Don’t Forget All About It: Todd Rundgren’s Early Days in Nazz (Part 2 of 3)

Continued from Part One

With the prevailing Anglophile mindset of the four members of Nazz, however, there was a belief that the producer’s role extended to the sound of the record. “We thought that the producer would instruct the engineer about how the record should sound, according to our opinion,” Todd Rundgren says with a rueful laugh. “That was a mistake. So it was a surprise to us when Bill Traut spent most of the time in the control room reading the trades.” He points out that the putative producer “wasn’t making any suggestions at all about how things should sound or what we should play.”

What that meant in practical terms is that Nazz ended up doing most of that work themselves. “Even the contracting,” Rundgren points out, noting that the band hired an orchestra to play on one song, Rundgren’s “If That’s the Way You Feel.”

Once recording was complete on the debut Nazz album, Traut mixed the multi-track recordings for release. “We were not happy with the sound of it,” Rundgren says. So Rundgren took matters into his own hands. “After Bill Traut left, that was the first time I ever sat down at a mixing console,” he recalls. “I put my hands all over it, and essentially fumbled my way around until we got the record that we wanted sound-wise.”

Nazz was a creatively successful album, but it didn’t make much of a dent in the music marketplace. Released in October 1968, it briefly broke into Billboard Top 200 Album chart (#118), and a single from the album, the balladeering “Hello It’s Me” reached a lowly #66. In those days, because radio programmers and DJs actually chose the songs they played, a single like “Hello It’s Me” could become a local hit without breaking out nationally; that happened in the Boston market. Five years later as a solo artist, Rundgren would re-record his original composition in a more uptempo arrangement; this time it would soar to the national #5 spot.

Another track from Nazz, “Open My Eyes” was the b-side of the single. Taken together, the two tracks represented contrasting sides of the band’s musical character: While “Hello It’s Me” was a romantic ballad, “Open My Eyes” showcased the soaring, proto-power pop character of the group. While “Open My Eyes” stiffed on the singles chart (Billboard #112), the Who-like raver gained belated recognition when Lenny Kaye included it on his influential Nuggets compilation album in 1972.

The band’s label, SGC (Screen Gems Columbia) wasn’t interested in promoting a singer-songwriter styled combo; like the band’s manager John Kurland, they wanted a rocking band they could market in teen magazines. Signed to the same record company under a slightly different label – Colgems (short for Columbia Screen Gems) – The Monkees had done quite well with that approach. Rundgren says that Kurland did little to book Nazz for live appearances, instead preferring to market the band through color photo spreads in the pages of 16 Magazine. “He was well-connected with what we considered teenybopper magazines,” Rundgren says. “They wanted to make a ‘discovery’ out of us.”

Rundgren says that he and his band mates were united in their distaste for that approach. “We were very sensitive about being equated in any way with The Monkees,” he says. “They were a synthetic product; they were ‘cast,’ and we were a more or less organic product of our local music scene.” But the band played along with Kurland’s plans. And so even before the release of Nazz, the band was featured on the cover of several teen mags.

That Nazz made two very different styles of music suited songwriter/guitarist Rundgren just fine; as his subsequent work would vivdly demonstrate, his interest and talents could never be pinned down to a single type of music. But the other band members were less enthused with the ballad-type songs Rundgren was composing; music influenced by Laura Nyro wasn’t in keeping with the harder-rocking inclinations of Mooney, Stewkey and Van Osten. Those simmering conflicts would soon come to a head.

Rundgren emphasizes that unlike The Monkees, Nazz – and primarily Rundgren himself – wrote nearly all of the music featured on the band’s records. As a result, the record company took a more or less hands-off approach to the band. “I think the record label thought that everything that happened after [being on the magazine covers] was going to be automatic,” he says. Rundgren believes that to the SGC brass, “it almost wouldn’t matter what kind of music we made as long as it furthered the whole kind of teeny bopper idol thing.”

But that didn’t fit with Rundgren’s goals. While production on the band’s second album is credited to the group, Rundgren admits that it was mostly him doing the actual production work. “I saw it as my responsibility to organize the project, pretty much telling everybody what to do all the time,” he says.

And with the benefit of decades of hindsight, he candidly acknowledges that taking on that role caused tensions within the band. “All of that was contributing to [our] disintegration as we were making the record,” Rundgren says. But he defends his actions: “That was kind of something I just took for myself, but at the time, I don’t think the other guys were paying that much attention to what the producer and engineer had been doing.” Rundgren recalls that his band mates “didn’t have a specific objection” until he actually started running the sessions.

Nazz Nazz would feature its share of high-energy, hooky rockers: “Forget All About It” hinted at the coming progressive rock wave, “Kiddie Boy” was a heavy blues stomper, and “Under the Ice” delivered power and sophistication to rival The Who and Small Faces. And the epic “A Beautiful Song” laid bare the group’s most musically ambitious tendencies. But Rundgren’s more sensitive musical side came out in many other songs recorded for Nazz’s sophomore release.

While Rundgren was effectively in charge of the recording sessions, James Lowe (formerly of The Electric Prunes) handled the technical duties as recording engineer on the session. “By that point, [Lowe] understood what I was going for in terms of sounds, so I didn’t have to mess too much with the console,” Rundgren says.

But when it came to mixing the tracks, Rundgren dove in. “I preferred to get hands-on with it,” he says. The experience of mixing Nazz Nazz was effectively the beginning of Todd Rundgren’s technical studio career.

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