Friday, February 15, 2008

Forget All About It

About five years ago, I had the opportunity to interview Todd Rundgren by phone prior to his appearance in Pittsburgh. We talked about a variety of subjects - including the minor-league baseball career of his son, Rex - and everything generally went well.

Then I asked him a question about his late-'60s band, the Nazz.

Todd said he pretty much dismisses that phase of his musical development, which took me aback. From a fan's standpoint, I really enjoy what he was doing back then.

As an artist, though, I guess he had put 35 years on the odometer by then, and the stuff he did in his late teens/early 20s didn't thrill him anymore. That's understandable.

But I still don't agree with him dismissing the Nazz.

The story of the band is short, with a discography of just three albums, and the last one wasn't quite what it should have been.

In 1968, Rundgren and cohorts Carson Van Osten (bass), Thom Mooney (drums) and Stewkey Antoni (vocals and keyboards) released "The Nazz," an album that crosses the bridge between garage rock and psychedelia, with some good, old-fashioned love songs for good measure.

The album kicks off with the swirling, phase-shifted sonic barrage of "Open My Eyes," the song for which the Nazz probably is best-known, owing to its inclusion on several "Nuggets" period compilations. The most famous song on "The Nazz," though, is "Hello, It's Me," here in its original form, five years before Todd took it solo into the Top 5. Other highlights include "Wildwood Blues," a group composition providing a less-than-flattering view of the New Jersey beach town near the band's native Philadelphia, and "The Lemming Song," which propels itself through a heavy guitar riff.

The following year, "Nazz Nazz" hit the shelves, released by Screen Gems Records on green vinyl, no less. The sophomore effort served as a showcase for Rundgren, who reportedly learned how to read music and compose arrangements while his bandmates simply jammed; if so, the results reach fruition on the epic album closer, "A Beautiful Song."

"Nazz Nazz" is chock full of the best of what the end of the '60s had to offer musically: the catchy riff and vocal harmonies of the should've-been-a-hit "Forget All About It"; the whimsical nonsense of "Meridian Leeward," about a pig who became a person; and the proto-metal of "Under the Ice."

If all had gone according to plan, "Nazz Nazz" would have been a two-LP set called "Fungo Bat." Screen Gems balked, and in the meantime, the band fell apart, with Rundgren deciding to stake out on his own, often literally; many of his subsequent releases feature Todd on all the instruments and vocals, plus production.

After Rundgren's departure, "Nazz III" came out as an epitaph, with Stewkey replacing Todd's lead vocals where they existed. (A recent Rhino reissue has restored the original versions.)

Perhaps Todd would prefer if you didn't, but check out the Nazz if you want to hear his origins. And see if you don't agree with me about the band's worthiness.

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