Utopia is an American rock band formed in 1973 by Todd Rundgren….who were a progressive rock band with a somewhat fluid membership known as Todd Rundgren’s Utopia….with most of the members in this early incarnation that 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, Utopia had a top 40 hit with “Set Me Free”….and though it is often thought of as a Rundgren-oriented project….all four members of Utopia wrote, sang, produced and performed on their albums….as “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
Their first two albums….Todd Rundgren’s Utopia (1974) and Another Live (1975)….featured lengthy, complex and highly arranged progressive rock pieces….which were performed by a six-piece multi-instrumentalist ensemble….which were 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….as 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….whereas 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”….which was recorded live in concert….and closed 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….as this remaining five-piece lineup was referred to by Rundgren as the “Rhythm Kings” and recorded the song “Real Man”….which was later released on Rundgren’s 1975 album Initiation….along with other Rundgren solo material. Shortly thereafter, former Moog programmer Roger Powell joined the band on synthesizer….thus restoring Utopia to a sextet…. but then Ellman left the band to become an executive at his family’s Beefsteak Charlie’s restaurant chain….as 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….as the liner notes characterized this recording as a return gesture for the Move’s having covered “Open My Eyes”….which was 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….who was a former member of Vandross’ early 1970’s 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…..as 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….after which Siegler left the group…..then 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.