, as did his bandmates, although to more modest levels. Powell toured with David Bowie for the live album Stage, and previously worked as protégé for Robert Moog. Powell's solo album Air Pocket was voted No. 1 in 1980 by Keyboard Magazine, but after the demise of Utopia he had to give up performing for some time due to Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI). Prior to Utopia, Wilcox recorded the Rundgren-produced War Babies album and toured with Hall and Oates. Wilcox was the senior composer and sound designer for NBC Universal Television from 1999–2005, and wrote and programmed "We Connect", the No. 1 dance hit for artist Stacey Q. He continues to write and produce for television, film and artists with his company Willie Wilcox Music. Wilcox composed the ringwalk music used by the boxer, Manny Pacquiao. Bassist Kasim Sulton issued a solo LP in 1982, which contained the Canadian top 40 hit "Don't Break My Heart", and has toured as a band leader for Meat Loaf, and performed with Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Scandal, Hall and Oates, Blue Öyster Cult, and others.
Though Utopia officially broke up in 1986, they reunited briefly in 1992, yielding the album, Redux '92: Live in Japan, but they were unable to secure a new label arrangement so they disbanded permanently. Various members have continued to work with Rundgren in the intervening years. In 2005, Rundgren and Sulton began working together again in a new lineup of The Cars using the name The New Cars. After Elliot Easton broke his left clavicle following a tour bus accident, The New Cars took a hiatus. During this hiatus, Kasim took on some work with Meat Loaf and Rundgren to support Bat Out of Hell III: The Monster Is Loose.
Rundgren, Powell, and Sulton were reunited on stage during the debut live presentation of Rundgren's A Wizard, a True Star presented by RundgrenRadio.com in 2009. Due to ongoing health issues with hearing loss and arthritis (which had precipitated his retirement from performing in the 1990s) Powell did not participate in the extended tour, for which he was replaced by founding member Ralph Schuckett, continuing the trend of former Utopia members to remain connected musically.
On January 29–30, 2011, a reunion of most of the members of the 1974 Utopia Mark II band (Rundgren, Moogy Klingman, Ralph Shuckett, John Siegler, and Kevin Ellman) was held for two nights at the Highline Ballroom in New York City. Proceeds from the shows went to defray medical treatment for Klingman's bout with cancer. Material was drawn from the 1972–75 catalogs of Rundgren and Todd Rundgren's Utopia. This marked the first time this lineup performed together in over 35 years. Fellow musicians Jesse Gress and longtime Utopia (1977–86) member Kasim Sulton performed on some of the songs.
Ten months later, in November 2011, the band toured live as "Todd Rundgren's Utopia" for the first time since 1975, with the same lineup of Rundgren, Klingman, Schuckett, Siegler, Ellman, Gress and Sulton. Klingman died on November 15, 2011.
In late 2017, Sulton put together a Utopia tribute band called Kasim Sulton's Utopia, made up of himself, Jesse Gress (guitar and vocals), Wade Preston (piano and vocals), Christopher Clark (synth and vocals) and Andy Ascolese (drums and vocals). This grouping began touring in February 2018. Also in February 2018, Utopia announced it would be touring as "Todd Rundgren's Utopia" starting that spring, with a lineup of Rundgren, Sulton, Wilcox, and Schuckett. In March 2018, the band announced that Schuckett would not be able to participate and called for keyboardists who are familiar with Utopia's catalog to submit audition tapes. The band ultimately chose Gil Assayas after one of Rundgren's sons saw him perform.
- Todd Rundgren - lead guitar, lead vocals (1973–1986, 1992, 2011–present)
- John "Willie" Wilcox - drums, percussion, lead vocals (1975–1986, 1992, 2018-present)
- Kasim Sulton - bass, lead vocals (1976–1982, 1982–1986, 1992, 2011–present)
- Gil Assayas - keyboards (2018-present)
- Jean Yves "M. Frog" Labat - synthesizers, rhythm guitar (1973–1975)
- David Mason - keyboards (1973–1974)
- Hunt Sales - drums, percussion (1973–1974)
- Tony Sales - bass, backing vocals (1973–1974)
- Mark "Moogy" Klingman - keyboards (1974–1975, 2011; died 2011)
- Roger Powell - keyboards, lead vocals (1975–1986, 1992, 2009)
- Doug Howard - bass, vocals (1982)
- Kevin Ellman - drums, percussion (1974–1975, 2011–2018)
- Jesse Gress - guitar (2011–2018)
- John Siegler - bass, cello (1974–1976, 2011–2018)
- Ralph Schuckett - keyboards (1974–1975, 2011–2018)
|1973 - 1974|
|Year||Album information||Chart positions|
|1974||Todd Rundgren's Utopia||34||28||–|
|Oops! Wrong Planet
|1979||Adventures in Utopia
|1980||Deface the Music
|1982||Swing to the Right
- Another Live (Bearsville, Warner Bros., 1975) US No. 66
- Redux '92: Live in Japan (BMG, 1992)
- Official Bootleg, Vol. 9: Oblivion Tour (Nippon Crown, 2001)
- Bootleg Series, Vol. 2: KSAN 95FM, Live '79 (Sanctuary, 2002)
- Live At Hammersmith Odeon '75 (Shout! Factory, 2012)
- Trivia (Passport, 1986)
- The Collection (Castle, 1988)
- Anthology (1974-1985) 1989
- Oblivion, POV & Some Trivia (Rhino, 1996)
- City in My Head (Essential Records, 1999)
|US Hot 100
|1977||"Communion with the Sun"||–||–||–||Ra|
|"Love Is the Answer"||–||–||–||Oops! Wrong Planet|
|1980||"Set Me Free"||27||–||55||Adventures in Utopia|
|"The Very Last Time"||76||–||–|
|"I Just Want to Touch You"||–||–||–||Deface the Music|
|1982||"One World"||–||–||34||Swing to the Right|
|"Hammer in My Heart"||–||31||–||Utopia|
|1983||"Feet Don't Fail Me Now"||82||–||–|
|"Love with a Thinker"||–||–||–|
- "Magic Dragon Theatre" (1977)
- "Set Me Free" (1980)
- "You Make Me Crazy" (1980)
- "I Just Want To Touch You" (1980)
- "Feet Don't Fail Me Now" (1982)
- "Hammer In My Heart" (1982)
- "Crybaby" (1984)
- "David Mason memorial article". Retrieved 2016-05-30.
- "Jean-Yves Labat bio". Retrieved 2016-05-30.
- "Kasim Sulton's Utopia". Retrieved 2018-03-16.
- "Todd Rundgren's Utopia Ends What Manager Calls 'Longest Sabbatical'". Retrieved 2018-02-28.
- "Ralph Schuckett Can't Do Utopia Tour, Looking For a True Musician/Fan to Replace". Retrieved 2018-03-21.
- "Todd Rundgren & His Utopia Bandmates Talk Reunion Tour & Penchant for Concept Albums". Billboard. Retrieved 2018-03-21.
- "allmusic ((( Utopia > Charts & Awards > Billboard Albums )))". Billboard. Retrieved 2011-11-19.
- "Search - RPM - Library and Archives Canada". collectionscanada.gc.ca. Retrieved 2013-03-11.
- "Chart Stats - Utopia". chartstats.com. Archived from the original on 2013-01-19. Retrieved 2011-11-25.
- "Chart Stats - Todd Rundgren". chartstats.com. Archived from the original on 2013-01-02. Retrieved 2011-11-25.
- "allmusic ((( Utopia > Charts & Awards > Billboard Singles )))". Billboard. Retrieved 2011-11-19.