When you look at social media accounts that are not what they claim to be, they fall into one of three general categories:
1. Real Person engaging in impersonation or astroturfing
This is still the most common behavior pattern. On the internet, you can be anybody you want to be, and you can pretend to be anywhere on the planet. Trollbot factories can have hundreds of fake accounts, many of them operated by the same person or group of people.
2. Partly automated trollbot account, sometimes operated by multiple persons
This is becoming more common. It gives trolling and social media subversion organizations the best of both worlds. In off-hours, the account will be set up to automatically post or replicate content from elsewhere. When the operators are awake, they will post and comment manually.
3. Fully automated bot
These are becoming less common, since they can be more easily spotted by tools. These are set up to post previously stored content, or to replicate content posted elsewhere by using keyword triggers to copy and re-post content. Usually, analysis shows that there is no original content from the account, it consists entirely of content copied from elsewhere. Sometimes hundreds of accounts are set up to re-post the same content.
Ways to spot accounts
So here is a base list of the ways in which you can spot accounts that are not what they claim to be. This is not exhaustive, and the trollbot factories are consistently coming up with new variations to try and outflank bot detection algorithms.
Account Names and bios
1. Account name that comprises mostly numeric digits, like Ann2865743. These are usually accounts created by an account mass creation or replication engine. These accounts usually have no picture or avatar and no bio.
2. Bio that consists of a long collection of hashtags or slogans like #MAGA, #TRUMP.
3. Use of a stock photo, or photo of a well-known person as the account avatar. Many fake accounts use stock images lifted from the internet, or images of famous people. (One account on Twitter that I suspected of being a Russian trollbot used an image of what turned out to be a Russian porn actress)
1. Following huge number of people, but has next to no friends or followers
2. Creating massive numbers of postings or comments in a short time period, far more than a real human could reasonably be expected to type and submit. If you do the math and find that the account is creating 100 postings an hour…that is indicative of an automated bot account.
3. Discrepancy between stated location, time zone and actual posting patterns (this is especially obvious on Twitter accounts). If an account claims to be in Lost Angeles, but seems to be tweeting on Moscow time, that is a bit of a giveaway. (One Twitter account that I monitored claimed to be in the UK, but always posted on Moscow time).
4. Posting patterns point to the account operator residing in a time zone that clearly aligns with a notorious trollbot location (good examples are Moscow and Vladivostok).
5. Daily posting patterns show a spurt of postings over a 1-2 hour period, or constant posting over 24 hours. Neither of these are what you would expect if a real human being was operating the account. Humans do tend to sleep from time to time…
6. Poor command of written English. Often the use of Google Translate results in stilted or grammatically incorrect sentences, since the authors link slogans and phrases to form a sentence without understanding the underlying English grammar rules (which are complicated compared to some other languages).
7. Discrepancies between postings concerning where the account is located, the age of the account owner, the account owner’s life etc. etc. When the account owner’s bio keeps changing from day to day, this is a bit of a giveaway.
8. Discrepancy between the dialect of English in use. Classic one is an account pretending to be in the UK, but constantly using spelling and idioms from American English.
9. Discrepancy between expected careabouts and actual careabouts. Example is account pretending to be in the USA but posting about European subjects. Many Russian trollbots constantly post about subjects like the Ukraine, which looks odd if they are claiming to be from Baltimore…
10. Inclusion of markup language tags in postings or comments due to poor software coding or usage skills. This is a real giveaway that this is an account that is (at least part of the time) set up to automatically post content.
11. Analysis of postings on the platform shows that the same content has been posted by dozens (sometimes hundreds) of accounts within a short period of time. A search often reveals identical text posted hundreds of times within a matter of minutes.
12. Analysis of the account shows that it was dormant for a long period of time, but has suddenly been posting massive amounts of content. This is indicative of an account that was created, but parked for later use. Many Twitter trollbot accounts were created as far back as 2009, but have only recently been active
13. Numerous account name changes over time. Real people tend to not change their account names that frequently. Trollbot accounts do it all the time, as they are re-purposed to post on the Latest Hot Topic.
