Tuesday, October 04, 2011


The Nazz were the Anglophile's American rock band of '68-'69, and by the time I got hip to 'em, a couple years after their demise, I was surely one of those -- a dyed-in-the-wool Trans-Oceanic Trouser Press reader, totally geeked on the Who, the Yardbirds, the Move, and the Small Faces. I recently copped Rhino vinyl reissues of their first two albums at Doc's, and was surprised at how much I still find to like in both of 'em.

The Nazz were from Philadelphia but based out of Great Neck, Long Island, where my uncle used to live, which accounts for Richard Meltzer's early advocacy (around the time he was at Stony Brook, trying to get the Soft White Underbelly off the ground). They had the misfortune to be managed by a couple of guys who figured it'd be a good idea if they gigged infrequently and only in large-capacity venues, reasoning that scarcity would make them a hotter commodity, ignoring the fact that it's hard to garner such bookings without having a track record as a draw.

Perhaps the management wizards were thinking that if it worked for Dylan and the Beatles, it'd work for their charges, ignoring the fact that the aforementioned artistes had recorded and toured extensively for three or four years before dropping off the scene. Most of the band's promotion was aimed at Tiger Beat-reading teenage girls -- kind of like the Monkees, except that the Nazz didn't have a TV show and could actually write and play their own toons (although Todd Rundgren was probably as big a weirdo as Michael Nesmith). But they were well-respected enough among musos that when the Move made their sole visit to the U.S. in 1969, they had not one but two Nazz songs -- "Open My Eyes" and "Under the Ice" -- in their repertoire. High praise indeed.

Back in my 45-spinning daze, when I still had a record player (not a stereo -- I think it must have been '76 or so before I could actually afford one of those) up in my room, the Nazz's "Open My Eyes" got as many spins as the Music Machine's "Talk Talk" and the Move's "I Can Hear the Grass Grow." It's a song that still quickens my pulse every time I hear it, starting out with the cleverest appropriation of the signature chord sequence from the Who's "I Can't Explain" (substituting a IIm chord for the IV chord that Townshend played) until the Clash borrowed it for "Guns On the Roof."

The attention-grabbing intro is followed by a bludgeoning heavy unison guitar-bass riff, in the manner of Blue Cheer, before the lead vocal enters (sung by one Robert "Stewkey" Antoni, who supposedly adopted said appellation because it sounded English). There's an instrumental break that sounds cribbed directly from "Another Country" from the first Electric Flag album, which the Move omitted from their cover so that they could sing the bossa nova-sounding bridge a couple more times than the Nazz did on the 'riginal, picking at it like a scab because Carl 'n' Roy probably dug singing it so much. The final chorus rides out in a whirl of mind-bending phase effects.

It's a great little psychedelic nugget, and indeed, "Open My Eyes" was included on Lenny Kaye's original Nuggets compilation, although it has a lot more in common with, say, the Millennium's studio orchestral pop than the Count Five's garage-snot fury. It was also the lead-off cut on the Nazz's self-titled debut album, released on Atlantic subsidiary SGC in October 1968.

Todd Rundgren, the future wizard/true star and the Nazz's lead guitarist, songwriter, and guiding musical intelligence, was equally influenced by contemporary Brit rock and his hometown's vocal group soul music. As a result, the Nazz records remind me a little of one of my other favorite records from my high school daze, the Rationals album on Crewe. What they have in common: the sound of Northern white boys harmonizin'. Todd was still finding his feet, though, songwriting-wise, on the first Nazz album's slow songs like "See What You Can Be" and "If That's the Way You Feel."

(Todd was basically laughed out of the band for liking "girl music" -- specifically, for digging and emulating female songwriters like Laura Nyro and Carole King. There's a song on, I think, Hermit of Mink Hollow where his breathless reciting-the-Manhattan-phone-directory delivery sounds like no one so much as Joni Mitchell, anticipating Prince, speaking of multi-talented little guys with big egos.)

