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

Continued from Part Two

Stewkey was nominally the group’s lead vocalist, but Todd Rundgren – the band’s songwriter – was a singer as well. And Rundgren explains that he had sung lead on much of the material during the planned double-album’s sessions. “Probably too much,” he admits. “Most everything that I sang was sappy ballads and stuff, because of my Laura Nyro infatuation. That was affecting my songwriting.”

Rundgren explains that he was taking these more sensitive tunes more personally, and wanted to sing them himself. “Having two vocalists maybe made for a more interesting record,” he suggests. “But that was not what the band had originally set out to do.” He emphasizes that the original vision for Nazz was to be “a power quartet like Led Zeppelin or The Who.”

Tensions within the band combined with the label’s waning interest. “The band got more and more begrudging about playing some of the material as the project went on,” Rundgren says. And once sessions were completed, Van Osten quit the band in frustration. Rundgren followed suit shortly thereafter; though not yet 21 years old, by that point he felt that his musical path didn’t align with where Nazz was heading (if, indeed, it was heading anywhere). “I got pissed off and left,” he says.

At the behest of Stewkey and Mooney, the record company pared the collection of songs down to a single LP’s worth, primarily choosing the most uptempo material. Rundgren says that SGC didn’t need much persuading. “They said, ‘We’re not putting out a double album, regardless of what’s on it.’” He notes that he was not party to decisions regarding which songs would be included or deleted. Released in April 1969, Nazz Nazz made it to #80 on Billboard’s album chart.

With Rundgren and Van Osten gone, the band soldiered on for a time with replacement members. But SGC wanted a third album, and so one was compiled from the leftover tracks from the aborted double-album project. That clutch of songs leaned much heavier on Rundgren’s singer-songwriter style, and so while Nazz III had plenty of quality material, in places it felt like what it was: a collection of previously-rejected songs.

And it didn’t make sense to release an album featuring lead vocals from a singer who was no longer in the group, so Stewkey recorded his own lead vocals. Somewhat perversely – though it does make good sense – Rundgren was enlisted to prepare a finished mix of Nazz III for release. So even though his lead vocals were removed, the album bears the character of a Todd Rundgren production.

“Only One Winner” bridged the gap between the two styles of Nazz music. A cover of the Paul Revere and the Raiders hit “Kicks” injected even more power pop character into the tune. “Loosen Up” was a best-avoided piss-take on Archie Bell and the Drells’ “Tighten Up.” The album’s closing track – and the last word from Nazz – “You Are My Window” provided a preview of one of the signature styles that would characterize Rundgren’s first two solo albums, Runt and The Ballad of Todd Rundgren.

The post-Rundgren period of Nazz is murky and convoluted; the group morphed into Fuse and then Sick Man of Europe, eventually shaking out in the middle 1970s as Cheap Trick, with none of the original Nazz members involved. (Rundgren, of course, would go on to work with Cheap Trick, producing the Rockford, Illinois band’s underrated Next Position Please LP in 1983.)

For many years it was believed that the original tapes featuring Rundgren’s lead vocals had been erased or destroyed; the new Lost Masters & Demos boxed set proves otherwise. Lacquer acetates of early mixes of tracks used on Nazz Nazz and Nazz III feature differences from the released versions. Sometimes those differences are subtle; other times they’re significant. And now listeners can hear what some of those songs sounded like with Rundgren’s lead vocal.

In the past, Rundgren hasn’t demonstrated much enthusiasm to talk about his Nazz years. “It’s not like I hate it,” he emphasizes, “but Nazz was so long ago, and it was such a brief story.” Rundgren points out that the time between him co-founding the group and leaving it “was only about 18 months. But,” he concedes, “a whole lot happened in a short amount of time.”

Rundgren is irreverent when queried about what the future might have held for the band had it stayed together. “I guess the fourth album would have been called Nazz Nazz Nazz Nazz,” he quips. But then he provides a more thoughtful conjecture. “We saw ourselves as a more English-type band, more likely to do quirky things,” he says. “We saw ourselves as maybe doing more conceptual records like the Small Faces’ Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake. But it never got that far.”

Rundgren says that when he left Nazz he found himself “on the street with nothing of value except for the fact that I had written these songs.” He notes that the value of publishing rights only became known to him in later years. In light of his subsequent successes, it might seem absurd to think so today, but at that time, Todd Rundgren didn’t see much of a future for himself in music. “I had no prospects until I started working for Albert Grossman” at Bearsville/Ampex, he says. “That’s when the experience of making Nazz records became a real asset for me. And it helped my career in the long run.”