Folks, this is where I get upfront, blunt and candid.
I was reminded why I booted a person off of my Facebook last year when I encountered that same person trying to debate on somebody else’s wall today.
I say “trying”, because all of the classic signs of poor online behavior that led to me booting the person last year were still on display.
If your idea of a contribution to a debate is to post one or more of a combination of memes, collections of slogans or juvenile ad hominems,and attempts at diversion, then it will only be a matter of time before I unfriend, mute and/or block you.
You have a right to say and write whatever you like (assuming it does not rise to the level of a clear and present threat to the safety or lives of others). I also have the right to object and argue against it.
When I argue against assertions or propositions, I expect the person making the proposition to bring evidence and facts to support their proposition. That’s how debate and discussion work. Throwing memes, cliches, rhetorical bombs, attempting diversions and whatboutism, and generally behaving like a schoolyard juvenile doesn’t cut it.
I will, after warning you, walk away from that kind of interaction. It is a waste of my time. If you persist in wasting my time across multiple interactions, I will fire you off of my Facebook wall. That is a promise.
No, that is not “censorship” or me being intolerant or a snowflake. If your reaction is to simply hurl more slogans like that, well, what did I just say in a previous paragraph?
Right now, there are several people who are on Mute on my Facebook, either because because they have engaged in those behaviors in the past, or because they have expressed opinions that I find to be toxic or logically ludicrous. At some point i am going to un-Mute them and see if their behavior has improved. If there is no sign of improvement, they will get the heave-ho.
As a general rule I don’t fire people out of my social media world for expressing contrary opinions.Taking people or information sources seriously only if they express views that you totally agree with is a short cut to conformity and groupthink.
I usually fire them for behaving like dicks when discussing those opinions.
Contrary to what some people have claimed in the past, this policy is not me being pompous or condescending, or tuning our or censoring Stuff I Don’t Like. It is my way of using my time effectively. I don’t debate or discuss to “win”. I debate or discuss to gain insight. When people talk or argue in slogans and memes, they are not using their own voice, and they are usually not providing any cogent argument. On two counts, there is no insight likely with that style of communication. That wastes my time, and provides me with no positive RoI from interactions. So I will either not engage, or rapidly disengage, and if people persistently behave like toxic juveniles, they will get booted out of my online sphere.
If there really is a deity, may that deity come down from wherever and spare us.
I want us to be spared from the avalanche of intellectually risible, fear-addled ratchet-jawing by fringe media frontmen (and notice, this is all men in my posting) who seem to think that the recently released portrait of former President Obama contains all sorts of pointers and symbols to…
Well…why don’t we take a quick look at what the looney-tunes ratchet-jaws are claiming, shall we?
1. Sean Hannity
A two-fer here, since Hannity, more even than Alex Jones, appears to have come unglued about the portrait. First he wrote this Tweet, but, realizing that maybe the mask had slipped, deleted it:
Sean Hannity has deleted this now, because the classic racism was too obvious, too clownish, too blatant, too much of a self-parody. Hannity's primary job at @FoxNews is to make racism seem reasonable, so that it spreads. pic.twitter.com/h5E66AMNam
— Steve Silberman (@stevesilberman) February 13, 2018
Then he went on this rant about supposedly hidden detail in the portrait that of course, only he, the great savant, can see:
— Newsweek (@Newsweek) February 13, 2018
2. Alex Jones
Alex Jones claims that Kehinde Wiley secretly painted a sperm on Obama's presidential portrait to fulfill a globalist plot to make the world a "ritual of abomination"https://t.co/ZK1oXrJNB2
— Right Wing Watch (@RightWingWatch) February 13, 2018
Whisky Tango Foxtrot. cubed.
This is an effing portrait we are looking at here.
Here we have two commentators who appear to have completely jumped the shark into…who knows where?
I remain consistently amused at the level to which authoritarian dim-bulbs and their wind-up rabble-rousers consistently invoke sexual metaphor and fear trigger-phrases when talking about Other Folks Not Like Them. How many times have we read phrases along the lines of “I don’t want homosexuality rammed down my throat”? A real psychologist would have a field-day analyzing how fearful exclusionary authoritarians use THAT phrase.