As a hard rock band, the Nazz were still going for the "exciting club band" model, rather than the "slow it down and pump up the bombast" angle that was popular in the post-Vanilla Fudge, pre-Black Sabbath time they inhabited. Rundgren, who once had the temerity to suggest to a Rolling Stone interviewer that he might be "the best American guitarist," was really nothing more than a really good Eric Clapton copyist, who had "God"'s tone and attack circa Disraeli Gears/Wheels of Fire down pat and a bassist (future Disney animator Carson Van Osten) who could burble like Jack Bruce with the best of 'em. Drummer Thom Mooney was clearly influenced by Brit bashers like Ginger Baker, Keith Moon, and Kenny Jones, but sounded as though he might have had a better command of fundamentals than any of 'em, although he wasn't as distinctive a stylist.

Besides "Open My Eyes" and the original, super-slow version of "Hello It's Me" (later re-recorded to much better effect by Todd on Something/Anything?), my favorite song on Nazz is "When I Get My Plane," a bit of freakbeat whimsy worthy of the Who or the Move circa '66-'68; all that's missing is the Pop Art plane crash. "Back of My Mind" is as close to a generic hard rock song for its year as Humble Pie's "The Fixer," Mott the Hoople's "Momma's Little Jewel," and Bad Company's "Rock Steady" were for theirs. "Wildwood Blues" and "The Lemming Song" are just kind of pedestrian, and "She's Going Down" takes an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach (including a drum solo) that's kind of fatiguing to listen to.

The second album, Nazz Nazz, was originally supposed to be a double album called Fungo Bat. (The remaining tracks were released as Nazz III -- not Nazz Nazz Nazz; so much for consistency -- in 1971, after the wheels had come off the cart.) It's really their best album, although it bogs down toward the end of the second side, just like its predecessor. The first side, though, is bulletproof, opening strong with "Forget All About It," which boasts a melody and chords reminiscent of the Association, of all things, propelled by a jangling 12-string that recalls the Byrds, as does the whooshing jet noise that ties some of the songs together. "If you haven't got time to rest, then take the record off now," Stewkey sings in the bridge, and you get the feeling he means it.

Nazz Nazz is the album that reveals Todd the writer as more than a pastiche artist, although there are still plenty of contemporary musical allusions (the Small Faces' "Afterglow" in the intro to "Not Wrong Long," Cream's "White Room" in "Rain Rider"'s opening chords). You can hear Rundgren's mature ballad voice beginning to take shape in "Not Wrong Long" and "Gonna Cry Today;" it's a short distance from those songs to Runt and Something/Anything?. "Meridian Leeward" has some of the whimsy of "When I Get My Plane," but this time the joke's too heavy-handed and there isn't enough musical substance to sustain it.

"Under the Ice," which closes the first side, just might be the Nazz's finest moment, and is certainly the best use ever made of the descending riff from Traffic's "Paper Sun." Near the end of the closing jam, you can hear the intro to Cheap Trick's "Surrender," which is perfectly appropriate, as one of Stewkey's post-Nazz projects was the band Fuse with Huntz-Hall-of-rockaroll Rick Nielsen.

The triptych that opens the second side feels like the Nazz's "back to the roots" move, a gambit that was in vogue when the album appeared in March 1969. "Hang On Paul" is the Nazz's tribute to The White Album, while "Kiddie Boy" is a blues shuffle with horns that authentic Memphis-to-Chicago blues cat James Cotton actually recorded on the album (Taking Care of Business) Todd produced for him in 1971. "Featherbedding Lover" is more pedestrian sub-Cream blooze.

"Letters Don't Count" opens and closes with beautifully ethereal "music of the spheres" effects. In between, it's the kind of ultra-complex choral pop song that led to Todd's exit from the band. The closing "A Beautiful Song" goes through more movements than "She's Going Down" on the first album, with lots of bluesy lead over jazz-inflected vamps, and orchestrated sections -- sort of a "MacArthur Park"-meets-Savoy Brown.

What's clearly audible in every one of these songs is Todd Rundgren's ambition -- which, in the fullness of time, would be realized. It's his inability to resist reaching _just_ beyond his grasp that makes these records, surprisingly, stand up better than lots of '60s faves.


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