Album review

Dandies Of The Underground

Considering that they were only together for two years—1967 to 1969—Philadelphia's The Nazz were a hyperactive group, despite their underachievement in the marketplace. Formed in the City of Brotherly Love from the ashes of Woody's Truck Stop, The Munchkins and Todd Rundgren's high school band, Money, The Nazz were schooled in British Invasion shock tactics, sported post-Mod chic—a riot of cravats, paisley and bell-bottomed jumbo cords—and even borrowed their name from a Yardbirds B-side, "The Nazz Are Blue", itself stolen from the alter ego of beatnik guru Lord Buckley. Well, Lee Marvin provided the accidental moniker for The Beatles, so the symbiosis boasted a healthy complexion.

Although he was rarely the lead singer, Rundgren wrote the songs, forged the direction—based on a blend of weirder Beatles, Cream and Who—and taught himself how to mix and match the band's productions. Rundgren wasn't influenced solely by his 'I'm Backing Britain' obsessions, since The Nazz emerged at a time when American Bandstand was a local TV staple and the nascent sounds of Philly soul were all over the radio. Rock'n'roll, R&B and clean-cut pop were all mated without fuss.

Rundgren's accomplices were kindred spirits along the high-energy highway. There was singer Stewkey (born Robert Antoni, his nickname was an apparent corruption of the fact that he was always stewed on brew), who shared Rundgren's preference for choreographed entertainment, drummer Thom Mooney, and ex-Woody's bassist Carson Van Osten, who adopted the Runt's lanky, ornate look. All were willing participants in early showings designed to leave their mark, like their debut in June 1967 when they supported The Doors on a hometown date and chucked in a few zany Motown dance steps for good measure while Jim Morrison chuckled in the wings. Suitably ambitious, The Nazz made their first album—plain Nazz—on the Screen Gems Columbia imprint (home to The Monkees), fusing glorious pop nuggets like "Open My Eyes" and "Hello It's Me" (revisited by Rundgren on his 1972 solo album Something/Anything?) to a harder template. The greasier, guitar-driven "Back Of Your Mind", "Lemming Song" and "She's Going Down" reiterated the band's love for Cream-style flash and were often performed in a fleshed-out manner, all 15-minute drum solos, bass-twirling pyrotechnics and smashed Strats: showbusiness, in other words.

In common with their late-'60s peers, The Nazz didn't just muck about. While his pals sampled the lysergics, Rundgren stayed straight and true, masterminding a trip to London's Trident Studios to record their second album with the whiff of their debut LP still in the air. Significantly, although one is tempted to view groups like this as one long tale of woe, there was enough money available in The Nazz's kitty to buy time at the place where The Beatles had recorded "Hey Jude" and "Dear Prudence".

Safely ensconced in Soho, Rundgren and company planned a double album under the working title of Fungo Bat, but fell foul of the local musician's union. At least they had time to ransack Carnaby Street for kipper ties and visit the clubs that fired their enthusiasm in the first place.

Second album Nazz Nazz arrived in streamlined shape. By this time the other members were getting slightly sick of Rundgren, and were equally wary of his obvious solo leanings as a balladeer. Squabbling in the ranks didn't prevent Nazz Nazz from shining. "Meridian Leeward" and the sadly groovesome "Gonna Cry Today" proved they could still cut it together, although "Letters Don't Count", which relied on grandiose Beach Boys harmonies, suggested Rundgren was pulling in a different direction and wasn't going to come back.

Ironically, Nazz Nazz was scuppered by the fact that "Hello It's Me" (from the first album) was now a minor hit. Just when they could have emerged as a headline act, Philly's finest white-boy dudes fragmented, managerless, rudderless, and bass-less since Rundgren's old pal Van Osten had chucked in his chips. Still, there was enough left in the can for the obligatory posthumous record company cash-in, named, with astonishing originality, Nazz III. A version of Paul Revere And The Raiders' "Kicks", penned by Mann and Weil, was tacked on by default, but the piano and orchestra ballad "You Are My Window" was more of a sure-fire pointer to internal tensions as Rundgren showed the others what he could do without their help.

Beyond the history lies a certain mystery. At this distance one can almost imagine The Nazz making a real splash if they'd arrived, say, five years later. Their take on Archie Bell And The Drells' "Tighten Up" (renamed "Loosen Up") fits into the whole ethos of early-'70s funk pop. But maybe they were destined to provide the apprenticeship for Rundgren's much more satisfying solo life. After all, he was The Nazz, with God-given ass, and this lovingly packaged set still whets the appetite for his slew of '70s masterpieces.

But that is all hindsight. File next to Rhino's sleeker, more coherent best-of, invest in a cravat and flop your fringe. Maybe this Nazz weren't part of the main text. But, then, sometimes the fascination lies in the footnotes.

Rating: 4 / 10


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