And here we have more of the same. “secret sperm”? Perlease.
This isn’t a dog-whistle. It isn’t rooted in reality, or anywhere within 100 fucking light-years of reality. This is the exemplification of fear-addled, racism-soaked fantasy. The umpteenth recycling of the old fear trope that Those People Who Don’t Even Look Like Us are actually a band of marauding, primitive savages, who are in the grip of the caranlistic desire to gang-rape Your Family Members.
If this was part of a fantasy novel plot, literary agents would be laughing at it. You should too. Ridicule is the only appropriate and logical response to these conspiracy-mongering wombats.
By now most of you will have heard that Arthur Jones has managed to get himself on the Republican primary election ballot for the 3rd Congressional District in Illinois.
This is not Arthur Jones’ first attempt to win the GOP nomination for the seat. He put himself on the primary ballot in 2016, and was the only GOP candidate. However, the GOP went to court and succeeded in having him removed from the ballot because of petition signature issues. This left the Democratic nominee to win in an uncontested election. This time around, Jones appears to have ticked all of the boxes for the legality of his primary election submission.
There seems little doubt that Jones is a Nazi. The evidence is fairly compelling. He is a former leader of the American Nazi party, and is on record as claiming up to the present day that the Holocaust is a “racket” i.e. mostly a fabrication. He has a track record of blatantly anti-Jewish remarks.
A lot of people are hot under the collar about Jones’ appearance on any ballot.
We should not be surprised that this has happened.
Arthur Jones has not suddenly leaped into prominence in the GOP because the GOP has become a party of Nazis. He simply used a feature of the current political system; namely that anybody who can obtain the necessary number of supporter signatures and pay a filing fee can run for office. This is a good feature. We do not want a system where only the wealthy, or those with the right connections, can run for political office.
Personally, I also want Nazis to be public about their odious ideology and ideas. I want to have those ideas demolished in public, so that the entire Nazi movement can once again be consigned to the trash bin of human history.
Is Jones’ entry on the GOP primary ballot the result of a shift in the American political climate towards the normalization of racist and fascist ideology? That is a tempting hypothesis in the current climate, but I doubt its validity.
The real underlying issue is that 90% of Congressional races are not competitive. They are not competitive because over the last 60 years, the two major political parties have, by subtle electoral gerrymandering, slowly reduced the number of truly competitive House seats to a fraction of the total. This has resulted in a an incumbent class of representatives dominating congressional politics.
Most seats are now stacked heavily in favor of one of the parties, to the extent that a dead tree stump could probably get elected from the party that dominates the electoral map of the district.
Because the general election itself is usually a foregone conclusion, this has two consequences, both of them negative:
1. Good prospective candidates from a minority party have no interest in running in the primary election, except possibly as a one-off to show that they have the “right stuff” to later run for election elsewhere. Why invest time and donor money on a lost cause?
2. The primary elections, which are usually dominated by the hardcore support base of the two major parties, decide who will be the elected representative.
Neither of these are good outcomes. For an election system based on universal suffrage to be credible, it must be demonstrably fair in its structure and execution, and enough of the electorate has to participate for the winning candidates to be able to plausibly claim that they were elected by enough of the electorate to give their position and actions credibility. An election determined 6 months in advance by a few hundred primary voters does not meet either of the above criteria.
The GOP clearly understands how toxic Arthur Jones is to their party and their brand image. They want nothing to do with him.
However, one can make the case that it is partly the GOP’s fault that Jones is the GOP nominee. They could have run an “establishment” candidate, but chose to not do so (one suspects that no mainstream GOP person was interested in wasting the time and effort to run), handing him the opening to run for the GOP primary election. So, whether they want him or not, they are stuck with him sailing under the GOP banner for the next few months.
