The second album from Todd Rundgren’s prefab group turns 50
Building upon the disparate influences of Philly soul, Jimi Hendrix, the Who and Laura Nyro, Nazz was quite a unique group.
Though today the foursome is remembered chiefly as the band Todd Rundgren played in before launching his own idiosyncratic solo career, Nazz can lay claim to being one of the first power pop groups, as well as one of few acts to successfully combine its particular wide array of influences into a cohesive whole.
The band released its debut LP, Nazz, in October 1968. That album and its first single, “Open My Eyes,” were successful primarily in the band’s hometown of Philadelphia. A second single, “Hello It’s Me,” managed to crack the top 100 singles chart in 1969, but it’s Rundgren’s superior 1972 remake – a #5 hit single – that most people remember. “Open My Eyes” achieved its own classic status in the early 1970s when it was included on Lenny Kaye’s highly influential Nuggets compilation.
Problems set in for the band not long after the first album; the group’s second studio project was conceived as a double album to be called Fungo Bat. Recorded in late 1968 and early ‘69, the sessions featured Rundgren taking the lead vocal about half of the tracks. The band’s label SGC (Screen Gems Columbia) pared the tapes down to a single LP – focusing on tracks with lead vocals by Robert “Stewkey” Antoni – releasing it in May 1969 with the unimaginative title Nazz Nazz.
The experimental and highly eclectic nature of the Fungo Bat sessions still came through on the single-disc LP, though many of the tracks that showcased Rundgren’s love for soul and singer-songwriters were set aside. (Much of that material showed up on Nazz III, released in 1971 without the band’s consent and with many of Rundgren’s vocals removed and replaced by Stewkey.) Still, all of the tracks on Nazz Nazz would be Rundgren compositions.
Nazz Nazz’s opening track, “Forget All About It” is a kind of proto-progressive power pop, with unusual phrasing, high energy arrangement and carefully crafted massed vocal choruses. In the 1990s, North Carolina group Gladhands recorded a faithful cover of the song, reminding those who heard it just how forward-thinking Nazz had been.
“Not Wrong Long” suggests what Vanilla Fudge might have sounded like had they exercised some musical restraint. Rundgren plays piano and organ; the rhythm section of drummer Thom Mooney and Carson Van Osten on bass lays down a heavy foundation to an arrangement that – thanks in large part to the backing harmonies – bridges pop and rock.
“Rain Rider” opens with a riff worthy of Grand Funk. It’s essentially a standard-issue rocker, albeit one that’s catchy and economical. The falsetto backing vocals on the tune’s chorus seem slightly out of place, but as an example of Nazz’s eclectic approach, they work well.
Like the original version of “Hello It’s Me, “Gonna Cry Today” previews the songwriting style that would characterize Rudgren’s first two solo records. Even though it’s Stewkey on lead vocals, the song displays all of the Nyro/Carole King-influenced side of Rundgren’s musical approach. “Meridian Leeward” has a self-consciously whimsical lyric that perhaps belongs in 1967, not early ‘69. Obscure humor characterizes its nonsensical tale of a pig, told in first-person.
Providing great contrast, the first side of the LP closes with the majestically progressive “Under the Ice.” Another heavy (if familiar) riff and some truly melodic playing are the hallmarks of this tune. Other critics have pointed out that “Under the Ice” may well have served as a sonic blueprint for Cheap Trick.
A manic lead guitar is the centerpiece of “Hang On Paul.” The song sounds oddly sped-up and unnecessarily wobbly, but does hint at the power pop sound Rundgren would pursue a decade later once Utopia changed gears from a prog band to a more straightforwardly rocking one. His lead guitar work here ranks among the album’s best.
Rundgren’s love of blues – explored in various ways and with varying degrees of success throughout his subsequent career – is demonstrated on “Kiddie Boy.” A honking horn section seems a bit out of place, but Todd does indeed tear it up on his guitar solo.
“Featherbedding Lover” is another riff-centered blues number. Less interesting than “Kiddie Boy,” it feels like a response to the blues explosion happening in England around this time. There’s nothing especially wrong with the tune; it’s simply undistinguished in comparison to the other tracks on Nazz Nazz. It’s redeemed somewhat by Rundgren’s expressive lead guitar work and Mooney’s Keith Moon-like drumming.
“Letters Don’t Count” opens with chiming organ and acoustic guitar; it’s even more incongruous in the context of the hard-rocking songs that populate Nazz Nazz. A relatively complex melody wedded to an introspective lyric, it features intertwining vocal countermelodies and hand percussion. “Letters Don’t count” is intriguing and calls attention to the split-personality character of the band, something that would have been even more emphasized had the record been released in its Fungo Bat configuration.
The final 11:40 of Nazz Nazz – more than half of its second side – is taken up by the sprawling “A Beautiful Song.” A kind of grab-bag, it successfully combines all of the album’s characteristics into a single epic track. Horns, a breathtakingly soaring string arrangement, a singer-songwriter melody, slashing lead guitar and soulful organ lines characterize the tracks first few minutes. Progressive in its intent and execution, “A Beautiful Song” is easily the most ambitious work Nazz wold ever create. It’s really several songs in one, and – again, with hindsight – shows Rundgren exploring a direction he’d eventually follow; it’s not unlike some of the music on early Utopia albums, most notably the 30-minute-plus “The Ikon.” The song’s middle section features some pretty vocal harmonies, but those pale in comparison to the ambitious instrumental arrangements that bookend the lengthy cut. The band rocks out extra-hard – backed by strings – as the song fades into silence.
Shortly after the release of Nazz Nazz, Todd Rundgren quit the group; Van Osten left soon thereafter. Nazz continued for a time, and its history is murkily entwined with that of Fuse and Sick Man of Europe, eventually shaking out as Cheap Trick. Of course Rundgren went on first to do engineering and production work, followed by a career under his own name.
Some copies of the original pressing of Nazz Nazz were on translucent red vinyl; when Rhino reissued the LP decades later, they, too used red vinyl. In recent years, expanded reissues have appended several bonus tracks; there’s even a restored 2LP Fungo Bat (also on red vinyl) from RockBeat.