Don’t Forget All About It: Todd Rundgren’s Early Days in Nazz (Part 1 of 3)

For many decades now, Todd Rundgren has enjoyed a well-deserved reputation as one of popular music’s most restless and versatile artists. His large body of work spans multiple genres: rock, soul, pop, blues, hip-hop, fusion, progressive, psychedelic, ambient, EDM and more. He has scored high-profile pop success several times (most notably with 1973’s “Hello It’s Me” and “Can We Still Be Friends” from 1978 and again with “Bang the Drum All Day” in 1983). And those credits don’t even begin to tell his story: an accomplished producer, he has worked behind the recording console for hit albums by Meat Loaf, XTC, Badfinger, Psychedelic Furs and dozens of others.

A technology pioneer, Rundgren developed an early version of the computer paint software, and he was a video innovator: his Utopia Studio was one of the first significant studios dedicated to music video. And lest we forget, his groundbreaking “Time Heals” was one of the first videos broadcast on MTV.
More than 52 years after releasing his solo debut LP (Runt, featuring the minor hit single “We Gotta Get You a Woman”), Rundgren is as vital an artist as ever. During the pandemic, he mounted a “virtual tour,” bringing geofenced live performances to a succession of North American cities. And the 74 year old’s most recent studio album, Space Force finds him collaborating with fellow innovators from across the musical landscape.

But Rundgren’s musical career didn’t begin with his first solo album; at the time of making Runt, Rundgren was employed as a staff engineer and producer at Ampex Records; in that role he worked sessions for a number of projects including Stage Fright, the third LP from The Band. Yet even those activities didn’t mark the start of his professional era in music. The real roots of Todd Rundgren’s musical journey trace back to a rock band he co-founded in 1967, Nazz. That Philadelphia group would release three albums, and many of the strains of artistry found within Rundgren’s work germinated during his brief time with the group. The band’s three albums (artlessly titled Nazz, Nazz Nazz and Nazz III) remain available today, but in recent months they’ve been joined by a new archival release. Lost Masters & Demos collects rare and/or previously unheard recordings from the sessions that yielded the band’s second and third albums.

On the occasion of that release from Purple Pyramid Records, Rundgren spoke with me about his earliest days in music.

Modeled after intelligent and high-energy British bands like The Who, Nazz was a progenitor of the style that would become known as power pop. (In 1967, the label hadn’t entered wide usage, though The Who’s guitarist/songwriter Pete Townshend may have been one of the first to use the label to describe his own group’s music.) Nazz featured keyboardist Robert “Stewkey” Antoni on lead vocals, bassist Carson Van Osten, drummer Thom Mooney, and Todd Rundgren on guitar and songwriting. Van Osten and Rundgren co-founded the group; the two had played together previously in a local Philly band, Woody’s Truck Stop.

Record promoter John Kurland was hired by the group’s original management to handle PR for the new band; in short order he took over as Nazz’s manager. But his approach to promotion didn’t follow the common wisdom. “He had this weird theory,” Rundgren recalls. “If we went out on the road too early, he could only ask for so much money. But if we waited and went out later when we had a record, then he could ask for more money. And ostensibly, we’d be a big hit.”

The problem – or one of the problems – with that theory, Rundgren says, is that Nazz hardly ever played live. And when Kurland did book the band a concert date, it still felt wrong. “We never went through the collective ‘us-against-the-world’ initiation that a lot of bands have to go through when they go out on the road,” Rundgren says. “Our lack of road experience was ultimately a factor in the breakup.” But that was still a year and half away. In the meantime, Nazz had to begin its recording career.

The first Nazz album was produced by Bill Traut, whose previous work included production duties for The Shadows of Knight and The American Breed. Rundgren is on record as being dissatisfied with some of Traut’s production on Nazz, but today he admits that in the mid 1960s, the role of a record producer wasn’t altogether clear and established.

“When we were making our first record, the job of producer was going through an evolutionary shift,” Rundgren explains. “Before the Beatles, nobody knew what a producer was. They didn’t ever pay any attention to the producer credits on the record until George Martin.” Around that time, Rundgren says, “people started to become aware that, ‘Oh, there’s this other person who’s kind of supervising the making of the record.’”

Associate producer for the album was British-born Chris Huston, a musician himself and former guitarist for Liverpool band The Undertakers. And while Rundgren wasn’t thrilled with Traut’s work, he held Huston in high regard. Rundgren describes Huston’s approach to recording as “pretty liberal. He didn’t mind if I snooped around to watch what he was doing.” Huston became Nazz’s engineer of choice. But on Nazz, Huston wasn’t calling the shots. Unfortunately, according to Rundgren, neither was Traut.

“There was a difference between English producers like George Martin and American producers,” Rundgren says. “In Hollywood or wherever a recording metropolis was, an American producer would hire everybody who made the record. He would book the studio. Because most artists did not write their own material, he would hire a songwriter. He would hire an arranger and a contractor; the contractor’s principal job was to make sure that everybody showed up on time, did their job, and got finished in three hours.” Rundgren likens that understanding of the job of record producer to what a movie producer does.

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