The good news is that Arthur Jones is highly unlikely to win the election in the 3rd Congressional District. This is a solidly Democratic electoral zone. In the 2014 and 2012 elections, the incumbent Democratic congressman won the district by an average of 65% to 35%. So it is long odds-on that Jones will be defeated by a large margin. The GOP will therefore not try the Roy Moore approach of vacillating over supporting him, distancing themselves from him in public while secretly funneling money and support to him in private. The GOP has no chance of winning the seat.
Since he is already disowned by the GOP, Jones will be unconstrained, and we can expect to read more incendiary comments and allegations from him as he seeks to gain attention. To use the old military expression, Jones will therefore cause collateral damage to the GOP by his very appearance on the ballot. The Democratic Party will seek to use his utterances as proof that the GOP supports racists and nazis. That may help them nationally, but, as is usual in the adversarial two party system, it completely ignores the underlying causes of why crackpots like Arthur Jones can even gain any traction.
Bill hobbles slowly from the kitchen into the living room of his small house. His dog is sprawled, oblivious, on the carpet in front of the television.
Bill looks down at the dog. Damn it, he thinks, I wish I could be my dog. He doesn’t seem to have a dicky back and a creaking knee.
Bill went to see the doctor last week, after months of being nagged by his favorite bar worker Dennis. It cost him money – real money, and resulted in the doctor muttering a string of three letter acronyms, stuff like “ACL”, “PCL”.
Bill hates those medical professionals. They talk all big words and mumbo-jumbo, like they are educated or something. Maybe they’re in practice to become politicians. Whatever. Apparently Bill’s knee is about to fall apart, and he needs surgery. But Bill is not going to get surgery any time soon. After what happened with his back, Bill wants to stay away from those damn doctors for a while. In the meantime, he hobbles.
Bill has a few bar friends coming over for Superbowl. They are all mostly going to be cheering for the Eagles. Hell, why would you want the Patriots to win? With pretty-boy Brady under center, and that scowling guy Belichick running the show from the sideline?
But Bill, being cranky Bill, went out to the store and bought Patriots paper plates and cups. He wants to see the guys’ reaction. Plus, although he doesn’t care for the Patriots, the are Winners. And Bill respects winners. “Winners not whiners”, that was what his buddy Mark used to say at the factory all of those years ago, when they watched sports together.
Bill sometimes wonders how Mark is doing since the factory closed and he lost touch with him. Mark moved to California (of all places) to find work. California! Bill remembers joshing Mark at the bar when he admitted he was moving to the People’s Republic. Bill just hopes that Mark was not indoctrinated by all of those gay-loving Marxists in places like San Francisco. Mark’s daughter was the one that talked him into the move, and you know how devious women and girlfriends can be.
At one time, Bill’s wife would cook all manner of food for Superbowl, and they would even have the wives over. But since Bill’s divorce, he tells his male buddies to “just bring what you want to eat”. Mostly, they just drink and heckle the players, or discuss the female sideline reporters.
Bill still does not know why they have women on the sideline. This is a man’s sport, dammit. Let men be men, that’s what Bill says. All of this equality shit grates on him. If God had intended for women to be equal with men, he wouldn’t have given them tits and a pussy, har har.
Bill told the guys at the bar last night that this will probably be his last Superbowl. The NFL seems to have become a sissy league, with all of those silly rules about catches, pass interference, helmet-to-helmet…what is this shit? In Bill’s high school days, if you had your bell rung, they gave you smelling salts, and you put on the helmet and went out there and got stuck in again. None of this “how many fingers do you see? What is your name?” bullshit from those damn medical guys while the game went on. And then there are all of those guys kneeling for the anthem. How dare they. In my day, Bill would have jumped in the air to salute for the anthem. The NFL needs to clear all of those ungrateful sons of bitches out of the place. Like Donald said. Damn it, why won’t those whiny-ass fake news people shut the fuck up and let Donald take charge? He knows what is needed.
Bill glances across at the picture on the wall behind the sofa. The one that shows a mythical NFL player, like John Wayne, bursting into the end zone, as light shines, seemingly from above. Nice picture. Real Man conquers the world. Bill skates past the rest of the story in his mind. The part where he bought the picture the week after Superbowl, and hung it on the wall to cover a hole in the sheetrock. The hole made where he heaved a wine bottle through the wall after his favorite NFL team lost in overtime to exit the playoffs.
