Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Rockaliser 30: The Nazz, Nazz Nazz/Nazz III: The Fungo Bat Sessions (1968)

[Welcome To the Rockaliser 30, a month-long series devoted to classic albums that have been eclipsed, forgotten, misheard, or otherwise not given their propers. This is Day Eleven. Archive here.]

Before embarking on a legendary run of 70s solo albums, Todd Rundgren paid his dues as a guitarist and songwriter on the Philadelphia rock circuit. His band, the Nazz (alternately “Nazz”) was a local success for a while in the late 60s, first as a teenybopper group in the vein of the Monkees, then as a heavy psychedelic rock quartet along the lines of Cream or Blue Cheer. Outside of Philadelphia, though, the band struggle with a breakthrough hit—their first album, Nazz, featured the single “Open My Eyes”/”Hello It’s Me,” which was initially unsuccessful. The former song would later appear on the psychedelic compilation Nuggets, while a re-recording of the latter would become one of Rundgren’s biggest solo hits.

By the time the Nazz got around to cutting the songs that would form the material for their second and third albums, Nazz Nazz and Nazz III, Rundgren was already chafing at the restrictions imposed by his band mates and his record label. No one was pleased with the guitarist’s sudden interest in Laura Nyro-style piano ballads (Rundgren was dating Nyro at the time). Moreover, Rundgren’s increased propensity for genre-hopping and studio experimentation left little room for songwriting contributions from bassist Carson Van Osten and keyboardist Robert “Stewkey” Antoni. Rundgren’s original plan was to release all the songs from the sessions as a double album called Fungo Bat, but most of his piano tunes were left off the record, and the remaining rockers were released as Nazz Nazz. Rundgren left the band in disgust, and thus began his storied solo career. The remaining songs were released, after the Nazz had broken up and without their consent, as Nazz III.

The latter two entries in the Nazz discography have their individual charms, but the 2006 release of
Nazz Nazz/Nazz III: The Fungo Bat Sessions combines them definitively, demonstrating that these songs were part of the same sessions for a reason. If you separate out the bonus tracks from each CD, this is the album Rundgren intended to make from the beginning. It’s an insanely encyclopedic collection of riffs on 60s acid rock—most, but not all, of the British variety—and in typical Rundgren fashion, the album bursts with brightly covered pop arrangements, epic guitar breakdowns, and moments that defy even the broadly inclusive parameters of “psychedelia.” The album’s first song, “Forget All About It,” is a veritable symphony of rocking psychedelic hooks, shimmering through a cascade of bells and squealy guitars like a proto-punk Byrds. Even by Nuggets standards, this is aggressive, forward-thinking psych rock. Other songs, like “Under the Ice” seem to precipitate the extended riff groove of hard rockers like Thin Lizzy. Still other songs present “Rundgren-ized” takes on the Yardbirds, the Association, and Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd. The first record ends with a 10+ minute epic jam (Todd's first of many) “A Beautiful Song,” which banks on the buildup of stately horns and sweeping strings in a manner not unlike the Floyd’s “Atom Heart Mother Suite.” That staggering song predicts some of Todd’s later long-form songwriting, as well as his contributions to prog rock side project Utopia.

As a discrete listening experience, Nazz III may seem even more lacking than its predecessor, but as the second part of The Fungo Bat Sessions, it highlights two elements that are less present in Nazz Nazz: Van Osten’s songwriting contributions, and Rundgren’s studio weirdness. Van Osten’s best tune is “Christopher Columbus,” a Cream-ish riff monster that pokes fun at the Italian explorer. Rundgren’s hardest rocker on the record, “Magic Me,” is similarly intense, although it is performed with a devilish sense of humor. And then there are the ballads—”Only One Winner,” “You Are My Window”— Tin Pan Alley piano of the type you would never hear on a Cream record, and another sign of things to come.

Consider how the White Album may have sounded if the second LP had been released as its own album—it would likely be characterized as a lesser collection of studio cast-offs and B-sides. In the same vein, Nazz III and Nazz Nazz make a lot less sense without each other for context. Copies of The Fungo Bat Sessions are incredibly difficult to find—you can snag a used copy on Amazon for $40—but it’s worth the effort, if only for a chance to listen to Todd Rundgren’s first forgotten opus the way he imagined it. Here’s a secret that even a lot of Todd fans don’t know: forget the Runts, this is where his solo career begins.

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