Bill spoke to his son for the first time in months the other day. His son lives in New York with his girlfriend, and they are getting married next year. Bill doesn’t know if he will be invited to the wedding. When he told her to shut up and fuck off back to New York two Thanksgivings ago, after he realized that she was one of those East Coast limousine liberals that Rush talks about, his son didn’t speak to him for a year.
But it matter not matter any way. Bill doesn’t know for sure if he will even be able to walk by that time, at the rate that his knee is going, he will probably be in a wheelchair by then.
Bill sits down gingerly on the sofa, and the dog comes over and puts its head on his leg. Bill looks down at the dog, and suddenly feels sad. Why can’t everybody be like the dog? You know, eager to get along?
The word “racist”, as one might expect, is a loaded word, with much baggage, most of it negative.
The baggage is negative because in most parts of the world, racism is regarded as a bad thing. And you don’t need to look far into the history of the world, and particularly the history of empires, to understand why. In the Bad Old Days of Empire, there were the explorers/conquerors/exploiters (People Like Us Over Here) and the subjects (those People Over There). One of the easiest ways in which one differentiates is by skin color and facial features. This set us on the long road to centuries of exploitation of people in distant lands who, in many cases, looked different to us. This is not some esoteric debate. It’s a stone cold fact.
That being the case, racism is a contentious subject, particularly right now in the USA, which elected a President whose actions when dealing with people of different ethnic origins are at best problematical. He also has a track record of uttering incendiary comments about countries and their citizens. This is also not a subject of debate.
John Scalzi, in his blunt way, just pointed out what should be blindingly obvious to most of us.
However, the incendiary nature of the R word leads to it becoming very difficult to openly and honestly discuss concepts, facts, trends and events involving it. It is almost a taboo word, like “sex” was to my parents’ generation.
Many years ago, I had some political conversations with a guy I was working with in the UK. It soon became clear that his worldview was pretty heavily biased towards white supremacy. Like Donald Trump, he thought that Africa was a shithole. Unlike Trump however, he had actually visited Africa, and could name countries and cities.
However, what I respected about him, although it was soon clear to both of us that we had somewhat different worldviews, was that he was prepared to calmly and rationally discuss and debate. He didn’t engage in deflection, shut-downs, ad hominems or all of the other common fallacious and rhetorically dishonest tactics that many people do to either skew conversations their way or to position themselves to flounce off in a huff if they can’t. you know, Win.
On one occasion, sensing the way that one particular conversation was going, he said to me “look, I know you think I’m racist. And to be honest, yes, I am”.
Which on one level was kind of scary, but on another level it was good. Good because instead of playing rhetorical whack-a-mole over the R word, it was now out in the open, and we both knew where we stood.
A lot of conversations about enthnicity and race go nowhere except to a bad place, partly because racists, who are uncomfortably aware of the loaded nature of the word “racist” (as in, This Makes Me Look Bad), behave like rhetorical shitweasels when the subject comes up, dodging and ducking like the best boxers.
There are also people who use the R word as a conversational shut-down tactic; this is equally problematical.
I would have a lot more respect for some of the people on social media if, after posting and supporting racist comments, actions or sentiments, they would stop attempting to desperately pretend that they are not some combination of (a) nativist, (b) an enabler for racism, or (c) racist. Trying to pretend otherwise makes them look like zero-credibility shitweasels. They come across as unserious.
I want to pause to say a few words about dickery in online discussions.
I got to thinking about this tonight, after a sharp exchange with somebody in a discussion thread.
The exchange came about because a male commenter, bent out of shape over a perjorative label being applied to him by a female commenter. decided to begin his response with “Lady. You do not know me”. Then he launched into a whiny excoriation of her and her worldview.
I commented that beginning a response with “Lady” was highly likely to convince a number of readers that he was a condescending asshat.
Unsurprisingly, he was not happy about this observation, and complained that since I did not know how appallingly the female commenter had been accusing him of Bad Things, I should, as he put it, “stop flapping my gums”.
His complaint might be true, the commenter might have been unfair or rude to him. But…
…It is irrelevant.
My main point (which he chose to blow past, because he was all fired up with indignation by that point) was that beginning a comment to female with “Lady” is about as condescending as it gets. It is a clear tell of a certain level of contempt for female viewpoints. And…based on my experience in online forums, this is endemic with male commenters when women either write things that they don’t like, or when women challenge their opinions and worldviews.
Condescension (the online pat-on-the-head equivalent of “don’t you be worrying your pretty little head about this Complex Stuff”) is often a first-port-of-call for male commenters. It is, incidentally, a significant part of the reason why there are very few female libertarians, and it is part of the reason why I find it hard to respect many online libertarians, or take their opinions seriously. Condescension has become an integral part of the online arsenal of many libertarians (that plus juvenile memes promoting old shibboleths).
But I digress.
The other point that needs to be made is that just because somebody starts talking smack to you online doesn’t mean that you have to immediately respond in kind. One of the key life skills that we all have to develop is knowing how to not be trapped or tricked into escalating disputes, and knowing when to walk away from a situation when we conclude that there is no upside to continued involvement.
The sort of person who always responds in kind or with aggression when somebody says something that they find irritating or annoying is the sort of person who pretty quickly acquires the reputation of behaving like an obnoxious confrontational asshat with a temper management problem. This is not a behavior pathology that has any beneficial upside of making friends or positively influencing people.
You can be be a dick in online discussions quite easily. Lots of people do it almost without thinking, or maybe without realizing that they are doing it.
On the other hand, some of them know they do it, and don’t care. They see it as a personal feature, not a bug.
You can sometimes spot those people in advance. They will say things like “I’m not politically correct”. They may think they are signalling their ability (which they regard as a Good Thing) to be blunt and candid. However, most of the time, in reality, this is a vain attempt at pre-inoculation, a signalling of the message “At some point in the near future I am going to write something that makes me sound like a dick”.
While Stevie Wonder gathered justified acclaim and fame for his “golden period” collection of LPs from 1971 to 1976 (“Music Of My Mind”, “Talking Book”, “Innervisions”, “Fulfilingness’ First Finale” and “Songs In The Key Of Life”), a fellow American working a few hundred miles away, primarily in a loft studio in New York, went through his own “golden period” that was far more prolific, and in some ways far more varied.
Todd Rundgren, born in Philadelphia in 1948, had a minor hit with his first band The Nazz (a BritPop-influenced band), then, after The Nazz imploded, he hid himself away and worked on honing his skills on guitar, piano and other instruments. He made an early solo LP in 1970, “Runt”, which yielded a minor radio hit in “We Gotta Get You A Woman” then another solo LP, “Runt – The Ballad of Todd Rundgren” in 1971. Along the way, he acquired a manager, Albert Grossman, who also happened to own his own record company, Bearsville Records. So Todd became one of a small number of artists on Bearsville, most of them managed by Grossman. This represented a huge advantage; when you manager owned your record company, the company was unlikely to reject your recordings. This would come in useful, as we shall see later.
In 1972 Rundgren, initially working on his own and later with a studio band, released a double LP, “Something/Anything?”. This comprised 4 sides of wide-ranging music, showing influences from British pop, soul music,music hall and rock. Todd played all of the instruments on many of the tunes. The LP yielded two US hit singles, “I Saw The Light”, and “Hello It’s Me”, but the album had several other potential hit singles on it. As a hint to what was about to happen, the LP clocked in at 90 minutes – very long even for a double LP.
Todd Rundgren had come of age as a multi-instrumentalist and songwriter who acted as his own recording engineer and producer. He seemed to be able to write and play anything he could think of. He was now working with a small collection of New York musicians at the time; Mark “Moogy” Klingman, Ralph Shuckett, John Siegler, Hunt and Tony Sales, John Siomos, and Kevin Ellman.
By this time Todd had started a parallel career as a record producer. He produced the debut LP by the New York Dolls, and Grossman boasted that he was going to make him the highest-paid producer in the world. In 1974 Rundgren would produce the second LP from Daryl Hall and Joan Oates, “War Babies”. The production monies would soon become useful…
In late 1973, mostly recording in his loft studio (which bore the name Secret Sound), Todd’s next LP, “A Wizard a True Star” appeared. It was a single LP, but was an incredible 56 minutes in length, and in practical terms equated to a commercial disaster after “Something/Anything?”. There were no obvious hit singles on the album, some of the tunes were only 90 seconds long, and half of the second side was a medley of Todd’s cover versions of his favorite soul songs. Many of the songs ran into each other with no gaps. The overall effect was musically interesting, but the record company executives probably ended up banging their heads on the table.
Rundgren kept his head down and carried on working at a ludicrous pace in Secret Sound. His next LP, “Todd”, appeared in early 1974. It was a double LP this time, once again full of songs showing a wide range of influences, including Todd’s cover version of a Gilbert and Sullivan song (“The Lord Chancellor’s Nightmare Song”). However, Todd was still making it as difficult as possible for the record company and DJs to play his music – many of the tunes again ran into each other, and there was no obvious hit single, although the LP was stuffed full of great songs, especially the ballads “The Last Ride” and “Don’t You Ever Learn”.
By this time, Todd’s collaboration roster had settled on Kevin Ellman (drums), John Siegler (bass), Moogy Klingman and Ralph Shuckett on keyboards, and Jean-Yves (M. Frog) Labat on synthesizers. The band soon became known as Utopia, and began to back Todd in live concerts.
The Utopia band was no ordinary looking or sounding band. Klingman and Shuckett’s keyboards comprised electric pianos, clavinets, and a new instrument, the RMI keyboard computer, which was, for a while, the first truly polyphonic synthesizer, beating the better-known polysynths from Moog, Oberheim and Sequential Circuits by several years.
The combination of the different keyboards, heavily treated using effects, and the space-age garb of the band members, with Rundgren himself up front with multi-colored dyed hair, made Utopia look more like Sun Ra than an early 1970s rock band, and the sound was different – clear and crystalline, almost other-worldly.
Todd had now branched out to have two parallel recording careers in two distinctively different musical zones, in addition to his “producer for hire” side gig.
In late 1974, a new LP appeared under the title of “Todd Rundgren’s Utopia”. The single LP was another CD-length musical package of 59 minutes of music. There was just one tune on Side 1 that could have been a hit single (but wasn’t) named “Freedom Fighters”; the rest of the tunes on Side 1 were all at least 10 minutes in length, with the single track of side 2, “The Ikon”, running for 30 minutes. If the record company hadn’t already realized that Todd didn’t care about whether he had a hit single ever again, that LP should have confirmed it.
The Utopia music was complex thematic rock, but rooted in pop, not jazz like the Mahavishnu Orchestra, a band that was attracting a lot of attention at the time for its fusion of jazz and rock approaches. The Utopia book of tunes was dominated by multi-section long form tunes, with occasional melodic vocal sections from Rundgren.
Rundgren was also beginning to tackle big subjects in his lyrics as he moved heavily into ingesting psychedelic drugs. He began reading occult and sci-fi works.
After a few months, Jean-Yves Labat left Utopia, and was replaced by Roger Powell, a synthesizer pioneer who had left ARP and become a Moog expert. Powell, who also occasionally played trumpet, and his large bank of Moog synth equipment soon became an integral part of the band’s live presence.
At the same tine, Todd went back into the studio and in 1975 yet another Todd Rundgren LP emerged. “Initiation” was another single LP.
No it wasn’t.
At 68 minutes in length, “Initiation” was totally unique at the time – a CD length musical work in the vinyl age. The first side, nearly 33 minutes long, comprised Rundgren in a band setting. The entire second side of the LP comprised a single 35 minute long tune, “A Treatise On Cosmic Fire”, the title being taken from the 1930s occult book by Alice Bailey. Rundgren played almost all of the instruments on side 2 himself, with considerable help on synthesizer programming from Roger Powell.
The LP was so long that in order to be able to master the LP for vinyl, Rundgren had to speed the master tape for the second side up by 5%. Mastering the LP required the bass levels on the music to be reduced almost to transistor radio levels. The LP always sounded terrible in analog on vinyl, it was not until it was re-mastered to CD in the late 1980s that we finally got to hear it how it sounded when it was recorded.
The title track was a “kitchen sink” production, with no expense spared. The band for the recording session comprised Bernard Purdie and Rick Marotta on drums, John Siegler on bass, Todd himself on keyboards, Lee Pastora on percussion, and David Sanborn playing a heavily flanged and treated sax solo. Roger Powell made an appearance for a synth solo. Todd sings around material and ideas also found in Alice Bailey’s books, tossing off guitar solos and layered vocals left right and center. The result is a supercharged pop band playing space music. Nothing like it had been recorded before, and it still sounds astoundingly different over 40 years later.
Rundgren continued to write and record new material, and play it in a live setting. In mid-1975, his Utopia band concert in New York was recorded, and the LP “Utopia- Another Live” duly appeared in late 1975.
Live albums are usually a variant of a “greatest hits” collection played live. Not so with the “Utopia – Another Live” LP. It comprised an eclectic collection of material. The first side was all new tunes – three long-form compositions (“Another Life”, “The Wheel”, and “The Seven Rays”, the last named song exploring a concept from Alice Bailey’s occult writings). The second side opened with an instrumental composition (“Mr. Triscuits”, written by Roger Powell) which segued into a cover of “Something’s Coming” from “West Side Story”. The rest of the side comprised previously released Rundgren tunes (“Heavy Metal Kids” and “Just One Victory”), and a cover of the Move song “Do Ya”. And…if you hadn’t guessed by now, not a sniff of a hit single on the LP, which therefore failed to get above #66 on the LP charts.
The expense of running a 6-piece live band comprising session musicians and one of the world’s synthesizer pioneers, and the constant and frequent release of LPs that, no matter how good, were difficult to explain and market, and contained no hit singles, soon led to a rationalization. At the end of 1975, Ralph Schuckett and Moogy Klingman left Utopia. Roger Powell took over as the sole keyboards player, and the slimmed-down four-piece Utopia continued as Todd’s primary project, although he continued to release solo LPs frequently.
“Utopia – Live” marked the end of the breakneck period of music creation. In just under 4 years, Rundgren had released 6 LPs, but given that 2 of them were doubles, and at least 2 others were effectively double LPs squeezed into a single LP format, he actually released 10+ LPs’ worth of music. That is more than double Stevie Wonder’s recorded output over the same period. Todd’s output was more uneven, but the highs were every bit as high as Wonder’s. They just did not get the same attention in the music world.
1. The Fusion GPS testimony transcript
Since the Republican majority on the Senate Intelligence committee refused to release this transcript, the Democratic minority went ahead and released it.
Here is Hoarse Whisperer’s analysis of it (HINT – it’s not good for the GOP or the current administration).
2. What happens when the children take over
I’m looking forward to watching Normay play Nambia in this year’s World Cup. pic.twitter.com/HNcboSL7Ev
— Peter M. Sullivan (@CitizenSullivan) January 10, 2018
3. Trolls on Facebook
Once upon a time there were no trolls on my Facebook friends list.
Then in the 2016 election cycle, some previously sensible people seemed to morph into juvenile trolls. Most of them (it seemed) were supporting Donald Trump, but not all of them. One or two also turned out to be Bernie Sanders supporters.
The worst offenders were given the heave-ho from my Friends list early last year as part of my annual rationalization. Two others were booted in 2017 for acting like horse’s asses on my timeline. More recently, some went on Hide.
However, some people are still behaving like trolls on my Facebook timeline. For reasons that I cannot fathom, they think it is OK to talk like a mocking strutting playground juvenile.
These people are operating on borrowed time. I intend to lower the boom om them real soon as part of my annual rationalization.